Off the Dusty Bookshelf: Romesick With William Dean Howells

John Kuhner |

Where do you turn when you’re missing Rome? The “Dean of American Letters” is not a bad place to start.




At a wedding not long ago, an elderly gentleman of my acquaintance took me by the hand to lament the state of the internet today. “What do you do?” he asked me. “It’s all garbage, puff, ephemera. Occasionally I can find an essay that I think is well written, but even then, will any of it be relevant in ten years? Probably not. The whole internet has become infotainment. None of it has any lasting value. More and more, I think of any time I spend there as time lost.

We all know the experience of getting on the internet with some kind of intellectual — or perhaps spiritual — hunger, and finding no satisfaction. But there is hope. The antidote for the cloying ephemerality of life is a good book. And it doesn’t even have to be very good: many middling books, if they treat of genial topics, offer real satisfaction, in the proper season. And during a writer’s winter, when I am chained to a desk for the daylight hours, I like a good travel book, and especially a travel book about Italy.

I had no other concerns when I took a copy of William Dean Howells’ 1908 travelogue Roman Holidays and Others down from its dusty shelf in an old bookshop. It was an old cloth hardback, with gold Gothic script; a handsome volume; I opened it and began reading:

A somewhat shrill and scraping-voiced matron inquired my pleasure when she followed me into the ground-floor entrance from somewhere without, and then, understanding, called her young daughter, who led me up to the room where Keats mused his last verse and breathed his last sigh. It is a very little room, looking down over the Spanish Steps, with their dike of bloom, across the piazza to the narrow stretch of the Via del Babuino. I must have stood in it with Severn and heard him talk of Keats and his ultimate days and hours; for I remember some such talk, but not the details of it. He was a very gentle old man and fondly proud of his goodness to the poor dying poet, as he well might be, and I was glad to be one of the many Americans who, he said, came to grieve with him for the dead poet. (109)

There was not much doubt I would be taking home a book whose author recounts — even if somewhat bloodlessly— speaking with Severn in the room where Keats died. It moved to a new dusty shelf — the one in my house — where it awaited the day its owner should tire of the latest internet clickbait. That time came this February.

“We left Rome,” writes Howells toward the end of Roman Holidays, “with such a nostalgic pang in our hearts that we tried to find relief in a name for it, and we called ourselves Romesick.

Afterward, when we practiced the name with such friends as we could get to listen, they thought we said homesick. Being better instructed, they stared or simpered, and said, “Oh!” That was not all we could have asked, but Rome herself would understand, and, while we were seeking this outlet for our grief, she followed us as far as she could on her poor, broken aqueducts. At places they gave way under her, and she fell down, but scrambled up again on the next stretch of arches, like some fond cripple pursuing a friend on crutches; when at last our train outran them, and there was no longer an arch to halt upon, she gave up the vain chase and turned back within her walls, where we saw her domes and bell-towers fading into the heaven to which they pointed. (239)

It is likely enough that this is the first appearance of the word “Romesick” in the English language, a word which has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary (but should be submitted post-haste), but which today is a hashtag on twitter and instagram, and appears in the titles of multiple blogs. Howells, it appears, did not find any companions to share his feeling at the time; but I hope it was some kind of consolation to him, that a hundred years later, on a winter’s evening, that paragraph should have made my heart leap up, as if beholding its kin: “Yes! I know that! I too watched those aqueducts through the window, and when they had finally vanished, threw my head back on my cushion, and looked round me in the train car, and knew that something was slipping away from me.” I too knew the meaning of those towers and cupolas I left behind; I too felt alone and trapped in the feeling, and found that not everyone around me felt the same way.

