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by William Sommers

During a recent visit with my daughter in Cambridge, Mass., we walked around the neighborhood and came upon a wonderfully reconstructed large and appealing house on Sacromento Street.  We found that it was the long ago residence of William Dean Howells who lived there from 1873 to 1878, reflecting his substantial contribution to the development of American literature for years and years to come.  But it also recalled the detail of Howells’ surprising work many years ago as U.S. Consul in Venice which, in a way, was also the beginning of his long term work on American literature.

William Dean Howells, who served as U.S. Consul to Venice from 1861 to 1865, was born in Martinsville, OH, in 1837.  Largely self-educated, he roamed about Ohio as odd-job man, sometime-poet and newspaper reporter.  At age 23, being in good graces with the Ohio Republican organization, he was asked to write a political biography for the soon-to-be-nominated Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.  Howells set about with vigor and, in a few months, produced what the party found to be a most acceptable biography which became a modest best-seller.  After Lincoln’s election Howells, in concert with some powerful Ohio political friends, began to look for a “suitable position” in the federal establishment.  Like writers before him — and since — he hoped to find employment that would provide him sustenance, and a work schedule with enough leisure time for his literary aims.

The writing of a successful political biography of a man who subsequently became President of the United States called for a reward.  There were distinguished precedents.  Howells recorded that expectation in his memoirs by noting that “It seemed to be the universal feeling, after the election of Lincoln, that I, who had written his life, ought to have a consulate, as had happened with Hawthorne, who had written the life of Franklin Pierce.”  The first attempts via the mail were not successful.  He was chided in a return letter from John Hay, the President’s secretary, that “…it is easier to predict the destination of a thunderbolt than of an office.”

Rome:  A pittance

Howells had asked for Munich, hoping that he could improve his German and steep himself in German poetry.  After much delay, he received an assignment to Rome.  When he was told that the salary depended on the fees collected and that Rome was no plum, Howells decided to find out for himself.  In Washington, the Department’s consular chief told him that, indeed, Rome would yield no more than $300 per year.  But Howells had the active backing of Hay and Nicolay, close counselors of the President’s.  With their help —and influence — he got the consulship to Venice, where the salary was — at Hay’s insistence — raised to $1,500 a year.

This being settled, the two young men asked Howells if he had ever met the President.  Howells replied that he had not, and Hay said they would try to arrange an interview for the next day.  Howells, upon leaving their offices, was surprised to meet Lincoln “…in the corridor, and he looked at the space I was part of with his ineffably melancholic eyes, without knowing that I was the indistinguishable person in whose integrity and abilities he had reposed such a special confidence as to have appointed him consul to Venice… He walked up to the water cooler that stood in the corner, and drew himself a full goblet from it, which he poured down his throat with a backward tilt of his head, and then went wearily within doors.  The whole affair, so simple, has always remained of a certain pathos in my memory, and I would rather have seen Lincoln in that unconscious moment than on some statelier occasion.”

Howells went back to Ohio preparing for his trip to Venice.  Dutifully, he sent in the required bond to the treasury Department but, just as dutifully, it was lost; he sent another, but this time, already grown wise in the ways of the protective bureaucrat, he made a copy for himself.  Finally, with his papers in order and his bags packed, he took the train to New York.  Then on the cold and drizzly morning of November 9, 1861, he boarded the steamship City of Glasgow, bound for Liverpool.  It was in many respects a disheartening prospect for an American going abroad; the early optimism of the North for a swift end of the war had been dashed by the rout at Bull Run and, on the day before Howells’ ship sailed, came news of the capture of Mason and Slidell on the British ship Trent.  Howells visited London, Paris, Stuttgart and Munich, arriving in Venice on December 7, 1861.  His work was about to begin.

A Matter of Conscience

There is, however, an imponderable about Howells’ assignment to Venice, a kind of problem of conscience that many of the characters in his subsequent novels were also to experience.  Howells, a devoted American who eventually established the novel as a vehicle of social criticism, was 24 when the Civil War broke out; many of his close friends immediately signed up as volunteers.  Even Howells considered joining the army, but he apparently quieted his conscience “by assuring himself that there was also a war to be waged on the diplomatic front.”

But as a consul?  In Venice?  In a later recollection of this experience, he said it gave him “four years of uninterrupted leisure for study and literary work.”  But he did not forget whatever rationalization covered his leave-taking from the scenes of carnage for, 20 years later, in writing his novel, “A Fearful Responsibility,” he opened the story with the conclusion that “Every loyal American who went abroad during the first years of our great war felt bound to make himself some excuse for turning his back on his country in the hour of her trouble.”

But Howells had more immediate problems facing him on his arrival.  The Venice of 1861 was not the Venice of today, which operates under the free government of the Italian Republic; it was then a vassal of Austria, and Howells had to wait three months before Austria sent him its blessings and the authority to act as consul.  In the meantime, his predecessor, one J.J. Springer, held the job and, much to Howells’ hunger and chagrin, drew the salary which Howells had counted on.

Sound Familiar?

