Howells, William Dean
William Dean Howells 1837-1920
American novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, autobiographer, dramatist, poet, and biographer.
Howells was the chief progenitor of American Realism and the most influential American literary critic during the late nineteenth century. He also authored several short stories, most of which concerned psychic and psychological themes. Considered one of the major literary figures of the nineteenth century, Howells is best known for successfully weaning American literature away from sentimental romanticism.
During his youth in Ohio, Howells developed an interest in literature while working in his father's print shop, later serving on the staff of various newspapers in Jefferson and Columbus. With the publication of his biography of Abraham Lincoln during the 1860 campaign, Howells garnered widespread popular and critical attention. Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin (the life of Hamlin being written by J. L. Hayes) earned him a government appointment to the U. S. Consulate in Venice, where he lived during the American Civil War. His impressions of Europe provided him with material for several travel books as well as his first novels.
Throughout his professional life, Howells worked as a literary critic and magazine editor, and his stories and essays appeared in major periodicals. As editor of The Atlantic Monthly, he provided a valuable forum for Henry James's short fiction. In addition, he was the first critic to recognize the satire that underlay much of Mark Twain's work. Twain and Howells were close friends, each offering criticism of the other's works-in-progress. In addition to his perceptive criticism of the works of James and Twain, Howells reviewed three generations of international literature, urging Americans to read the works of Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Emily Dickinson, and other important authors.
Rebelling against the popular romantic fiction of his day, Howells recorded detailed impressions of everyday life, endowing characters with true-to-life motives and avoiding authorial comment in the narrative. Howells became one of the major proponents of this style, known as Realism, and he utilized it in his short stories as well as in his novels. His popular psychic tales, such as those found in Questionable Shapes and Between the Dark and the Daylight, employ an effective framing device; known as the "Turkish Room" stories, these tales are told by a group of men that gather in their New York club to tell stories of psychic phenomena. In his best-known story, "Editha," the protagonist's fervent idealism and unrealistic ideas of love prompt her to pressure her mild-mannered lover to enlist in the Spanish-American War. Although his death and her subsequent traumatic meeting with his grieving mother provide Editha with moments of doubt and self-examination, she still finds a way to cling to her idealistic vision of war and her role as romantic heroine. The themes found in this story—the danger of jingoism and the deluded nature of romanticism—recur in Howells's fiction and criticism.
Howells was a popular and influential author and critic during his lifetime, although he fell into critical disfavor around the time of his death. In the ensuing decades, his novels and short stories, except for "Editha," were virtually ignored, and have never regained the widespread popularity they once garnered. A 1997 selected collection of his short stories has signaled renewed interest in Howells's short fiction, however, as critics reassess his style and thematic concerns. In particular, there has been recent critical interest in his psychic and psychological tales, most of which are found in Questionable Shapes. Although many of his works are rarely read today, his influence on modern American literature cannot be discounted, for he laid the groundwork for modern literature and helped shape several decades of American fiction.
Suburban Sketches (sketches and stories) 1871
A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories 1881
A Pair of Patient Lovers 1901
Questionable Shapes 1903
Between the Dark and the Daylight 1907
Selected Stories of William Dean Howells 1997
Other Major Works
Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin [with J. L. Hayes] (biography) 1860
Venetian Life (travel sketches) 1866
Their Wedding Journey (novel) 1872
A Foregone Conclusion (novel) 1874
The Lady of the "Aroostook" (novel) 1879
The Undiscovered Country (novel) 1880
The Rise of Silas Lapham (novel) 1885
The Garroters (drama) 1886
Criticism and Fiction (criticism) 1891
The World of Chance (novel) 1893
Stops of Various Quills (poetry) 1895
Literary Friends and Acquaintance (essays) 1900
The Kentons (novel) 1902
The Son of Royal Langbrith (novel) 1904
My Mark Twain (criticism and memoir) 1910
Years of My...
