Shaving the Truth - A Profile of William Dean Howells

By Simon, Linda | The World and I, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Shaving the Truth - A Profile of William Dean Howells


Simon, Linda, The World and I


Linda Simon is associate professor of English at Skidmore College.

Before beginning his career as a novelist, William Dean Howells as editor of the Atlantic Monthly rejected a poem submitted to the magazine. "What I want you to do for us--and yourself, too," he advised the poet, "is to take some subject of the life about you. ... Some romance of country-life--or town life--something native, natural, racy- -we want this; and I believe you can give it." This advice surely informed Howells' own fiction: From Their Wedding Journey, published in 1872, to The Vacation of the Kelwyns, published posthumously in 1920, in dozens of novels and more than forty stories, Howells aimed to convey the native and natural tones and textures of the American social landscape. In doing so, he transcended the typical romance to become an innovator of psychological realism, exploring ways that we know, or think we know, one another and ourselves. Sensitive to the tensions generated by a pluralistic and increasingly urbanized society, he wrote about men and women longing wistfully for connection, often nostalgic for the safe boundaries of rural villages, assaulted by the social cacophony of cities, and spiritually uprooted from their ethical moorings.

Contemporary readers are likely to be familiar with two of Howells' most notable works: The Rise of Silas Lapham, which appeared in 1885, and A Hazard of New Fortunes, published in 1890. Both novels concern themselves with daily life in American cities beset by social and economic strife, where individuals struggle to reconcile the conflict between idealism and materialism. "Money," one character proclaims in Silas Lapham, "is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It's the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination."

Although hardly racy from our perspective, Howells' work, as Henry James commented rapturously, still captures "the life, the truth, the light, the heat, the breadth and depth and thickness" of nineteenth- century middle-class culture. Howells, James said, could "shave the truth ... several degrees closer than anyone else begins to do. ... The novelist is a particular window, absolutely ... and it's because you open so well and are hung so close over the street that I could hang out of it all day long."

William Dean Howells was born in the frontier village of Martins Ferry, Ohio, on March 1, 1837, the second son of William Cooper Howells and his wife, Mary Dean. Howells' father, a printer and newspaper publisher, was a man of strong, if eccentric, opinions about politics, economics, society, and religion. Brought up as a Quaker, he later found more nourishing spiritual sustenance in Swedenborgianism; in his writings, he often championed schemes for utopian reforms and even, for a short time, relocated his family to an experimental utopian community.

Howells' childhood seems to have been characterized by enriching stimulation and enveloping fears. Working at his father's side setting print or folding newspapers, even as a young boy he participated in the world of words and ideas, a world that did not fail to seduce him. He decided early that he would be a writer, most likely a poet, and closeted himself at a small desk for long hours, honing his craft by writing and reading.

Yet at the same time that he was inspired by his father's energy and vocation, he also was infected with his father's neurotic fears, focused especially on hydrophobia and generalized to hypochondria. Even the family dog became a source of terror in his obsession about dog bites, convulsions, madness, and death. As Howells recalled later, his childhood was blighted by "shapes of doom and horror," feelings of despair that recurred later in life, as well.

His childhood was also blighted by periods of financial insecurity, caused in part by his father's unpopular political stands, which alienated advertisers and then readers. Once, the family moved to a log cabin in an effort to economize. …

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