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Underground Reading: The Whole Family (edited by William Dean Howells)

The_Whole_FamilyThe Whole Family: a Novel By Twelve Authors (1908) was an experimental 'collaborative' novel, organised by William Howells and, for lack of a better word, 'administrated' by Elizabeth Jordan. Both Howells and Jordan wrote chapters themselves, and were joined by literary heavyweights like Henry James and Mary Wilkins Freeman.

The stories were serialised in 1907, then packaged into a book a year later. According to Heidi Hanrahan's Competing for the Reader (2005), the creative process of The Whole Family was slightly disastrous. And, in a sense, this shows in the way that this 'shared world' was executed. The focus of The Whole Family is the Talbert family, a sprawling group with three generations under a single roof, lots of in-laws and no little amount of drama.

The introductory set-up comes from Howells', whose chapter, "The Father", has the (nominal) head of the Talbert family in ambling conversation with his neighbour, told from the latter's point of view. The neighbour is a journalist and a clever man, and his admiration for Talbert (who is a pillar of society and quite materially successful) is mixed with a tiny bit of supercilious superiority: Talbert is a bit too, if you'll pardon the anachronism, bourgeois with his style and taste. The occasion for their conversation is the engagement of Talbert's daughter Peggy to a young man she's met at college. Talbert is proud of his daughter, but nervous that he's spoiled her by sending her off to a co-ed school, and this is his punishment.

Howells' intent seems fairly clear, as the chapter outlines a novel based around 'coming of age' - both Peggy's (literally) and the Talberts' as a whole (philosophically). Talbert is successful but 'immature' - someone that's not been tested or challenged, and 'losing' his daughter is clearly shaking his sense of self-worth.

As an over-arching plot for The Whole Family, this would be... well... boring. Fortunately, Mary Wilkins Freeman, who has the second story, throws the entire thing out the window.

Freeman's character, "The Old-Maid Aunt", is described in the first story as a pitiable figure - Talbert's sister, unmarried, only occasionally in town - a sort of roving drain on the family resources. In Freeman's hands, however, Elizabeth Talbert is anything but. She's young (by our contemporary standards), vivacious, foxy and, gasp, rather hot-blooded. In fact, whilst hanging about in New York society, it seems that the 'old maid' has also gotten herself engaged to Peggy's boyfriend, creating a rather awkward sort of love triangle. Elizabeth is shallow, but she's got a point. This quaint New England town is happy to file her away as "old maid", but, in actuality, she's barely into her thirties:

"In the first place, I am only fifteen years older than Peggy, who has just become engaged, but those fifteen years seem countless aeons to the child herself and the other members of the family. I am ten years younger than my brother's wife, but she and my brother regard me as old enough to be her mother. As for Grandmother Evarts, she fairly looks up to me as her superior in age, although she DOES patronize me. She would patronize the prophets of old. I don't believe she ever says her prayers without infusing a little patronage into her petitions."

Elizabeth freely blasts holes in the pastoral bliss of the Talbert's family. If Howells was setting up the end of their middle class 'age of innocence', Freeman is leaping ahead: labelling their world not as naive, but as hypocritical.  

With her chapter, Freeman sent the book skidding off its rails, and the rest of The Whole Family is notable as the following authors - one after the other - either embrace this new development or ignore it entirely. What's particularly interesting is how Freeman's sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth evolves as well. In Freeman's hands, Elizabeth is self-absorbed, but it is easy - especially for contemporary readers - to see her side of the story. She's having fun, travelling and, although flirtatious, doesn't actually mean any harm. She has, unlike every other woman in the story, agency.

Other authors go out of their way to punish this proto-feminist character, in a sense, striking out at Freeman as well: Elizabeth becomes man-crazy, stupid and selfish. And, as she bounces between sympathetic and unsympathetic authors, increasingly schizophrenic: alternating between throwing herself at Peggy's boyfriend and coldly demanding that the latter leave her alone. Eventually (spoiler), she's shipped off to become a spiritualist's assistant - by that point having had her heart broken three times. For one shining moment - Freeman's story - she's the best character in the book. Afterwards, she's a punching bag.

Indeed, the fixation with Elizabeth also has a knock-on effect. While the ten authors that follow Freeman try to put the old maid back in her box, no one is paying any attention at all to Peggy. Eventually Peggy gets a POV, courtesy of Alice Brown, and she's just as vapid and uninteresting as we might expect - a paint by numbers romantic heroine who is pretty, patronised, and rather stupid. The fate of The Whole Family is eventually left in the hands of Henry Van Dyke, who introduces "The Friend of the Family"as a deus ex machina - a sort of elder statesman figure who comes into town and tidies up the mess of the previous eleven stories. Sadly, it is the only ending imaginable at this point - Howells' vision and Freeman's have both gone out the window, and the authors that followed only introduced further complexity, rather than any harmonious, holistic plot. 

The result is a fascinating and ramshackle book with a few good stories (Freeman's, of course, although Elizabeth Jordan and Mary Vorse are also quite decent) a few bad ones (Van Dyke, Alice Brown, and, I'm sorry to say - Henry James), and a fascinating background. It is almost a how-to of how not to write a shared world - and is, if not a particularly great anthology, a very intriguing literary artifact.

You can find The Whole Family for free on Project Gutenberg.