Authors: William Dean Howells

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, short-story writer, playwright, poet, and critic

March 1, 1837

Martinsville (now Martins Ferry), Ohio

May 11, 1920

New York, New York


In the three decades between the 1960’s and the 1980’s, William Dean Howells basically was shut out of literary research and literature courses. The 1990’s, however, saw a return of interest in Howells’s life and works. Contemporary readers and critics admire Howells not only for the sheer quantity of his works but also for his political consistency as a social critic. He was the only writer who publicly protested the persecution of the accused of the Haymarket incident in 1886, for example.

William Dean Howells

(Library of Congress)

Howells was a prolific and versatile author of novels, plays, essays, poems, reviews, and travel pieces. He achieved a remarkable degree of success in consistently expressing himself with ease, exactness, and felicity. Furthermore, his long connection with The Atlantic Monthly and other important publications enabled him to encourage some potentially able writers to whom an editor’s approval could make a great difference. The list of struggling authors thus benefited would be a long one, including such notables-to-be as Mark Twain and Henry James, both of whom received Howells’s endorsement at times when it was needed most.

Howells was born on March 1, 1837, at Martinsville (now Martins Ferry), Ohio. His father, William Cooper Howells, was of Welsh descent, a former Quaker who had drifted into the “New Church” of Emanuel Swedenborg; his mother, Mary Dean Howells, was of Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch stock. The elder Howells was a man of ability and character whose craftsman’s skill as a printer was offset by a distressing lack of business acumen. With, eventually, ten mouths to feed, he led a wandering and straitened life as editor and printer in various sections of Ohio; and his second son, William Dean, got much of his education in a printing office. Howells’s formal schooling occupied as little as sixteen or eighteen months, and in random doses, mainly at Hamilton, Ohio. Nevertheless, the boy’s keen appetite for learning was soon discernible to and encouraged by his understanding father. William eagerly read and wrote; he developed a passion for languages, at one period studying five simultaneously, and he acquired such a devotion to Heinrich Heine that James Russell Lowell was later to write, “You must sweat the Heine out of you as men do mercury.”

At fourteen, Howells became a compositor on the Ohio State Journal at Columbus. Other newspaper jobs followed, but the young man found time to write and send off poetry to The Atlantic Monthly, some of it finding acceptance. Energy and ambition began to pay off, though all was not clear sailing. One of his biggest handicaps was a sort of psychic malaise, including hydrophobia, which haunted his childhood and adolescence, once driving him to a complete breakdown. Nevertheless, Howells’s will was indomitable. At twenty-one, he was dining with the governor of the state; at twenty-four—largely as the result of a book he had written on Abraham Lincoln—he was appointed American consul at Venice.

His four years in Venice were the equivalent of a university education for Howells; they gave him not only an acquaintance with the riches of Europe but also enough time to read, write, and improve his knowledge of languages. During his consulship, in 1862, he married Elinor Meade of Brattleboro, Vermont, whom he had previously met in Columbus. Their stay abroad inspired the writing of Venetian Life and Italian Journeys, which were published in 1866 and 1867.

Returning to the United States in 1865, Howells intensified his pursuit of a literary career. After a few months of freelancing in New York, a break came when he was offered the post of editorial assistant on The Nation. Even this, however, was merely the prelude to one of the most important steps of his life. Early in 1866, he attracted the attention of James T. Fields, editor of The Atlantic Monthly; a few weeks later, on his twenty-ninth birthday, he became assistant editor of that influential literary organ. For fifteen years, Howells’s fate and fortunes were to be connected with those of The Atlantic Monthly; in 1872, he became chief editor, remaining in that capacity until 1881, when he resigned to devote himself more exclusively to writing. During his years with The Atlantic Monthly, he exercised a wide and wholesome influence, mediating busily between the old and the new, compromising differences between East and West, and sponsoring such new and diverse talents as those of Twain, James, and Frank Norris. Not even these activities, however, could shut off the flow of his own writing, and his contributions to The Atlantic Monthly began to display, more and more strongly, the type of realistic writing which stamps his major pieces of fiction.

