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William Dean Howells: Latter-Day Literary Hero

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on May 4, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017
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William Dean Howells—novelist, poet, biographer, critic, editor, activist, tireless champion of writers from every background—was born 180 years ago in Martinsville, Ohio. Because his influence was so vast, his fingers reaching into every pocket of literary culture, and because people like bad puns, he was called the Dean of American Letters.

His father was an itinerant printer and publisher, so the family was frequently uprooted. As a reaction to this, Howells immersed himself in books. He devoured both contemporary literature and the classics, teaching himself Latin, French, Spanish and German. As he grew older Howells earned money as a typesetter and printer’s devil. His first work appeared when he was only 15—his father secretly submitted the boy’s poetry to a newspaper. In 1856 he was elected to a clerkship in the Ohio House of Representatives and, two years later, was appointed city editor of the Ohio State Journal. Shortly afterward, a few of his poems appeared in the Atlantic. He was, from the very start, a success.

In July 1860 Howells made his first pilgrimage to Boston, which was, at the time, the heart of American culture. He wanted to join the city’s literary elite and saw himself as a colleague of Longfellow, Emerson and Hawthorne. What others may have seen, however, was a self-educated bumpkin from Ohio. His rustic background and lack of college education were not calling cards of sophistication, yet Howells conducted himself well. With moxie and a little presumption, he arrived on the doorstep of James Russell Lowell—noteworthy poet, critic and The Atlantic Monthly editor. Fortuitously, Lowell took Howells to dinner at the Parker House, one of the America’s most illustrious hotels, and became the young man’s mentor. Howells was introduced to Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and Hawthorne. The intrepid westerner intrigued them all. Hawthorne handed Howells a message for Emerson. It read: “I find this young man worthy.” Through a combination of luck, timing and character, his fortune was made.

By the end of the year, Howells had completed a campaign biography of Lincoln. As a reward, he was appointed US Consul to Venice. He spent four years in Italy, where he married and started a family. He retuned to the US in 1865, settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts and began writing for The Atlantic Monthly and other prestigious magazines. He became Assistant Editor of The Atlantic Monthly a year later and, in 1871, was made Editor-in-Chief. Howells served in this role for 10 years, during which he emerged as the leading cultural gatekeeper of the New World. This wasn’t a responsibility he took lightly. He used his editorial power for the good, cultivating the taste of a nation and leading fiction in a new direction.

Howells was a staunch defender of Realism, the 19th-century literary movement that stood in stark opposition to the Romantic tradition. Fiction focused on the ordinary lives of middle-class and working-class people. The dialogue, plot and setting reflected the realities of contemporary life—kings, queens, dragons and castles were shelved. The novel would become a tool for depicting, analyzing and sometimes critiquing society. Howells explicated, defined and helped shape the course of Realism in articles for The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and the North American Review.

He was also a relentless supporter and publisher of important new writers, many of whom were otherwise disregarded or undervalued. Even a partial list of these artists is almost implausible in magnitude: Henry James, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Frank Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Edith Wharton, Hamlin Garland and Stephen Crane. Howells also promoted European writers unknown to most Americans, including Emile Zola, Leo Tolstoy and Henrik Ibsen. His judgement was impeccable, his outlook cosmopolitan and all-encompassing. It’s no wonder that Lowell spied in his young protégée, something more than a provincial oddball.

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Let’s examine a few of these artists and Howells’ influence on their careers. In 1878 Edith Wharton was a young unknown writer, and Howells was arguably the country’s foremost literary figure. (Don’t forget, aside from his editorial duties, he was also a popular, trend-setting and critically acclaimed novelist.) Wharton’s mother financed the self-publication of her poetry collection, Verses. Howells bought five of these poems for the Atlantic Monthly and spent the next few years praising her work.

Howells was also the first editor to truly appreciate the genius of Henry James, a writer who’d been published but never embraced or understood by the public or the literary establishment. He fought for James and bolstered his reputation for decades. Howells, along with Wharton, tried to get James the Nobel Prize. Their campaign was unsuccessful, though both Wharton and James, largely through Howells’ support, each won a Pulitzer.

