Indian Summer – a novel by William Dean Howells

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Ive always been fond of the term “Indian Summer – (both definitions, though only one applies to this book):
(From Merriam Webster)
1 : a period of warm or mild weather in late autumn or early winter
2 : a happy or flourishing period occurring toward the end of something

If you are like me (or at least like I was until several years ago) William Dean Howells may be one of the best/most renowned American authors you’ve never heard of. In addition to being a prolific writer, Howells was also good friend of Mark Twain and an esteemed editor of the Atlantic Monthly. I came to know of him a few years back when executing a “raid” on one of the local used paperback bookstores “Book World” on Indy’s east side when, as usual, I made a beeline for the “classics” rack.  I used do this once or twice a year, giving that section a chance between visits to recuperate from my last pillaging. I’m sure I have dozens of paperback classics in my library that came from those purchasing sorties.

On that particular visit, I procured a copy of Howells’ most popular novel, “The Rise of Silas Lapham.” Published in 1885, it’s a quintessential rags to riches story, and, like many who have never had riches, I was easily swept away by it. Since that reading, however, Howells had retreated to the borderlands of my memory, until I saw a post about Indian Summer at The Literary Sisters blog http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2014/04/16/indian-summer-by-william-dean-howells/ That post piqued my interest, as the main character of this book was somewhat relatable for me, being a middle-aged guy myself… :-)

***Spoilers follow***

The middle-aged character in the book, Thomas Colville, experiences something of a mid-life crisis (in an era before that term had been invented). Colville has been scarred by a failed love affair in his youth and has never married. After he turns forty, he “returns to the scene of the crime” – or at least to the scene of that romance of his youth – and visits Florence, Italy. Who does he meet there but Lina Bowen, the best friend of his erstwhile object of affection. Mrs. Bowen is also widowed. Hmm…

A more trusting reader might assume that a romance would soon develop between these two. He MIGHT assume that until Colville meets Lina’s guest for the season in Florence, the young and beautiful Imogene Graham. Though nearly twice her age, Colville is won over by her charming youth and beauty. Indeed Imogene also becomes infatuated with this “droll” older man. It’s understandable, as Colville, is quite witty and comfortable in social circles. He holds his own with those younger than he – until (against his better judgment but in order to be closer to Imogene) he makes the mistake of agreeing to join in a dance, the Lancers(?), which he apparently used to know but has forgotten everything about it and makes a fool of himself:

“He walked round like a bear in a pen: he capered to and fro with futile absurdity; people poked him hither and thither; his progress was attended by rending noises from the trains over which he found his path.”

If you have to know the truth, I’ll have to admit that I found this experience somewhat relatable as well. :-) Somehow, though, his esteem in the eyes of the young Imogene survives this bump in the road and romance progresses. Colville is also very conscious of the awkwardness of their situation, given his past “history” with the older Mrs. Bowen. As you might expect, this new romance does not quite succeed. I was kind of rooting for him (gee, I wonder why… :-) ) too, but the ending of the book was hopeful if somewhat bittersweet. His romance with Imogene is looked back upon without ill-feeling as “…a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.”

I’m glad I read this one and look forward to seeking out other works by Howells (below) in my future reading. What about you? What have you read by William Dean Howells?

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(Below Howells also had a nice house in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1870’s)

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1 Comment

  1. Paula Cappa said,

    June 5, 2014 at 8:07 am

    I never read Howells. Gotta add him to my list now.


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