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SOURCE: "Howells' 'Editha' and Pragmatic Belief," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. III, No. 3, Spring, 1966, pp. 285-92.
[In the following essay, Free determines the influence of Charles Sanders Peirce's philosophy of pragmatic ethics on the short story "Editha."]
William Dean Howells' short story "Editha" is the most frequently anthologized of his works, yet it has inspired only fragmentary and sometimes deceptive critical attention. O. W. Firkins dismisses the story as "a tale whose careless brevity belies its weight and saps its power. . . ."1 Everett Carter correctly relates "Editha" to Howells' political protest over the Spanish-American War, which horrified Howells, who saw it as evidence of a spreading moral decay in American society.2 But the significance of the story ranges wider than the merely political. More important, it reveals Howells' tendency to judge human values and behavior pragmatically, an attitude which pervades his entire career as a novelist. His best novels and stories resemble laboratory experiments in pragmatic ethics, in which he exposes the beliefs of his characters to the test of experience.
There are two characteristics of "Editha" that clearly demonstrate that Howells specifically used the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce. Editha herself exemplifies one of the types of false belief that Peirce posited in his 1877 essay "The Fixation...
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SOURCE: "'A Dream': Howells' Early Contribution to the American Short Story," in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. IV, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 75-85.
[In the following essay, Marler cites "A Dream" as Howells's first successful attempt at realistic fiction and relates it to his unpublished novel Geoffrey Winter.]
Buried beneath William Dean Howells' mountain of writing is an early short story that deserves attention. "A Dream," which the Knickerbocker published in August 1861,1 three months before Howells left the country to become consul in Venice, is his first work of fiction to show a mature craftsmanship. Measured against the thousands of subliterary tales that during the eighteen-fifties flooded the magazine market to produce the mainstream of our short fiction, Howells' ironic love story has an unrecognized significance in the history of the American short story: Among short works by major writers published before the Civil War, with the exception perhaps of Melville's "Bartleby," there is no story that as effectively gives the illusion of real life. Despite exceptions, by mid-century the house of short fiction was merely a shanty, quaint at best, a slum at worst. Poe was dead, and Irving and Hawthorne had all but given up the writing of tales. Short fiction was for the masses, and tales and stories belonged almost entirely to the general magazines and story weeklies....
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SOURCE: "Howells' 'Editha'—Toward Realism," in Americana-Austriaca, edited by Klaus Lanzinger, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1974, pp. 3-9.
[In the following essay, Engelhart views "Editha" in light of the changing landscape of nineteenth-century literature,]
Readers of American literature who are familiar with the literary scene in the period after the Civil War are already aware of the contribution that William Dean Howells, the now forgotten Dean of American Letters, made in the fight toward gaining acceptance for a more realistic view of life than was the acceptable mode prior, say, to the Civil War. One need only recall, for example, the view of farm life implicit in the scenes described by John Greenleaf Whittier in Snowbound, published in 1866, and then compare these with the scenes of farm life in the work of Hamlin Garland, written in the 1890's, to appreciate in a rather dramatic way one of the changes that took place in nineteenth-century American literature. Howells' contribution to that change is much too well known to need recapitulation here except to say that Howells' short story "Editha" is one rather heavy piece of shot in the literary warfare that Howells and others of his contemporaries were waging in late nineteenth-century America. In some senses a great deal of the controversy between the new realists and the old guard, whatever their name, is encapsuled in this short story,...
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SOURCE: "Howells and William James: 'A Case of Metaphantasmia'," in American Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, May, 1975, pp. 169-77.
[In the following essay, Crow praises the stylistic innovation in Howells's stories, in particular the stream-of-conscious narrative employed in "A Case of Metaphantasmia."]
