By William Dean Howells
In those dim recesses of the consciousness where things have their beginning, if ever things have a beginning, I suppose the origin of this novel may be traced to a fact of a fortnight’s sojourn on the western shore of lake Champlain in the summer of 1891. Across the water in the State of Vermont I had constantly before my eyes a majestic mountain form which the earlier French pioneers had named “Le Lion Couchant,” but which their plainer-minded Yankee successors preferred to call “The Camel’s Hump.” It really looked like a sleeping lion; the head was especially definite; and when, in the course of some ten years, I found the scheme for a story about a summer hotel which I had long meant to write, this image suggested the name of ‘The Landlord at Lion’s Head.’ I gave the title to my unwritten novel at once and never wished to change it, but rejoiced in the certainty that, whatever the novel turned out to be, the title could not be better.
I began to write the story four years later, when we were settled for the winter in our flat on Central Park, and as I was a year in doing it, with other things, I must have taken the unfinished manuscript to and from Magnolia, Massachusetts, and Long Beach, Long Island, where I spent the following summer. It was first serialized in Harper’s Weekly and in the London Illustrated News, as well as in an Australian newspaper—I forget which one; and it was published as a completed book in 1896.
I remember concerning it a very becoming despair when, at a certain moment in it, I began to wonder what I was driving at. I have always had such moments in my work, and if I cannot fitly boast of them, I can at least own to them in freedom from the pride that goes before a fall. My only resource at such times was to keep working; keep beating harder and harder at the wall which seemed to close me in, till at last I broke through into the daylight beyond. In this case, I had really such a very good grip of my characters that I need not have had the usual fear of their failure to work out their destiny. But even when the thing was done and I carried the completed manuscript to my dear old friend, the late Henry Loomis Nelson, then editor of the Weekly, it was in more fear of his judgment than I cared to show. As often happened with my manuscript in such exigencies, it seemed to go all to a handful of shrivelled leaves. When we met again and he accepted it for the Weekly, with a handclasp of hearty welcome, I could scarcely gasp out my unfeigned relief. We had talked the scheme of it over together; he had liked the notion, and he easily made me believe, after my first dismay, that he liked the result even better.
I myself liked the hero of the tale more than I have liked worthier men, perhaps because I thought I had achieved in him a true rustic New England type in contact with urban life under entirely modern conditions. What seemed to me my esthetic success in him possibly softened me to his ethical shortcomings; but I do not expect others to share my weakness for Jeff Durgin, whose strong, rough surname had been waiting for his personality ever since I had got it off the side of an ice-cart many years before.