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William Dean Howells


William Dean Howells (March 1, 1837 – May 11, 1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. He was known for the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novel The Rise of Silas Lapham.

Mr. Howells has written a long series of poems, novels, sketches, stories, and essays, and has been perhaps the most continuous worker in the literary art among American writers. He was born at Martin's Perry, Belmont County, Ohio, March 1, 1837, and the experiences of his early life have been delightfully told by himself in A Boy's Town, My Year in a Log Cabin, and My Literary Passions. These books, which seem like pastimes in the midst of Howells's serious work, are likely to live long, not only as playful autobiographic records, but as vivid pictures of life in the middle west in the middle of the nineteenth century. The boy lived in a home where frugality was the law of economy, but where high ideals of noble living were cheerfully maintained, and the very occupations of the household tended to stimulate literary activity. He read voraciously and with an instinctive scent for what was great and permanent in literature, and in his father's printing-office learned to set type, and soon to make contributions to the local journals. He went to the state Capitol to report the proceedings of the legislature, and before he was twenty-two had become news editor of the State Journal of Columbus, Ohio.

But at the same time he had given clear intimations of his literary skill, and had contributed several poems to the Atlantic Monthly. His introduction to literature was in the stirring days just before the war for the Union, and he had a generous enthusiasm for the great principles which were then at stake. Yet the political leaven chiefly caused the bread he was baking to rise, and his native genius was distinctly for work in creative literature. His contribution to the political writing of the day, besides his newspaper work, was a small campaign life of Lincoln; and shortly after the incoming of the first Republican administration he received the appointment of consul at Venice.

At Venice he remained from 1861 to 1865, and these years may fairly be taken as standing for his university training. He carried with him to Europe some conversance with French, German, Spanish, and Italian, and an insatiable thirst for literature in these, languages. Naturally now he concentrated his attention on the Italian language and literature, but after all he was not made for a microscopic or encyclopaedic scholar, least of all for a pedant. What he was looking for in literature, though he scarcely so stated it to himself at the time, was human life, and it was this first-hand acquaintance he was acquiring with life in another circumstance that constituted his real training in literature. To pass from Ohio straight to Italy, with the merest alighting by the way in New York and Boston, was to be transported from one world to another; but he carried with him a mind which had already become naturalized in the large world of history and men through the literature in which he had steeped his mind. No one can read the record of the books he had revelled in, and observe the agility with which he was absorbed, successively, in books of greatly varying character, without perceiving how wide open were the windows of his mind; and as the light streamed in from all these heavens, so the inmate looked out with unaffected interest on the views spread before him.

Thus it was that Italy and Venice in particular afforded him at once the greatest delight and also the surest test of his growing power. The swift observation he had shown in literature became an equally rapid survey of all these novel forms before him. The old life embedded in this historic country became the book whose leaves he turned, but he looked with the greatest interest and most sympathetic scrutiny on that which passed before his eyes. It was novel, it was quaint, it was filled with curious, unexpected betrayals of human nature, but it was above all real, actual, a thing to be touched and as it were fondled by hands that were deft by nature and were quickly becoming more skilful by use. Mr. Howells began to write letters home which were printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser, and grew easily into a book which still remains in the minds of many of his readers the freshest of all his writings, Venetian Life. This was followed shortly by Italian Journeys, in which Mr. Howells gathered his observations made in going from place to place in Italy. A good many years later, after returning to the country of his affection, he wrote a third book of a similar character under the title of Tuscan Cities. But his use of Italy in literature was not confined to books of travels; he made and published studies of Italian literature, and he wove the life of the country into fiction in a charming manner. Illustrations may be found in A Foregone Conclusion, one of the happiest of his novels, whose scene is laid in Venice, in The Lady of the Aroostook, and in many slight sketches.

When Mr. Howells returned to America at the close of his term as consul, he found warm friends whom he had made through his writings. He served for a short time on the staff of The Nation, of New York, and then was invited to Boston to take the position of assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly under Mr. Fields. This was in 1866, and five years later, on the retirement of Mr. Fields, he became editor, and remained in the position until 1881, living during this period in Cambridge. He was not only editor of the magazine; he was really its chief contributor. Any one who takes the trouble to examine the pages of the Atlantic Index will see how far his work outnumbers in titles that of all other contributors, and the range of his work was great.

He wrote a large proportion of the reviews of books, which in those days constituted a marked feature of the magazine. These reviews were conscientiously written, and showed penetration and justice, but they had besides a felicitous and playful touch which rendered them delightful reading, even though one knew little or cared little for the book reviewed. Sometimes, though not often, he wrote poems, but readers soon learned to look with eagerness for a kind of writing which seemed almost more individual with him than any other form of writing. We mean the humorous sketches of every-day life, in which he took scenes of the commonest sort and drew from them an inherent life which most never suspected, yet confessed the moment he disclosed it. He would do such a common-place thing as take an excursion down the harbor, or even a ride to town in a horse-car, and come back to turn his experience into a piece of genuine literature. A number of these pieces were collected into a volume entitled Suburban Sketches.