Howells reviewed Twain’s debut novel, The Innocents Abroad (1869), lavishing it with praise. Twain had been a popular humorist, but no one regarded him as a serious fiction writer—until Howells. He doggedly solicited submissions from Twain for The Atlantic Monthly, but the writer kept turning him down. In 1874 Howells offered Twain twice the going rate for a story. Naturally, Twain agreed. However, the piece he submitted was only three pages long. Twain was paid $20 a page for his work, which is more than most magazines pay today and, in the 1870s, was quite exorbitant.

During the Gilded Age, America was rapidly changing—politically, socially, economically, demographically, geographically. Its values were evolving as well. Howells—as an influential editor, critic and writer—was instrumental in fomenting a cultural revolution. The Atlantic Monthly had been a repository for the work of affluent, well-educated, white men from the East Coast. Howells opened the gates of the cultural elite, welcoming settlers from the frontier: regional writers, female writers, western and foreign writers, working-class writers and African-American writers. He could understand and appreciate it all, because he was an outsider himself.

In 1886 Henry James addressed Howells’ populist, open-minded perspective:

He thinks scarcely anything too paltry to be interesting, that the small and the vulgar have been terribly neglected, and would rather see an exact account of a sentiment or a character he stumbles against every day than a brilliant evocation of a passion or a type he has never seen and does not even particularly believe in. He adores the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the optimistic, the domestic, and the democratic….One must have seen a great deal before one concludes: the world is very large, and life is a mixture of many things.

One of Howell’s greatest and most admirable discoveries was Paul Laurence Dunbar. Not only was he an African-American poet, but he wrote many of his works in dialect. Needless to say, neither critics nor the general public were embracing this sort of thing 120 years ago. Howells wrote a glowing introduction to Dunbar’s volume of poetry, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1897): “I accepted them as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all.”

When he wasn’t helping fellow writers, Howells was busy with his own work. He published more than 100 books: criticism, poetry, essays, plays, memoirs, short fiction, travel narratives, and of course, novels. Somehow, contemporary writers, with word-processing software and portable devices, can’t produce nearly as much. Perhaps writing in coffee shops is distracting.

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Howells is most closely associated with scrupulously realistic novels such as A Modern Instance (1881), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). His fiction tackled an astonishingly wide variety of topics, including sensitive issues such as divorce, race, labor, the criminal justice system and gender equality. In several novels, including Their Wedding Journey (1871), Howells portrayed the social and personal lives of urbane New Yorkers. Of course, his realistic eye was limited by the delicate, genteel conventions of the day, so his writing was detailed, vivid and naturalistic, but never racy. Basically, No Sex and the City.

Despite the fact that Howells was a pioneer and leader of the school of Realism, he also produced a number of utopian novels. He was inspired by his Christian Socialist faith and the idealism of Tolstoy. Moreover, when Howells was young his family spent a year living at a utopian community in Eureka Mills, Ohio. A Traveler from Altruria (1894), Letters of an Altrurian Traveler (1904), Through the Eye of the Needle (1907) and New Leaf Mills (1913) are peculiar, provocative novels that were never given their due because they differed so much from Howells’ early work and because they were, stylistically and conceptually, ahead of their time.

Starting in the late-1880s, Howells became increasingly drawn to social and political issues. He was an outspoken critic of capitalism and he protested the execution of those alleged involved in the Haymarket Affair. In 1898, he joined the Anti-Imperialist League when the US annexed the Philippines. Activism of this nature wasn’t fashionable at the time; Howells risked his professional and social status by standing up for his beliefs.

Despite progressive politics and poor sales of his later fiction, Howells remained an elder statesman of American culture. In 1908 he was elected first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Academy began awarding a Howells Medal for Fiction in 1915—a great honor for a living author.

Howells did have his haters. Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken, among others, found his work too Victorian, as if subtlety and restraint were aesthetic errors. Frank Norris—who’d been fervently encouraged by Howells—later, rejected the ideals of his mentor. He called Realism “the drama of a broken teacup.” Though meant as an insult, the phrase is accurate. It’s the small, significant details—seemingly unimportant but often very telling—that have made Realism the dominant force in modern literature. A glance, a word, and a gesture: these are the minor details that make up, and help express, both life and fiction. Howells knew that. He is remembered today for the sturdy novels he wrote, the astute ideas he espoused, the unpopular causes he advocated, and the struggling writers he championed when no one else would.


Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More


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