In early 1886, William Dean Howells fell into an ugly public debate with the poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman. Carried out in the pages of Harper’s Monthly and the New Princeton Review, this dispute started as a disagreement about the origins of literary craftsmanship but quickly escalated into a heated epistemological squabble about the limits of historical knowledge. It began in March of that year, when Howells gave a mixed review to Stedman’s Poets of America (1885), a history of American poetry. Though Howells conceded the importance of Stedman’s contribution to the emerging discipline of American literary history, he openly mocked a few of Stedman’s claims: his prediction of an American poetry revival and his staunch belief in genius, a category of achievement Stedman used with great liberality. Stedman was humiliated by Howells’ published remarks, and he responded six months later with the essay “Genius,” in which he feebly attempted to defend the scholarly claims of Poets of America. Though the two long-time friends visibly struggled to remain cordial, their strained politeness occasionally gave way to underhanded barbs: Howells, for example, wryly remarked that genius was merely “the fancy of those who hope that someone else will think they have it.”1 This uncharacteristically prickly exchange generated so much attention at the time that other periodicals— among them The Critic, the Boston Gazette, and the Penny Post—published articles about it, providing summaries of each man’s arguments while studiously avoiding taking sides. And though the two men soon resumed their friendship and collegial rapport, neither was willing to let the matter go or concede defeat: Howells reprinted much of his 1886 review in Criticism and Fiction (1891) and Stedman continued to restate his own positions for the rest of his life.
Document Object Identifier (DOI)
Stokes, C. (2008). In Defense of Genius: Howells and the Limits of Literary History. American Literary Realism, 40(3), 189-203. doi: 10.1353/alr.2008.0025
American Literary Realism