Criticism and Fiction

Author: William Dean Howells


Of the finer kinds of romance, as distinguished from the novel, I would even encourage the writing, though it is one of the hard conditions of romance that its personages starting with a ’parti pris’ can rarely be characters with a living growth, but are apt to be types, limited to the expression of one principle, simple, elemental, lacking the God-given complexity of motive which we find in all the human beings we know.

Hawthorne, the great master of the romance, had the insight and the power to create it anew as a kind in fiction; though I am not sure that ’The Scarlet Letter’ and the ’Blithedale Romance’ are not, strictly speaking, novels rather than romances. They, do not play with some old superstition long outgrown, and they do not invent a new superstition to play with, but deal with things vital in every one’s pulse. I am not saying that what may be called the fantastic romance—the romance that descends from ’Frankenstein’ rather than ’The Scarlet Letter’—ought not to be. On the contrary, I should grieve to lose it, as I should grieve to lose the pantomime or the comic opera, or many other graceful things that amuse the passing hour, and help us to live agreeably in a world where men actually sin, suffer, and die. But it belongs to the decorative arts, and though it has a high place among them, it cannot be ranked with the works of the imagination—the works that represent and body forth human experience. Its ingenuity, can always afford a refined pleasure, and it can often, at some risk to itself, convey a valuable truth.

Perhaps the whole region of historical romance might be reopened with advantage to readers and writers who cannot bear to be brought face to face with human nature, but require the haze of distance or a far perspective, in which all the disagreeable details shall be lost. There is no good reason why these harmless people should not be amused, or their little preferences indulged.

But here, again, I have my modest doubts, some recent instances are so fatuous, as far as the portrayal of character goes, though I find them admirably contrived in some respects. When I have owned the excellence of the staging in every respect, and the conscience with which the carpenter (as the theatrical folks say) has done his work, I am at the end of my praises. The people affect me like persons of our generation made up for the parts; well trained, well costumed, but actors, and almost amateurs. They have the quality that makes the histrionics of amateurs endurable; they are ladies and gentlemen; the worst, the wickedest of them, is a lady or gentleman behind the scene.

Yet, no doubt it is well that there should be a reversion to the earlier types of thinking and feeling, to earlier ways of looking at human nature, and I will not altogether refuse the pleasure offered me by the poetic romancer or the historical romancer because I find my pleasure chiefly in Tolstoy and Valdes and Thomas Hardy and Tourguenief, and Balzac at his best.


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Chicago: William Dean Howells, "XX.," Criticism and Fiction, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Criticism and Fiction (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed June 2, 2023,

MLA: Howells, William Dean. "XX." Criticism and Fiction, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Criticism and Fiction, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 2 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Howells, WD, 'XX.' in Criticism and Fiction, ed. . cited in 1909, Criticism and Fiction, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 2 June 2023, from