On January 13, 1862 he wrote to the State Department in despair, reporting that “a box of blank forms, seal and press which I believe was dispatched from Washington in October last for this consulate has never come to hand.”  In February, he wrote again complaining that “I had not the remotest idea that I should serve in the capacity of vice consul without any remuneration.”

Such necessities as travel allowances, expense advances and electronic payroll dispatch were far, far into the future, and Howells had to extend his patience.  However, there did arrive at the consulate on March 17th a large iron, fireproof safe for the late acting consul, Mr. Zaccharia.  Howells seized the safe and vowed not to give it up until his salary arrived, thus imparting a lesson in straight-out negotiation that should not be lost on any fledgling diplomat.

The consular office, as described by Howells, was not one that lent confidence to any official undertaking “…it was up three pairs of stairs, in a small room, not devoted to any other consular business, unless the fact that Springer slept in it, is to be regarded as a devotion of the place to other purposes…the consular seal being affixed to documents after blacking it over a candle.”  Nor was the city itself situated to offer even a modicum of activity in consular affairs.  In his first year only four American ships called at Venice, and three left rather hurriedly, fearful of being picked upon by confederate privateers.  It was doubtful if there was much American capital invested in Venice, a city that under the doleful heel of Austrian rule was suffering from a decline in trade of any kind.  Trivia were the consul’s constant preoccupation.  On June 30th he reported to the Department that he had received from the Venetian authorities a rebate on an overcharge for $1.37 and, in view of his lack of accounting training, he begged “to know in which account I shall credit the U.S. with that sum.”

War Goes Badly

The war news was not good.  Howells, writing to his father in the fall of 1862, confessed that “I’ve been dreadfully discouraged about the war…  People seemed so utterly disheartened, and that’s the worst feature.”  On a visit to Milan and Lake Como, he saw a Confederate flag waving boldly over a small boat.  “Of all my memories of that hot day on Lake Como,” he wrote in his diary, “this is burnt in deepest.”

But Howells managed to learn the language, to take care of the details and traveled about Italy as much as his small salary and savings made possible.  In fact, he was called up short on both expense and travel when he received a query from the Department’s treasury staff about the possibility of his having been absent from post but still charging for the office rent.  It was with a certain haughty indigence that he replied in August “…I beg leave to say that the Department is in error in supposing that I have charged for office rent during the time that I was absent from Venice.”  A week later, he followed up with a clearer explanation of what had happened to the $23.35 in question by noting that “…it was almost impossible then to procure separate accounts so I concluded to take from the renter’s general receipts, thinking it would be all the same.”  He had made the rash mistake of all diplomatic novices in thinking that what was “all the same” to him would be looked on in similar light by those diligent overseers of the purse  strings!

Howells punctuated his first year as consul in Venice by getting married!  His bride-to-be, Elinor Mead, a Vermonter and cousin to the future President, Rutherford Hayes, came to Paris, accompanied by her brother, Larkin.  Howells and Elinor were married at the Paris American legation.  With his new wife, he returned to Venice and the consulship, with the prospect of additional writing and travel anticipating a well-ordered domestic life, all of which contributed greatly to his peace of mind.  His newly-acquired brother-in-law, Larkin Mead, settled in Florence to study art and architecture and became from time to time, informal vice consul for Howells when the latter went off on his travels.

Mark Twain with William Dean Howells, his closest literary friend, at Stormfield, March 1909.


Another Author

Though Howells was one of America’s preeminent writer-consuls, he was at the time of his Venice assignment overshadowed by his boss, the American minister to Vienna, John Lothrop Motley.  The latter was an historian famous for his work on the rise of the Dutch Republic and, though all but ignored today, was, as a recent biographer wrote, “…a writer of great heart, considerable wit, cosmopolitan learning; if his love of liberty biased his history, it added to the ethical stature of this noble, and ultimately tragic, figure.”

Howells’ first encounter with Motley came over an issue of censorship and extraterritoriality.  The Venetian post office, by order of the Austrian government, had opened a shipment of newspapers bound for the consulate.  Howells, knowing the Austrians would pay scant attention to a $750-a-year unbearded consul, enlisted Motley’s help.  They visited the director of the post office, who politely but firmly said the matter was out of his hands, that the Minister should appeal to the lieutenant governor of Venice, Count Toggenburg.  Motley turned to Howells, saying with some satisfaction that it was “fortunate that I should have happened to bring my court dress with me!”  And Motley, court dress and all, including a formidable beard and moustache, won the day!

The next few years were spent, as one of Howells’ biographers remarked, in a “…perpetual round of reading, writing, and studying in a tranquil atmosphere…”  The year 1863 yielded a total of $176.25 in fees, based on an aggregate value of commerce of $23,624, in which a limited array of glass beads, straw goods, photographs and one oil painting were sent to the United States.

