*Howells, William Dean

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells



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Howells, William Dean

American, 1837–1920
As a realist, William Dean Howells is more easily caricatured than accurately portrayed. Detractors since H.L.Mencken have misrepresented him as a defender of respectability and the “smiling aspects of life” (“The Editor’s Study,” September 1886), while scholarly critics (notably Michael Bell and Daniel Borus) have commented on his lack of theoretical rigor. But the publication of his Selected Literary Criticism (1993) in the Selected Edition of his works may prompt a better understanding of Howells as an essayist in the literal sense of the word: a writer who tested competing values without pretending to reconcile them. Though he promoted a distinctively American literature, he was an early champion of internationalism and multiculturalism; and though he fought the “realism war,” he acknowledged the actual heterogeneity of modern fiction, welcoming writers who defied categorization. “True criticism,” he wrote,”…is the function and the natural habit of every intelligent and candid mind” (“Literary Criticism,” 1866)—yet honest readers should be troubled by “the inadequacy of criticism” every time they examine a new book (review of Literature and Its Professors, 1867). While such modesty prevented Howells from developing a consistent theory, it enabled him to appreciate the texts we still regard as canonical. This virtue was crucial in an age when writers were misunderstood by one another as well as by an increasingly diverse public.
Venetian Life (1866), a collection of essays written by Howells during his service as American consul, was his first major literary success. Reviewed favorably by James Russell Lowell, it gained the young Ohioan admission to the charmed circle of the New England Brahmins, and later the prestigious editorship of the Atlantic Monthly. But these sketches convey the democratic outlook that distinguished Howells from his privileged elders. “Thank God that the good old times are gone and going!” he exclaims after visiting the Jewish ghetto.
His reviews of literature were also progressive—ethically serious but devoid of Arnoldian snobbishness. He applauded such regionalist writers as Sarah Orne Jewett, Edward Eggleston, Bret Harte, and E.W.Howe, and he was equally friendly to Europeans who supplied an antidote to American provincialism. Two companion essays, both published in 1882, demonstrate Howells’ gift for accepting rival geniuses on their own terms. “Mark Twain” praises Twain for his humor and directness, while “Henry James, Jr.” defends James’ “analytic tendency” and his subtle appeal to a more elite audience.
Unfortunately for Howells, the latter piece offended British reviewers because of its casual disparagement of Dickens and Thackeray (“We could not suffer the confidential attitude of the latter now, nor the mannerism of the former”). Yet Howells was far less dogmatic than the critics who accused him of trying to establish a “new school.”
In 1885 Howells was invited by Henry Alden, the editor of Harper’s Monthly, to replace the usual book reviews with a column treating “any subject of current literary interest.” These “Editor’s Study” essays, some of which were excerpted in Criticism and Fiction (1891), were his strongest attempt to promote a realist aesthetic. Using a genial tone and witty metaphors, he needled the sentimentalists—those who preferred a painted model of an ideal grasshopper, “made up of wire and cardboard,” to the actual commonplace thing. As for his positive standards—“the simple, the natural, and the honest”—they were sufficiently flexible to accommodate a literature still in its nascence (“The Editor’s Study,” December 1887). But he could not personally effect all the developments he sought. The radical views of his favorite author, Tolstoi, undermined his own attempts to locate self-evident values; and he was forced to admit the disparity between Russian fiction and the modest efforts of his American compatriots. His final essay (March 1892) portrays the Editor leaving his Study while his successors puzzle over his “collection of moral bric-à-brac.”
Despite this valediction, Howells remained an active commentator on literature and culture. Such essays as “Are We a Plutocracy?” (1894) record his growing concern for social and economic equality, while his literary reviews (which welcome Stephen Crane, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Frank Norris, and Thomas Hardy, among others) testify to his refusal to succumb to “Sclerosis of the Tastes” (Imaginary Interviews, 1910). But the pieces of most enduring interest are the reminiscences in Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1900) and My Mark Twain (1910). Here we find the details that enrich our understanding of American literary history: Lowell’s habit of saying “Remember the dinner-bell” whenever the conversation turned unduly transcendental; Emerson’s condescending dismissal of Poe as “the jingle-man”; Mark Twain’s disastrous speech at the Whittier birthday dinner. Howells may once have regarded Boston as the “holy land,” but he had a keen sense of the Brahmins’ jealousies and foibles.
On Howells’ 75th birthday, Henry James conceded that “the critical intelligence” had not done justice to his friend. And yet, James added, “the more it shall be moved by the analytic and historic spirit, the more indispensable, the more a vessel of light, will you be found” (“A Letter to Mr. Howells,” 1912). Howells’ essays are of lasting value to students of his era not simply an “age of realism,” but one whose complexities and contradictions foreshadow those of our own culture.


