Born the son of a printer in Ohio in 1837, William Dean Howells pursued a career in printing, journalism, publishing, and fiction. His career began in his teens and eventually established him as the most influential force in American letters in the latter part of the nineteenth century. During the decade he acted as editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly (1871-1881), Howells shaped the direction of American literature as perhaps no single person before or since has done. He resurrected the writings of such great talents as Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, who had been either forgotten or overlooked. He mentored several gifted young authors, including Hamlin Garland, Bret Harte, and Stephen Crane, helping to introduce their work to the world, and he acted as confidant and valued critic for two of the literary giants of his time, Mark Twain and Henry James. Perhaps most important, Howells explicitly defined the style that dominated American literature in the years following the Civil War.
Howells believed that literature should impart a moral message. He argued that the only way it could convincingly do this was to depict life as real people actually lived it. Like Twain, Howells rejected the fanciful, sentimental, and melodramatic elements associated with Romantic fiction. Howells disliked works that appealed primarily to readers’ emotions, that relied on unrealistic or overblown situations, that featured gaudy heroes and heroines, and that suggested that romantic love, or some idealized code of conduct, such as chivalry, was an appropriate basis for values and goals. Howells believed that works based on such romantic ideals had no connection to the lives of ordinary readers and, consequently, offered them no moral message. According to Howells, the best way to impart a moral was to present situations and characters to which readers could relate. He maintained that the story of highly individualized characters could easily have a general moral so long as the story rang true. Howells emphasized character over plot and the commonplace over the unusual. For Howells, such an approach created a more democratic literature, which reflected the needs (and the best interests) of the American reader.
Howells’s A Modern Instance exemplifies the principles of realism. Its characters are ordinary people with rather modest aspirations, numerous failings, and complex personalities and motivations. Each has a unique view of the world, and all show little ability to see beyond their own narrow perspectives; consequently, they frequently act impulsively, often against their own self-interests....
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