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The Gentle Americans: Biography of a Breed

New York: Harper & Row, 1965
Copyright 1965 by Helen Howe.  

A central personage in Howe's memoir is her father, Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe (1864-1960), a friend of Sarah Orne Jewett.  He associated with Jewett in his time as associate editor of the Youth's Companion (1888-1893, 1899-1913), and as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1893-1895).   He married Fanny Huntington Quincy (1870–1933).   Their children were Quincy (1900-1977), Helen (1905-1975), and Mark (1906-1967).  His Memories of a Hostess (1922) includes biographical sketches of Annie Fields, Jewett and their circle of friends.
    When Howe quotes her father, she draws from his A Venture in Remembrance (1941).
    This biographical sketch of Helen Howe appears in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America finding guide for her papers.
[Helen Howe], monologuist and author, was born in Boston on January 11, 1905, the daughter of Mark Anthony DeWolfe Howe, biographer and author, and Fanny Howe, essayist. She was the sister of Quincy Howe, editor and radio commentator, and of Mark DeWolfe Howe, professor of law at Harvard University. HH attended Milton Academy and Radcliffe College x'27, and studied acting with Georges Vitray in France. She taught at the Fiske School in Boston for one year and then went to the New York Theater Guild in 1926. There her talent for monologues was encouraged and she began performing, at first for friends and then in public. She was acclaimed in London in 1936 and ranked with Ruth Draper and Cornelia Otis Skinner for her pungent satirical sketches. During World War II she toured the country for "Community Concerts." Her first novel The Whole Heart was published in 1943, followed by We Happy Few (1946), The Circle of the Day (1950), The Success (1956), and The Fires of Autumn (1959). The Gentle Americans, 1864-1900: Biography of A Breed , a family history that focussed on her father, MADH, was published in 1965. In 1946 HH married Reginald Allen, Curator of the Gilbert and Sullivan Collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and former administrator of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Pgs. 74-75

       For Father, as for the young Willa Cather, Mrs. Fields served as a link in the chain that led back to "the great shades" who, Miss Cather felt, were most likely to appear at teatime, coming up the deeply carpeted stairs into the long, narrow, heavily curtained drawing room, looking out across a garden to the Charles River. And yet that chain, at its nethermost tip, could be stretched to touch even Quincy and me, at approximately nine and four years old. All that remains for me of one visit to that drawing room is a misty impression of two old ladies, letting loose for our benefit some balloons which floated airily beneath the high ceiling. One of the ladies wrote to Father afterward, saying, "We had such a dear time with Helen and Quincy on Monday. I call them very dear young persons with manners of the very best." Her letter is signed, "Yours affectionately, S. O. Jewett." I doubt that at the time I identified her as the donor of two books of her own authorship, inscribed to me in the month of my birth "from one of her oldest friends." Quincy figured more prominently in the life of the salon than I. In the same drawing room in which, after one of his public readings, Dickens had made burnt brandy punch and sung comic songs, the same drawing room to which Emerson so often came, bringing one day his wife and daughter, murmuring that there was not such another in all Boston, while he "looked about and told them the wrong names of the painters," Quincy, whom the ladies most often called by his pet name of "Kinky," recited "The Sands of Dee." The miniature future broadcaster held his audience spellbound, from his opening, "O Mary, go and call the cattle home," building up toward the climax which he gave forth with full tremolo,

    They rowed her in across the rolling foam
    The cruel crawling foam
    The cruel hungry foam,
    To her grave beside the sea.

leaving the tenderhearted ladies dissolved in tears.

Pgs. 83-87

       Mrs. Fields was by no means the only magnet to draw Father to the long drawing room in Charles Street. There were, in my parents’ circle of friends in Boston, several households consisting of two ladies, living sweetly and devotedly together. Such an alliance I was brought up to hear called a "Boston marriage." Such a "marriage" existed between Mrs. Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett. Father wrote of it as a "union -- there is no truer word for it." What Henry James, whose The Bostonians was published in 1888, found to "catch at" in the friendship between the Charles Street ladies we can only guess. All we get is that "their reach together was of the firmest and easiest and I verily remember being struck with the stretch of wings that the spirit of Charles Street could bring off." He writes of them both with such affection, nostalgia, and downright chivalry that we are left confronting merely shadows.
    When Sarah Jewett’s wings stretched in verse, they gave us Together.
    A few lines suffice:

When everyone has said good night
In fading firelight, then in peace
I idly rest: you come to me --
Your dear love holds me close to you.
If I could see you face to face
It would not be more sweet and true.