The quality of Howells’s realism finds effective illustration in what are generally considered his best novels: A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and A Hazard of New Fortunes. In these, he largely concerns himself with everyday people and the realistic translation of their experiences. He identified sentimental and romantic writings to be the adversaries of literary realism, for he believed that many of the social problems at his time were exacerbated by deliberate efforts to conceal social conflicts with literary cosmetics like sentimental and romantic writings. Howells’s realism exposed social realities and mediated class differences. However, his picture of humanity was largely limited to the life of the middle class, and his standards of good taste did not permit revelations of sex and violence. Because of these limitations, the characters of his novels have been accused of being commonplace. Nevertheless, modern realism owes a debt to Howells’s pioneering, which it has not always been very prompt to acknowledge.

After leaving The Atlantic Monthly in 1881, Howells moved to New York, which had become the publishing center of the nation. There he wrote novels for Century Magazine and became literary adviser to Harper and Brothers; in 1900, he took over editorship of “The Easy Chair,” that notable department of Harper’s Monthly. Novels and shorter fiction continued to pour from his pen, with side excursions into poetry and drama. In literary criticism, also, he achieved what some literary historians consider his finest work, reaching its peak with Criticism and Fiction in 1891.

Howells’s later years were rich in honors. His last two decades brought satisfying recognition to a man who, despite varying estimates of his literary significance, had always refused to compromise on matters involving principle. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities conferred degrees upon him, Oxford bestowed a doctorate of literature in 1904, and leading institutions sought his services as lecturer and teacher. For many years, he was president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Before his wife’s death in 1909, he frequently traveled abroad with her; afterward, his companion was his daughter Mildred. Howells died in 1920 at his home in New York.

