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 Howells and Mary Dean Howells, 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 his father oversaw a Whig newspaper and followed Swedenborgianism. Their nine years there were the longest period that they stayed in one place. The family had to live frugally, although the young Howells was encouraged by his parents in his literary interests. He began at an early age to help his father with typesetting and printing work, a job known at the time as a printer's devil. In 1852, his father arranged to have one of his 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 and 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 writers James Thomas Fields, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became a personal friend to many of them, including Henry Adams, William James, Henry James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
In 1860 Howells wrote Abraham Lincoln's campaign biography Life of Abraham Lincoln and subsequently gained a consulship in Venice. He married Elinor Mead on Christmas Eve 1862 at the American embassy in Paris. She was a sister of sculptor Larkin Goldsmith Mead and architect William Rutherford Mead of the firm McKim, Mead, and White. Among their children was architect John Mead Howells.
Editorship and other literary pursuits
The Howells returned to America in 1865 and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He 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; he accepted after successfully negotiating for a higher salary, though he was frustrated by Fields' close supervision.
Howells was made editor in 1871, after five years as assistant editor, and he remained in this position until 1881. In 1869, he met Mark Twain with whom he formed a longtime friendship. But his relationship with journalist Jonathan Baxter Harrison was more important for the development of his literary style and his advocacy of Realism. Harrison wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly during the 1870s on the lives of ordinary Americans. Howells gave a series of twelve lectures on "Italian Poets of Our Century" for the Lowell Institute during its 1870-71 season.
He published his first novel Their Wedding Journey in 1872, but his literary reputation soared with the realist novel A Modern Instance (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 was published in 1895 under the title Stops of Various Quills. He was the initiator of the school of American realists, and he had little sympathy with any other type of fiction. However, he frequently encouraged new writers in whom he discovered new ideas or new fictional techniques, such as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Abraham Cahan, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
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.