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Dancing in Chains

Dancing in Chains: The Youth of William Dean Howells

Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Dancing in Chains
    Book Description:

    "Dancing in Chains is far more than a sensitive biography (though it is surely that); it is also a model of psychologically informed social and cultural history. Olsen recognizes that psychic conflicts often play themselves out on a higher plane, that psychic and intellectual history are intertwined. He presents a wonderful nuanced picture of Howells." - Jackson Lears,Rutgers University In this insightful study of the childhood and youth of William Dean Howells, Dancing in Chains demonstrates how the turbulent social and cultural changes of the early nineteenth century shaped the young Howells's emotional and intellectual life. His early diaries, letters, poetry, fiction, and newspaper columns are used to illustrate Olsen's argument, which also in turn throws light on the dominant tensions in antebellum America. Accepting the emergent middle-class ethos of civilized morality, with its new conceptions of child rearing and gender spheres, Howells's parents urged him to achieve self-control and individual success while also teaching him to seek the good of others rather than his own glory. For Howells the conflicts coalesced at the time of his leaving home, an increasing common rite of passage for antebellum youth. Trying to affirm his sense of literary vocation, he tested his aspirations against the family's Swedenborgian religious convictions and the antislavery commitments of his village while experimenting with competing literary ideologies in the process of meeting the demands of the new mass reading audience. For Howells the resulting tensions eased toward the end of his youth but reappeared in his more mature works of fiction and social criticism in later years. Portraying the ordeal of coming of age during a momentous period of American history, Dancing in Chains is a fascinating study with a broad appeal to general readers as well as scholars.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6263-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-x)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. Part I. Childhood

    • CHAPTER 1 A Selfish Ideal of Glory
      (pp. 3-26)

      In his autobiographyYears of My Youth(1916), William Dean Howells recounted that his childhood village of Hamilton, Ohio, was a place of “almost unrivaled fitness” to be the home of boys who were swimmers, skaters, foragers, and enthusiasts of outdoor life. Two branches of the Great Miami River flowed through the village; at the heart of the village was the inviting basin of the Miami Canal. Close by were fields and woods. Public holidays seemed to come in rapid succession, while “Saturdays spread over half the week.” After recording these lyrical memories, Howells* tried to recall how fear first...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Kind of Double Life
      (pp. 27-50)

      When he faltered in his later efforts to realize his father’s ideal of usefulness, Howells often expressed his despair in Swedenborgian imagery. Remembering his earliest literary experiments in his autobiographyA Boy’s Town(1890), he contrasted his elder brother Joseph’s “ideal of usefulness” with his own “ideal of glory.” Referring to himself as “my boy,” Howells asserted that “his brother was a calm light of common-sense, of justice, of truth, while [my boy] was a fantastic flicker of gaudy purposes which he wished to make shine before men in their fulfilment. His brother was always doing for him and for...

  7. Part II. Youth

    • CHAPTER 3 An Instance of Nervous Prostration
      (pp. 53-77)

      In the spring of 1852, the skies changed again for the Howells family. Working as recorder of legislative debate, William Cooper Howells formed friendships with Free Soil politicians from the Western Reserve. Impressed by his antislavery battles in southern Ohio, Laban Sherman, a state senator from Ashtabula, suggested that he contact Henry Fassett, editor of theAshtabula Sentinel. Because of his poor health, Fassett desired a partner. Anxious to resume editing and provide his family with a secure living, William Cooper Howells put his promise on a half share of the newspaper. He was now on solid antislavery ground. The...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Umbrella Man
      (pp. 78-98)

      Many people in Jefferson accepted republican ideals of equality and fraternity as actual expressions of village life, however much a truly democratic ethos clashed with notions of middle-class respectability gaining popularity with the village elite. Joshua Giddings was among those Jeffersonians who idealized and spiritualized their community. During his business travels, Giddings longed for home, especially on Sundays when he retired to his hotel room and contemplated his disagreeable situation. He was disturbed that the din of bargaining continued on the Lord’s Day, when everything should be at rest. He felt the contrast of Jefferson, recalling its “sweet[-]natured silence, that...