     When, after her friend’s death, Mrs. Fields brought out a volume of her letters Father laid a restraining editorial hand across her enthusiasm, particularly "regarding the nicknames -- especially where an assumed childish diction is coupled with them. An occasional ‘Pinny’ [the tall, slender Sarah was so called because of her head which was no bigger than a pin’s] I should think might be left, but four-fifths of them -- I think -- should go for the mere sake of the impression we want the book to make on readers who have no personal association with Miss Jewett…. I doubt… whether you will like to have all sorts of people reading them wrong." In the copy of these letters inscribed to "Dear Mark and Fanny with ever true affection from Annie Fields" I have found tucked three letters, all addressed to Mrs. Fields, two in Miss Jewett’s own handwriting and one typewritten copy. It is in this copy that one sees the gentle pencil has been obediently at work. Miss Jewett’s nickname for Mrs. Fields has been obliterated throughout. Is it any wonder, when we learn that it was "Fuff"? Concerning a paper Mrs. Fields must have written about Leigh Hunt Miss Jewett says, "You must write all your stronomizing proclivities will let you (!) about the bookatees and their being your dear bookatees…." Good night dear dear Fuff -- if you could only dream how I
want to see you! What is in bloom in the garden? I wish I
could send you a sniff of our big flowering currant bushes.

Your own P. L.

     She had written earlier: 

     I think your book is the dearest book I ever saw! I don’t know that it is polite to speak of the cover first, but it is so pretty! ... I do think you were very good to send me Under the Olive-- I know how many friends you have, -- but I take it, as I know you will let me, as a sign of something that is between us, and since we have hold of each other’s hands we will not let them go--      … I shall be very fond of the little book for its own sake, and also for yours, and many a line will seem as if it were spoken and not written to me, and bring back other things -- that you have said and I like to remember…. I do hope to be in Boston again and I should like dearly to make you a little visit. And we will play with each other whenever we have a chance, and talk about the rose teaset -- and find time every day for one handkerchief doll at least.

       Father was obviously distressed to have to recognize the sentimentality in "Miss Jewett" --  as I was brought up to hear her called. To recognize the existence of a personal sentimentality, however, is only to emphasize the mystery concealed in the tangled skein of gifts from which the artist weaves his finished tapestry. In her stories of New England the clear unsentimental tone of Sarah Orne Jewett still reverberates, authoritative, unobtrusive, true, with --  in Willa Cather’s words --  "a quality which any ear trained in literature must recognize."
      It was during these years of editorial apprenticeship dealing with most of his writers by correspondence  --  and not face-to-face as with Miss Jewett  --  that Father was laying a firm foundation of the craft that was to stand him in such good stead in his own biographical writings: a sense of form, style, and proportion. What was relevant and what was irrelevant to the subject became part of his own equipment as a writer.
      It was as the so much younger editor (first, on the Youth’s Companion, then on the Atlantic, and again on the Youth’s Companion) that Father offered Sarah Jewett editorial judgment she appeared to value.  

     I did not mean in the least to be impatient about the little story which I had sent you. An old writer like me learns to ignore the "fortunes of war." … I do not send my work "on approval" any more except to a friend like you since we are on quite different terms from the plain Editor & Contributor relations, but I hope that you will always say just what you think as you have done now. You know what a warm interest I take in both the Companion itself and your connection with it.

     And now about the cheque! It doesn’t seem very easy to take it, at first thoughts, but neither does it seem easy to send it back since that might seem to have a pettishness that does not exist! Will you therefore mark the sketch Left Out (instead of Counted Out), which I believe comes closer to its meaning, and then put it in a pigeon hole? You can use it in your announcement (out of which I refuse to be left!) as before the time comes for printing, either you shall have something that you like better, or this story shall be made better, itself.

       Lest we idealize such a relationship across mists of time, it is almost heartening to hear the human ring of her voice in a P.S. "I am not usually so mercenary but I should be glad if you could have the cheque sent me as soon as may be. It is one I wish to spend now!!"
      Thomas Bailey Aldrich, as editor of the Atlantic, had said that whenever Miss Jewett sent him "one of her perfect stories the whole number seemed to bloom." No wonder that she wrote to her editor on the Youth’s Companion that she hoped the "Green Bonnet" would remain in fashion until another spring.  

     No more Green Bonnets for me, or short sketches which are soon written -- I am still hard at work on the story which begins in the November Atlantic and there is a long stretch of hard work ahead before I can put it out of mind. I feel just now as if I had all the cloth without having my coat made!-- I have written most of the chapters, but every one must be written at least once again and put into shape.

And yet her relations with the Companion continued, happily. 

     The Companion gave me a great surprise and pleasure, I was monstrous pleased to be put on the first page "featured"!! and with such a really nice and really illustrative picture! They are so few in my long history as a writer! The little boy is charming -- and our story which began in a bit of frolic turned out better than might have been expected, didn’t it?

