William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

A Brief Assessment

A prolific writer, Howells is regarded as “the father of American Realism.” Although not an exciting writer, he broke new grounds which led to the achievements of Mark Twain and Henry James. In Howells’ view, writing should be “simple, natural, and honest” and should not delve into “romantic exaggeration.” His famous definition of the function of a writer indicates his limitations as a Realist writer and of Realism as he conceived of it: “Our novelists, therefore, concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests.”

Life and Works

William Dean Howells, author, editor, and critic, was born on 1 March 1837 in Martinsville, now Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, the second son of eight children born to Mary Dean Howells and William Cooper Howells, a printer and publisher. As the family moved from town to town, including a year-long residence at a utopian commune in Eureka Mills, later described in his New Leaf Mills (1913), Howells worked as a typesetter and a printer’s apprentice, educating himself through intensive reading and the study of Spanish, French, Latin, and German. After a term as city editor of the Ohio State Journal in 1858, Howells published poems, stories, and reviews in the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines.

Howells became first the assistant editor (1866-71) and then the editor (1871-1881) of the Atlantic Monthly, a post that gave him enormous influence as an arbiter of American taste. Publishing work by authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James, both of whom would become personal friends, Howells became a proponent of American realism, and his defense of Henry James in an article for The Century (1882) provoked what was called the “Realism War,” with writers on both sides of the Atlantic ocean debating the merits of realistic and romantic fiction.

Widely acknowledged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the “Dean of American Letters,” Howells was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908, which instituted its Howells Medal for Fiction in 1915. By the time of his death from pneumonia on 11 May 1920, Howells was still respected for his position in American literature. However, his later novels did not achieve the success of his early realistic work, and later authors such as Sinclair Lewis enounced Howells’s fiction and his influence as being too genteel to represent the real America.

Although he wrote over a hundred books in various genres, including novels, poems, literary criticism, plays, memoirs, and travel narratives, Howells is best known today for his realistic fiction, including A Modern Instance (1881), on the then-new topic of the social consequences of divorce; The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), his best-known work and one of the first novels to study the American businessman; and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), an exploration of cosmopolitan life in New York City as seen through the eyes of Basil and Isabel March, the protagonists of Their Wedding Journey (1871) and other works.  Other important novels include Dr. Breen’s Practice, (1880), The Minister’s Charge and Indian Summer (1886), April Hopes (1887), The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897), and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904).

Howells wrote his most famous literary criticism in *Harper’s Magazine* in a column entitled “The Editor’s Study”. These essays, written from 1886-1890, were collected and published in book form in 1891 under the title Criticism and Fiction. The best known chapter in this excellent and too overlooked book, chapter 24, was titled “The Prudishness of the Anglo- Saxon Novel”. It contains the argument Howells (regretably) may be most famous for–that is, that American novelists could confine themselves to material that would not offend the innocence of a young girl, and should therefore do so.

Genteel Tradition: A term coined by critic George Santayana to describe the literary practice of certain late nineteenth-century American writers, especially New Englanders. Followers of the Genteel Tradition emphasized conventionality in social, religious, moral, and literary standards. Some of the best-known writers of the Genteel Tradition are R. H. Stoddard and Bayard Taylor.

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