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Reading the Charges–Howells’ The Minister’s Charge

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)Although it does not carry the reputation of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells’ follow-up novel, The Minister’s Charge, may be the better work because of its greater focus. That’s a theory in process. What are we to make of this book? The question can begin with the title. Clearly the “charge” in question is the young man, Lemuel Barker, who feels himself encouraged to come from country to city by the same Reverend Sewell who gave such glib advice to the Laphams in the previous novel. To cement that assertion, we see the alternate title:  The Apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker.

The problem with this pair of titles and the overall reading of the novel is that Sewell and the socially established set in which he travels gives takes so little real responsibility for Barker. In fact, the Barker’s problems erupt first of all when he takes seriously the polite encouragement of his poetry and then when Sewell, barely allowing the boy across his threshold, pushes him out into the night where he is quickly victimized by the streets of Boston.

In the ensuing chapters, Sewell does render some assistance to Barker, but he never seems willing to actually dirty his hands with the young man. This supposed man of Christ, clearly sees Barker as beneath him. Even his protestations to the contrary seem to underscore that bias.

“Why, suppose the boy really had some literary faculty, should I have had any right to encourage it? He was very well where he was. He fed the cows and milked them, and carried the milk to the crossroads, where the dealer collected it and took it to the train. That was his life, with the incidental facts of cutting the hay and fodder, and bedding the cattle; and his experience never went beyond it. I doubt if his fancy ever did, except in some wild, mistaken excursion. Why shouldn’t he have been left to this condition? He ate, he slept, he fulfilled his use. Which of us does more?”

“How would you like to have been in his place?” asked his wife.

“I couldn’t put myself in his place; and therefore I oughtn’t to have done anything to take him out of it,” answered Sewell.

Lest we drop all of the blame at Sewell’s feet, much of his lack of assistance to Barker is encouraged by his wife who, despite her theoretical defense of the boy–“How would you like to have been in his place?”–repeatedly finds his occasional visits to the parsonage annoying and out of place. Clearly, Barker is not the Sewell’s “sort of people.”

Sewell clearly does not take his “charge” as seriously as he might, nor does he behave as an adequate “master” to the apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker. Instead, the “charge” in the title can be seen as a legal charge against Sewell. Given the considerable talent that Barker demonstrates as he proceeds through the novel, one can only imagine how easily he would have progressed in life had the minister’s “ministry” have come ahead of his problems rather than in guilty response to them.

It is difficult to read this novel and not think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ Samaritan has even less reason to “dirty his hands” with the man on the side of the road, yet he takes the initiative, he inconveniences himself, and he behaves as a neighbor, something which Sewell really never manages.

Whether Howells intended it or not, The Minister’s Charge stands as an indictment of the arms-length charity of elite society. Even at his best, David Sewell is an “expert in the law,” performing only the good works that social standards demand.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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