Howells, William Dean

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Howells, William Dean

William Dean Howells, 1837–1920, American novelist, critic, and editor, b. Martins Ferry, Ohio. Both in his own novels and in his critical writing, Howells was a champion of realism in American literature. His education was gained by voracious reading as he worked for his father, a printer in various small towns in Ohio. Howells early turned to writing and to editorial work on the Ohio State Journal (1856–61). He wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860 and was given an appointment as consul in Venice in 1861. The first of his many travel books, Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journey (1867), brought popular success and recognition. After his return to the United States in 1865, he worked for various periodicals. Settling in Boston, he was associated with The Atlantic for 15 years and later wrote the "Editor's Study" (1886–91) and the "Easy Chair" (1900–1920) for Harper's Magazine.

His first novels, Their Wedding Journey (1872), The Lady of the Aroostook (1879), and others, were moralistic comedies of manners that aroused only mild interest. However, when he turned to realism with A Modern Instance (1882) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), he became a leading novelist. In these two books, which are regarded as his major achievements, Howells portrayed with minute detail characters attempting to solve lifelike problems, often arising from social distinctions. His unromantic love story, Indian Summer (1886), was also highly popular. Howells' critical essays on the works of such realistic European writers as Tolstoy, Zola, and Ibsen helped to mold American taste, and he was a literary mentor to Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Thorstein Veblen, and Stephen Crane.

From the late 1880s on Howells spent much of his time New York City. During these years he became more and more concerned with social conflict and the problems of industrialization. Socialist thought is apparent in his novels A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), The Quality of Mercy (1892), and An Imperative Duty (1893), and even more forthright in his utopian works, A Traveler from Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907). He was an amazingly prolific author; besides his many novels he wrote plays ranging from blank verse tragedy to farce; critical works; several volumes of reminiscence; and short stories. The most notable of his critical volumes is Criticism and Fiction (1891). His books of reminiscences include A Boy's Town (1890), My Year in a Log Cabin (1893), Impressions and Experiences (1896), Literary Friends and Acquaintances (1900), My Mark Twain (1910), and Years of My Youth (1916).

See his life in letters (ed. by his daughter, Mildred Howells, 1928); biographies by E. H. Cady (2 vol., 1956–58, repr. 1986), K. S. Lynn (1972), and S. Goodman and C. Dawson (2005); studies by E. H. Cady (1956 and 1958, both repr. 1986) and as ed. with L. J. Budd (1993), G. N. Bennett (1973), K. E. Eble (1982), J. W. Crowley (1985 and 1999), and P. Abeln (2004); bibliography by V. J. Brenni (1973).

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