Creativity in Reporting

Amid the traveling and the writing, Howells busied himself with patient research into the commercial history of Venice.  Thus, midway in 1864, he sent a rather imaginative report back to the Department.  He wrote:  “Instead of presenting the usual annual report of transactions in a commerce growing every year less interesting and important, I propose here to review very succinctly the whole history of Venetian commerce and to develop as far as possible the causes of its rise and decline.”  There follows a well-written, well-researched exposition of Venetian commerce, its heights among the doges and its ruin under Austrian occupation.  For Howells, the essential social moralist, this review of Venetian travail has an “analogy which must always exist in the careers of republican peoples struggling up from small beginnings to great national prosperity, “and which) cannot be without peculiar instruction of Americans.”

Be that as it may, the nagging details of the job could not escape Howells’ attention.  Early in 1864, the European scene began to boil and the Danes were impelled to blockade key German ports, including Bremen.  Howells’ mail went through Bremen, piteously small as it was.  Now he had to seek other means to keep from being delinquent in submitting his activity-deprived monthly reports.  By sending the reports via Liverpool to Washington, he was able to outflank the blockade.  But, alas, this increased the postage and, of course, it had to be justified.  “I beg to say in explanation,” he wrote to the Department in March 1864, “of increased charges for postage after date of February 2nd that in view of the threatened Danish blockage of Hamburg and Bremen and other German ports, I judged it advisable to send reports to the United States via Liverpool by which route the postage is 28 cents instead of 15 cents…”

Whether the explanation was sufficient is not known, since the tangled European affair was soon settled, and the blockade was lifted.  In December 1864, Howells received some 20 copies of the “Diplomatic Correspondence of 1860.”  But could find but one taker, a Professor Massadaglia of Padua.  He stacked the remainder in his already-crowded office.

Enough is Enough

By the end of 1864, Howells had decided not to accept reappointment as consul, after Lincoln was re-elected.  The consul had begun to publish a number of his travel sketches in Boston Advertiser and, with the help of James Russell Lowell, his articles were being accepted by the prestigious North American Review.  His Italian literary apprenticeship was over, and he wrote in October to his mother about coming home.  “Father speaks of my taking office for four years more.  I doubt if I could manage it, and if I could, I wouldn’t.  When I go home, I want to go home to live…”

At the same time, he did write the Department early in 1865 saying that if he were kept on, he would require as a minimum a three-month leave of absence in order to return to the United States “before entering upon a prolonged term of residence abroad.”  Howells, ever the prudent bureaucrat, was hedging his bets with an application for home leave, reappointment or not.

The shock of Lincoln’s death elicited a moving letter by Howells to William Seward, Secretary of State:  “I cannot refrain from uttering my share of the national sorrow which every American citizen feels with the poignancy of a personal grief in view of the untimely loss of that great and good man…”  Howells also paid his respects to the Secretary and his son, the assistant secretary, rejoicing that “…the life of the secretary of State so atrociously attempted, was spared in the calamitous hour when the country would have been least able to bear his loss…”  This refers to the incident when one of the conspirators forced entry into the Seward house the night of Lincoln’s murder and tried to kill Seward and his son.  Though seriously injured, they managed to fight off the attacker.

Home Leave:  An Admonition

Still waiting at the time for word from Washington on whether he might take his home leave, Howells’ impatience at this point in his tenure prompted him to write to Minister Motley, suggesting that he might leave without official sanction.  Motley replied with all the imperiousness of a minister and a successful historian admonishing Howells that “I should think that your going home from Venice to America without permission would be deemed grave dereliction of duty.”

In June, however, Howells’ wait came to an end.  He got notice he had been granted a four months’ leave of absence.  He lost no time and he arrived in Boston on August 3, 1865.  In a letter dated the following October 13th, he tendered his resignation as U.S. consul in Venice.

Summary of Howells and the Great Value of his Venetian Assignment

Howells as Teacher, Philosopher and Writer did well with his Venetian experience — but was not marked by a treasure trove of diplomatic activity.  Rather, American literature became the richer because of his overseas experience, especially his initial writings — Venetian Life, Italian Journeys and Modern Italian Poets.  He taught at Harvard and also became the editor of the Atlantic Monthly.  He published over 200 books and two of them — The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Modern Instance — have been printed again and again, the latest recently by Penguin Classics and Dover Books.  Henry James, a Howells devotee, wrote of him, noting that “Stroke by stroke and book by book your work has to become, for this exquisite notation of our whole democratic light and shade and give and take, in the highest degree – documentary.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

William Sommers
William Sommers

William Sommers, a graduate of Middlebury College, along with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Littaeur Center (known now as the JFK School), spent many years in local government operations in the United States and also, appended to that experience, worked overseas on local government development in Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Bosnia. Bill’s wife — Joan — was the stalwart in all of this, having graduated from the Chicago Art Institute, and in all the confusion of a life focused on moving and traveling, raised six children, and — at the same time — ingested the art values of every country in which the Sommers family lived and held art shows where ever they were stationed. While she is well known for her Chinese calligraphy and related paintings, she, nevertheless, took time to enhance Bill’s frequent articles on writers who had worked in the American diplomatic service — thus illustrating the likes of Hawthorne, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving and a host of others.


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