Late in his career William Dean Howells conducted a series of fictional experiments exploring and describing the shadowy territory of dreams, subconscious motive, and parapsychological experience. This enterprise stimulated Howells to bold technical innovations, especially in the use of unreliable and multiple narrators. Perhaps The Shadow of a Dream (1890) is the best known of the resulting fictions, which I call "psychic romances." Howells' experiments continued, however, in a series of short stories, most of which he collected in two volumes, Questionable Shapes (1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight (1907). Though almost totally ignored by critics, and misread and undervalued by most of the few who have examined them, these stories contain some of Howells' finest writing and anticipate, in several ways, key issues and concerns of twentieth-century fiction.1 In one such story, "A Case of Metaphantasmia," Howells invented a form of stream-of-consciousness narrative years before the writers who gave it literary currency.
The merit and...
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SOURCE: "Psychic and Psychological Themes in Howells' 'A Sleep and a Forgetting'," in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1977, pp. 41-51.
[In the following essay, Crowley and Crow explore psychological, psychic, and autobiographical themes in Howells's "A Sleep and a Forgetting."]
One tenet of W. D. Howells' realism was the primacy of the commonplace. Early in his career, he insisted: "As in literature the true artist will shun the use even of real events if they are of an improbable character, so the sincere observer of man will not desire to look upon his heroic or occasional phases, but will seek him in his habitual moods of vacancy and tiresomeness. To me, at any rate, he is at such times very precious. . . ."1 Howells championed this belief in his criticism, and in his fiction he staked his literary reputation on it.
It was with disquiet, then, that Howells, nearing the age of seventy, realized his loss of interest in what he used to find so precious. From Atlantic City, he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in 1906:
In all our weeks we have not seen one distinguished figure or striking face, but the decent average has interestingly abounded. It is such an afflux of the ordinary as in earlier life I should have rejoiced in for my poor literature's sake; but now, though I still see all...
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SOURCE: "Howells's 'Editha': An American Allegory," in The Markham Review, Vol. VIII, Summer, 1979, pp. 77-80.
[In the following essay, Humma deems "Editha" as "an allegorical fable of American moral degeneration."]
William Dean Howells's short story "Editha" has become, without a great deal of fanfare, a classic American story.1 In anthologies of American literature it is the selection nearly always chosen to represent the author frequently spoken of as the "father of American realism." The story is peculiarly and quintessentially American. It bears, if on a more modest scale, the same relation to fin de siècle America as, for example, The Great Gatsby bears to the America of the 1920s: it succeeds in capturing a mythos of sorts, including that elusive thing called the "American character." In particular, "Editha" is allegorical in the best sense of the term—in the sense that Gatsby or that Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" is: its meanings, finally, are vastly larger than its characters and situations. But the allegory is not as loose as this statement might make it appear. It is surprising, therefore, that the story has not been seen for what it also is: an allegorical fable of American moral degeneration.
Hawthorne's story, like Fitzgerald's novel, provides an illuminating point of comparison with "Editha." "My Kinsman, Major...
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SOURCE: "'Editha': The Feminine View," in American Literary Realism, Vol. XII, No. 2, Autumn, 1979, pp. 278-82.
[In the following essay, Furia provides an interpretation of the protagonist's motives in "Editha."]
Like the anti-war poems of William Vaughan Moody, William Dean Howells's "Editha" was revived in the late 1960s and has since become a fixture in anthologies of American literature. That revival has been a mixed blessing, however, for it implicitly invites us to regard "Editha" as a simple parable about the patriotic delusions that spawn imperialistic wars. Howells's critics tend to oversimplify the main character by assuming that Editha's patriotic fervor is merely a sign of her naiveté.1 If we probe beneath Editha's passionate commitment to the war in the Philippines, however, we find that her motives are far more complex: although she does not and indeed cannot admit it even to herself, Editha manipulates her sexuality to overpower and dominate her lover. Once Editha's motive is made clear, Howells's story emerges as a subtle, psychological study that has very little to do with war or patriotism and far more with a woman's struggle for sexual independence and domination.
We can recognize Editha's hidden motive in the most vivid image of the story, an image that is presented three times and that constitutes the only impression of the reality of war. Speaking of...
