A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance

Author: William Dean Howells


Cambridge began very promptly to show him those hospitalities which he could value, and continued the fable of his fairy princeliness in the curiosity of those humbler admirers who could not hope to be his hosts or his fellow-guests at dinner or luncheon. Pretty presences in the tiebacks of the period were seen to flit before the home of virtuous poverty, hungering for any chance sight of him which his outgoings or incomings might give. The chances were better with the outgoings than with the incomings, for these were apt to be so hurried, in the final result of his constitutional delays, as to have the rapidity of the homing pigeon’s flight, and to afford hardly a glimpse to the quickest eye. It cannot harm him, or any one now, to own that Harte was nearly always late for those luncheons and dinners which he was always going out to, and it needed the anxieties and energies of both families to get him into his clothes, and then into the carriage where a good deal of final buttoning must have been done, in order that he might not arrive so very late. He was the only one concerned who was quite unconcerned; his patience with his delays was inexhaustible; he arrived at the expected houses smiling, serenely jovial, radiating a bland gaiety from his whole person, and ready to ignore any discomfort he might have occasioned.

Of course, people were glad to have him on his own terms, and it may be truly said that it was worth while to have him on any terms. There never was a more charming companion, an easier or more delightful guest.

It was not from what he said, for he was not much of a talker, and almost nothing of a story-teller; but he could now and then drop the fittest word, and with a glance or smile of friendly intelligence express the appreciation of another’s fit word which goes far to establish for a man the character of boon humorist. It must be said of him that if he took the honors easily that were paid him he took them modestly, and never by word or look invited them, or implied that he expected them. It was fine to see him humorously accepting the humorous attribution of scientific sympathies from Agassiz, in compliment of his famous epic describing the incidents that "broke up the society upon the Stanislow." It was a little fearsome to hear him frankly owning to Lowell his dislike for something over-literary in the phrasing of certain verses of ’The Cathedral.’ But Lowell could stand that sort of thing from a man who could say the sort of things that Harte said to him of that delicious line picturing the bobolink as he

"Runs down a brook of laughter in the air."

This, Harte told him, was the line he liked best of all his lines, and Lowell smoked well content with the praise. Yet they were not men to get on easily together, Lowell having limitations in directions where Harte had none. Afterward in London they did not meet often or willingly. Lowell owned the brilliancy and uncommonness of Harte’s gift, while he sumptuously surfeited his passion of finding everybody more or less a Jew by finding that Harte was at least half a Jew on his father’s side; he had long contended for the Hebraicism of his name.

With all his appreciation of the literary eminences whom Fields used to class together as "the old saints," Harte had a spice of irreverence that enabled him to take them more ironically than they might have liked, and to see the fun of a minor literary man’s relation to them. Emerson’s smoking amused him, as a Jovian self-indulgence divinely out of character with so supreme a god, and he shamelessly burlesqued it, telling how Emerson at Concord had proposed having a "wet night" with him over a glass of sherry, and had urged the scant wine upon his young friend with a hospitable gesture of his cigar. But this was long after the Cambridge episode, in which Longfellow alone escaped the corrosive touch of his subtle irreverence, or, more strictly speaking, had only the effect of his reverence. That gentle and exquisitely modest dignity, of Longfellow’s he honored with as much veneration as it was in him to bestow, and he had that sense of Longfellow’s beautiful and perfected art which is almost a test of a critic’s own fineness.


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Chicago: William Dean Howells, "II.," A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4BNLY6T1CGL1UVU.

MLA: Howells, William Dean. "II." A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4BNLY6T1CGL1UVU.

Harvard: Howells, WD, 'II.' in A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, ed. . cited in 1909, A Belated Guest, Literary Friends and Acquaintance, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4BNLY6T1CGL1UVU.