Sunday, April 6, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 221: William Dean Howells, Shakespeare (#221)

William Dean Howells, "Shakespeare" (1894) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:

In college, a couple of friends played a trivia/memory game where we merely tried to name all of Shakespeare's plays. It's surprisingly hard to do if you're not intensely into Shakespeare. But William Dean Howells probably could've done that easily--though as he points out, being in love with Shakespeare doesn't mean you've read everything he's written or even loved everything he wrote.

Which are some of the great moments in this childhood reminiscence/paean to Shakespeare. Howells traces his history with Shakespeare, noting all of the environmental factors: a small town that was oddly cultured and literary; a good friend who also loved Shakespeare; a free lending library.

In fact, part of the joy here for me is to hear Howells reminisce and puncture the reminiscence at the same time. So we hear that the foundation and expansion of the local paper
were events so filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and dances, and all the other pleasures which that community seemed to indulge beyond any other we had known.
Which is really a microcosm of my favorite things about Howells, which are his balance, his humor, and his humanism. Howells so often takes a scene and then reminds us of the other side. "The paper was expanded! But really, there's other things people care about." Similarly, the whole piece is basically, "Shakespeare is amazing... except for when he isn't."

It's also fascinating to see Howells note (a) that Falstaff was better in the original Henry plays and (b) that Howells himself wrote Falstaff fan-fiction. He also goes on to say something that still gets said today, that we sometimes over-hype these classics and hurt developing readers by making them stick to this party line of greatness while also forcing these works on them too soon: "we are loaded down
with the responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is."

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