Study Guide

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201224-Howells.jpgWilliam Dean Howells. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Dean Howells was born at Martinsville (Martins Ferry), in Belmont County, Ohio, on March 1, 1837, the second child of William Cooper Howells and Mary Dean Howells. When Howells was three, the family moved to Hamilton, Ohio, where Howells’s father operated a printing business and published a newspaper, the Intelligencer. In 1849, his father’s business failed, and the family moved to Dayton, Ohio.

The move to Dayton brought to a close Howells’s formal education. At the age of seven, he had begun helping his father by setting type and delivering papers, and as the family’s financial condition worsened both Howells and his older brother were forced to drop out of school. Although he always regretted that he had not been able to attend school, Howells believed that his association with the printing trade, and the fact that his father read to the family whenever possible, made up in part for his lack of formal education.

The Dayton business failed in 1850, and the family moved to Greene County, Ohio. While Howells’s father and brother attempted to revive an old paper mill, the Howells family lived in a log cabin on a stream near the town of Xenia. Years later, Howells wrote about the experience in My Year in a Log Cabin (1893). When efforts to revive the paper mill failed, the family moved to Columbus. While they were in Columbus, Howells worked as a compositor for the Ohio State Journal. In 1852, his father became editor of the Ashtabula, Ohio, Sentinel. Six months later, Mr. Howells moved the paper to Jefferson, Ohio.

Howells’s first poem, “Old Winter, Loose Thy Hold on Us,” was published in 1851, but his writing career had begun while he was setting type for the Ashtabula Sentinel. Along with the regular news, Howells inserted his own sketches, stories, and poems. His published prose also included one serial romance. By 1855, Howells was contributing to several Ohio newspapers, and in 1857 he was offered a position as a subordinate editor for the...

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William Dean Howells Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

As an editor and a literary critic, Howells exerted a profound influence on the course of American literature. Even so, his place in literature rests ultimately on his work as a novelist. Writing in a style that H. L. Mencken called “a new harmony of the old, old words” and following the principles Howells himself laid down in numerous works on the craft of writing realistic fiction, he created a body of literature that provides the best insights into and most penetrating analyses of the social and economic structure of the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. While much of what Howells wrote is marked by somewhat archaic preoccupations, the serious reader may still discover in Howells’s work the kind of novels which, in Howells’s words, can “charm the mind and win the heart.”

William Dean Howells Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Dean Howells was born in Martinsville (now Martins Ferry), Ohio, on March 1, 1837, and he received much of his early education in the Hamilton printing office of his father’s Intelligencer before working on the Ohio State Journal from 1858 to 1861. His campaign biography of President Abraham Lincoln earned him an appointment as United States consul in Venice (1861-1865). In 1861 he married Elinor Mead, and they had three children, Winifred (born 1863), John (1868), and Mildred (1872). After his return from Venice, Howells moved to Boston, where he lived until 1888, when he moved to New York City.

Howells was one of the most distinguished men of letters in his day and a close friend of other notables, such as Henry James and Mark Twain, many of whom he wrote about in Literary Friends and Acquaintances (1900) and My Mark Twain (1910). In his criticism, he championed a realistic approach to fiction but a realism too genteel for some critics, like the naturalistic novelist Frank Norris. The high esteem of the world of letters was reflected in a seventy-fifth birthday gala held for him, with President William Howard Taft attending.

Howells consistently displayed a social conscience. He angered a great many influential people by his vigorous defense of the Haymarket anarchists in 1887, and he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

William Dean Howells Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although early in his career he was accepted into the charmed literary circles of Boston and New York, William Dean Howells was born and reared in the Midwest, and he never fully lost touch with his midwestern background. He was born on March 1, 1837, in Martin’s Ferry (then Martinsville), Ohio, the second of eight children. His early life was singularly unstable: Because his father was something of a political radical whose principles jeopardized the prosperity of every newspaper with which he was associated, the family was periodically compelled to move away from one conservative Ohio village after another. Despite such instability, Howells found the variety of experiences enriching and was able to make the most of the spotty formal education he received.

Howells’s exposure to the written word came at an early age: When Howells was only three, his father moved the little family to Hamilton, Ohio, where he had acquired a local newspaper, the Intelligencer; by the age of six, the precocious Howells was setting type in his father’s printing office, and not long after that he began to compose poems and brief sketches. In 1850, the family made one of their more fortunate moves by establishing themselves in a one-room log cabin in the utopian community at Eureka Mills near Xenia, Ohio. It was a welcome interlude in the family’s struggle to find a political, economic, and social niche that would satisfy the father, and Howells would remember it fondly much later in My Year in a Log Cabin. The next move was to Columbus, where young Howells acquired a position as a compositor on the Ohio State Journal. Already beginning to diversify his literary endeavors, the fourteen-year-old Howells was also writing poetry in the manner of Alexander Pope.

In 1852, Howells’s father bought a share in the Ashtabula Sentinel and moved it to Jefferson, Ohio. For once, his principles did not clash with those of the community: The little newspaper was a success, and it was to remain in the Howells family for forty years. While living in Jefferson, a community composed largely of well-educated, transplanted New Englanders, the teenage Howells embarked on a plan of intensive self-education that included studies of Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, and Heinrich Heine. As much as this program compromised his social life, Howells derived enormous intellectual benefits from it, and several of the townspeople of Jefferson even offered to help finance a Harvard education for this gifted lad; his father declined the offer, however, and Howells remained at Jefferson, publishing his stories pseudonymously beginning in 1853.

As his father gradually rose in Ohio state politics (he was elected clerk of the state House of Representatives in 1855), Howells rose with him, and in 1857 he was offered a permanent position as a correspondent on the Cincinnati Gazette. Howells, not yet twenty years old, was too emotionally dependent upon his family and too much of a hypochondriac to stay more than a few weeks at the Cincinnati Gazette, but when, in the following year, he received another opportunity in journalism, this time from the Ohio State Journal, he was able to accept the offer from his previous employer and to succeed. In addition to his duties as a reporter and editor, Howells found time to write sketches and verse, and some of his writings appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, the prestigious Boston-based journal-magazine of which he was to become editor in chief many years later.

The year 1860 was the most significant one of Howells’s life: He met Elinor Mead of Brattleboro, Vermont, whom he would marry two years later in Paris; he published his first book, Poems of Two Friends, coauthored with John J. Piatt; and—at the urging of the volume’s Cincinnati publisher, Frank Foster—Howells prepared a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln. Although assembled out of information Howells had gleaned from printed sources rather than from Lincoln himself, and written in only a few weeks, the book proved to be a moving and inspiring...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)

William Dean Howells Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201224-Howells.jpgWilliam Dean Howells. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

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....

(The entire section is 1126 words.)