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© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

William Dean Howells: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! William Dean Howells: A Critical Study
Delmar Gross Cooke.
E. P. Dutton & Company, 1922
FREE! Venetian Life
William Dean Howells.
Houghton Mifflin, vol.1, 1892 (17th edition)
FREE! Venetian Life
William Dean Howells.
Houghton Mifflin Company, vol.2, 1891
FREE! My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms
W. D. Howells.
Harper & Brothers, 1910
Reading the American Novel 1865-1914
G. R. Thompson.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Economies of Pain: W. D. Howells"
Howells: A Century of Criticism
Kenneth E. Eble.
Southern Methodist University Press, 1962
The Mask of Fiction: Essays on W.D. Howells
John W. Crowley.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1989
The Black Heart's Truth: The Early Career of W.D. Howells
John W. Crowley.
University of North Carolina Press, 1985
Howells: His Life and World
Van Wyck Brooks.
Dutton, 1959
The Literary Realism of William Dean Howells
William McMurray.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1967
Howells and the Age of Realism
Everett Carter.
Lippincott, 1954
Three American Radicals: John Swinton, Crusading Editor : Charles P. Steinmetz, Scientist and Socialist : William Dean Howells and the Haymarket Era
Sender Garlin.
Westview Press, 1991
Literature and Insurgency: Ten Studies in Racial Evolution: Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, David Graham Phillips, Stewart Edward White, Winston Churchill, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Robert W. Chambers
John Curtis Underwood.
Biblo and Tannen, 1974
Librarian’s tip: Chap. III "William Dean Howells and Altruria"
Five Novelists of the Progressive Era
Robert W. Schneider.
Columbia University Press, 1965
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "William Dean Howells: The Mugwump Rebellion"
The Eternal Adam and the New World Garden: The Central Myth in the American Novel since 1830
David W. Noble.
Braziller, 1968
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "The Realists: Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Henry James"
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