Born 1 March 1837 in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio. Studied at schools in Hamilton and Dayton, Ohio; educated mostly at home. Compositor, Ohio State Journal, Columbus, 1851–60;
wrote for the Jefferson Gazette, Ohio, from 1852, Cincinnati Gazette, 1857–58, 1866, Cleveland Herald, 1858, Boston Advertiser, 1863–65, the Nation, New York, 1865–66, and Literature, 1898–99. U.S. Consul, Venice, 1861–65. Married Elinor Gertrude Mead, 1862. (died, 1910): two daughters (one died) and one son. Assistant editor, 1866–71, and editor-in-chief, 1871–81, Atlantic Monthly, Boston. Lectured at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1869–71. Columnist of “Editor’s Study,” 1885–91, and
1900–10, and “The Editor’s Easy Chair,” 1895–98, Harper’s Monthly; coeditor, Cosmopolitan, New York, 1891. Lifelong friend of Mark Twain (i.e. Samuel Clemens) and Henry James.
Awards: National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, 1915;
honorary degrees from five universities. Honorary Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1901; president, American Academy, 1908–10. Died in New York, 11 May 1910.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Venetian Life, 1866; enlarged edition, 1872
Modern Italian Poets: Essays and Versions, 1887; as The Three Greatest Italian Poets of the Nineteenth Century, 1983; as Contemporary Italian Poets, 2 vols., 1987
Criticism and Fiction, 1891
My Literary Passions, 1895
Impressions and Experiences, 1896
Literary Friends and Acquaintance: A Personal Retrospect of American Authorship, 1900
Literature and Life: Studies, 1902
London Films, 1905
Certain Delightful English Towns (travel sketches), 1906
Roman Holidays and Others (travel sketches), 1908
Seven English Cities (travel sketches), 1909
Imaginary Interviews, 1910
My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms, 1910; edited by Marilyn Austin Baldwin, 1967, and David F.Hiatt and Edwin H. Cady, 1968
Prefaces to Contemporaries (1882–1920), edited by George Arms, William M.Gibson, and Frederic C.Marston, Jr., 1957
Criticism and Fiction, and Other Essays, edited by Clara Marburg Kirk and Rudolf Kirk, 1959
Discovery of a Genius: William Dean Howells and Henry Jatnes (articles about James), edited by Albert Mordell, 1961
Tuscan Cities, 1967
W.D.Howells as Critic, edited by Edwin H.Cady, 1973
Editor’s Study: A Comprehensive Edition of W.D, Howells’ Column [in Harper’s], edited by James W.Simpson, 1983
The Early Prose Writings, edited by Thomas Wortham, 1990
A Realist in the American Theatre: Selected Drama Criticism, edited by Brenda Murphy, 1992

Other writings: many novels (including The Undiscovered Country, 1880; A Modern Instance, 1882; The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885; Indian Summer, 1886; A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889), plays, poetry, travel writing, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and literary criticism.
Collected works edition: A Selected Edition, edited by Edwin H. Cady, Ronald Gottesman, Don L.Cook, and David Nordloh, 25 vols., 1968–93 (in progress).

Brenni, Vito J., William Dean Howells: A Bibliography, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973
Eichelberger, Clayton L., Published Comment on William Dean Howells Through 1920: A Research Bibliography, Boston: Hall, 1976
Gibson, William M., and George Arms, A Bibliography of William Dean Howells, New York: New York Public Library, 1948

Further Reading
Arms, George, “Howells’ English Travel Books: Problems in Technique,” PMLA 82 (March 1967):104–16
Bassett, John E., “‘A heart of ideality in my realism’: Howells’s Early Criticism,” Papers on Language and Literature 25 (Winter 1989):67–82
Bell, Michael Davitt, The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993
Borus, Daniel H., Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989
Cady, Edwin H., editor, W.D.Howells as Critic, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982
Carrington, George C., “Howells and the Dramatic Essay,” American Literary Realism 17 (Spring 1984):44–66
Daugherty, Sarah B., “Howells Reviews James: The Transcendence of Realism,” American Literary Realism 18 (Spring-Autumn 1985):147–67
Dean, James L., Howells’ Travels Toward Art, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970
Demoor, Marysa, “Andrew Lang Versus W.D.Howells: A LateVictorian Literary Duel,”
Journal of American Studies 21 (December 1987):416–22
Hough, Robert L., The Quiet Rebel: William Dean Howells as Social Commentator, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959
Jacobson, Marcia, “The Mask of Fiction: William Dean Howells’s Experiments in Autobiography,” Biography 10 (Winter 1987): 55–67
Jacobson, Marcia, “Howells’ Literary Friends and Acquaintance: An Autobiography
Through Others,” American Literary Realism 27 (Fall 1994):59–73
James, Henry, “A Letter to Mr. Howells,” North American Review 195 (April 1912):558– 62
Kirk, Clara Marburg, W.D.Howells and Art in His Time, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1965
Matthews, Brander, “Mr. Howells as a Critic,” Forum 32 (January 1902):629–38
Miller, Elise, “The Feminization of American Realist Theory,” American Literary Realism 23 (Fall 1990):20–41
Stull, William L., “The Battle of the Century: W.D.Howells, ‘Henry James, Jr.’ and the English,” American Literary Realism 11 (Autumn 1979):249–64
Tuttleton, James W., “William Dean Howells and the Practice of Criticism,” New Criterion 10 (June 1992):28–37
Woodress, James L., Howells and Italy, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1952
Woodress, James L., “Howells in the Nineties: Social Critic for All Seasons,” American Literary Realism 23 (Spring 1993):18–26

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