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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

William Dean Howells

The most influential American novelist, editor, and critic of his generation, W. D. Howells was at the center of American literary culture for over fifty years. Born and raised in frontier Ohio, Howells was also one of the first important western writers to emigrate to the publishing centers of the East. Largely self-educated, he visited New England in July 1860 and met Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and other luminaries. As he later reminisced, Hawthorne gave him a note to pass to Emerson: "I find this young man worthy." And while hosting Howells at dinner at the Parker House, James T. Fields said to James Russell Lowell, "this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands." Later in same year, Howells published a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, and after Lincoln's election he was rewarded with an appointment as U.S. consul in Venice. There he wrote the essays collected in his first major book, Venetian Life (1866). Settling in Boston the same year, he became the assistant editor of the redoubtable Atlantic Monthly, the most important magazine in America, and upon the retirement of Fields in 1871 Howells became its editor, a position he held for the next ten years. In this office he became a dominant critical voice, an arbiter of taste and fashion, and a champion of literary realism or "the truthful treatment of material."

For Howells, realism was a democratic movement in the arts, a focus on the normal and commonplace, distinct from romanticism or "romanticistic" fiction with its emphasis on the more ideal, bizarre, sentimental, or aristocratic. In a word, he promoted such writers as Henry James and Mark Twain and criticized others such as Sir Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackeray. He urged readers to apply this singular test to any work of the imagination: "Is it true?—true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women?" He was profoundly moved in the late 1880s by Leo Tolstoy's ideas about nonviolence and economic equality. The Russian realist "has not influenced me in aesthetics only, but in ethics, too," he explained, "so that I can never again see life in the way I saw it before I knew him." Howells summarized his notion of moral complicity in his novel The Minister's Charge (1886). No one "sinned or suffered to himself alone," a character remarks. "If a community was corrupt, if an age was immoral, it was not because of the vicious, but the virtuous who fancied themselves indifferent spectators." Faithful to such principles in his life as well as in his art, Howells flirted with socialism and inveighed against imperialism, as in his story "Editha" (1905), a satire of a young woman who challenges her weak-willed lover to win glorious honors in battle.

Nowhere were Howells's democratic ethics more apparent than in his courageous but ill-fated defense of the Haymarket anarchists. On May 4, 1886, after a wave of labor strikes in Chicago in favor of an eight-hour workday, a policeman was killed, and seven others were mortally wounded by a bomb of unknown origin thrown during a rally in Haymarket Square organized by anarchists to protest police brutality. Eight anarchists were arrested, though none was identified as the bomb-thrower, and tried for murder. All were found guilty on August 20 and seven of them sentenced to hang. Howells fairly believed they had been railroaded. After the Supreme Court of Illinois denied their appeal on November 2, he resolved to take a stand on their behalf. On November 4 he sent a letter to the editor of the New York Tribune in which he urged readers to petition the governor of Illinois to commute the anarchists' sentences. The letter appeared in the newspaper on November 6 under the banner "Clemency for the Anarchists/A Letter from W. D. Howells." Howells stood virtually alone on behalf of the doomed men and became the target of public scorn. Even his friends refused to help. As Lowell wrote him, "I thought those Chicago ruffians well hanged," though he "honored your [Howells's] courage in saying what you did about them." After one of the men committed suicide and the sentences of two others were commuted to life in prison, the other four anarchists were executed on August 11. The next day Howells wrote a second letter to the Tribune entitled "A Word for the Dead," though it was not published in the paper and probably never sent. However, Howells expressed similar views in his portrayal of the German socialist Lindau in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), the novel many critics consider his best. In 1893, the new governor of Illinois pardoned the three surviving anarchists, vindicating Howells's position.

Theodore Dreiser once compared Howells to a sentry "on the watch tower, straining for a first glimpse of approaching genius." As an editor of the Atlantic for fifteen years and later as the contributor of the "Editor's Study" and "Editor's Easy Chair" series to Harper's, Howells befriended and promoted the careers of such writers as James, Twain, Bret Harte, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins (later Freeman), Frank Norris, Charles W. Chesnutt, John W. De Forest, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hamlin Garland, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Abraham Cahan, and Stephen Crane. Such selections from Howells's late critical writing as his reviews of Wilkins's stories in 1891 and Chesnutt's stories in 1900 and his introduction to Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) illustrate his sponsorship of women writers and writers of color. (Howells also endorsed women's suffrage and was one of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909.)

Known late in life as "the Dean of American letters," Howells was the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and served in that office for thirteen years before his death. Though he became a favorite target of such iconoclasts as H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis for whom he seemed to epitomize Victorian gentility, he deserves better from his critics. Frank Norris dismissed realism as "the drama of a broken teacup," but as practiced by Howells it both affirmed and subtly questioned bourgeois values. While he once asserted that the "smiling aspects of life" are the "more truly American," Howells was neither snob nor prig but an influential literary theorist, a prolific author, and a courageous spokesman for unpopular, progressive, and occasionally radical causes.

Gary Scharnhorst
University of New Mexico

In the Heath Anthology
from Suburban Sketches (1871)
from The Editor's Study (1887)
from Criticism and Fiction (1891)
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896)
Letters to the Editor of the New York Tribune (1900)
Editha (1905)

Other Works
A Foregone Conclusion (1875)
A Modern Instance (1882)
The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)
Indian Summer (1886)
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)
The Shadow of a Dream (1890)
Criticism & Fiction (1891)
An Imperative Duty (1893)
A Traveler From Atlanta (1894)
The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897)
Literary Friends and Acquaintances (1900)
Through the Eye of a Needle (1907)
My Mark Twain (1910)

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Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898-1935
Offers texts of many essays by Howells.

The William Dean Howells Society
Links to projects and an issue of The Howellsian.

William Dean Howells
An extensive collection of primary texts including Their Wedding Journey, The Shadow of a Dream, The Day of their Wedding and more.

Secondary Sources

Michael O. Bellamy, "Eros and Thanatos in William Dean Howells' 'Editha,'" American Literary Realism, 1979

Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism, 1956

Edwin H. Cady, The Realist at War, 1958

Everett Carter, "The Haymarket Affair in Literature," American Quarterly, 1950

John W. Crowley, The Black Heart's Truth, 1985

John W. Crowley, The Dean of American Letters, 1999

William M. Gibson and George Arms, A Bibliography of William Dean Howell, 1948

Clara and Rudolf Kirk, "William Dean Howells, George William Curtis, and the 'Haymarket Affair,'" American Literature, 1969

Chapel Petty-Schmidt, "Criticism of W.D. Howells: A Selected Checklist," American Literary Realism, 1988