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An essay by William Dean Howells

The Problem Of The Summer

Title:     The Problem Of The Summer
Author: William Dean Howells [More Titles by Howells]

It has sometimes seemed to me that the solution of the problem how and where to spend the summer was simplest with those who were obliged to spend it as they spent the winter, and increasingly difficult in the proportion of one's ability to spend it wherever and however one chose. Few are absolutely released to this choice, however, and those few are greatly to be pitied. I know that they are often envied and hated for it by those who have no such choice, but that is a pathetic mistake. If we could look into their hearts, indeed, we should witness there so much misery that we should wish rather to weep over them than to reproach them with their better fortune, or what appeared so.


For most people choice is a curse, and it is this curse that the summer brings upon great numbers who would not perhaps otherwise be afflicted. They are not in the happy case of those who must stay at home; their hard necessity is that they can go away, and try to be more agreeably placed somewhere else; but although I say they are in great numbers, they are an infinitesimal minority of the whole bulk of our population. Their bane is not, in its highest form, that of the average American who has no choice of the kind; and when one begins to speak of the summer problem, one must begin at once to distinguish. It is the problem of the East rather than of the West (where people are much more in the habit of staying at home the year round), and it is the problem of the city and not of the country. I am not sure that there is one practical farmer in the whole United States who is obliged to witness in his household those sad dissensions which almost separate the families of professional men as to where and how they shall pass the summer. People of this class, which is a class with some measure of money, ease, and taste, are commonly of varying and decided minds, and I once knew a family of the sort whose combined ideal for their summer outing was summed up in the simple desire for society and solitude, mountain-air and sea-bathing. They spent the whole months of April, May, and June in a futile inquiry for a resort uniting these attractions, and on the first of July they drove to the station with no definite point in view. But they found that they could get return tickets for a certain place on an inland lake at a low figure, and they took the first train for it. There they decided next morning to push on to the mountains, and sent their baggage to the station, but before it was checked they changed their minds, and remained two weeks where they were. Then they took train for a place on the coast, but in the cars a friend told them they ought to go to another place; they decided to go there, but before arriving at the junction they decided again to keep on. They arrived at their original destination, and the following day telegraphed for rooms at a hotel farther down the coast. The answer came that there were no rooms, and being by this time ready to start, they started, and in due time reported themselves at the hotel. The landlord saw that something must be done, and he got them rooms, at a smaller house, and 'mealed' them (as it used to be called at Mt. Desert) in his own. But upon experiment of the fare at the smaller house they liked it so well that they resolved to live there altogether, and they spent a summer of the greatest comfort there, so that they would hardly come away when the house closed in the fall.

This was an extreme case, and perhaps such a venture might not always turn out so happily; but I think that people might oftener trust themselves to Providence in these matters than they do. There is really an infinite variety of pleasant resorts of all kinds now, and one could quite safely leave it to the man in the ticket-office where one should go, and check one's baggage accordingly. I think the chances of an agreeable summer would be as good in that way as in making a hard-and- fast choice of a certain place and sticking to it. My own experience is that in these things chance makes a very good choice for one, as it does in most non-moral things.


A joke dies hard, and I am not sure that the life is yet quite out of the kindly ridicule that was cast for a whole generation upon the people who left their comfortable houses in town to starve upon farm-board or stifle in the narrow rooms of mountain and seaside hotels. Yet such people were in the right, and their mockers were in the wrong, and their patient persistence in going out of town for the summer in the face of severe discouragements has multiplied indefinitely the kinds of summer resorts, and reformed them altogether. I believe the city boarding-house remains very much what it used to be; but I am bound to say that the country boarding-house has vastly improved since I began to know it. As for the summer hotel, by steep or by strand, it leaves little to be complained of except the prices. I take it for granted, therefore, that the out-of- town summer has come to stay, for all who can afford it, and that the chief sorrow attending it is that curse of choice, which I have already spoken of.

I have rather favored chance than choice, because, whatever choice you make, you are pretty sure to regret it, with a bitter sense of responsibility added, which you cannot feel if chance has chosen for you. I observe that people who own summer cottages are often apt to wish they did not, and were foot-loose to roam where they listed, and I have been told that even a yacht is not a source of unmixed content, though so eminently detachable. To great numbers Europe looks from this shore like a safe refuge from the American summer problem; and yet I am not sure that it is altogether so; for it is not enough merely to go to Europe; one has to choose where to go when one has got there. A European city is certainly always more tolerable than an American city, but one cannot very well pass the summer in Paris, or even in London. The heart there, as here, will yearn for some blessed seat

"Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,"

and still, after your keel touches the strand of that alluring old world, you must buy your ticket and register your trunk for somewhere in particular.


It is truly a terrible stress, this summer problem, and, as I say, my heart aches much more for those who have to solve it and suffer the consequences of their choice than for those who have no choice, but must stay the summer through where their work is, and be humbly glad that they have any work to keep them there. I am not meaning now, of course, business men obliged to remain in the city to earn the bread--or, more correctly, the cake--of their families in the country, or even their clerks and bookkeepers, and porters and messengers, but such people as I sometimes catch sight of from the elevated trains (in my reluctant midsummer flights through the city), sweltering in upper rooms over sewing-machines or lap-boards, or stewing in the breathless tenement streets, or driving clangorous trucks, or monotonous cars, or bending over wash-tubs at open windows for breaths of the no-air without. These all get on somehow, and at the end of the summer they have not to accuse themselves of folly in going to one place rather than another. Their fate is decided for them, and they submit to it; whereas those who decide their fate are always rebelling against it. They it is whom I am truly sorry for, and whom I write of with tears in my ink. Their case is hard, and it will seem all the harder if we consider how foolish they will look and how flat they will feel at the judgment-day, when they are asked about their summer outings. I do not really suppose we shall be held to a very strict account for our pleasures because everybody else has not enjoyed them, too; that would be a pity of our lives; and yet there is an old-fashioned compunction which will sometimes visit the heart if we take our pleasures ungraciously, when so many have no pleasures to take. I would suggest, then, to those on whom the curse of choice between pleasures rests, that they should keep in mind those who have chiefly pains to their portion in life.

I am not, I hope, urging my readers to any active benevolence, or counselling them to share their pleasures with others; it has been accurately ascertained that there are not pleasures enough to go round, as things now are; but I would seriously entreat them to consider whether they could not somewhat alleviate the hardships of their own lot at the sea-side or among the mountains, by contrasting it with the lot of others in the sweat-shops and the boiler-factories of life. I know very well that it is no longer considered very good sense or very good morality to take comfort in one's advantages from the disadvantages of others, and this is not quite what I mean to teach. Perhaps I mean nothing more than an overhauling of the whole subject of advantages and disadvantages, which would be a light and agreeable occupation for the leisure of the summer outer. It might be very interesting, and possibly it might be amusing, for one stretched upon the beach or swaying in the hammock to inquire into the reasons for his or her being so favored, and it is not beyond the bounds of expectation that a consensus of summer opinion on this subject would go far to enlighten the world upon a question that has vexed the world ever since mankind was divided into those who work too much and those who rest too much.

[The end]
William Dean Howells's essay: Problem Of The Summer