The Atlantic Monthly, 1857-1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb

By Ellery Sedgwick | Go to book overview

4
William Dean Howells 1871-1881) Editorial Realist

Howell's editorship of the Atlantic, in a different way from Fields's, was dear evidence that the Boston literary culture which had produced and sustained the magazine in its early years was no monolithic, closed patrician circle. Literary Boston's embrace of Howells showed that it was socially and intellectually open to younger, provincial American writers, especially those from the West. Nor was this support ultimately conditional upon a respectful deference to all of their values.

Howells, for his part, was initially filled with imitative admiration for the Atlantic Olympians and was ambitious for their recognition. But he also saw himself, sometimes with defensive pride, partly as a westerner and an outsider, and later as the proponent of a literary creed that would supersede theirs. Howells worked out much of this complex relationship with the established Boston writers through his editorship of the Atlantic. He was by nature a pragmatic realist whose instinct was often to accomplish his purpose through tact and compromise. Still, during this period he developed and articulated an independent sense of his own values while continuing to receive strong support from literary Boston.

During his five years as Fields's assistant ( 1866-70) and later ten as editor-in- chief ( 1871-81), Howells himself changed from a sentimental, imitative, romantic poet to a major practitioner, theorist, and advocate of realistic fiction. He discovered in realism a means to bridge the gap between literary high culture and the social and economic mainstream of American life. His social and political sympathies became increasingly liberal. Howells also changed the magazine significantly. While the Atlantic's circulation dropped sharply during his time, largely because of competition from New York illustrated monthlies, he made the magazine more fully national and democratic in content and authorship. He introduced into it a

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