The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator

The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator

The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator

The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator

Excerpt

One Fall afternoon in 1860 a young Midwestern poet was preparing to leave the Concord home of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Upon learning that the young man was next to visit Ralph Waldo Emerson, the white-haired novelist produced one of his cards and wrote on the back, “I find this young man worthy.” The trim, small visitor took the card and departed, thrilled by his note of introduction to Emerson, and even more by Hawthorne’s kindness and regard.

Hawthorne’s judgment about the young man proved to be prophetic for the generations following the Civil War. They too found William Dean Howells worthy, not as a poet to be sure, but as a novelist and an interpreter of the American scene. For thirty years they bought his novels, essays, and reviews when they appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Century, Harper’s, Cosmopolitan, the North American Review, or in book form. By 1890 Howells was generally recognized as the dean of American letters, a title he was to hold for more than a quarter of a century. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Howells, the leader and promoter of an American school of literary realism, held an importance unsurpassed in the years after the Civil War.

Yet by 1900 . . .

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