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SOURCE: "Eros and Thanatos in William Dean Howells's 'Editha'," in American Literary Realism, Vol. XII, No. 2, Autumn, 1979, pp. 283-87.
[In the following essay, Bellamy examines the roles of idealism and rhetoric in Howells's "Editha."]
William Dean Howells's belief in the pernicious influence of idealism is never so obviously and appropriately dramatized as in his anti-war short story "Editha."1 The story of the young idealistic woman who sends her lover off to the wars is only too familiar. So also is the outcome of Editha's foolish attempt to make a dragon killer of her George. George not only does not come back; his death is rather casually mentioned as a minor detail of the first skirmish. It is tempting to accept the desire for heroics evident in Editha as a sufficient explanation for the enthusiasm for war which pervades her society. There are, however, less obvious, but no less sinister, and far more deep-seated reasons why, as Howells puts it at the opening of his story, "the air is thick with war feeling."2 Editha's idealism is merely the most visible manifestation of a death wish that is characteristic, albeit in more subtle forms, of most of the people in the story.
Editha's problem can be traced, in great part, to her typically Victorian sexual innocence. Her "duplex emotioning" (p. 339), or her tendency to divert sexual feelings to other enterprises,...
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SOURCE: "'His Apparition': The Howells No One Believes In," in American Literary Realism, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 85-9.
[In the following essay, Feigenoff underscores the psychological nature of Howells's ghost story, "His Apparition."]
In "His Apparition" William Dean Howells shrewdly manipulates the ghost story so that the emphasis is on the real rather than the supernatural. He does this by giving us a ghost story without a ghost. Not only does the story open immediately after Arthur Hewson has seen his apparition—an apparition which, despite his expectations, he never sees again—but this apparition is never even described. Although Hewson, overcoming his initial reticence, brings his story out again and again at his club and over dinner, Howells resists the temptation to provide us with a single shred of spectral detail and goes out of his way to avoid the sensational. From the very beginning Hewson dissociates the vision which appeared to him in his room at St. Johnswort, a summer hotel, from the vulgar classifications of "professional spiritualism"1 and is careful to describe it in neutral terms. As he later explains to St. John, the owner of the hotel, "I never said a ghost. I said an apparition. I don't know what it was. It may have been an optical delusion. I call it an apparition, because that's the shortest way out" (p. 56).
Because he plays down...
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SOURCE: "Arms in Love and War in Howells' 'Editha'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 425-32.
[In the following essay, Piacentino discusses the use of arm imagery in "Editha," and discovers parallels between Howells's story and George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.]
War like love, nature, and death has inspired the imaginations of writers since the time of Homer. And as many other literary works focusing on war, William Dean Howells' oft-anthologized story "Editha" contrasts an idealistic view with a realistic one. On the idealistic side, the scenario has been rehearsed so many times that it has become a veritable stock situation: the conquering hero, courageous, victorious, and magnificent in his glory, an individual deserving of commendation because of his accomplishments on the battle front. As such, the war hero successfully eradicates the evil enemy and, therefore, performs a life-affirming service. The realistic perspective, on the other hand, also treats an all-too-common paradigm: misery, suffering, needless chaos, destruction, psychological and physical maiming, and even death. War, in this sense, may be regarded as a life-denying act.
Published initially in Harper's Monthly Magazine in January 1905 and later reprinted in Howells's collection, Between the Dark and Daylight: Romances (1907), "Editha" has elicited some...
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SOURCE: "From Psychologism to Psychic Romance," in The Mask of Fiction: Essays on W. D. Howells, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 133-55.
[In the following excerpt, Crowley offers an overview of Howells's psychic stories.]
