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...