    • CHAPTER 5 Striving away from Home
      (pp. 99-136)

      Although elated over his journalistic and literary prospects, Howells was anxious about leaving home. He recalled the pain he suffered at Eureka Mills when he twice failed to endure separation from his family. His anxieties were reinforced by family stories. His grandfather and father recounted their fitful wanderings. His mother related how her terrible homesickness made her schooling impossible. His brother Joseph returned from his steamboating venture telling of illness and frustration.¹

      Howells had written a success tale that countered family stories of desperation and failure. In “A Tale of Love and Politics: Adventures of a Printer Boy” (1853), he...

    • CHAPTER 6 Woman’s Sphere
      (pp. 137-163)

      Recalling her brother’s home-leaving struggles, Howells’s sister Aurelia wrote that “though a home boy, he was not cowardly, and at a suitable time of his life he went out and took his place in the world, and kept it.” In November 1858, Howells made his decisive break from home when he assumed his position as assistant editor on theOhio State Journalin Columbus. Friendly newspaper accounts described him as “studious and talented,” someone who was a “Printing Office graduate, the best College from which to receive an editorial diploma.”¹ Howells never returned home again under the humiliating conditions of...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Laying On of Hands
      (pp. 164-192)

      One of Howells’s acquaintances in Columbus, William T. Coggeshall, was an ardent admirer of local scenes and a perennial defender of local literature. He advocated a “protective policy in literature,” an embargo designed to end “servile dependence upon the Atlantic States.” He argued that the best literature had always been “local,” written and published near the source of its inspiration, read and admired by local citizens. While he devised ambitious schemes for restoring Western literature to the prominence that he believed it enjoyed before the advent of national competition—when cities like Cincinnati were thriving cultural centers—Coggeshall complained that...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Province of Reason
      (pp. 193-217)

      Confirmed in his reverence for Boston, Howells believed a consecrated path had opened before him. He realized, however, that following it would demand his utmost devotion. “A man may have ever so much in him,” Lowell had told him, “but ever so much depends on how he gets it out.” Once he returned to Columbus, Howells organized his affairs to the single end of getting out whatever it was in him that Lowell might consider ever so much. His first step was to buttress Lowell’s fatherly regard. “I find myself willing and able to work,” he wrote Lowell, “which [is]...

    • CHAPTER 9 Desperate Leisure
      (pp. 218-244)

      Howells viewed his four years in Venice as “a great part, a vital part” of his youth. He stated that he would never feel “exiled” from Venice. He believed that the city altered “the whole course of [his] literary life.” In Venice, Howells became a “gentleman,” by his own definition someone “who has trained himself in morals or religion, in letters, and in the world.” Given the “measureless” leisure of his consular post, he expanded his knowledge of literature, history, and art, extended his facility in languages, and honed his powers of observation. The result of these labors wasVenetian...

  8. Part III. Later Life and the Return to Youth

    • CHAPTER 10 Bound to the Highest and the Lowest
      (pp. 247-270)

      Returning to America in August 1865 with an edge of self-control and a literary success that opened opportunities in the East, Howells gained a position in New York as a writer for theNation. After a period of seasoning, he was called to Boston to become the assistant editor of theAtlantic Monthly. When Howells assumed his place in his Celestial City, he followed Lowell’s advice to “work in entire subordination,” even to “écraser” himself. Helped by his fluent Italian and his dogged editorial work, Howells slowly eased into Brahmin graces, eventually succeeding to theAtlanticeditorship. Although twice blackballed...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 271-276)

    After he had reached age seventy-nine, Howells explored his youth for the last time. In two stories—“The Pearl” (1916) and “A Tale Untold” (1917)—he recalled the spring of 1858 and the river journey he had taken on his uncle’s sternwheeler, theCambridge.¹ In his persona, “dreamy-eyed” Stephen West, Howells re-created his youthful self: “He was intensely, almost bitterly, literary; he was going to be an author, and above all he was going to be a poet.” Tales of steamboats and youth compelled comparison with his close friend and fellow realist Mark Twain. In “A Tale Untold,” a small...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 277-330)
  11. Attributions, Permissions, and Notes for Illustrations
    (pp. 331-334)
  12. Index
    (pp. 335-344)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 345-345)