Indeed, perusing Howells’ pages, what is striking is how little the experience of Rome has changed. Yes, of course, his cabmen drove horses; there was no Airbnb; some of the artistic fashions have altered, and he never mentions Caravaggio, proffering Guido Reni instead. But in his pages you find the Forum and the Colosseum; the Marble Faun and the Dying Gaul and that room of the emperors are still in the Capitoline Museums; there is the Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, the Moses of Michelangelo. When he talks of putting a coin in the Trevi Fountain, you know what he means. When he writes of first coming upon the unknown statue of Giordano Bruno, and “the thrill which the solemn figure, heavily draped, deeply hooded, must impart,” he might have been writing of me at age nineteen. Compared especially to the mutability of American life — my father told me he went trick-or-treating on Thanksgiving, which seems unfathomable to me, who am only one generation removed — Rome seems indeed the Eternal City, a timeless thing like sea or sky, against which we can measure the years of our own lives.

Even many of the arguments are the same. It was fashionable in Howells’ day — as it is in ours — to lament lost Rome, the ruins pillaged by the Renaissance or sterilized by the archeologists, the churches Baroquified out of all sanctity, the old villas and ancient streets handed over to urbanization and mechanization. Howells does not seem to have been the type to forcefully contradict others, but he did note that he had an advantage over many of the people who lamented lost Rome: he had visited the place in 1864, under the papal government, forty-four years before; he had seen cows grazing in the Forum. He writes an entire chapter in praise of the new, urban, dynamic capital:

I was not sorry to find Rome young, or merely new, in so many good things. At the same time I must own that I heard no other foreigner praising her for her newness except a fellow-septuagenarian, who had seen Rome even earlier than I, and who thought it well that the Ghetto should have been cleared away, though some visitors, who had perhaps never lived in a Ghetto, thought it a pity if not a shame, and an incalculable loss to the picturesque. These also thought the Tiber Embankments a wicked sacrifice to the commonplace, though the mud-banks of other days invited the torrent to an easy overflow of whole quarters of the town, which were left reeking with the filth of the flood that overlay the filth of the streets, and combined with it to an effect of disease and discomfort not always personally unknown to the lover of the picturesque. (79–80)

“The language of Shakespeare and Milton,” he concludes, “is too often internationally deployed in deploring the modernity which has housed us aliens there in such perfect comfort and safety.”

Then there is the argument about St. Peter’s, whether it is good or bad, whether it is Christian or not, whether this work of Michelangelo and Bramante is an artistic contribution or vandalism committed against the Basilica of Constantine:

I had known, I had never forgotten, that St. Peter’s was very, very baroque, but I had not known, I had not remembered how baroque it was. It is not so badly baroque as the Church of the Jesuits either in Rome or Venice, or as the Cathedral at Wurzberg; but still it is badly baroque, though, again, not so baroque in the architecture as in the sculpture. In the statues of most of the saints and popes it could not be more baroque; 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. It is not conceivably the taste of the church or the faith; it is the taste of the wicked world, now withered and almost wasted to powerlessness, which overruled both for evil in art from its evil life. (130)

The last clause for moral obscurity in vigorous brevity is nearly Shakespearean.

 William Dean Howells, in his old age. (Wikimedia Commons)William Dean Howells, in his old age. (Wikimedia Commons)


Who was this man, who gave us the word Romesick, and had returned to Rome in his seventies after an absence of forty-four years? I do not think that I am presuming too much when I presume that my readers know almost nothing about William Dean Howells. One can learn a lot about American literature before learning that Howells was once — and not just for a few years, but for nearly two generations — considered its brightest light. In his fifty-one years of literary productivity, he acquired the kind of fame that pays well and terminates promptly at death. In 1860, at the age of twenty-three, Howells wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln, who paid him back by making him American consul at Venice. Howells seized the opportunity, becoming the first American to make his name by writing Italian travel books: Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys were the first, followed by Tuscan Cities, and a book of literary criticism, Modern Italian Poets. He returned to the genre over his long career, adding (among others) A Little Swiss Sojourn, Hither and Thither in Germany, Familiar Spanish Travels, and Certain Delightful English Towns. In the meantime, he scored a series of successes by becoming the apostle and apologist of “the immense Zola,” penning twenty-six (or so; it’s been a long time since anyone has counted) novels, and defending the “realist” school against all incursions of romantic fancy. His friend Henry James — and they were almost all his friends, as Howells boasted that he had been personally acquainted with every American author of importance that had ever existed, except four who lived before his time (Irving, Poe, Cooper, and Prescott) — wrote:

