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William Dean Howells

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Title: William Dean Howells  
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Collection: 1837 Births, 1920 Deaths, 19Th-Century American Novelists, 20Th-Century American Dramatists and Playwrights, 20Th-Century American Novelists, American Christian Socialists, American Essayists, American Literary Critics, American Male Dramatists and Playwrights, American Male Novelists, Lecturers, Male Essayists, Members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, People from Cambridge, Massachusetts, People from Hamilton, Ohio, People from Martins Ferry, Ohio, Place of Death Missing, The Atlantic (Magazine) People, Writers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Writers from Massachusetts, Writers from Ohio
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William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells, by Underwood & Underwood.
Born (1837-03-01)March 1, 1837
Martins Ferry (then Martinsville), Ohio, U.S.
Died May 11, 1920(1920-05-11) (aged 83)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Spouse Elinor Mead
Children Winifred Howells (b. 1863)
John Mead Howells (b. 1868)
Mildred Howells (b. 1872)


William Dean Howells (; March 1, 1837 – May 11, 1920) was an American realist author, literary critic, and playwright. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own prolific writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day", and the novels The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Traveler from Altruria.


  • Biography 1
    • Early life and family 1.1
    • Early career 1.2
    • Editorship and other literary pursuits 1.3
    • Later years 1.4
  • Literary theory 2
  • Reception 3
  • Gallery 4
  • Works 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Early life and family

William Dean Howells was born on March 1, 1837, in Martinsville, Ohio (now known as

  • Works by William Dean Howells at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about William Dean Howells at Internet Archive
  • Works by William Dean Howells at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Essays by William Dean Howells at
  • William Dean Howells Society includes a biographical sketch of Howells, links to his works (including the "Editor's Study" columns), questions and replies, bibliographies, and pictures.
  • Realism in American Literature at the Literary Movements site
  • Finding aid to the Clara and Rudolf Kirk collection of William Dean Howells material at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

External links

  • Ulrich Halfmann and William Dean Howells, "Interviews with William Dean Howells," American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, vol. 6, no. 4 (Fall 1973), pp. 274–275, 277–279, 281–399, 401–416. In JSTOR.
  • Ulrich Halfmann and Don R. Smith, "William Dean Howells: A Revised and Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Comment in Periodicals and Newspapers, 1868–1919," American Literary Realism, 1870–1910, vol. 5, no. 2 (Spring 1972), pp. 91–121. In JSTOR.
  • Radavich, David. "Twain, Howells, and the Origins of Midwestern Drama." MidAmerica XXXI (2004): 25–42.
  • N.S. Witschi, Traces of Gold: California's Natural Resources and the Claim to Realism in Western American Literature. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Further reading

  • Fryckstedt, Olov W. 1958. In Quest of America: A Study of Howells' Early Development as a Novelist. Upsala, Sweden: Thesis.
  • Goodman, Susan and Carl Dawson. William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-520-23896-6
  • Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970. ISBN 0-15-142177-3
  • Olsen, Rodney. Dancing in Chains: The Youth of William Dean Howells. New York: New York University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8147-6172-0


  1. ^ Lynn, 35
  2. ^ a b Lynn, 36
  3. ^ Olsen, 33–34
  4. ^ Olsen, 36
  5. ^ See, e.g., Smith, Harriet Elinor, ed., The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, University of California Press, 2010, p.475.
  6. ^ William Dean Howells and John L. Hayes, The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, Columbus, OH: Follett, Foster and Co, 1860
  7. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 107–108
  8. ^ Harriet Knight Smith, The History of the Lowell Institute, Boston: Lamson, Wolffe and Co., 1898.
  9. ^ Olsen, 5
  10. ^ J. Dennis Robinson. "William Dean Howells at Kittery". 
  11. ^ William Dean Howells Memorial House, Kittery Point, Maine
  12. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 401
  13. ^ Lynn, 322
  14. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 402
  15. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 432
  16. ^ ISITE Design. "Cambridge Cemetery - Public Works - City of Cambridge, Massachusetts". 
  17. ^ Crow, Charles L. A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003: 92. ISBN 0631226311
  18. ^ Criticism and Fiction," by William Dean Howells, accessed January 6, 2010.
  19. ^ Ruland, Richard and Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. New York: Viking, 1991: 203–204. ISBN 0-670-83592-7
  20. ^ Ensign, Russell L. and Louis Patsouras. Challenging Social Injustice: Essays on Socialism and the Devaluation of the Human Spirit. Edwin Mellen Press, 1993: 19.
  21. ^ Bercovitch, Sacvan and Cyrus R. K. Patell. The Cambridge History of American Literature: Volume 3, Prose Writing, 1860-1920. Cambridge University Press, 2005: 736.
  22. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 308
  23. ^ Davis, Cynthia J. and, Denise D. Knight. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Her Contemporaries: Literary and Intellectual Contexts. University of Alabama Press, 2004: 21
  24. ^ Link, Arthur Stanley and William A. Link. The Twentieth Century: An American History. Harlan Davidson, 1983: 17.
  25. ^ Zimmerman, Jerry R. Baydo. History of the U. S. with Topics. Gregory Publishing Company, 1994: 137
  26. ^ Goodman and Dawson, 120
  27. ^ James, Henry, Lubbock, Percy. The letters of Henry James. New York: Scribner, 1920: 233.


See also

He returned to the United States in 1886. He wrote various types of works, including fiction, poetry, and farces, of which The Sleeping Car, The Mouse-Trap, The Elevator; Christmas Every Day; and Out of the Question are characteristic.

The following were written during his residence in England and in Italy, as was The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1885.



