Possibly the most influential figure in the history of American letters, William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was, among other things, a leading novelist in the realist tradition, a formative influence on many of America's finest writers, and an outspoken opponent of social injustice. This biography, the first comprehensive work on Howells in fifty years, enters the consciousness of the man and his times, revealing a complicated and painfully honest figure who came of age in an era of political corruption, industrial greed, and American imperialism. Written with verve and originality in a highly absorbing style, it brings alive for a new generation a literary and cultural pioneer who played a key role in creating the American artistic ethos.
William Dean Howells traces the writer's life from his boyhood in Ohio before the Civil War, to his consularship in Italy under President Lincoln, to his rise as editor of Atlantic Monthly. It looks at his writing, which included novels, poems, plays, children's books, and criticism. Howells had many powerful friendships among the literati of his day; and here we find an especially rich examination of the relationship between Howells and Mark Twain. Howells was, as Twain called him, "the boss" of literary critics—his support almost single-handedly made the careers of many writers, including African Americans like Paul Dunbar and women like Sarah Orne Jewett. Showcasing many noteworthy personalities—Henry James, Edmund Gosse, H. G. Wells, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, and many others—William Dean Howells portrays a man who stood at the center of American literature through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
William Dean Howells A Writer’s Life
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—w. d. howells to William C. Howells, October 20, 1859
On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His attempt to seize weapons for arming slaves failed, and ten of Brown’s men (including two of his sons) died fighting. Brutal and useless as it turned out, the abortive raid stirred passions across America. Not since Nat Turner’s 1831 call to arms had the Union seemed in such peril. Quick to take advantage of the incident, Democrats blamed Republican “fanatics” like Joshua Giddings and Salmon P. Chase for inciting anarchy. Howells, caught up in the politics of his father’s possible appointment to the Senate clerkship, did not at first appreciate the significance of what he called a “laughable event.” The more he thought about the insurrection, however, the more it aroused his sympathies and concern. In Columbus, an important stage in the main conduit to freedom in Canada, he had seen men and women seized. He had been appalled by the plight of Margaret Garner, who, having escaped to Cincinnati, killed her own daughter rather than let her be sent back to enslavement in Kentucky. Well over a century later, Garner’s story prompted Toni Morrison to write her novel Beloved.
Ohio had more stations on the Underground Railroad than any other state, with lines converging at Ashtabula Harbor, Cleveland, Sandusky, and other ports on the shore of Lake Erie. Columbus citizens who met to consider disobeying the Fugitive Slave Law turned a blind eye to black steamboat workers smuggling their human cargo. In an age when people violently disagreed on the issue of slavery, law-abiding men and women were judged criminals or accomplices by their silence. A Howells family friend like Justice Swan felt obliged to uphold the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law even as he pronounced it immoral.
Although Howells and his colleague Samuel R. Reed, as editors of the Ohio State Journal, sought to separate Brown from the policies of the Republican party, they shared the common view of the raid as a terrifying but logical outgrowth of an immoral system by which free citizens of Ohio could be kidnapped with impunity and transported to slave-owning states. “Now Brown with twenty-one men has carried into the South the war he began [in Kansas],” an October 17 editorial ran: “We have little zeal to demand vengeance on Brown, while these monsters live and control the government.” Another on November 4 protested “any backing down on the part of the democratic press.” It argued that the Harpers Ferry raid, representing the highest principles, gave Brown standing among patriots such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Patrick Henry. That left the Benedict Arnolds, Judases, and fratricides who denounced him. The irony that Brown saw his actions as steps toward the destruction of the federal government seems to have escaped his supporters, many of whom would &fight not to end slavery but to preserve the Union.