He thinks scarcely anything too paltry to be interesting, that the small and the vulgar have been terribly neglected, and would rather see an exact account of a sentiment or a character he stumbles against every day than a brilliant evocation of a passion or a type he has never seen and does not even particularly believe in. He adores the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the optimistic, the domestic, and the democratic; looking askance at exceptions and perversities and superiorities, at surprising and incongruous phenomena in general.

Howells also served as editor of The Atlantic Monthly, turning that publication from a New England curio into review of national import, while producing a vast number of articles, light essays, poems, and general criticism which swelled his bibliography to over a hundred titles. When the American Academy of Arts and Letters was inaugurated, he was one of its seven founding members and (naturally) its president. He became known as “the Dean of American letters,” “the most soundly representative expression of America as a spirit,” and the author of “the Great American Novel” (The Rise of Silas Lapham). His seventy-fifth birthday party in 1912 was attended by 400 luminaries including President William Howard Taft, and received front-page coverage in The New York Times.

There have been cases where the sudden evaporation of an artist’s fame seems unaccountable, but Howells’ is not one of them. Howells was the Victorian man par excellence: he believed in progress; he believed that democracy, prosperity, and institutional promotion of virtue would banish vice; he had faith in the common man and human decency. In any battle between sanitation and the picturesque, he chose sanitation. His art reflected this belief. “Everything he has written,” said President Taft, “sustains the highest standard of social purity and aspiration, of refinement and morality and of wholesome ideals.” Like many another good American who had gone from success to success in his personal and professional lives and wished to promote virtue, he was naive. In James’s phrase, he had “small perception of evil.” The fundamental faith that undergirt all Howells’ work — that routine promotion of conventionally defined virtue would eradicate evil — vanished into the trenches at the Somme and never reemerged. While men a generation his junior like Teddy Roosevelt could blithely send their sons as cannon fodder for “the Great War,” Howells found the whole thing unaccountable. His call for action on England’s behalf could hardly have stirred the bowels: from Germany, he wrote, “humanity can hope nothing; but from England it can hope something, not everything, perhaps not much, but something.”

After the slaughter of a few million men by the leaders of the world’s most civilized nations, civilization itself seemed to stand on a psychological substrate far less reliable than optimists like Howells had ever thought. Howells for a few years became a favorite punching-bag for a new generation of writers and critics. We can let Sinclair Lewis, who let Howells have it in his 1930 Nobel Prize lecture, sum it up:

It was with the emergence of William Dean Howells that we first began to have something like a standard, and a very bad standard it was. Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men, but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H. G. Wells has called “the jolly coarsenesses of life.” In his fantastic vision of life, which he innocently conceived to be realistic, farmers, and seamen and factory hands might exist, but the farmer must never be covered with muck, the seaman must never roll out bawdy chanteys, the factory hand must be thankful to his good kind employer, and all of them must long for the opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at the quaintness of the beggars.

I enjoy, from time to time, the invective men of letters reserve for each other, but I am always reminded of the wise men and the elephant: yes, of course, not everyone longs for the opportunity to visit Florence and smile gently at quaint beggars; Lewis presumably did not; but many people do, and Howells wrote for such. Anyway, a few years more, and Howells was quite out of reach of invective — he had been quite forgotten. Lewis was not entirely wrong, of course: Howells, with his small perception of evil, seemed to also have a kind of allergy to greatness. In his book My Literary Passions he confesses that he couldn’t get very much out of Dante or Goethe, but he abundantly praises Ik Marvel (look him up, he existed). And it is true that in so grand a setting as Rome, this allergy cannot be entirely concealed. He says that the outside of the Pantheon suffices, and he saw no particular need for a traveller to see its inside; he goes to the Sistine Chapel and praises the frescoes — the Botticellis, that is (he’s not utterly wrong in this, but it’s still funny). The Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoon, School of Athens, Bernini — these he notices not at all.

