June 17, 2011 by Robert Bovington
In October 1911, American William Dean Howells travelled to Spain. The author wrote about his experiences in “Familiar Spanish Travels”.
As an avid reader of books about Spain, I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, I did not enjoy it as much as other books that I have read on the subject. I found Howells’ literary style too verbose. I wonder whether the author thought: “Why use two or three pithy adjectives when two or three pages of text will do the same job!”
He describes with great detail the strangers that he encounters on his travels, yet often provides little detail on the principal sights. Many of Howells’ sentences are inordinately long – 40, 50 words or more! Yet, despite his longwinded descriptions, Howells manages to convey his thoughts to the reader in both a poetic and an extremely descriptive manner. The reader can easily imagine the bleakness of the Meseta and the “insurpassably dirty and dangerous” gipsy quarters of Granada and Seville. Howells certainly was not, what we today call, politically correct. He frequently describes some of the Spanish women as fat. Nor did the author view his surroundings with rose tinted spectacles. He mentions bad breakfasts; freezing hotels, cold rainy streets and “the thick and noisome stench” of Cervantes former home in Valladolid. But he waxed lyrical about a great deal of his experiences too: the incomparable grandeur of Burgos Cathedral; the glorious masterpiece that is Murillo’s “Vision of St Anthony”; the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the magnificent structure that is the Puente Nuevo in Ronda are shortened versions of just some of his descriptions.
I know people’s tastes are different but what really surprised me was the author’s likes and dislikes regarding the places he visited. He did not like Córdoba but, to be fair, it was raining during his visit and he described the houses as “wet and chill”. However, he was also disappointed in that city’s beautiful Mezquita. Yet he really liked Algeciras! Certainly, from the author’s text, I gathered that he preferred ‘people watching’ to visiting the famous sights, which probably explains the imbalance between his descriptions of people and his accounts of the places visited. But, then, the whole expedition was unbalanced. He spent only half an hour in Toledo’s magnificent Cathedral and not much longer in the Mezquita, yet he visited Seville Cathedral every day during his fortnight’s stay! He appears to have enjoyed Madrid, especially the Prado and he was greatly taken with Granada though, more for the views from within and without the Alhambra than for the wonderful Arabic architecture. He preferred the Palace of Charles V to the Nasrid Palaces in that magnificent monument to the Moors rule in Spain.
Notwithstanding the author’s idiosyncrasies, “Familiar Spanish Travels” will probably be an enjoyable read for those readers who wish to partake of a “warts and all” commentary of life in early 2oth century Spain.