Biography of William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells was an American author and critic born on March 1, 1837 in Martinsville, Ohio (now called Martins Ferry, Ohio). He was the second of eight children born to William Cooper Howells, the son of Welsh immigrants, and Mary Dean, a local Ohioan. His father, from whom William Dean learned his eventual trade, was a printer who moved the family around Ohio during William Dean's youth.

Between 1840 and 1850, the Howells family lived in Hamilton, Ohio, where William Cooper managed the Hamilton Intelligencer. William Dean, meanwhile, set type and worked as a printer's apprentice as a boy, also becoming familiar with and educating himself in French, Spanish, German, and Latin. By 1849, William Cooper had lost the Intelligencer and had also overseen the failure of the Dayton Transcript, leaving the family in debt. For a brief period in the late 1840s, the Howells even turned to a Utopian experimental community in Eureka Mills, Ohio—an experience that William Dean would later write about in his New Leaf Mills (1913).

Throughout the early 1850s, the Howells family continued to move around Ohio, and young William Dean suffered through a series of mental and physical ailments, including a particularly strong bout of hydrophobia (fear of water) in 1854. In 1856, William Cooper was elected to a clerkship in the Ohio House of Representatives, during which time William Dean began contributing to Ohio newspapers and writing a column with the Cincinnati Gazette. By 1858, William Dean was working for the Ohio State Journal and published his own writing, including stories, poems, translations, and reviews.

After earning some money writing the campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln, Howells was able to travel to New England in 1860. There, he met many of the major literary figures of the day, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Walt Whitman. Later, for his work on the Lincoln campaign, William Dean was awarded the U.S. consulship in Venice, Italy, where he lived for almost four years. While there, William Dean married his wife Elinor in 1862.

After returning to the United States in 1865, William Dean was hired as the assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a role that not only gave him enormous critical sway over American literary tastes but also precipitated his friendships with public figures in Boston like William James, Henry James, and Mark Twain. In this role, living in Cambridge, he was even able to lecture at Harvard in 1870. By 1871, William Dean was the chief editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and between 1871 and 1881, he published a series of popular stories and novels. During this time period, as he did throughout his career, Howells also continued to advocate for the advancement of literary realism—for example, as he did in a controversial 1882 Century article in support of Henry James.

Between 1881 and 1884, William Dean Howells retired from his editorship to continue writing novels, spent a year in Europe, declined a professorship at Johns Hopkins, and moved to Beacon Street in Boston. In 1885, he read Tolstoy and was drawn to socialism as a cause. After Chicago's Haymarket Riot in 1886, William Dean risked his literary reputation in 1887 by asking for clemency for the Haymarket anarchists. When this failed, however, William Dean was deeply disturbed and became deeply invested in literary portrayals of social issues.

William Dean Howells' illustrious literary career then continued throughout the remainder of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, and he produced a significant volume of work during this time. In 1908, Howells was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a role which he would fill until his death. The 1910s proved a rough decade for William Dean, however, and he faced the loss of his wife, as well as his close friends Mark Twain and Henry James. William Dean Howells himself died from pneumonia on May 11, 1920, aged 83 years old.

Though William Dean Howells's literary output was immense, totaling over 100 books of various forms and genres, he is best remembered today for his groundbreaking realistic fiction. Chief among these works of realistic fiction are his Dr. Breen's Practice (1881), A Modern Instance (1882), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Indian Summer (1886), and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)—each of which covered and explored relevant social concerns of the day like divorce, business practices of the Gilded Age, and cosmopolitan life in turn-of-the-century New York. More than a prolific author and critic, however, William Dean Howells is also remembered as someone who stayed true to his country roots throughout his life, focusing on Ohio and its local, personal histories in many of his later works. Even more than this, however, he is revered as a multidimensional writer—sometimes lapsing into social convention, other times straying into radical politics, still other times passing himself off as simple and timid, and even other times attempting to show off his own polish and sophistication—one who, in encompassing so many multitudes with his person, also provides a great deal of information about the nuances and complexities of the society in which he lived.

Study Guides on Works by William Dean Howells