Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life

SUSAN GOODMAN
CARL DAWSON
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Pages: 545
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnhw0
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    William Dean Howells
    Book Description:

    Possibly the most influential figure in the history of American letters, William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was, among other things, a leading novelist in the realist tradition, a formative influence on many of America's finest writers, and an outspoken opponent of social injustice. This biography, the first comprehensive work on Howells in fifty years, enters the consciousness of the man and his times, revealing a complicated and painfully honest figure who came of age in an era of political corruption, industrial greed, and American imperialism. Written with verve and originality in a highly absorbing style, it brings alive for a new generation a literary and cultural pioneer who played a key role in creating the American artistic ethos.William Dean Howellstraces the writer's life from his boyhood in Ohio before the Civil War, to his consularship in Italy under President Lincoln, to his rise as editor ofAtlantic Monthly.It looks at his writing, which included novels, poems, plays, children's books, and criticism. Howells had many powerful friendships among the literati of his day; and here we find an especially rich examination of the relationship between Howells and Mark Twain. Howells was, as Twain called him, "the boss" of literary critics-his support almost single-handedly made the careers of many writers, including African Americans like Paul Dunbar and women like Sarah Orne Jewett. Showcasing many noteworthy personalities-Henry James, Edmund Gosse, H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, and many others-William Dean Howellsportrays a man who stood at the center of American literature through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93024-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  4. CHRONOLOGY OF HOWELLS’ LIFE AND WORK
    (pp. xxi-xxvi)
  5. 1 PARALLEL LIVES
    (pp. 1-18)

    In june 1871, the month before his appointment as editor of theAtlantic Monthly,William Dean Howells went back to Ohio. His father wanted company on a visit to the old family home near Steubenville. For William Cooper Howells the trip was nostalgic; for his son, who hesitated to go, something more—not just an unwelcome expense but also a reminder of where he had begun and who he was. Already by his mid-thirties a former United States consul at Venice and a successful writer, critic, and editor, he somehow feared meeting the man he might have become.

    At half...

  6. 2 WARRING AMBITIONS, 1851–1859
    (pp. 19-42)

    In the winter of 1851, William Cooper Howells brought his family from the rural misery of Eureka Mills to what they saw as urban bliss in the booming state capital. Will Howells dated their arrival in Columbus with that of Lajos Kossuth, the flamboyant Hungarian patriot driven from his country by the Austrian and Russian armies and seeking help for his cause abroad. Like many Americans, Columbus residents lined the streets to see and hear the charismatic hero. Dressed in the traditional braided coat of the Magyars and sporting an ostrich-plumed hat, the “black-bearded, black-haired, and black-eyed” Kossuth spoke from...

  7. 3 YEARS OF DECISION, 1859–1861
    (pp. 43-71)

    On october 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His attempt to seize weapons for arming slaves failed, and ten of Brown’s men (including two of his sons) died fighting. Brutal and useless as it turned out, the abortive raid stirred passions across America. Not since Nat Turner’s 1831 call to arms had the Union seemed in such peril. Quick to take advantage of the incident, Democrats blamed Republican “fanatics” like Joshua Giddings and Salmon P. Chase for inciting anarchy. Howells, caught up in the politics of his father’s possible appointment to the...

  8. 4 CONSUL AT VENICE, 1861–1865
    (pp. 72-99)

    William dean howells never felt more alone than on the morning of his first ocean crossing, November 9, 1861, a dark, drizzly day of the sort Herman Melville describes inMoby Dick,when the choice seems to be a gun to the head or a stint at sea. Damp and full of gloom, Howells had Quincy Ward to bid him safe passage, the only person he knew “in the sparse ten or a dozen well-wishers” who lingered on the dock.¹ As the ship built up steam and slipped from its mooring, Howells searched in vain for his traveling companion, Harrison...

  9. 5 ATLANTIC YEARS, 1: 1865–1867
    (pp. 100-124)

    The steamshipAsiadocked in Boston Harbor on August 3, 1865, four months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. The United States to which Howells returned was not the country he had left. Six hundred thousand soldiers had fallen in the war, and millions mourned. No matter how much they might wish to forget or undo the past, Americans now marked history by events before and after the War between the States. Years of conflict had altered a nation’s perception both of its own fragility and of the bitter realities of life. Soldiers with missing limbs...