Noting the "documentary" and truthful value of Howells' work, Henry James wrote: "Stroke by stroke and book by book your work was to become, for this exquisite notation of our whole democratic light and shade and give and take, in the highest degree documentary."[27]


Howells was a Christian socialist whose ideals were greatly influenced by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.[20] He joined a Christian socialist group in Boston between 1889 and 1891[21] and attended several churches, including the First Spiritual Temple and the Church of the Carpenter, the latter being affiliated with the Episcopal Church and the Society of Christian Socialists.[22] These influences led him to write on issues of social justice from a moral and egalitarian point of view, being critic of the social effects of industrial capitalism.[23][24][25] He was, however, not a Marxist.[26]

Howells believed the future of American writing was not in poetry but in novels, a form which he saw shifting from "romance" to a serious form.[19]

"I hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but the common, average man, who always 'has the standard of the arts in his power,' will have also the courage to apply it, and will reject the ideal grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art, because it is not 'simple, natural, and honest,' because it is not like a real grasshopper. But I will own that I think the time is yet far off, and that the people who have been brought up on the ideal grasshopper, the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted, adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper, must die out before the simple, honest, and natural grasshopper can have a fair field."[18]

Howells viewed realism as "nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material."[17] In defense of the real, as opposed to the ideal, he wrote,

In addition to his own creative works, Howells also wrote criticism, and essays about contemporary literary figures such as Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Giovanni Verga, Benito Pérez Galdós, and, especially, Leo Tolstoy, which helped establish their reputations in the United States. He also wrote critically in support of American writers Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles W. Chesnutt, Abraham Cahan, Madison Cawein,and Frank Norris. It is perhaps in this role that he had his greatest influence. In his "Editor's Study" column at the Atlantic Monthly and, later, at Harper's, he formulated and disseminated his theories of "realism" in literature.

Literary theory

Howells died in his sleep shortly after midnight on May 11, 1920,[15] and was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[16] Eight years later his daughter published his correspondence as a biography of his literary life.

In February 1910, Elinor Howells began using morphine to treat her worsening neuritis.[12] She died on May 6, a few days after her birthday, and only two weeks after the death of Howells's friend Mark Twain. Henry James offered his condolences, writing, "I think of this laceration of your life with an infinite sense of all it will mean for you".[13] Howells and his daughter Mildred decided to spend part of the year in their Cambridge home on Concord Avenue; though, without Elinor, they found it "dreadful in its ghostliness and ghastliness".[14]

In 1902, Howells published The Flight of Pony Baker, a book for children partly inspired by his own childhood.[9] That same year, he bought a summer home overlooking the Piscataqua River in Kittery Point, Maine.[10] He returned there annually until Elinor's death when he left the house to his son and family and moved to a house in York Harbor. His grandson, John Noyes Mead Howells, donated the property to Harvard University as a memorial in 1979.[11] In 1904 he was one of the first seven people chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became president.

Later years

His poems were collected in 1873 and 1886, and a volume under the title Stops of Various Quills was published in 1895. He was the initiator of the school of American realists who derived, through the Russians, from Balzac and had little sympathy with any other type of fiction, although he frequently encouraged new writers, such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Abraham Cahan, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, in whom he discovered new ideas or new fictional techniques.

He had published his first novel, Their Wedding Journey, in 1872, but his literary reputation soared with the realist novel A Modern Instance, published in 1882, which described the decay of a marriage. His 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham became his best known work, describing the rise and fall of an American entrepreneur of the paint business. His social views were also strongly represented in the novels Annie Kilburn (1888), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), and An Imperative Duty (1891). He was particularly outraged by the trials resulting from the Haymarket Riot, which led him to portray a similar riot in A Hazard of New Fortunes and to write publicly to protest the trials of the men allegedly involved in the Haymarket affair. In his public writing and in his novels, he drew attention to pressing social issues of the time. He joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898, in opposition to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines.

Upon returning to America in 1865 and settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Howells wrote for various magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. In January 1866 James Fields offered him a position as assistant editor at the Atlantic Monthly, which Howells accepted after successfully negotiating for a higher salary, though he was frustrated by Fields's close supervision.[7] After five years, in 1871 Howells was made editor, and remained in this position until 1881. In 1869 he first met Mark Twain, which began a longtime friendship. But more important for the development of his literary style—his advocacy of Realism—was his relationship with the journalist Jonathan Baxter Harrison, who during the 1870s wrote a series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly on the lives of ordinary Americans (Fryckstedt 1958). Howells gave a series of twelve lectures on "Italian Poets of Our Century" for the Lowell Institute during its 1870-71 season.[8]

Editorship and other literary pursuits

Said to have been rewarded for an official biography[6] of Abraham Lincoln used during the election of 1860, he gained a consulship in Venice. On Christmas Eve 1862, at the American embassy in Paris, he married Elinor Mead, a sister of the sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Mead and the architect William Rutherford Mead, the Mead of McKim, Mead, and White. Among their children was the future architect John Mead Howells.

The William Dean Howells House in Cambridge, MA was designed by his wife Elinor Mead, and was occupied by Howells and his family from 1873 to 1878.

In 1856, Howells was elected as a clerk in the State House of Representatives. In 1858 he began to work at the Ohio State Journal where he wrote poetry, short stories, and also translated pieces from French, Spanish, and German. He avidly studied German and other languages and was greatly interested in Heinrich Heine. In 1860 he visited Boston and met with other American writers James Thomas Fields, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and became a personal friend to many, including Henry Adams, William James, Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.[5]

Early career

without telling him. Ohio State Journal. In 1852, his father arranged to have one of Howells' poems published in the printer's devil Howells began to help his father with typesetting and printing work at an early age, a job known at the time as a [4] Though the family had to live frugally, the young Howells was encouraged by his parents in his literary interests.[2] their nine years there marked the longest they would stay in one place.[3]

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