William Dean Howells Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How might William Dean Howells’s commitment to realism be responsible for the irresolute plots in certain of his novels?

To what extent would Howells have agreed with President Calvin Coolidge’s later assertion that “the business of America is business”?

What does Howells’s championing of both Mark Twain and Henry James reveal about his conception of realism? What does it reveal about Howells himself?

What evidence is there that Howell’s insistence on depicting “ordinary life” helped prepare the way for later writers’ preoccupation with lowly and criminal life?

Mark Twain and Henry James, each in his own way, were interested in Americans as innocents abroad. What was the focus of Howells’s interest as an American who spent considerable time in Europe?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201224-Howells.jpg William Dean Howells. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

William Dean Howells is known primarily as a novelist, especially for his two acknowledged masterpieces, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889). He was also a distinguished journalist and editor, who presided for years over the “Editor’s Easy Chair” column for Harper’s Monthly. In Criticism and Fiction (1891) and My Literary Passions (1895) Howells expounded the principles that made him known as a champion of literary realism.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Besides his enormous output in several literary genres, from 1866 until 1881 William Dean Howells was an editor for the Atlantic. Beginning in 1886, he was for many years an editorial columnist for Harper’s Monthly. Howells received an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1904 and was elected first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Dean Howells was unquestionably one of the most versatile and productive writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition to approximately forty novels, Howells produced several volumes of short fiction, among them A Fearful Responsibility, and Other Stories (1881) and Christmas Every Day, and Other Stories Told for Children (1893). He also wrote more than thirty dramas, including The Parlor Car (pb. 1876), The Mouse-Trap, and Other Farces (pb. 1889), and Parting Friends (pb. 1911), which generally were designed to be read aloud rather than performed.

In addition, one of Howells’s earliest and most enduring passions was the writing of poetry. His first published collection was Poems of Two Friends (1860, with John J. Piatt); nearly fifty years later, he published The Mother and the Father (1909). The genre that first brought him to public attention was travel literature, including Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867); other volumes continued to appear throughout his career. Howells also is renowned as a perceptive critic and literary historian. Still of literary value are Criticism and Fiction (1891), My Literary Passions(1895), Literature and Life (1902), and My Mark Twain (1910). In addition, a substantial number of Howells’s critical essays appeared in Harper’s magazine from 1886 to 1892, and between 1900 until his death in 1920. Finally, Howells wrote biographies such as Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin (1860), as well as several autobiographical works, including My Year in a Log Cabin (1893) and Years of My Youth (1916).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Dean Howells is remembered today as an important early exponent of realism in fiction. Reacting against the highly “sentimental’ novels of his day, Howells—both in his own fiction and in his criticism—advocated less reliance on love-oriented stories with formulaic plots and characters, and more interest in emphasizing real people, situations, and behavior. This is not to say that Howells shared the naturalists’ interest in sex, low-life, and violence, for in fact he was quite reserved in his dealings with these aspects of life. He did, however, acknowledge their existence, and in so doing paved the way for Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and the modern realistic novel.

Inspired by his reading of European literature (notably Leo Tolstoy), Howells also argued that fiction could be a tool for social reform. Finally, in his influential positions at The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s, Howells was able to offer help and encouragement to rising young American authors, including Crane and Henry James.

Howells’s later years were full of recognition: He received an honorary doctorate from Yale University (1901), as well as from Oxford (1904) and Columbia (1905). He received a doctorate in humane letters from Princeton in 1912. He was elected first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908, and seven years later he received the academy’s gold medal for fiction.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bardon, Ruth, ed. Selected Short Stories of William Dean Howells. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Indispensable. A meticulously edited collection of thirteen stories plus generous annotations of thirty-three more. The introduction, the notes, and the works cited list make this a valuable work for Howells scholars.

Cady, Edwin H., and Norma W. Cady. Critical Essays on W. D. Howells, 1866-1920. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. Gathers together important criticism on Howells. Includes reviews by contemporaries such as Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain, as well as commentaries by modern critics, such as Van Wyck Brooks, H. L. Mencken, and Wilson Follett. Contains essays by advocates and detractors of Howells.

Cady, Edwin H., and Louis J. Budd, eds. On Howells. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. Essays on materials and form in Howells’s fiction, on the equalitarian principle, on individual novels such as The Rise of Silas Lapham, Their Wedding Journey, and other novels.

Cady, Edwin H. The Road to Realism: The Early Years, 1837-1885, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956.

Cady, Edwin H. The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885-1920, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1958. These two volumes by...

(The entire section is 612 words.)