It is interesting to observe how slowly yet surely Mr. Howells drew near the great field of novel-writing, and how deliberately he laid the foundations of his art. First, the graceful sketch which was hardly more than a leaf out of his note-book; then the blending of travel with character-drawing, as in A Chance Acquaintance and Their Wedding Journey, and later stories of people who moved about and thus found the incidents which the author had not to invent, as in The Lady of the Aroostook. Meanwhile, the eye which had taken note of surface effects was beginning to look deeper into the springs of being, and the hand which had described was beginning to model figures also which stood alone.

So there followed a number of little dramatic sketches, where the persons of the drama carried on their little play; and since they were not on a stage before the spectator, the author constructed a sort of literary stage for the reader; that is to say, he supplied by paragraphs what in a regular play would be stage directions. This is seen in such little comedies as A Counterfeit Presentment, which, indeed, was put on the stage. But instead of pushing forward on this line into the field of great drama, Mr. Howells contented himself with dexterous strokes with a fine pen, so to speak, and created a number of sparkling farces like The Parlor Car.

The real issue of all this practice in the dramatic art was to disengage the characters he created from too close dependence on the kind of circumstance, as of travel, which the author did not invent, and to give them substantial life in the working out of the drama of their spiritual evolution. Thus by the time he was released from editorial work, Mr. Howells was ready for the thorough-going novel, and he gave to readers such examples of art as A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and that most important of all his novels, A Hazard of New Fortunes. By the time this last novel was written, he had become thoroughly interested, not merely in the men, women, and children about him, but in that mysterious, complex order named by us society, with its roots matted together as in a swamp, and seeming to many to be sucking up maleficent, miasmatic vapors from the soil in which it was rooted. Like many another lover of his kind, he has sought to trace the evils of individual life to their source in this composite order, and to guess at the mode by which society shall right itself and drink up healthy and life-giving virtues from the soil.

But it must not be inferred that his novels and other literary work have been by any means exclusively concerned with the reconstruction of the social order. He has indeed experimented with this theme, but he has always had a sane interest in life as he sees it, and with the increasing scope of his observation he has drawn his figures from a larger world, which includes indeed the world in which he first began to find his characters and their action.

Not long after retiring from the Atlantic he went to live in New York, and varied his American experience with frequent travels and continued residence in Europe. For a while he maintained a department in Harper's Magazine, where he gave expression to his views on literature and the dramatic art, and for a short period returned to the editorial life in conducting The Cosmopolitan; later he entered also the field of lecturing, and thus further extended the range of his observation. For many years, Mr. Howells was the writer of "Editor's Easy Chair" in Harper's Magazine. In 1909 he was made president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mr. Howells's death occurred May 11, 1920.

This in fine is the most summary statement of his career in literature,—that he has been a keen and sympathetic observer of life, and has caught its character, not like a reporter going about with a kodak and snapping it aimlessly at any conspicuous object, but like an alert artist who goes back to his studio after a walk and sets down his comments on what he has seen in quick, accurate sketches, now and then resolving numberless undrawn sketches into some one comprehensive and beautiful picture.


Mr. Howells is the author of nearly seventy books, from which the following are selected as best representing his work in various fields and at various periods.

Venetian Life. Travel and description. 1867.

Their Wedding Journey. Novel. 1871.

Italian Journeys. Travel and description. 1872.

Suburban Sketches. 1872.

Poems. 1873 and 1895.

A Chance Acquaintance. Novel. 1873.

A Foregone Conclusion. Novel. 1874.

A Counterfeit Presentment. Comedy. 1877.

The Lady of the Aroostook. Novel. 1879.

The Undiscovered Country. Novel. 1880.

A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories. 1881.

A Modern Instance. Novel. 1881.

The Rise of Silas Lapham. Novel. 1884.

Tuscan Cities. Travel and description. 1885.

April Hopes. Novel. 1887.

A Hazard of New Fortunes. Novel. 1889.

The Sleeping Car, and Other Farces. 1889.

A Boy's Town. Reminiscences. 1890.

Criticism and Fiction. Essays. 1891.

My Literary Passions. Essays. 1895.

Stops of Various Quills. Poems. 1895.

Literary Friends and Acquaintances. Reminiscences, 1900.

Heroines of Fiction. Criticism. 1901.

The Kentons. Novel. 1902.

Literature and Life. Criticism. 1902.

London Films. Travel and Description. 1905.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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