Early life and family
William Dean Howells was born on March 1, 1837, in Martinsville, Ohio (now known as Martins Ferry, Ohio), to William Cooper and Mary Dean Howells. He was the second of eight children. His father was a newspaper editor and printer, who moved frequently around Ohio. In 1840, the family settled in Hamilton, Ohio, where William Cooper Howells oversaw a Whig newspaper and followed Swedenborgianism; their nine years there marked the longest they would stay in one place. Though the family had to live frugally, the young Howells was encouraged by his parents in his literary interests. Howells began to help his father with typesetting and printing work at an early age, a job known at the time as a printer's devil. In 1852, his father arranged to have one of Howells' poems published in the Ohio State Journal without telling him.
In 1856, Howells was elected as a clerk in the State House of Representatives. In 1858 he began to work at the Ohio State Journal where he wrote poetry, short stories, and also translated pieces from French, Spanish, and German. He avidly studied German and other languages and was greatly interested in Heinrich Heine. In 1860 he visited Boston and met with other American writers James Thomas Fields, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and became a personal friend to many, including Henry Adams, William James, Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..
Said to have been rewarded for an official biography of Abraham Lincoln used during the election of 1860, he gained a consulship in Venice. On Christmas Eve 1862, at the American embassy in Paris, he married Elinor Mead, a sister of the sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Mead and the architect William Rutherford Mead, the Mead of McKim, Mead, and White. Among their children was the future architect John Mead Howells.
Editorship and other literary pursuits
Upon returning to America in 1865 and settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Howells wrote for various magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. In January 1866 James Fields offered him a position as assistant editor at the Atlantic Monthly, which Howells accepted after successfully negotiating for a higher salary, though he was frustrated by Fields's close supervision. After five years, in 1871 Howells was made editor, and remained in this position until 1881. In 1869 he first met Mark Twain, which began a longtime friendship. But more important for the development of his literary style—his advocacy of Realism—was his relationship with the journalist Jonathan Baxter Harrison, who during the 1870s wrote a series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly on the lives of ordinary Americans (Fryckstedt 1958). Howells gave a series of twelve lectures on "Italian Poets of Our Century" for the Lowell Institute during its 1870-71 season.
He had published his first novel, Their Wedding Journey, in 1872, but his literary reputation soared with the realist novel A Modern Instance, published in 1882, which described the decay of a marriage. His 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham became his best known work, describing the rise and fall of an American entrepreneur of the paint business. His social views were also strongly represented in the novels Annie Kilburn (1888), A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), and An Imperative Duty (1891). He was particularly outraged by the trials resulting from the Haymarket Riot, which led him to portray a similar riot in A Hazard of New Fortunes and to write publicly to protest the trials of the men allegedly involved in the Haymarket affair. In his public writing and in his novels, he drew attention to pressing social issues of the time. He joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898, in opposition to the U.S. annexation of the Philippines.
His poems were collected in 1873 and 1886, and a volume under the title Stops of Various Quills was published in 1895. He was the initiator of the school of American realists who derived, through the Russians, from Balzac and had little sympathy with any other type of fiction, although he frequently encouraged new writers, such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Abraham Cahan, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, in whom he discovered new ideas or new fictional techniques.
In 1902, Howells published The Flight of Pony Baker, a book for children partly inspired by his own childhood. That same year, he bought a summer home overlooking the Piscataqua River in Kittery Point, Maine. He returned there annually until Elinor's death when he left the house to his son and family and moved to a house in York Harbor. His grandson, John Noyes Mead Howells, donated the property to Harvard University as a memorial in 1979. In 1904 he was one of the first seven people chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he became president.
In February 1910, Elinor Howells began using morphine to treat her worsening neuritis. She died on May 6, a few days after her birthday, and only two weeks after the death of Howells's friend Mark Twain. Henry James offered his condolences, writing, "I think of this laceration of your life with an infinite sense of all it will mean for you". Howells and his daughter Mildred decided to spend part of the year in their Cambridge home on Concord Avenue; though, without Elinor, they found it "dreadful in its ghostliness and ghastliness".
Howells died in his sleep shortly after midnight on May 11, 1920, and was buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eight years later his daughter published his correspondence as a biography of his literary life.