Posts Tagged ‘William Dean Howells’

Howells: Roman Holidays

September 7, 2018

Roman Holidays, and Others
William Dean Howells
(Harper & Bros., 1908)
302 p.

I’ve now been to Rome a half-dozen times, and certain features of the city have become familiar: the crowds of tourists in certain locations (and not in others), the traffic, the security checks, the wondrous art and architecture, the sense of the wide sweep of history being somehow simultaneously present. I’ve been a visitor often enough to wonder what it was like to be a visitor in earlier times, and I have made a point, in a desultory way, of looking for travel memoirs about the city, especially if written before the age of mass air travel. H.V. Morton stands on our side of that watershed, but still long enough ago that the experience was a different one. Then there was Henry James, and Charles Dickens before him.

Recently I learned of this memoir, written in 1908. William Dean Howells was a figure previously unknown to me, but he was apparently well-known in his day, having been a prolific author and literary critic, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and even called — perhaps not entirely as a pun — “the Dean of American Letters”. He was 70 years old when he went to Italy, intent on revisiting sites he had first seen when, as a young man in his 20s, he had first travelled in la bella paesa. On this trip, as recounted in this book, his itinerary included Genoa, Naples, Pisa, and even (en route to home) Monte Carlo, but the lion’s share of his time, and the lion’s share of his book, were devoted to Rome.

It was certainly a different time. Remarks on the qualities of Roman horses and carriages no longer have the practical value they were intended to have. He notes the introduction of elevators in some buildings, of indoor heating, and of electric lighting in hotels which has brought an end to “that rivalry between the coming guest and the manager to see how few or many candles can be lighted”. In fact, he is so interested in these matters, and in the details of where an American traveller might best lodge, and which cafés are “the resort of all the finer sort of afternoon tea-drinkers”, that in the early going I came close to throwing him and his book from the Tarpeian Rock.

But this would have been precipitous, and it is good that I resisted the temptation, because as the book proceeds it opens up. Howells himself, it turns out, is a genial host, unhurried and gently witty, with a winsome air of self-depreciation (as when he excuses his failure to visit many of the churches of Rome by asking “What right had I, a heretic and recusant, to come staring and standing round where the faithful were kneeling and praying?”) but a willingness to press a moral point when he thinks it justified (as when he observes a beautiful view in Monte Carlo by noting that “beyond the Casino seaward were the beautiful terraces, planted with palms and other tropic growths, where people might come out and kill themselves”). And some of his advice really might be still practical for a select clientele: “If I were buying piazzas in Rome I should begin with the Navona”.

If part of the attraction of such a memoir is in seeing what has changed, it is equally true that it is cheering to see what has not. Naturally the major sites were substantially then as they are now. But the constancy extends even to smaller matters, such as the prevalence of cats at the foot of Trajan’s Column (which was the first odd thing I noted on the first morning of my first visit to Rome), the unsettling strangeness of the Capuchin ossuary off Piazza Barberini, and the notable difference in quality between Italian trains and French (which I experienced when I had to switch trains, as he did, at the border town of Ventimiglia).

Howells’ aesthetic judgments are not always sound. We can, perhaps, in a spirit of charity, understand why he might say of the outsized baroque statues in St Peter’s that

they swagger in their niches or over their tombs in an excess of decadent taste for which the most bigoted agnostic, however Protestant he may be, must generously grieve

but it is harder to comprehend how he could say of Rome’s magnificent churches that they are “each less lovely than the other” — this, I note with some relief, being a judgment offered alongside the admission, already noted, that he didn’t go into many of them. (Actually, if we are considering exteriors only, there is some justice in his judgment.) His approving remarks about Santa Maria Maggiore — that it is “far richer than any gold could make it in the treasures of history and legend, which fairly encrust it in every part” — averted at this sensitive juncture another temptation to send the book plummeting to its death.

The book does have weaknesses, then, foremost among them being, to my mind, Howells’ lack of interest in the religious significance of anything he sees, but, in the end, Howells went to Rome because he loved Rome, and because the city repaid that love, and on this strength the book can win the hearts of readers who feel the same. The special allure of the city is at least partly captured in a remark he makes about the Spanish Steps, but which has wider application:

It is beauty that rather makes the heart ache, and the charm of the Steps from above is something that you can bear better if you are very, very worthy, or have the conceit of feeling yourself so.

*

This is not the first travel memoir about Rome that I would recommend — all of the authors I mentioned at the top are preferable — but Howells is not without his charms, and for seasoned travellers he might well be just the thing.

**

For another, markedly superior, appreciation of this book, consider reading John Byron Kuhner’s essay: “Romesick with William Dean Howells”.