  10. 6 ATLANTIC YEARS, 2: 1867–1871
    (pp. 125-147)

    Comical as he found it, the peacock’s arrival illustrated for Howells the misunderstandings between Jefferson and Cambridge and the need for diplomacy in family dealings that made hisAtlanticnegotiations pale by comparison. Elinor told Mary Howells that they had been thinking of a pet and, when asked, said they would be pleased with the gift of a peacock. Neither she nor Mary reflected that even with cows grazing in the pasture across the street, a noisy bird might be no more suitable for their backyard than a pet bear. The episode went beyond the matter of domestic animals or...

  11. 7 HIS MARK TWAIN, FROM 1869
    (pp. 148-173)

    Howells first saw mark twain in late 1869, when a tall man with drooping red moustaches strode into theAtlanticoffice on Tremont Street, eager to thank the anonymous reviewer ofInnocents Abroad.Twain had declined a letter of introduction to Howells, professing a “delicacy” some might say he lacked, and on this occasion introduced himself unannounced to Fields, who introduced him to Howells. Already aware of Howells as an influential editor, he could now put the reputation with the reviewer and, just as important, ally himself with theAtlantic Monthly.It was an auspicious moment for both men, whose...

  12. 8 FICTIONAL LIVES, 1871–1878
    (pp. 174-198)

    Howells’ first novel,Their Wedding Journey,appeared in December 1871 (with the 1872 imprint), just in time for Christmas sales. By December 20 it had essentially sold out. Another thousand copies would not be available until December 27, and the author, who received royalties of 10 percent, complained that he might have sold five thousand copies had his publisher, James Osgood, shown more foresight. “I put the last touches to Their Wedding Journey a few days ago,” he had written James Comly, in October. “I found a pleasure in writing the thing, though I groaned over it, too. . ....

  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. 9 “FROM VENICE AS FAR AS BELMONT,” 1878–1882
    (pp. 199-221)

    In 1877 elinor howells began working with her brother Will, an architect with the New York firm of McKim, Mead, and Bigelow, on plans for a new house. The land, a knoll on Holiday Farm in Belmont with a view east toward Boston, belonged to a friend, Charles Fairchild. A wealthy partner in a paper-manufacturing firm, Fairchild had in 1874 provided the twenty thousand dollars that allowed Hurd & Houghton to purchase theAtlantic Monthlyfrom James Osgood. This good friend and drinking companion of Osgood and Twain could think of nothing better than having the Howellses as neighbors. At...

  15. 10 IN ENGLAND AND ITALY, 1882–1883
    (pp. 222-247)

    The howellses began their year abroad in late June with a visit to William Howells and the family in Canada. As the American consul in Toronto, William held a position that Quebec society honored and that gave him and his son satisfaction. “Father never seemed to me so dear and good [as on this visit],” Howells wrote, overlooking past frustrations and perhaps seeing in his father’s good fortune a promise for his own.¹ Leaving Toronto for Montreal, they picked up the Fréchettes’ little daughter, Vevie, and took the mail boat down the Saint Lawrence to Quebec City. Annie met them...

  16. 11 THE MAN OF BUSINESS, 1883–1886
    (pp. 248-274)

    Howells had been home from England four months when England, in the person of Matthew Arnold, followed him across the Atlantic. Arnold’s 1883 trip, the first of two he made to the United States, seemed a counterpart to Howells’ English visit, though Howells had traveled to write, Arnold to lecture. Arriving as a literary lion, and met by Andrew Carnegie at the New York pier, he went on to a tiring but gratifying reception, except for invasions by the American press. He spoke to large audiences at two dollars a head in places as distant as Richmond, Chicago, and Binghamton....