In August 1900 Howells wrote to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century, about two stories, both of which were ultimately to be included in Questionable Shapes. Howells described one as "the study of a man's state and relative conditions after having really seen a ghost, or something he can honestly explain as nothing else, and oddly enough it is rather humorous, and involves a prosperous love-affair" (SL, 4:248).18 As the story evolved, Howells became increasingly enchanted with it. "I think it is working out into something uncommon," he told Gilder. "I must keep myself from bragging about it, and perhaps the thing is merely playing upon my weakness as an author, but it seems to be of quite a new turn both for me and for the matter of it" (SL, 4:249n). Howells was overestimating the merits of "His Apparition"; it turned out to be little more than "a magazine comedy," as Delmar Cooke calls it.19 It was also less of a "new turn" for Howells than he thought. Like his earlier fiction, "His Apparition" is concerned with psychic experience only peripherally: Howells dramatizes not a psychic event but its...
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SOURCE: "'A Difficult Case': W. D. Howells's Impression of Mark Twain," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 607-15.
[In the following essay, Berkove assesses Mark Twain's influence on Howells's work.]
There is little doubt today about the nature and extent of the influence of William Dean Howells on Mark Twain, but what of the reverse situation? Is it possible that Howells restricted a long and close friendship with Twain to a personal level and that he never assimilated the relationship to the point of expressing it in his art? "A Difficult Case" (1900) is evidence that Twain did leave his mark on both Howells's thought and art, deepening him and inspiring him to write one of his richest, most skillful, and most powerful short stories.
The story, all Howells scholars agree, has been largely overlooked. Yet, paradoxically, most modern commentators on the story praise it as one of Howells's best. Although their interpretations of it vary, the main point of agreement among them is that a main character, Ransom Hilbrook, resembles Mark Twain. The first person to sense this resemblance was Mark Twain himself. Reading the story as it was published in July and August of 1900 in the Atlantic Monthly, Twain wrote Howells that "I read the Difficult Situation [sic] night before last, & got a world of evil joy out of it" (Smith et al. 719). What has led scholars...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells, edited by Ruth Bardon, Ohio University Press, 1997, pp. xiii-xxvii.
[In the following essay, Bardon surveys critical reaction to Howells's short fiction and discusses the defining characteristics of his sketches and short stories.)
The achievement of William Dean Howells as novelist, editor, and social and literary critic is no longer in dispute. Although there will always be readers who fail to succumb to his subtle and ironic charm or who are bored by the moral complexity of his characters' lives, Howells is universally recognized as a major writer of his generation, as the leader of the late-nineteenth-century "realism war," and as a truly influential friend and mentor to a stellar list of contemporary and later writers. The Indiana University Press selected edition of his works has surely helped to secure definitively his reputation, as has a host of critical studies and biographies. Amid all this critical attention, however, Howells's importance as a short story writer has been neglected, and my purpose here is to correct this oversight.
There exists no collected edition of Howells's short fiction, and while individual short stories have received some critical treatment, I have found only the briefest critical assessment of Howells as a short story writer. Students of...
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Aaron, Daniel. "Howells' 'Maggie'." The New England Quarterly XXXVIII, No. 1 (March 1965): 85-90.
Finds parallels between Howells's "Scene" and Stephen Crane's novel, Maggie.
Harris, Susan K. "Vicious Binaries: Gender and Authorial Paranoia in Dreiser's 'Second Choice,' Howells' 'Editha,' and Hemingway's The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber'." College Literature 20, No. 2 (June 1993): 70-82.
Maintains that the three stories "feature marginalized female characters who suffer as a result of their distance from whatever the stories define as the locus of freedom and power" and finds the infrastructures of the stories to be strikingly similar.
Merrill, Ginette de B. "Actualities into Reality and Complicity in Composition: Howells' A Fearful Responsibility." ALR 23, No. 1 (Fall 1990): 42-60.
Explores autobiographical aspects of Howells's story, "A Fearful Responsibility."
Nettels, Elsa. "Howells's A Circle in the Water' and Fitzgerald's 'Babylon Revisited'." Studies in Short Fiction 19, No. 3 (Summer 1982): 261-67.
Links "A Circle in the Water" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited," asserting that the stories "highlight the different outlooks of the two...
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