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.