The Whole Family

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The Whole Family
The Whole Family.JPG
First edition
Author Various
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date
October 15, 1908
Media type Print (Serial)
Pages 317 pp

The Whole Family: a Novel by Twelve Authors (1908) is a collaborative novel told in twelve chapters, each by a different author. This unusual project was conceived by novelist William Dean Howells and carried out under the direction of Harper's Bazaar editor Elizabeth Jordan, who (like Howells) would write one of the chapters herself. Howells' idea for the novel was to show how an engagement or marriage would affect and be affected by an entire family. The project became somewhat curious for the way the authors' contentious interrelationships mirrored the sometimes dysfunctional family they described in their chapters. Howells had hoped Mark Twain would be one of the authors, but Twain did not participate. Other than Howells himself, Henry James was probably the best-known author to participate. The novel was serialized in Harper's Bazaar in 1907-08 and published as a book by Harpers in late 1908.

The chapters and their authors[edit]

  1. The Father by William Dean Howells
  2. The Old-Maid Aunt by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
  3. The Grandmother by Mary Heaton Vorse
  4. The Daughter-in-Law by Mary Stewart Cutting
  5. The School-Girl by Elizabeth Jordan
  6. The Son-in-Law by John Kendrick Bangs
  7. The Married Son by Henry James
  8. The Married Daughter by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
  9. The Mother by Edith Wyatt
  10. The School-Boy by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
  11. Peggy by Alice Brown
  12. The Friend of the Family by Henry Van Dyke

Plot summary[edit]

In the opening chapter Howells introduces the Talbert family, middle-class New England proprietors of a silverplate works that turns out ice-pitchers and other mundane household items. Daughter Peggy Talbert has just returned from her coeducational college engaged to a harmless but rather weak young man named Harry Goward.

It was Howells' intention that each of the eleven subsequent authors would examine the impact of Peggy's engagement on a different member of the Talbert family. But the very next chapter, by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, immediately sent the novel careening off Howell's intended trajectory. Freeman made her assigned character, the "old-maid aunt" Elizabeth Talbert, into anything but a quiet old spinster. Instead she created Aunt Elizabeth as an older but vibrant and sexually attractive woman who doesn't mind getting noticed by Peggy's fiancé.

This was, as project editor Elizabeth Jordan later wrote, the "explosion of a bombshell on our literary hearthstone." Howells, never particularly comfortable with frank sexuality, recoiled from Freeman's spicy conception of a character he had intended as a harmless old lady. Contributor Henry Van Dyke, who would eventually write the concluding chapter, reacted in a half-humorous, half-worried letter to Jordan:

Heavens! What a catastrophe! Who would have thought that the old maiden aunt would go mad in the second chapter? Poor lady. Red hair and a pink hat and boys in beau knots all over the costume. What will Mr. Howells say? For my part I think it distinctly cruel work to put a respectable spinster into such a hattitude before the world.

As subsequent critics have pointed out, the rest of the novel became an effort by the later writers to cope somehow with this introduction of Aunt Elizabeth as a sexual competitor with Peggy for her fiancee's affections. Although some of the writers had their doubts about Freeman's work, at least her reimagination of the spinster aunt gave the book a narrative impetus.

Eventually, after many twists and turns introduced by the subsequent contributors, Harry Goward is dismissed as a suitor, Aunt Elizabeth is sent off to New York City, and a more suitable mate for Peggy is found in a college professor named Stillman Dane. Peggy marries Dane and the couple sails off to Europe with Peggy's brother Charles and his wife Lorraine for a honeymoon tour.

Key themes[edit]

Due to the novel's unusual collaborative nature, it was perhaps inevitable that critics, both contemporary and later, concentrated more on the interactions of the various writers than the actual substance of the book. As several commentators have pointed out, each writer seemed to want to bend the novel to his or her own particular vision of the plot and characters.

Freeman's reinvention of the maiden aunt as an independent, sexually alluring woman has come in for much comment, favorable and not. Feminist critics have applauded Freeman's imagining of Aunt Elizabeth as a lively woman of spirit and intelligence. Others, such as contributor Alice Brown, thought Aunt Elizabeth was a gauche projection of Freeman's own personal issues. Brown believed that in creating Aunt Elizabeth, Freeman was reacting subconsciously to growing older. (In 1902 at age 49 Freeman had married a man seven years younger than herself, and the marriage proved unhappy.) Whatever the truth of this conjecture, Brown's penultimate chapter tied up the loose ends of the plot and helped resolve many of the difficulties of the collaboration.

The book's treatment of the issues of family, marriage and women's roles in society has generated some comment, often colored by the personal ideology of the commentator. Critics of all persuasions have admired editor Elizabeth Jordan's firm control over what sometimes threatened to be a hopelessly contentious project. Contributor Edith Wyatt, for instance, originally produced an unpublishable chapter, a series of letters that were out of harmony with the rest of the book. Jordan finally coaxed a rewritten and acceptable chapter from her. Then there were the inevitable disputes over payments. Many authors were insistent on generous compensation; Elizabeth Stuart Phelps demanded no less than $750, for example, easily equivalent to $15,000 in today's pre-tax money. And simply assembling the cast of authors was no easy task, as many writers—particularly Mark Twain—declined to participate in what some regarded as a literary stunt.

Critical evaluation[edit]

Many years after the book was published, Elizabeth Jordan exclaimed in her autobiography: "The Whole Family was a mess!" Critic Alfred Bendixen sympathized when he wrote: "As The Whole Family developed, the plot increasingly focused on family misunderstandings and family rivalries, which were mirrored by the artistic rivalries of the authors. The writing of the novel became a contest as much as it was a collaboration, with each author trying hard to impose his vision on the entire work."

In his long, dense but insightful chapter, and with charged rhetoric reminiscent of his late novels, Henry James has the aesthetic son Charles Talbert rail against the frustrations that he and his equally artistic wife Lorraine experience due to the claustrophobic realities of family life in his small New England town:

It's in fact in this beautiful desperation that we spend our days, that we face the pretty grim prospect of new ones, that we go and come and talk and pretend, that we consort, so far as in our deep-dyed hypocrisy we do consort, with the rest of the Family, that we have Sunday supper with the Parents and emerge, modestly yet virtuously shining, from the ordeal; that we put in our daily appearance at the Works—for a utility nowadays so vague that I'm fully aware (Lorraine isn't so much) of the deep amusement I excite there, though I also recognize how wonderfully, how quite charitably, they manage not to break out with it: bless, for the most part, their dear simple hearts!

James might as well have been talking about the frustrations that many of the authors felt with the "family" of their collaborators.

The novel's contemporary reception was rather favorable, with decent sales and mostly positive reviews. However, the book's sad sales rankings show that this odd but interesting collaboration has been almost completely forgotten. Although a modern reader might find some of the material dated and uneven, the novel still manages to get its plot and characters into reasonable order. The collaboration may have been an uncomfortable one, but a final product did emerge with some clever and entertaining contributions from its often squabbling authors.


  • The Whole Family, foreword by June Howard, introduction by Alfred Bendixen, Duke University Press 2001 ISBN 0-8223-2838-0
  • Publishing the Family by June Howard, Duke University Press 2001 ISBN 0-8223-2771-6

External links[edit]