William Dean Howells Howells, William Dean - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short 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 Youth (autobiography) 1916

The Complete Plays of W. D. Howells (dramas) 1960

Mark Twain-Howells Letters: The Correspondence of Samuel L Clemens and William D. Howells, 1872-1910 [with Mark Twain] (letters) 1960

William J. Free (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 of Belief," and the form of the story illustrates the pragmatic test of belief that Peirce described in "How to Make Our Ideas Clear."3 These two essays exerted a strong influence on Howells, who had been a close friend of Peirce's in Cambridge during the early 1870's when the philosopher was formulating the ideas that William James later called the foundation of American pragmatism.4

Before describing the experimental method of fixing belief, Peirce, in "The Fixation of Belief," catalogued three mistaken methods, which he labeled tenacity, authority, and a priori. Editha fits Peirce's characterization of a person who believes out of tenacity. Such people believe what is simple, easy, and emotionally satisfying, and they are seldom shaken in their beliefs. They repeat their beliefs to themselves, search for evidence supporting them, and reject with contempt any facts which contradict them. According to Peirce, the motives for such an approach to belief are "the instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt . . ." and the cheap pleasure that people find in the ease of believing something agreeable to them. (v:377)

Editha exemplifies such an attitude toward belief. She holds tenaciously to her idea that war is a romantic opportunity for her lover to do something glorious to win her. Her belief satisfies her emotionally because it enables her to picture herself as the heroine of a romance. The fictional image of the romantic hero obviously stimulates her desire that George "do something worthy to have won her—be a hero, her hero—it would be even better than if he had done it before asking her; it would be grander."5 Howells even suggests that Editha's love for George could not exist outside the context of wartime heroics; their courtship was "contemporaneous with the growth of the war feeling . . ." (126). Nor could reality or common sense question Editha's image of herself. She ignored her mother's warning that wishing George to go to war was a wicked thing. Her love for George itself lacked significance compared to her passion for war. When George reported to her that war had been declared and kissed her, "she kissed him back intensely, but irrelevantly, as to their passion" (125). By clinging to her fictional ideal of romantic heroism, she denied herself involvement in the reality of love that he offered her.

Editha's belief in the glory of war caused her to act to involve George in it. Although she at first "put a guard upon herself against urging him, by any word or act, to take the part that her whole soul willed him to take, . . ." she nevertheless did urge him to do her will, both by her subconscious use of her sexual appeal and by her arguments (126-131). Later she abandoned all attempt at impartiality and made his enlistment a condition for continuing their courtship and for their eventual marriage. Her culminating act was to write a letter, tied with red, white, and blue ribbon, in which she stated that the man she would marry must be devoted to his country first.

But Editha's attitude toward her act is ambivalent. Although she apparently does want George to enlist and is sincerely happy when he does, Howells implies that merely by expressing her feelings about the war Editha satisfied her own romantic sense: "in writing her letter she had satisfied the impulse from which it sprang . . ." (132). So she hesitated sending it. George, on the other hand, is a thoroughgoing pragmatist, whose attitude toward belief is "Tv e no business to think so, unless I act so, too.'" Editha responds to his determination by wondering at the strange nature of men, who are compelled to act "and not to think a thing was finished when they said it, as girls did" (128). Part of the falsity of Editha's belief lies in her desire to pretend that it is real rather than to act on it as real. She not only clings tenaciously to a false belief about war, but also to a false belief about the human response to reality.

The falsity of Editha's belief becomes clear early in the story. She herself sees that her argument about the glory of war consists of phrases parroted from the newspapers, but she rationalizes her empty rhetoric by thinking that she "must sacrifice anything to the high ideal she had" for George. Editha's belief lacks reality because it is untested by experience, by actions and their effects. She speaks of a holy war for the liberation of oppressed peoples: "' . . . a sacred war. A war for liberty and humanity, if ever there was one'" (128). But her words are, in Peirce's terms, fictions. If liberty, oppression, and humanity have meanings pragmatically, these meanings must be observed in the effects of the actions which they inspire. Editha had no experience of the pragmatic reality of these words; she knew them only as marks on the pages of a newspaper, as positive rhetorical terms that stirred her sense of the glamor of war. But she clung tenaciously to her romantic concept of their meaning because it satisfied her sense of her own role in the romance and because it avoided the genuinely difficult inquiry for a true belief in relation to the war. That her belief is false is obvious to her mother, to George, and to the reader, but she herself ignores the truth.

Structurally the story follows the method of a pragmatic experiment in belief and reality.6 Howells contrasts Editha's false belief first to George's pragmatism and then to reality itself. Editha thus faces a crisis of doubt in which she must come to terms with the unreality of her belief. She resolves this crisis, ironically, by finding means whereby she can continue to accept her false belief.

The contrast of George and Editha's attitudes toward war spotlights the falsity of her belief. Unlike Editha, George has observed the real effect of war. His father lost a leg in the Civil War, and his mother's life was darkened by that loss. George knows that war causes death and suffering and that to break the peace is ignoble, for he had seen its ignobleness in his father's empty trousers leg. Ironically, George enlists when his reason is clouded with drink, not when he is acting pragmatically, and he then must justify his action to himself with sophistries.7 But in the sober morning George knows what he is getting into. Editha's first intimation of doubt comes when he asks her to help his mother should something happen to him. The thought of losing him agitates her, but she clings desperately to her belief in the glory of war and repeats to herself: "'But nothing will happen! Nothing can!'" (137)

When George is killed in his first skirmish, the pragmatic reality of war confronts Editha. But again she assimilates it into her romantic beliefs by playing the role of the bereaved heroine. "She had the fever that she expected of herself. . . ." Her only surprise was that she was not delirious and did not die (139). Her false, romantic self-concept was further strengthened by the ideal of her...

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Robert F. Marler Jr. (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Carl W. Engelhart (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Charles L. Crow (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John W. Crowley and Charles L. Crow (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John B. Humma (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Philip Furia (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Michael O. Bellamy (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Charles Feigenoff (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Edward J. Piacentino (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John W. Crowley (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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"...

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Lawrence I. Berkove (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Bardon (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 238 words.)