William Dean Howells, “Editha”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Harper’s Monthly, 110 (January 1905): 214—224; collected in Between the Dark and the Daylight (New York: Harper, 1907)
“Editha” is the best-known short story by William Dean Howells (1837-1920), a leading figure in post-Civil War American letters. Born in Ohio, Howells began his career as a journalist, writing a campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 that helped him to gain a diplomatic position in Venice as the Civil War erupted. While his early writings brought him notice, he first truly rose to prominence with the publication of Venetian Life, a collection of his travel writings, in 1866; in the same year he became assistant editor of the influential Atlantic Monthly. He became editor in 1871, cementing his position in the New England literary establishment and as an arbiter of American literary taste. His book Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900) documents some of his many relationships with famous American writers. My Mark Twain (1910) tells the story of his lengthy and close friendship with the writer whose fame would outlast and surpass his own. A prolific writer even as his book sales began to lag during the early twentieth century, he produced countless reviews and essays, short stories, poems, and novels during his long career. He is perhaps best known now for his novels The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and for his thoughtful, even passionate, defense of Realism in fiction. Howells opposed sentimental or idealistic narratives in favor of true depictions of daily life and the internal struggles of men and women. His interest in representing the lived expe
rience of everyday citizens dovetailed with what were seen as his progressive social positions, including his defense of the Haymarket anarchists sentenced to death in 1886 and his opposition to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although periodically plagued with poor health beginning in his youth, Howells lived to be eighty-three before succumbing to pneumonia in 1920.
“Editha” is told largely from the perspective of its title character, a young woman carried away by wartime excitement and patriotic fervor. Although the war is never explicitly named, most critics agree that the story is set on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Editha is engaged to George Gearson, a young man who once considered becoming a minister, and shows little interest in the drumbeats of war. Editha, however, longs for George to enlist and “win” her affections through courageous deeds in battle. She combines her romantic notions with catchphrases from the jingoistic press to urge the young man to take up arms. Swayed by Editha’s encouragement, combined with the patriotic mood of his fellows and strong drink, George volunteers. While it is evident the next day that he is less than convinced of the virtue of this path, the young man commends his aging mother to Editha’s care and departs for the war. A short time later, George is killed in the first “skirmish.” Editha, abruptly transformed from the role of heroine to grief-stricken lover, takes up her new romantic ideal with a will and sets off to keep her promise. Rather than let the young woman continue playing her part, however, George’s mother angrily confronts Editha for being so eager to send her son off to kill other mothers’ sons, going so far as to exclaim, “I thank my God he didn’t live to do it! I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain’t livin’ with their blood on his hands!” Mrs. Gearson then threatens to rip the mourning clothes from Editha’s body. The encounter leaves the young woman truly shaken for the first time in the story, a condition that persists until an artist painting her portrait proclaims the elderly woman’s actions “vulgar,” a judgment that frees Editha “to live again in the ideal.”
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Most of the early criticism of “Editha” centers on the story’s indictment both of the war and Editha’s romantic notions of warfare and courtship. Early on, the narrator reports that their courtship “was contemporaneous with the war feeling.” George appears indifferent to the public furor, while Editha literally pants as she contemplates sending him off to battle. She parrots the papers, and George speaks in tones that confuse Editha but are clearly ironic, as when he remarks, “Our country—right or wrong.” Why does his mother condemn Editha, her views, and the patriotic fervor at the end of the story? How is Editha ultimately able to recover from her confrontation with Mrs. Gearson? An influential article on the story by William J. Free will help students evaluate the ending of the story, particularly Editha’s conversation with the artist (“Howells’ ‘Editha’ and Pragmatic Belief,” Studies in Short Fiction, 3 [Spring 1966]: 285-292).
- 2. While these readings tend to present Editha as ignorant and naive at best and villainous at worst, some critics argue that George is also culpable in his downfall (The Portable American Realism Reader, edited by James Nagel and Tom Quirk [New York: Penguin, 1997], p. 412). To what extent is George complicit in the events that lead to his undoing? In an interesting counterpoint to this argument John W. Crowley argues that the story reveals Howells’s own guilt and ambivalence regarding his decision not to take part in the decisive event of his generation (“Howells’s Obscure Hurt,” Journal of American Studies, 9 [August 1975]: 199-211). In this reading George’s death serves as an attempt at self-vindication for Howells’s failure to volunteer during the Civil War. Is there additional evidence for a biographical reading of the story? Is such a biographical reading persuasive?
- 3. The story poses some fundamental questions about Editha: is she a villain who shows callous disregard for the life and safety of her lover, who uses her charms to convince him to join a fight in which he doesn’t believe? Or is she a woman who has few opportunities to act independently in her world and so uses the only means at her disposal to effect change and to take part in events? Are Editha and George active participants in what unfolds, or are they simply victims of circumstances beyond their control? Among the critics who address these questions are Crowley and Philip Furia (“‘Editha’: The Feminine View,” American Literary Realism, 12 [Autumn 1979]: 278-282). Susan K. Harris offers the most sophisticated reevalutation of the title character (“Vicious Binaries,” College Literature, 20 [ June 1993]: 70-83). More recently, two scholars have read “Editha” in a broader historical context: Rosalie Murphy Baum (“Editha’s War: ‘How Glorious,’” in War and Words, edited by Sara Munson Deats, Lagretta Tallent Lenker, and Merry G. Perry [Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2004], pp. 145-164) and Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick (“Howells’s ‘Editha’: A Reevaluation,” Short Story, 12, no. 2 : 63-70). Is the story a period piece, its significance specific to the period, or does it also speak to modern controversies over the morality and purpose of war?
- 4. Critics have yet to explore the regional issues raised in the tale. How does geography influence the opinions of the characters? How does Howells link the setting to the views expressed in the story? Editha must travel to western Iowa from New York to see George’s mother; it seems that George, like Howells, left his Midwestern family to travel east. There are also clear class divisions present in the story. Editha’s family’s wealth, highlighted by at least three references to “Balcom’s Works,” her father’s business, is brought into stark contrast with Mrs. Gearson’s “little house.” Is Howells linking his critique of war and jingoism to a critique of the bourgeoisie? Is this another example of a “rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight,” as was often said of the Civil War?
Ruth Bardon, Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997).
A concise introduction to much of the criticism of “Editha.” While a few studies have been published in the years since, Bardon’s introduction to the story still provides an effective entry to most of the scholarship on the story.
Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism, 1837-1885 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956) and The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885-1920 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1958).
The “first interpretive biography” of Howells, telling the story of his life and, in the second volume, detailing his rise to prominence in the literary world.
Everett Carter, Howells and the Age of Realism (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1954).
An important early biography that treats Howells’s life as it pertains to the development of the literary movement most associated with his name and career.
Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
A thorough and well-written biography focusing on events of the author’s life rather than on his literary works. The discussion of “Editha,” for example, is quite brief.
—Martin T. Buinicki