Sunday, August 21, 2011

#21: A Sleep and a Forgetting, William Dean Howells

A Sleep and a Forgetting
by William Dean Howells
-born in America, 1837
-112 Pages
-more about Howells (via Goodreads)

Authorial Tidbits: (via Melville House)
- William Dean Howells was the son of a prominent newspaper editor and was elected clerk of Ohio's House of Representatives at 19.
- He wrote the official campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, which later earned him a consulship in Vienna.
- Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, and later a columnist at Harper's Magazine, he championed realism and writers such as Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and Emily Dickinson.
- He published more than one hundred books of essays, poetry, and fiction, often based on his own life or his passionate engagement with society.

Synopsis: (via Melville House)
Nowhere in the prodigious output of William Dean Howells is there an example more poignant of his heartfelt dedication to the realist movement than this achingly suspenseful novella.

The story centers on a young “alienist”—a psychologist—at an Italian resort, where he meets a young woman who, at subsequent encounters, has no recollection of him. Asked by her frightened father to help her overcome her incapacitating memory problems, the doctor launches a psychological investigation that appears to be based upon the most painful memories of the author himself.  Howells had recently experienced the loss of a beloved adult daughter (from what appears to have been anorexia) and the institutionalization of another for "emotional collapse."

The story's surprising ending reveals not only the author's deft sense of craftsmanship, but speaks movingly to his enduring faith in the sublime power of literature.

My Impressions:
The whole memory-loss/love-story kept reminding me of James Hilton's Random Harvest (although it was written over 20 years after Howells died) which put fond thoughts in my head and left me predisposed to enjoy this novella.  Howell's focus on the psychological aspect (as opposed to Hilton's focus on the personal story) added a captivating look at culture and medical views in the time period.  His writing style is very clean and straightforward in some ways, although there were some examples of humor and philosophy that hinted at how layered this work actually is.
Lanfear's question persisted through the night, and it helped, with the coughing in the next room, to make a bad night for him.
Howells considers memory as more than a vehicle for a story, he ponders it as a characteristic of humanity that--while it is something that we tend to take pride in--can often be the source of much grief.  In some instances, might we not actually be happier if we didn't carry the burden of our pasts?
I don't know why we should remember so insistently the foolish things and wrong things we do and not recall the times when we acted, without an effort, wisely and rightly.
William Dean Howells also reminded me of William Maxwell in his writing, which furthered my interest in his work.  They both seem to have a clear sense of story and theme, and they both had experience as editors--working with the major writers of their time as well as writing prolifically themselves.  Their lives overlapped by only 12 years, but I like to think that there's some connection there.  That's the romantic, illogical part of my brain at work, perhaps--although this last quote may show that it was a characteristic Howells shared in part.
I suppose we do not begin to be immortal merely after death.
This was a story that has grown on me more after reading it.  It wasn't the most captivating experience, but really got me thinking afterwards.  It left me curious to know more about William Dean Howells and his world.


  1. Hi Melody,
    I randomly discovered Howells years ago via a 'random' purchase at "Book World" (one of our local used paperback "trade in/get more" bookstores). In the whole store, there is only one little rack labelled "classics." I probably bought the book, The Rise of Silas Lapham, off of this rack for a dollar or less. It was a very "easy" read for me relative to other books of that era. You may want to look into it after you finish your project.

  2. I've been surprised at how readable these classic authors can be, at least in these bite-sized portions.
    Thanks for the heads up about the other title--I'll check into it.


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!