We have good reason to be wary of paternal metaphors for authorship, but characterising W.D. Howells as the father of The Whole Family is hard to resist - if only because it reminds us of how little control a modern patriarch has over his offspring. A composite novel by 12 hands that originated in a suggestion from Howells to the editor of Harper's Bazar (as the magazine was then called) in the spring of 1906, The Whole Family began its serial run the following year with a contribution by Howells himself. Though he had volunteered, unsurprisingly, to write the chapter called 'The Father', he had not intended to begin with his own contribution. As he had conceived the project, which was to be a realistic portrait of an American family 'in middling circumstances, of average culture and experiences', it would open with the voice of the grandmother and proceed in orderly sequence through the generations. But what with the refusal of some writers to join the enterprise - Mark Twain was an early dropout - and the work schedule of others, the engenderer was compelled to get the family under way. No sooner had he done so, however, than he was upstaged by an 'old-maid aunt': a character whom Howells had originally relegated to the tenth chapter, but who arrived in the next instalment, by Mary Wilkins Freeman, to drop what the editor later termed 'a bomb-shell on our literary hearthstone'. Strenuously resisting Howells's characterisation of the aunt even as she took unexpected charge of the plot, Freeman initiated the first of the quarrels that were to trouble the family both within the narrative and outside it. Howells's letter to the magazine's editor, Elizabeth Jordan, has not survived, but according to Jordan, it 'almost scorched the paper it was written on': 'Don't, don't let her ruin our beautiful story!'
LRB 1 November 2001 | PDF Download