Places: Indian Summer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1886

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Shortly after the American Civil War

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Florence

*Florence. Indian SummerNorthern Italian city noted as a center of great artistic and architectural works that the young American architect Theodore Colville visited during his youth. After becoming a journalist in a midwestern town, Colville, has sold his newspaper and returned to Florence twenty years later. At forty-one, he is unlikely to resume his early vocation, but he fails to recapture any of the vitality of his earlier experience in Florence. He proposed, unsuccessfully, to a young woman during his first visit to Florence; now he is still a bachelor and tries to win a woman less than half his age.

Florence is the home of Lina Bowen, a former friend and confidant of the woman he sought earlier, but now a widow with a young daughter. Florence has also attracted a young American woman for whom Mrs. Bowen is acting as a chaperone. W. D. Howells uses this novel as a variant on the theme of American “innocents abroad” that interested Howells’s literary friends Mark Twain and Henry James in their distinctive ways. Whereas James typically focused on young American women at risk at the hands of worldly wise Europeans, Howells makes Colville–not a young woman–his central character. Colville persists in an inexcusable attempt to recover the romance of his earlier visit to Italy at the expense of Mrs. Bowen. Although he finally proposes marriage to Miss Graham, it is a selfish act that in effect is a kind of seduction. He agrees to wait, however, until her mother can come to Florence, a trip across the broad Atlantic that takes enough time to allow reason to prevail.

Des Vaches

Des Vaches. Colville’s Indiana hometown that is present only in his recollection. However, it is a powerful presence, particularly early in the novel. Howells drolly gives the town a name that means “cows.” Colville, who has now lived there for many years, ludicrously finds himself preferring its Main Street Bridge to Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio. A long elapse of time and a life among the plain midwestern comforts of Des Vaches have rendered him incapable of recapturing the sensations and emotions that the sights and sounds of Florence once inspired in him.

Palazzo Pinti

Palazzo Pinti. Mrs. Bowen’s Florentine home, which Colville finds “rather a grand affair.” However, the Palazzo Pinti is a place of civility that reflects the maturity Mrs. Bowen has attained and Colville has not. She invites Colville to come on her afternoon for receiving guests, and soon he becomes a habitual guest. Because Mrs. Bowen loves him and must watch as he uses his opportunities at Palazzo Pinti to pursue the bewitching young Imogene, her home becomes for her a place of intense suffering, all the more because she is responsible for the young woman’s welfare.

Pergola Theater

Pergola Theater. Florence theater that hosts a veglione, or masked ball, that Colville, Mrs. Bowen, her daughter Effie, and Imogene attend. To the very proper Lina Bowen, this theater is primarily the site of a dubious type of entertainment, and she attends the affair only reluctantly. The evening proves to be a most distressing one for her. Paradoxically, the behavior of the other maskers, including the native Florentines, proves to be polite and decorous, but Colville’s behavior does not. In his attempt to charm Imogene, he leaves Lina and Effie alone for so long that they return home without him and Imogene. This gathering place of dubious reputation is thus the setting, but not the cause of her distress, which Colville himself generates with his ill-considered behavior.

BibliographyEble, Kenneth. William Dean Howells. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A chronological assessment of Howells’ fiction. In the chapter focusing on Indian Summer and the 1888 novel April Hopes, Eble ranks the former among Howells’ most successful dramatizations of the folly of a romantic-sentimental outlook.Howells, William Dean. Indian Summer. Vol. 11 in A Selected Edition of William Dean Howells. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971. The standard edition of the novel with introduction and notes by Scott Bennett, who counters the often-express view of Indian Summer as an exercise in nostalgia and argues that the novel reflects Howells’ full artistic maturity.Wagenknecht, Edward. William Dean Howells: The Friendly Eye. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. No sustained discussion of Indian Summer but shrewd observations on the novel in many references. Wagenknecht notes, for example, that the novel contradicts Howells’ critical disapproval of violence in fiction by resolving the hero’s love affair through the medium of a carriage accident.Woodress, James J., Jr. Howells and Italy. New York: Greenwood Press, 1952. Assesses Indian Summer as a neatly plotted minor masterpiece, though unrepresentative of Howells’ work generally. Woodress emphasizes the correlation between the author’s fiction and his own Italian experiences, as well as his skill at evoking the Italian setting in Indian Summer.Wright, Nathalia. American Novelists in Italy: The Discoverers–Allston to James. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965. Discusses a succession of nineteenth century novelists and gives considerable attention to Howells’ Italian novels. Views Indian Summer as reflecting his tendency to emphasize that Europe exerted a more pernicious influence on American men than on American women.
Categories: Places