But taken as a whole, many of the qualities Lewis ridiculed are not poor qualities in a travelling companion — who would not wish to companion with the “gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men”? — and the qualities that James praises him for — a kind of diligence in details and attendance to the real — probably have their greatest value in a travel writer. That Neapolitans walked through the streets in 1910 singing “John Brown’s Body,” or that steam heat was making its way into Roman hotels and residences at that time, or that the Romans of the Papal States used to work on Sundays, their only holidays being church festivals — these are the kind of details that other writers would omit, as being too obvious to record, but after a hundred years they acquire a kind of preciousness. Lovers of Rome will especially love the detailing. It is true that much of it is frankly quotidian. But so is life; and Howells does give a sense of his journey, as something mild and uneventful, but also comfortable, generous, and thoughtful.

And it is a book preeminently about Rome; and Rome could be relied on to shed some of its greatness on so diligent an observer as Howells. Indeed, Howells, returning to Rome after four decades, found himself turned into part of Rome’s vertiginous past:

I asked the shopman if a street called Via del Gambero still existed in that neighborhood. I said that I had once lodged in it forty-odd years before; but I believed it had been demolished. Not at all, the shopman said; it was just behind his place; and what was the number of the house? I told him, and he laughed for joy in being able to do me a pleasure; me, a stranger from the strange land of the sky-scratchers (grattacieli), as the Italians not inadequately translate sky-scrapers. If I would favor him through his back shop he would show me how close I was upon it; and from his threshold he pointed to the corner twenty yards off, which, when I had turned it, left me almost at my own door.

In that transmuted Rome Via del Gambero, at least, was wholly unchanged, and there was not a wrinkle in the front of the house where we had sojourned so comfortably, so contentedly, in our incredible youth. I had not quite the courage to ring and ask if we were at home; but, standing across the way and looking up at the window, it seemed to me that I might have seen my own young face peering out in a somewhat suspicious question of the old eyes staring up so fixedly at it. Who was I, and what was I doing there? Was I waiting, hanging idly about, to see the Armenian archbishop coming to carry my other self in his red coach to the Sistine Chapel, where we were to hear Pius IX say mass? … I could not tell my proud young double that we were one, and that I was going in the archbishop’s red coach as well; he would never have believed it of my gray hairs and sunken figure. I could not even ask him what had become of the grocer near by, whom I used to get some homely supplies of, perhaps eggs or oranges, or the like, when I came out in the December mornings, and who, when I said that it was very cold, would own that it was un poco rigidetto, or a little bit stiffish. The ice on the pavement, not clean-swept as now, but slopped and frozen, had been witness of that; the ice was gone and the grocer with it; and where really was I? At the window up there, or leaning against the apse of the church opposite?

This is another kind of Romesickness, a temporal vertigo, which lucky travellers get to experience: where past and present meet in such a way as to make time itself seem an illusion. Life suddenly seems impossible without the existence of some other world, from which this one derives: if all time is but the flickering of shadows on the walls of a cave, as Plato wrote, then what is the real light, and of what real objects are we seeing the shadow? For most travellers in Rome it is the experience of some distant past strangely come back to life: a traveller coming down the Via Appia, the sound of a woman’s voice echoing in the columns of the Pantheon. But Howells saw his own self drawn down into Rome’s devouring maw, saw himself become part of the past, and yet a past that was not wholly gone, but returned to earth for a moment to meet his gaze.

And I have little doubt that his lodgings on the Via del Gambero can be found today, looking on the outside probably much as he left them. I leave it to the pious traveller to return to the place, and when the weather is right, find the slopped and frozen ice on the cobble-stones, and look up to see Howells’ old eyes in the window, peering at him from the darkness behind the glass.


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John Kuhner

John Byron Kuhner is the former president of SALVI, the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies, and editor of In Medias Res.


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