William Dean Howells Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201224-Howells.jpg William 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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(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.”


(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.