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An Ohio printer turned literary star

How William Dean Howells became one of Boston's elite

By Robert Manning / July 5, 2005



When, in July 1871, a Princeton University professor asked William Dean Howells for biographic information, Howells responded:

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"I was born at Martin's Ferry, ... Ohio on the 1st of March 1837.... I learned the printing business in my father's offices at Hamilton and Dayton, Ohio and worked pretty steadily 'at case' from my twelfth to my nineteenth year. Then I became legislative correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette from Columbus and two years later, news editor of the Ohio State Journal. In 1861 I was appointed [US] consul at Venice where I remained till July 1865, when I returned to America.... I was engaged for a few months on The Nation in New York and on March 1st, 1866 came at Mr. [James T.] Field's invitation to be his assistant editor on The Atlantic. I succeeded him yesterday as chief editor. I live in Cambridge.

"You will have noticed that I have to lament an almost entire want of schooling. However, my father had ardent literary tastes, and an excellent library and I studied and read as I could.... I learned with little or no help Spanish and German, a trifle of Latin and a soupçon of Greek. Italian was a necessity and a pleasure at Venice, and a little French one knows naturally.... I enclose a list of my books."

Howells was only 34 at the time. How he rose from his beginnings on the edge of poverty in small-town Ohio to this distinguished position in Brahmin Boston, and how he went on for five decades longer to become one of the icons of American letters is compellingly told in this book by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, both professors at the University of Delaware.

It is the first reexploration of Howells's life and work in 50 years, a wonderfully hewn work that takes us beyond Edwin H. Cady's two volumes, "The Road to Realism" and "The Realist at War," and Kenneth S. Lynn's "William Dean Howells."

Howells at first envisioned a career as a poet. In fact, his rise to literary achievement began when one of his earlier poems was sent to and accepted by James Russell Lowell, then editor in chief of The Atlantic.

Emboldened by its acceptance, Howells took a trip to Boston and almost brazenly walked in on Lowell and introduced himself. He must have carried with him immense charm because Lowell was much impressed by the 23-year-old and subsequently introduced him to such friends as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Thoreau.

Soon William and Henry James as well as others would be added to the list. Thoreau didn't much care for Howells, but the rest of those grandees took him to their bosom and the outlander was soon a member of that cadre that caused Boston to be described, without cavil by the natives, as the Athens of America.

He even took on the Protestant Boston trait of disliking the Irish, and he once wrote of "our natural antipathy to the black race."

Yet he became something of a Tolstoyan socialist, a forceful champion of civil rights, and the only one in the American literary elite to speak out resoundingly against the execution of some of the Haymarket anarchists in 1886.

He became so dominant a literary figure that when he moved to New York City in 1887 he, Edwin Cady wrote, "took the literary center of the country" with him.

The authors have pored over Howells's 40 novels, perhaps a dozen of which stand among the most important American fiction writing, and well over 60 or 70 of his other books on travel, criticism, and social and political commentary.

They demonstrate how closely Howells's real life, plus those of his beloved wife Elinor Mead, his children and Ohio relatives, and many of his acquaintances, entered into his fiction. Beyond that, they have provided - without "academchatter" - insights into how Howells's fiction helped shape and presage 20th-century American fiction.

Since I came as an outlander to Boston in 1964, with only a high school diploma, to edit The Atlantic, I read with particular interest the portions dealing with how Howells with his "almost entire want of schooling" served for 10 years as editor in chief.

I marveled at his ability to write several books during that time while putting together a prose-packed issue every month. His $5,000-a-year salary would have been $100,000 today, considerably more than what I was paid during my 14 years as editor in chief.

In those days the magazine operated at a much more leisurely pace, with far less concern for the fast-moving current of events than today. Howells seems not to have taken the job as seriously as he did his own writing.

Perhaps that was why the magazine did not prosper under his leadership, and in fact lost ground - although not prestige - to monthly competitors Harper's and Scribner's.

I particularly enjoyed Goodman and Dawson's treatment of the relationship between Howells and Mark Twain, one of the most memorable friendships in literary history. Twain was even more unschooled and more of an outlander. The two became foils for one another, with the more polished Howells serving Twain as his personal critic and sometime editor and collaborator.

Though he began brooding about death at an early age, Howells persisted until May 1920, when he died a peaceful death in New York City. He was 83.

True to the fashion of modern book publishing, most if not all of his works are now out of print. Fortunately, the Library of America has devoted a volume to four of the most important novels, "A Foregone Conclusion," "A Modern Instance," "The Rise of Silas Lapham," and "Indian Summer."

Robert Manning, a former editor in chief of The Atlantic (1966-80), is a Boston-based editor and writer.

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