Author Works Long Fiction: Their Wedding Journey, 1872 A Chance Acquaintance, 1873 A Foregone Conclusion, 1875 The Lady of Aroostook, 1879 The Undiscovered Country, 1880 Doctor Breen’s Practice, 1881 A Modern Instance, 1882 A Woman’s Reason, 1883 The Rise of Silas Lapham, 1885 Indian Summer, 1886 The Minister’s Charge: Or, The Apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker, 1887 April Hopes, 1887 Annie Kilburn, 1888 A Hazard of New Fortunes, 1889 The Shadow of a Dream, 1890 An Imperative Duty, 1891 The Quality of Mercy, 1892 The World of Chance, 1893 The Coast of Bohemia, 1893 A Traveler from Altruria, 1894 The Day of Their Wedding, 1896 A Parting and a Meeting, 1896 An Open-Eyed Conspiracy: An Idyl of Saratoga, 1897 The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 1897 The Story of a Play, 1898 Ragged Lady, 1899 Their Silver Wedding Journey, 1899 The Flight of Pony Baker, 1902 The Kentons, 1902 The Son of Royal Langbrith, 1904 Miss Bellard’s Inspiration, 1905 Through the Eye of the Needle, 1907 Fennel and Rue, 1908 New Leaf Mills, 1913 The Leatherwood God, 1916 The Vacation of the Kelwyns, 1920 Mrs. Farrell, 1921 Short Fiction: Suburban Sketches, 1871 A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories, 1881 Christmas Every Day, and Other Stories Told for Children, 1893 Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells, 1997 Drama: The Parlor Car, pb. 1876 A Counterfeit Presentment, pb. 1877 Out of the Question, pb. 1877 The Sleeping Car, pb. 1883 The Register, pb. 1884 A Sea-Change, pb. 1887 The Mouse-Trap, and Other Farces, pb. 1889 The Albany Depot, pb. 1892 A Letter of Introduction, pb. 1892 The Unexpected Guests, pb. 1893 A Previous Engagement, pb. 1897 Room Forty-five, pb. 1900 The Smoking Car, pb. 1900 An Indian Giver, pb. 1900 Parting Friends, pb. 1911 The Night before Christmas: A Morality, pb. 1915 The Complete Plays of W. D. Howells, pb. 1960 (Walter J. Meserve, editor) Poetry: Poems of Two Friends, 1860 (with John J. Piatt) Poems, 1873 Samson, 1874 Priscilla: A Comedy, 1882 A Sea Change: Or, Love’s Stowaway, 1884 Poems, 1886 x Stops of Various Quills, 1895 The Mother and the Father, 1909 Pebbles, Monochromes, and Other Modern Poems, 1891–1916, 2000 (Edwin H. Cady, editor) Nonfiction: Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, 1860 Venetian Life, 1866 Italian Journeys, 1867 Three Villages, 1884 Tuscan Cities, 1885 Modern Italian Poets, 1887 A Boy’s Town, 1890 Criticism and Fiction, 1891 My Year in a Log Cabin, 1893 My Literary Passions, 1895 Impressions and Experiences, 1896 Stories of Ohio, 1897 Literary Friends and Acquaintances, 1900 Heroines of Fiction, 1901 Literature and Life, 1902 Letters Home, 1903 London Films, 1905 Certain Delightful English Towns, 1906 Roman Holidays, 1908 Seven English Cities, 1909 Imaginary Interviews, 1910 My Mark Twain: Reminiscences, 1910 Familiar Spanish Travels, 1913 Years of My Youth, 1916 Eighty Years and After, 1921 The Life and Letters of William Dean Howells, 1928 A Realist in the American Theatre: Selected Drama Criticism of William Dean Howells, 1992 (Brenda Murphy, editor) Selected Literary Criticism, 1993 (3 volumes) Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James and William Dean Howells, 1997 (Michael Anesko, editor) Edited Texts: Mark Twain's Library of Humor, 1888 Bibliography Bardon, Ruth, ed. Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Indispensable. A meticulously edited collection of thirteen stories plus generous annotations of thirty-three more. The introduction, the notes, and the works cited list make this a valuable work for Howells scholars. Cady, Edwin H., and Norma W. Cady. Critical Essays on W. D. Howells, 1866-1920. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. Gathers together important criticism on Howells. Includes reviews by contemporaries such as Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain, as well as commentaries by modern critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, H. L. Mencken, and Wilson Follett. Contains essays by advocates and detractors of Howells. Cady, Edwin H., and Louis J. Budd, eds. On Howells. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Essays on materials and form in Howells’s fiction, on the equalitarian principle, on individual novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham, Their Wedding Journey, and other novels. Cady, Edwin H. The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837-1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956. Cady, Edwin H. The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885-1920, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1958. These two volumes by Cady are standbys for Howells’s life and the shaping of his theories of literature. Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1954. Howells has always been identified with the critical dicta of realism, and this book establishes the historical context well. Crowley, John W. The Dean of American Letters: The Late Career of William Dean Howells. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999. A biography by a noted Howells scholar. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Crowley, John W. The Mask of Fiction: Essays on W. D. Howells. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Examines Howells’s unconscious in his writings, incorporating both the “probing psychologism” of the 1890’s and the deeper psychic integration of his later light fiction. An important contribution to critical studies on Howells. Eble, Kenneth E. William Dean Howells. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. An excellent introduction to Howells in the Twayne series, if devoted almost entirely to the major novels. Goodman, Susan and Carl Dawson. William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. This broad and compelling biography of the literary giant is an important resource for study of Howells’ life and work. Illustrated and includes bibliography. Klinkowitz, Jerome. “Ethic and Aesthetic: The Basil and Isabel March Stories of William Dean Howells.” Modern Fiction Studies 16 (Autumn, 1970): 303-322. A good analysis, and one of the few periodical essays devoted to Howells’s short fiction. Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970. Excellent critical and biographical study. Mielke, Robert. “The Riddle of the Painful Earth”: Suffering and Society in W. D. Howells’ Major Writings of the Early 1890’s. Kirksville, Mo.: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1994. Treats Howells’s literary profession as social activism. Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Elsa Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy. Olsen, Rodney D. Dancing in Chains: The Youth of William Dean Howells. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Olsen provides a careful study of the middle-class roots of Howells’s fiction, showing how his society shaped him and how his fiction not only appealed to that society but also was an expression of it. Includes very detailed notes. Stratman, Gregory J. Speaking for Howells: Charting the Dean’s Career Through the Language of His Characters. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001. Analyzes the use of dialogue in Howells’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Categories: Authors