William Dean Howells

Highlights of a Life

William Dean Howells was the second of eight children, born to William Connor and Mary Dean Howells on March 1, 1837 in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. His paternal grandfather had immigrated to the United States from Wales; he was run out of town in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he owned the local book and drug store, because of his outspoken abolitionism. Howells’s father was a printer for several small-town Ohio newspapers, and he similarly risked his livelihood with declarations opposed to slavery.

When he was three, William Dean Howells’s family moved to Hamilton, Ohio, where his father edited the Intelligencer. There the young Howells learned to set type. Later the family moved to Dayton so that Howells’s father could purchase the Transcript. His ambitions to convert the publication from a tri-weekly to a daily paper, however, put strain on the family. To help his father, young Howells dropped out of school, never to return again; he attended neither high school nor college. He educated himself well, however, focusing on literature and languages. He taught himself Greek, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and some Latin. He became intimately familiar with the classics owned by his father, who was truly an intellectual. “He was continually putting books into my hands, and they were always good books,” Howells said in an interview published in Americana. “I had no end of such literary passions during my boyhood… I can scarcely remember the time when books did not play a great part in my life.”

After the Howells’s paper failed in Dayton, the family moved to a communal settlement near Xenia, Ohio. They lived in a log cabin for a year and tried, without success, to convert a sawmill and a gristmill into a cooperative paper mill. When they relocated to Columbus in 1851, Howells’s father found work as a government clerk at the state capital, and Howells was hired by the Ohio State Journal to set type. After moving to Ashtabula and then to Jefferson, the entire family finally found work at the Sentinel.

William Dean Howells was impressed with Columbus. In an interview published in Americana, he recalled going to the home of the Governor of Ohio, then Salmon P. Chase. “He made us young editors welcome at his house,” Howells said. “We read the new books, and talked them over with the young ladies whom we seem to have been always calling upon. I remember those years in Columbus as among the happiest of my life.”

Although Howells worked in journalism, his earliest ambition was to become a poet. In Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship, published in 1900, Howells wrote: “Inwardly I was a poet, with no wish to be anything else, unless in a moment of careless affluence I might so far forget myself as to be a novelist.” In 1860, Howells met the poet John J. Piatt in Columbus; together they published Poems of Two Friends. It was not a big success, financially or critically, but James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, generously wrote that it provided “more than glimpses of a faculty not so common that the world can afford to do without it.” That same year, Howells had several other poems published in the Atlantic Monthly.

Also in 1860, Howells wrote a campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln, which earned him enough money to travel to New England. There he met Lowell, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Abraham Lincoln appreciated the biography, and after his election he appointed Howells to a consulate in Venice, Italy.

During his consular stay Howells wrote sketches of Venice, and sent them back home for publication. They were rejected by the Atlantic Monthly because Lowell was no longer editor; instead they were published in the Boston Advertiser and later collected as Venetian Life and Italian Journeys.

While in Venice, Howells escaped the American Civil War raging at home. But after three years, he gave up his consular position to return to America, even with no job lined up at home. “I go home in this imprudent way, because at the end of three years, I find myself almost expatriated,” he said, “and I have seen enough of uncountryed Americans in Europe to disgust me with voluntary exile, and its effects upon character.”

Before leaving Venice, however, Howells married Elinor Gertrude Mead, whom he had met previously in Columbus. She was a relative of Rutherford B. Hayes, for whom Howells would also compose a campaign biography. After Hayes was elected president in 1876, he often invited the Howellses to the White House.

Upon Howells’s return to the States, he accepted an assistant editorship at the Atlantic Monthly in 1865. This was the beginning of a dream come true, as he had always aspired to work for the venerated magazine, and to live in Boston. He was hired mainly because of his practical experience setting type, but he worked hard and became part of the social and intellectual life of Boston. He was neighbors and close friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and soon was invited to the weekly Dante Club meetings – yet another dream realized. James Woodress wrote in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: 1865-1917, “The meetings of the Dante Club were among [Howells’s] richest experiences, and he recalled thirty years later that they were the one episode in his life he would most like to live over. The members of the club were ‘the men whom of all men living I most honored, and it seemed to be impossible that I at my age should be so perfectly fulfilling the dream of my life in their company.’”

At age twenty-nine, Howells became editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly. Over the next fifteen years, he transformed the journal from a regional to a national one, and expanded it to include sections on music and political commentary. He was open-minded with publication and accepted contributions from writers all over the country. According to A. J. Kaul in an essay in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Magazine Journalists, 1850-1900, “Howells and the Atlantic helped forge a new literary sensibility, shifting the ground of American literature from a New England Puritan romanticism to a more continental literature with a realistic and often ‘western’ voice.” Howells also looked to writers outside the United States. He promoted contemporary British realists such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and George Bernard Shaw. Because of his multilingualism, he could recognize talent from Europe, introducing Americans to Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henrik Ibsen, and Leo Tolstoy.

