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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837

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 ...

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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 Cincinnati Gazette. After a year in Cincinnati, Howells was offered a position on the Ohio State Journal staff, and before the end of 1859, he had become that newspaper’s unofficial literary editor. Howells’s first book, Poems of Two Friends, was published in 1860 (the other friend was John James Piatt). Howells’s poems were also being printed in The Atlantic Monthly, the Saturday Press, and the Cincinnati Dial. Samples of his poetry appeared in Poets and Poetry of the West (1860).

During the 1860 presidential campaign, the publishers of the Ohio State Journal printed a three-hundred-page campaign book, Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. Howells’s contribution was an essay on Lincoln. Howells used his share of the profits from the book to go on a tour of New England and Canadian factories. His tour developed into a literary pilgrimage of New England. His later account of the trip became the opening chapter of Literary Friends and Acquaintances (1900).

In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Howells became United States consul to Venice. A year later he married Elinor Gertrude Mead, whom he had met in Columbus before leaving for Europe. When the war ended, Howells returned to the United States, determined to find full-time employment as a writer. Like Bartley Hubbard, who appears in both A Modern Instance (1882) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Howells went to New York determined to find enough freelance work to support his family until he could secure permanent, full-time employment. After working briefly for The Nation, Howells became assistant editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He became editor-in-chief in 1871 and remained with the magazine until 1881.

During his stay in Italy, Howells had continued to write, and his first prose work, Venetian Life, was published in 1866. The Italian experience exerted a strong influence on Howells; it resulted in three travel books and a series of essays on Italian poets. Howells also wrote four international novels about Americans in Italy: A Foregone Conclusion (1875), The Lady of the Aroostook (1879), A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories (1881), and Indian Summer (1886). Howells left The Atlantic Monthly in 1881 and reached the peak of his power as novelist and critic in the decade that followed. It was during this period that he published what many consider his most representative novels: A Modern Instance, Indian Summer, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Annie Kilburn (1888), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889).

After 1890, Howells’s power as a writer gradually declined. A Hazard of New Fortunes was followed by many novels on a smaller scale, but only two of them, The Landlord at Lion’s Head (1897) and The Leatherwood God (1916), compare with the novels of the 1880’s. Howells’s most significant production during this period was his series of literary recollections and reminiscences. Some of his most important works on literary criticism were also produced during this period. In 1900, Howells assumed responsibility for “The Editor’s Easy Chair,” a column appearing in Harper’s Monthly, and he continued writing the column until his death at the age of eighty-three.

Biography

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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 140

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.”

Biography

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Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

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.

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