William Dean Howells

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).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

William Dean Howells: Selected full-text books and articles

Howells: His Life and World By Van Wyck Brooks Dutton, 1959
The Literary Realism of William Dean Howells By William McMurray Southern Illinois University Press, 1967
FREE! The Rise of Silas Lapham By William D. Howells Houghton Mifflin, 1884
Howells and the Age of Realism By Everett Carter Lippincott, 1954
The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator By Robert L. Hough University of Nebraska Press, 1959
FREE! William Dean Howells: A Critical Study By Delmar Gross Cooke E. P. Dutton & Company, 1922
The Mask of Fiction: Essays on W.D. Howells By John W. Crowley University of Massachusetts Press, 1989
Howells: A Century of Criticism By Kenneth E. Eble Southern Methodist University Press, 1962
FREE! Venetian Life By William Dean Howells Houghton Mifflin, vol.1, 1892 (17th edition)
FREE! Venetian Life By William Dean Howells Houghton Mifflin Company, vol.2, 1891
FREE! My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms By W. D. Howells Harper & Brothers, 1910
Reading the American Novel 1865-1914 By G. R. Thompson Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Economies of Pain: W. D. Howells"
The Black Heart's Truth: The Early Career of W.D. Howells By John W. Crowley University of North Carolina Press, 1985
Five Novelists of the Progressive Era By Robert W. Schneider Columbia University Press, 1965
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "William Dean Howells: The Mugwump Rebellion"
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