       When an accident to her carriage in South Berwick threw Sarah Jewett out, causing a slight concussion, her concern was not that she was incapacitated for writing, but that she could not be with Mrs. Fields, who had been ill. "I know so well what a difference it would make if I were there…. I try to be reasonable, for if I were no stronger than now I should only make things worse by being there! I do hope that you and Fanny can be let in to see her very soon." Recovery was painfully slow, and she admitted to being "rather dull and confused after the accident" though she could close "with much love to Fanny and Kinky and yourself, believe me Your affectionate friend." She herself did not know that she was never to write again. A letter to "My dear Friend" confessed:  

     I ought to have written you at once but I could not help clinging to the hope that it might be right to say Yes, in loud and cheerful fashion. But alas, I am not yet fit to think about the smallest bit of work. I should think about it all night as well as all day! As I am getting on so slowly that I still have to be very careful of even reading and writing notes -- I get downstairs for part of the day, and lead a really hulking life in my room for the rest of the time!!

     But Mrs. Fields is better and things are going well with her, which is a great happiness to me.

     I venture to suggest that you should ask dear Mrs. Julia Ward Howe to make the "Easter wishes"! ... I think it is just what she could do beautifully, and a word from her would come to so many, many people as a word from a friend.

     Perhaps some day too, she could write some charming little short papers about her Greek experiences -- there is one about a Brigand’s Head in a Bag!!! She gets a little lonely in these days with so many friends gone and her old activities hindered by 84 years -- but her brain is the brain of a young student in the best of trim!

S. O. Jewett

       It was an ironic stroke of fate that Mrs. Fields, so much the older of the two friends, should have been called upon to survive the younger Sarah, at whose funeral a poem by Father was read.

Pgs. 92-94

       The year 1903 --  two years before the dinner in Charles Street --  had seen the publication of Father’s Boston, the Place and the People. Sarah Orne Jewett had written him in that year, on Christmas evening:  


          You are very kind to send me your Book-- I am delighted to have it with your name and mine in the beginning, and I am not writing before I read it, because I have read it already with the greatest delight and admiration.

     --I have been waiting for many days to tell you so… that I have found it strangely difficult in this last month…. On some days when I could read I caught eagerly at the Boston, and I wish that I could say now how fine I think it is as a piece of work: charm -- perspective, proportion, dignity -- readable-ness are all there. Yes, and seriousness which is so often left out of books in these days -- we are sometimes afraid of not being amusing enough -- You often take the humorous point of view, but never descend to the showman’s banter -- I have just looked into a book that is spoiled by it….

Yours, very affectionately…


     It is in connection with this same Boston book that several years later (the letter is undated) she writes: 

My dear friend, I have been meaning to copy this piece of a late letter from Mr. James -- and now that it is written off I wonder that I don’t just send you the letter itself! He adds further words to tell me that if I demand the book he means to wait for a private conveyance -- books going to America meet with such dangers by the way! -- I can but smile sadly, and with your "participation" let our dear friend keep it! I didn’t know where it had gone, my only Boston! For I wasn’t at that dinner nor did I see him until some weeks later and when he came, later than that, to Berwick he never dared to confess. But isn’t it nice that he likes it? I think you ought to have more pleasure than I over the message but I had a great deal. I hope that you won’t stop to write about it but come very soon so that we can talk about my borrowing so valued a work, being now in real need!!

S. O. J.


     On another sheet of paper she had written:        Mr. James writes me (after speaking of Mrs. J. W. Howe as) "the greater, the greatest Mrs. Howe (not less than the lesser) and to convey a renewed benediction to that very pleasant young author-man who was with her at Mrs. Fields’s that day at dinner, the DeWolfe of that ilk, whose big Boston-y book I so handsomely stole--"      This day may seem an incoherent little affectionate message at first sight, but I think you will both make it out as H.J.’s narrative vein!

       And on yet another piece of paper, in her fine handwriting, Miss Jewett had taken the trouble to copy out the following, from Henry James:  

… and apropos of books I find I have in my possession a volume of yours, a very valuable one, the presentation copy of DeWolfe Howe’s very handsome and charmingly done "Boston" which you must have lent me the night you and he and I -- and Mrs. Howe under his charge -- dined together at Mrs. Fields’s in so interesting a fashion. It appears to have tumbled recklessly into my luggage on my departing later on -- and the perusal of it here this autumn (for I had never time before) had made up to me a little for having failed to see again that most engaging youth the Author in spite of my having (at the dinner in question) counted on putting my hand on him afresh, -- at a date that never became possible. And all this under the empire of his and yours and every one’s irresistible charm. Will you kindly, if you have the little Boston chance of it, say something of this to the said gallant and genial DeWolfe for me, and mention to him by way of a message from me, that the reading of his encyclopaedic little work greatly helped to put me in the mood for writing -- 3 months ago-- a small impression of the admirable city (which has yet to be published). This is a very long story to trouble you with, but the moral is that I hold the volume at your disposal (unless you tell me with his participation to cherish it forever in memory of that rare evening).

