William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells’s life spanned nine decades of profound change in America and the world. His father and grandfather spoke out against slavery when such speech was still risky. Howells lived abroad during the Civil War, and returned home to witness the effects of the Industrial Revolution. He lived to see the First World War.
Just as the world evolved during Howells’s lifetime, so did Howells’s literary career. After dropping out of school as a teenager to help his father set type for small-town Ohio publications, Howells educated himself and became a journalist. Then he spent fifteen years as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, transforming the publication into a highly-regarded magazine. He introduced British and European writers to American audiences, and helped jump-start the careers of such important American writers as Henry James and Mark Twain. Howells also published his own poetry, literary criticism, plays, short fiction, and novels. Even his novels evolved, from travel autobiographies to social commentaries. His outlook changed from dogged optimism to distrust for “civilization” and Industrialism.
And just as the changing world provoked change in William Dean Howells, so did his work provoke change in the literary world. An advocate for realism and honesty in fiction, Howells put forth his own ideas as well as those of others important to our literary history. With his prolific output and his love for literature and humanity, William Dean Howells certainly earned his title, “The Dean of American Letters.”