William Dean Howells (1837-1920), American writer and editor, was an influential critic and an important novelist of the late 19th century.
William Dean Howells's career spanned a period of radical change in American literature; as novelist, critic, and editor, he contributed greatly to those changes. An advocate of honesty and social responsibility in literature, he led the struggle against escapist fantasy and for realistic and morally and politically committed fiction.
Howells was born March 1, 1837, at Martin's Ferry, Ohio. His father was a country printer and journalist who displayed the best American frontier traits—independence, self-reliance, and conscience. William spent scarcely a year in the classroom, but his father's offices afforded a thorough and meaningful education. In Years of My Youth (1916) Howells recalled his earliest training: "I could set type very well, and at ten years and onward till journalism became my university, the printing office was mainly my school."
When William was 3 the family moved to Hamilton— the delightful book A Boy's Town (1890) records experiences there. The family moved to Dayton when he was 11 and, after a memorable year in a log cabin, to Columbus when he was 13. Two years later the elder Howells became editor of the Ashtabula Sentinel. During these years young Howells taught himself German, French, Spanish, and some Latin; he became conversant with great poets, especially Shakespeare, and grew to love such prose masterpieces as Don Quixote. By 1857, when he returned to Columbus to work as a political reporter, Howells had acquired a truly liberal education.
Author and Propagandist
Howells inherited his father's strong abolitionist convictions. These are reflected in the narrative poem "The Pilot's Story, " a pathetic account of a slave girl's suicide, which was one of several of Howells's poems published by the Atlantic Monthly in 1860. More important, he wrote an official campaign biography supporting the Republican candidates in the 1860 election. The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin may have helped elect Lincoln and change the history of America; it unquestionably changed Howells's personal history.
Though Howells saw many friends marching off to fight in the Civil War, he had little interest in joining them. He had applied for a diplomatic appointment and was finally given Venice. The months before his departure were important; traveling east, he met some of America's most important writers: James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in Massachusetts; Walt Whitman in New York. Returning to Columbus, he met Elinor Mead, a young woman who was visiting her cousin, Rutherford B. Hayes. They were married in 1862 and sustained a happy relationship for 48 years.
Howells's Italian experiences, together with his discovery of the comedies of the 18th-century dramatist Carlo Goldoni, turned him from poetry to prose, from romance to realism, and from provincial to cosmopolitan subjects. Some of his best fiction would treat Americans in Italy, but the first fruits of his foreign residence were travel sketches, published in American periodicals, and a graceful volume of impressions, Venetian Life (1866), which went through a score of editions in his lifetime.
Career as Editor
Howells returned to America with his wife and infant daughter in 1865. He accepted an editorial post on the Nation in New York, but his ambition was to live in Boston and work on the Atlantic Monthly. In January 1866 the offer came, and Howells's 14-year association with the country's most respected magazine began. He served as assistant editor until 1871 and as editor in chief to 1881. His literary judgments soon dominated the Atlantic, which he transformed from a regional to a national magazine. He published the work of talented local-color writers from every part of the country: Sarah Orne Jewett, Edward Eggleston, Bret Harte, and many more. He featured works of fellow pioneers of the new realism and important writings of two of his closest friends, Henry James and Mark Twain. Neither of those giants could abide the other's writings; Howells could admire, help, and learn from both. Both writers had reason to be grateful for the enthusiastic reviews. Howells published in the Atlantic: James because his difficult prose might otherwise have attracted no audience at all, Twain because his humorous tales might have appealed only to the uncultivated if they had not borne the imprimatur of the Atlantic.
Howells's relation with Twain has given rise to some controversy; hostile critics claimed that he censored or bowdlerized the works of his exuberant friend. In fact, Howells was a remarkably helpful editor and critic for Twain, as he was for many lesser writers. An honorary master of arts degree from Harvard University (1867) and an appointment there as university lecturer (1869-1871) were recognition of Howells's self-taught attainments. He was later offered professorships at Johns Hopkins University and at Harvard but was not attracted to the academic life.
Career as Novelist
In 1871 Howells published his first novel, Their Wedding Journey. The book follows Basil and Isabel March on their honeymoon trip from Boston to Quebec. Basil is Howells only slightly disguised; Isabel is Mrs. Howells. These two characters appear again and again in Howells's fiction, usually at some distance from the center of the action. Throughout his career, Howells treated his characters with a gentle irony that at once humanizes them and calls attention to their weaknesses. Howells was honest with everyone, most of all with himself.