       And so, if Mrs. Fields "went back" for Father, Father himself, mourning her death in the Brimmer Street reception room, "goes back" for me. I have up to now been able only through imagination to attempt to recapture the flavor of the headwaters whence he came. I leave here my approximation of Father’s memories --  those shadows of a shade -- and, in returning to Brimmer Street, shall pursue instead the flesh and blood of my own.    

Pg. 275

       Speaking of Mother’s writings in his autobiography, Father wrote:  

     I refrain from saying all I should like to about them…. A story I remember hearing Miss Jewett tell seemed to have its bearing upon this aversion from notice. It was the story of an old woman in London so reduced in circumstances that she was obliged to sell sprats on the street. To this end she posted herself where few could see her on the sidewalk of a small, dark street, and there, in a faint voice, kept saying, "Sprats, sprats, -- I hope nobody will hear me!" … As Jane Austen wrote of Anne Elliot, "It was a great object with her to escape all enquiry and éclat." For myself, I could never cease to admire the wit, felicity, and understanding that marked the best things she wrote. Of course the best was not always; but in everything she wrote, from her many postcards to her few books, there was a strongly individual quality, always distinctive, sometimes distinguished -- if distinction lies in an intelligence, grace, and compassion rarely encountered in the common run of human beings. In this opinion I am sure I was not alone, as possibly I am in seeing, in a small photograph she gave me long before our marriage, the face that remained unchanged in my eyes to the end of her days.

       Poor Father! Even late in his life, looking back, he used to say, "I am sometimes afraid that it was my fault that she gave up writing. I encouraged her too much."  


The editor has attempted to gain permission to reprint this brief selection. There has been no response.  Please contact the site administrator if this reprinting is problematic.
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The Sands of Dee:  "The Sands of Dee" is by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).
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Together:  "Together" first appeared in Atlantic Monthly (35:590) May 1875.  Howe seems to imply that the poem is addressed to Annie Fields.  Judith Roman in Annie Adams Fields finds the earliest confirmed contact between Fields and Jewett in a letter of 1877 (p. 105).  While it is possible they had met as early as 1875, the sort of intimacy that would lead the pair to spend months of each year together did not blossom until about 1881. Gollin in her Annie Adams Fields says that the friendship began in earnest in 1880, when the pair spent time together on Star Island in the Isles of the Shoals (p. 216).  It is unlikely, then, that "Together" is addressed to Fields.  A more likely addressee is Jewett's father, to whom she speaks similarly is several of her poems, notably the opening pair in Verses (1916).  However, Jewett wrote, in a letter to Mellen Chamberlain on 30 May 1875:

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Leigh Hunt:  Fields's paper on Leigh Hunt opened her collection, A Shelf of Old Books (1894).
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Under the Olive:  Annie Fields's volume of poetry, Under the Olive, appeared in 1881, early in her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett.

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handkerchief doll:  A handkerchief doll may be handcrafted from a handkerchief.
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Green Bonnet: "The Green Bonnet: A story of Easter Day" appeared in the Youth's Companion (75:169-170), April 4, 1901.
   The Tory Lover began to appear as a serial in Atlantic Monthly in November 1900.
    "Counted Out" was published Youth's Companion (77:646-647), December 24, 1903. 
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the featured and illustrated story:  It is likely that the featured and illustrated story Jewett refers to is "The Lost Turkey," in Youth's Companion (76:609-610), November 27, 1902, with an illustration by S. Werner.
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Boston, the Place and the People:       [ Back ]

the admirable city: It is likely that James's paper on Boston eventually appeared in his collection, The American Scene (1907).  Chapter 7 is entitled "Boston."  The book arose from James's visit to the United States in 1904-5.
    In Annie Adams Fields, Rita Gollin summarizes accounts of the evening Henry James spent at Annie Fields's 148 Charles Street home in the company of Mark DeWolfe Howe and Julia Ward Howe in the winter of 1905 (pp. 205-6).
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Brimmer Street reception room: Judith Roman, in her Annie Adams Fields, says that after Annie Fields died on 5 January 1915, according to her wishes, a modest ceremony took place in her library (p. 163).  Mark DeWolfe Howe resided a few minutes away from Fields, on Brimmer Street.  At his home, he gathered Fields's papers after her death and produced from them his book, Memories of a Hostess (1922).
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Anne Elliot:   Jane Austen's Persuasion (1817).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
    assisted by Tanner Brossart and Emily Weber.

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