  17. 12 “HEARTACHE AND HORROR,” 1886–1890
    (pp. 275-300)

    On the last day of march 1887, in the thin, afternoon light, hundreds of people gathered at the Boston Museum to honor the memory of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. There was not an empty seat in the theater. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, James Russell Lowell, and Howells had agreed to read. The proceeds would go toward a statue of the poet and landscaping for his Craigie House memorial. When the lights dimmed and the curtain opened, the audience saw the participants seated on sofas and chairs in an irregular semicircle. Howells sat as if at home, feet...

  18. 13 WORDS AND DEEDS, 1890–1894
    (pp. 301-328)

    During the last year of his daughter’s life, Howells managed to write the opening chapters ofA Hazard of New Fortunes.In moments of grief he stared out at the towers of Saint George’s Church above the trees of Stuyvesant Square, from the same address (330 East Seventeenth Street) he gives to his characters, Basil and Isabel March. “I was in my fifty-second year,” he remembered, “and in the prime, such as it was, of my powers,” but also “at a moment of great psychological import.”¹ The first installment ofA Hazard of New Fortunesappeared the day after Winny...

  19. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  20. 14 PERIPATETIC, 1895–1899
    (pp. 329-355)

    The ever-present sorrow of his daughter’s death and the passing of his father, which aged him as if overnight, ended what Howells called “the first chapter.” He was, as he said, “of the generation next to death,” a realization that both terrified and liberated him.¹ In a poem called “From Generation to Generation” and collected inStops of Various Quills(1895), he wrote:

    We have not to consent or to refuse,

    It is not ours to choose:

    We come because we must,

    We know not by what law, if unjust or if just.

    The doom is on us, as it...

  21. 15 KITTERY POINT, 1900–1905
    (pp. 356-380)

    Throughout his life and increasingly with age, Howells reflected on the times he had lived through, on his own aging, and on things past and future, whether the vanished years of childhood or what he called, echoing Shakespeare, “the undiscovered country,” the afterlife he hoped for and feared. If time, at least human time, involves perception more than the ticking of the clock or the counting of years, Howells listened and counted more than most. “How is it that great pieces of luck fall to us?” he once wrote. “The clock strikes twelve as it strikes two, and with no...

  22. 16 GREATER LOSSES, 1906–1910
    (pp. 381-404)

    Howells began the year 1906 in a nostalgic mood. Mark Twain’s secretary rang with a question: When had Twain “raised hellabout Emerson and Longfellow”?¹ The question and visit that followed brought back the “old time of long talks,” when their children had been youngsters and he and Twain confident about the future, full of plans. John was now thirty-seven, a practicing architect, and Mildred thirty-three, a poet and artist. It touched Howells that his children had grown to be “such good comrades” and that John, to whom he turned increasingly for advice, liked to spend his evenings at home...

  23. 17 RECONSIDERATIONS, 1911–1917
    (pp. 405-427)

    Despite being mentioned himself as a candidate for the 1911 Nobel Prize in literature, Howells readily agreed to Edith Wharton’s appeal that he lead the American effort on behalf of Henry James. The prize of thirty-seven thousand dollars would secure James’ independence, and no one deserved it more. Their plan required absolute secrecy. If they failed and James found out, he would be humiliated. Howells’ first tactic involved the American Academy’s sending a petition of support to the Swedish Academy. The membership demurred. Endorsement of any single member for a foreign honor struck them as improper. Their compromise, a letter...

  24. 18 EIGHTY YEARS AND AFTER, 1918–1920
    (pp. 428-434)

    Howells admired the great Renaissance and Venetian painter Titian, who died at ninety-nine and worked to the last.¹ Except that he lived a shorter life, so too did Howells. At eighty-one, he accepted a commission to write an introduction to a new edition of Charles Jarvis’ translation ofDon Quixote(1923). Making the book available to readers was a labor of love. Rereading Cervantes awakened the ghost of his younger self through half-remembered lines or, as he suggests in “Eighty Years and After,” through a half-remembered life.

    He had set himself remembering in the autobiographicalYears of My Youthin...

  25. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 435-436)
  26. NOTES
    (pp. 437-498)
  27. INDEX
    (pp. 499-516)
  28. INDEX OF HOWELLS’ WORKS
    (pp. 517-519)