The novels Howells published in the next 10 years were consistently good but, with the exception of The Undiscovered Country (1880), they are low-key and perhaps a little drab. In these years he was reading and praising European realists, especially the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who confirmed many ideas Howells had already come to: for example, that character counts for more than action in fiction, and that dialogue, not exposition, should carry the burden of a novel. These ideas were revealed in Howells's first major novel, A Modern Instance (1882), the tragic story of an impossible marriage that ends in divorce. This was the first compassionate treatment in American fiction of the problems of a divorced woman.
In 1881 Howells resigned his editorship of the Atlantic and in 1882 took his wife and three children to Europe for a year. Of the novels of the 1880s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is the most famous. In this story of a self-made man who tries to buy social position in Boston for his country-bred family, Howells broadened his scope to include characters of a variety of backgrounds and classes. In The Minister's Charge (1887) Howells for the first time introduced the concept of "complicity"—the responsibility everyone shares for each individual's deeds. While he was writing the book in 1886, a bomb exploded during a political meeting in Chicago's Haymarket. There were casualties, and a group of anarchists was charged—falsely, it appeared—with murder. Howells was shocked and took a leading part in a national campaign for justice for the unpopular anarchists, but justice was denied.
Howells's awareness of social and class injustice and of each man's complicity in such injustice was strengthened by his reading of another Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, whose influence is apparent in the structure of A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). In this book the Marches (like the Howellses) have moved to New York; a newly rich family is seeking social acceptance; a journalist is seeking a magazine that will give him editorial freedom; and class is trying to speak to class, region to region, generation to generation. The novel is compassionate, humane, and tragic. Other social problems also engaged Howells's attention. In the impressive novella An Imperative Duty (1892), he argued eloquently against racism at a moment when his readers were turning rapidly toward white supremacist doctrines. He presented his ideas of a good society, essentially socialistic and libertarian, in the long tale A Traveler from Altruria (1894).
In 1886 Howells had begun the regular review column, "Editor's Study, " in Harper's. He moved this column from one magazine to another during the 1890s, returning to Harper's in 1900. His reviews consistently recognized the best in contemporary literature. He was the first critic of note to praise Stephen Crane and the only important critic to review Emily Dickinson's poems with real appreciation. The principles of his literary judgments are set out in Criticism and Fiction (1891), a work of enduring importance. My Literary Passions (1895), Heroines of Fiction (1901), and My Mark Twain (1910) are other critical works of interest.
Every conceivable honor came to Howells (known as "the Dean") in the last 20 years of his life—honorary doctorates, the first presidency of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the most practical of prizes, a library edition of his own writings (1911). In 1916 he published The Leatherwood God, a powerful analysis of religious frenzy on the early American frontier, and in 1920 The Vacation of the Kelwyns, a "summer idyll" rich in wisdom, humor, and sadness. The book is in every way Howells's, but the title was the publisher's, for the novelist had died in New York City on May 11, 1920, before its publication.
Further Reading on William Dean Howells
The literary situation in Howells's America is well delineated in his Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900). Among his other memoirs are My Year in a Log Cabin (1893) and Impressions and Experiences (1896). Edwin H. Cady's The Road to Realism (1956) and The Realist at War (1958) together constitute the best biography of Howells. Kenneth S. Lynn, William Dean Howells: An American Life (1971), is another excellent choice. Clara M. Kirk and Rudolf Kirk, William Dean Howells (1962), is an impressive shorter study combining biography and criticism. Van Wyck Brook, Howells: His Life and World (1959), is impressionistic but valuable. Kermit Vanderbilt, The Achievement of William Dean Howells (1968), reinterprets the major novels convincingly. Howells is placed in the context of his time in Larzer Ziff's excellent The American 1890s (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Alexander, William Raymond Hall, William Dean Howells, the realist as humanist, New York, N.Y.: B. Franklin, 1981.
Cady, Edwin Harrison, The realist at war: the mature years, 1885-1920, of William Dean Howells, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.
Cady, Edwin Harrison, The road to realism: the early years, 1837-1885, of William Dean Howells, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986, 1956.
Cady, Edwin Harrison, Young Howells & John Brown: episodes in a radical education, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1985.
Cook, Don Lewis, William Dean Howells: the Kittery years, Kittery Point, Me.: William Dean Howells Memorial Committee, 1991.
Crowley, John William, The black heart's truth: the early career of W.D. Howells, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1985.
Howells, William Dean, Years of my youth, and three essays, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1975.
The mask of fiction: essays on W.D. Howells, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Olsen, Rodney D., Dancing in chains: the youth of William Dean Howells, New York: New York University Press, 1991.