During Howells’s time as an editor, which spanned more than forty years, he also advanced the careers of several important American writers. With publication and editorial assistance, Howells is largely responsible for the success of the early works of Henry James and Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), both of whom also became his lifelong friends. Howells cherished his role as editor, and may have enjoyed encouraging other writers more than seeing something of his own in print. In his essay, “Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship,” he wrote, “To be the first to find the planet unimagined in all illimitable heaven of art, to be in at the dawn of a new talent, with the light that seems to mantle the written page: who would not be an editor, for such a privilege? …nothing of my own which I thought fresh and true ever gave me more pleasure than that I got from the like qualities in the work of some young writer revealing his power.”

Howells believed that literature should do more than merely entertain. He also believed that fiction should reflect life truthfully, and that truth should be derived for art as it is in science—through observation. “Let fiction cease to lie about life,” he wrote in Criticism and Fiction. “Let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know… let it forbear to preach pride and revenge, folly and insanity, egotism and prejudice, but frankly own these for what they are, in whatever figures and occasions they appear.” In an interview published in Americana, Howells said: “I believe that every novel should have an intention. A man should mean something when he writes.” He added, however, that a writer “should never preach and berate and storm. It does no good… It is the business of the novel to picture the daily life in the most exact terms possible, with an absolute and clear sense of proportion.”

Because of his love for truthfulness and keen observation, Howells advocated the old writer’s adage of “write what you know.” He thought the autobiographical novel was superior to other novels, because the writer was master of the main character’s perspective and witnessed the truths of the events first-hand. Howells combined his propensities for travel writing with autobiographical fiction to write his first novel. Their Wedding Journey, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1871, was loosely based on a trip he and his wife had taken through New England. His next few novels also combined travel writing with autobiography. A Foregone Conclusion, serialized in Atlantic Monthly in 1874, was his first attempt at an international novel, a form in which both he and his friend Henry James experimented and competed.

Just as his fiction tended to reflect his life, Howells’s life reflected his fiction when he resigned from his editorial position at the Atlantic Monthly in 1881, and traveled abroad once more. His novel-writing had begun interfering with his role as critic. Howells wrote in “Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship”: “I never liked writing criticism, and never pleased myself in it; but I should probably have kept writing most of the Atlantic notices to the end, if my increasing occupation with fiction had not left me too few hours out of the twenty-four for them.” Howells took his wife and three children with him to Italy, where he remained for a year before returning to the United States to accept editorial positions with Harper’s and later with Cosmopolitan in New York City.

Moving from Boston to New York City changed the substance of William Dean Howells’s fiction. Whereas before his realism was criticized for its boundless optimism, Walter Havighurst writes in Ohio Authors and Their Books: “The metropolis, with its extremes of wealth and poverty, made him aware of economic problems.” According to Henry Steele Commager in The American Mind, “After the Haymarket riot in 1886 and the execution of five anarchists—‘the thing forever damnable before God and abominable to civilized men,’ he called it—he seldom again indulged in optimistic contentment.” Howells publicly sought clemency for the Chicago anarchists; two years after the Haymarket episode he wrote to James, “After fifty years of optimistic content with `civilization’ and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end unless it bases itself on a real equality.'”

Howells’s 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, marked a permanent shift in his writing sensibilities. By its publication Howells had become a prominent novelist with a devoted following. According to Woodress, The Rise of Silas Lapham exhibits “Howells at the peak of his creative powers in the middle of his most fruitful decade. In this novel Howells combines a study of business and a study of society in a skillful interlocking narrative.” Considered by many to be Howells’s masterpiece, the novel is “a solid and impressive study of a self-made man who grows in character while failing in business,” writes Havighurst.

After The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells’s fiction concerned itself ever more with social and economic problems he observed in America’s post-Industrial Revolution years. Robert E. Spiller wrote in Saturday Review that Howells was “the first American writer to attack in serious fiction the problem of ethics in a society of competitive industrialism.” Alfred Kazin, in On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, calls Howells “the first great recorder” of the “moral transformation of American life, thought and manners under the impact of industrial capitalism… despite his winning sweetness and famous patience, the capacity for good in himself which had always encouraged him to see good everywhere, his tender conscience and instinctive sympathy for humanity pricked him into an uncomfortably sharp awareness of the gigantic new forces remaking American life.”

William Dean Howells’s notable career as a writer and editor lasted from the end of the Civil War to World War I. Highly regarded in the literary world, even without formal education, he received numerous job offers from universities and magazines. But he refused them in order to continue what he called his “noveling.” He spent his later years writing and traveling. Howells received numerous awards, including the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters—now known as the Howells Medal. He was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Columbia universities. He was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he retained the position until his death, on May 11, 1920. After spending the winter in Savannah, Georgia, he died in his sleep in New York City from complications of a cold.

Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.

“Sidelights” Sketch by Sharon Malinowski

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