William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life

William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life

William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life

William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life


Possibly the most influential figure in the history of American letters, William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was, among other things, a leading novelist in the realist tradition, a formative influence on many of America's finest writers, and an outspoken opponent of social injustice. This biography, the first comprehensive work on Howells in fifty years, enters the consciousness of the man and his times, revealing a complicated and painfully honest figure who came of age in an era of political corruption, industrial greed, and American imperialism. Written with verve and originality in a highly absorbing style, it brings alive for a new generation a literary and cultural pioneer who played a key role in creating the American artistic ethos.

William Dean Howells traces the writer's life from his boyhood in Ohio before the Civil War, to his consularship in Italy under President Lincoln, to his rise as editor of Atlantic Monthly. It looks at his writing, which included novels, poems, plays, children's books, and criticism. Howells had many powerful friendships among the literati of his day; and here we find an especially rich examination of the relationship between Howells and Mark Twain. Howells was, as Twain called him, "the boss" of literary critics--his support almost single-handedly made the careers of many writers, including African Americans like Paul Dunbar and women like Sarah Orne Jewett. Showcasing many noteworthy personalities--Henry James, Edmund Gosse, H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, and many others-- William Dean Howells portrays a man who stood at the center of American literature through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


What would you think of my writing my autobiography? My pub
lished reminiscences have made a beginning, and it would forestall a
biography, always a false and mistaken thing.

—W. D. howells to his sister Aurelia, 1909

Born in a hardscrabble Ohio village in 1837, William Dean Howells lived through and beyond what Mark Twain called “the greatest and worthiest of the centuries the world has seen.” As a young man, he faced America’s cataclysm, the Civil War, and its aftermath, the years of Reconstruction. in the period that Twain and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed “the Gilded Age,” he dined with robber barons like Andrew Carnegie. He protested the social injustices of the 1880s and 1890s, condemned the American imperialism that climaxed in the Spanish-American War, and died, in 1920, soon after World War I destroyed the hopes of his and the next generation.

At the opening of the twentieth century, Howells looked back forty years to measure his writing life. “If there was any one in the world who had his being more wholly in literature than I had in 1860,” he wrote, “I am sure I would not have known where to find him.” That year, with a handful of poems and a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln to his credit, the twenty-three-year-old made a pilgrimage to New England, the mecca of his literary dreams. in Concord and Boston he managed to meet America’s leading writers: James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. During a dinner at the Parker House, Holmes joked about an apostolic succession, and he proved to be clairvoyant.

Howells’ career is itself the stuff of fiction. the Lincoln biography, written in a week, earned him a consulship to Venice during the Civil War. the city served as the young man’s university and introduced him to a world far removed from small-town Ohio. Venice furnished him with enough material about books and art to convince the powers of literary Boston to pro-

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