The story of Brown had become fabulous enough, Howells wrote his father in early November, to promote war between the states. Newspapers across the country carried accounts of the socially promiment Northerners called the “Secret Six,” who by financing the raid risked prosecution for treason. They included social activists with transcendentalist leanings such as Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, both Unitarian ministers, as well as Samuel Gridley Howe, the director of the Perkins School for the Blind and the husband of Julia Ward Howe, whose “Battle Hymn of the Republic” later emerged as the anthem of the North. Howells’ identification with Brown aligned him with New England intellectuals and artists like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who saw Harpers Ferry as the whirlwind preceding the storm, before he met them personally. They would have appreciated the sentiment that led him to write to William, “If I were not your son, I would desire to be Old John Brown’s—God bless him!” Disappointed not “to see something violent in the Sentinel on the subject of Harpers Ferry,” he hoped that “Old Gid” would stand firm against the widespread revulsion.
William, who had lost other jobs because of his political partisanship, showed surprising restraint. Nonetheless, in an October 27 Sentinel column that his son may have missed, he made clear the significance—some might say the righteousness—of Brown’s actions. “No settled peace can exist between Liberty and Slavery. The weapons and the form of the warfare may be varied; but the battle goes on . . . and never can end till Slavery ceases;— for Liberty, being of Divine gift, cannot die.... The Harpers Ferry skirmish should serve as a beacon light of warning.” Weighing the connections between what amounted to his own ardent pacifism and the ethical and political benefits of Brown’s violence, William felt troubled by the murders of innocent people and criticized Brown’s tactics as impractical, if not insane. His paper wrestled with issues of insurrection and justice until Brown’s hanging in December 1859.
It proved a difficult time for all opponents of slavery. As Republican sentiment turned against Brown, the initial backers of the raid took cover. Ger-rit Smith, one of the Secret Six, escaped trial for treason by pleading insanity and committing himself to a mental hospital. On December 1, the front page of the Sentinel featured Will Howells’ lyric tribute “Gerrit Smith,” an ode to Smith’s principles that ignored his extraordinary backpedaling. The month before Brown’s hanging on December 2, Howells could think of little else. “Old Lion! tangled in the net.... A captive but a lion yet,” he wrote in “Old Brown.” Thanks to this “hero of the noblest plan... men shall rise where slaves have trod.” How much Howells was drawn to Brown, Brown’s sons, and other supporters of the raid can be seen in his admiration for the English-born poet Richard Realf—a protégé of Lady Byron— who was then lecturing in the United States. Realf seemed a dashing figure, a young man not much older than Howells himself, whose career combined the arts and politics. The son of an agricultural day laborer, he had won appointment as secretary of state designate in Brown’s promised government.
The Howells family had profound sympathy for Brown, and they likely met him when Brown lectured in Jefferson, at Giddings’ request, several months before the raid. After the raid, residents spotted Brown’s accomplices on the streets of Jeferson. William, a self-described “life-long slavery abolitionist,” supposedly gossiped with John Brown Jr.’s pursuers as the outlaw crouched in the Sentinel’s loft. When a new presidential campaign made Brown old news, William’s outspokenness again increased. In the March 14, 1860, issue of the Sentinel, he asked people to attend a rally where John Brown Jr., Owen Brown, Barclay Coppoc, and James Redpath, every one an indicted fugitive, would mourn the hanging of their fellow conspirators Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens. He would like them “to feel safe to live in our country,” William wrote, “because there was not a man mean enough to betray them.” If decency failed, he said, stronger measures should be used to prevent treachery. John Brown Jr. acknowledged his indebtedness to the Howells family. “Give our very kind regards to your Sister Annie,” he wrote to Howells in 1874, “and say to her that we shall be more than glad to receive a visit from her next summer, and I will add from yourself, or from any of your Father’s family.”
Brown’s raid and Brown the man haunted Howells’ imagination, no doubt because of the unresolvable issues they represented. He warned his sister Aurelia, swept up in the antislavery movement, that people can become “bigoted and narrow about even the salvation of souls.” The advice to Aurelia may explain why Howells refused to lend his autograph to a memorial volume called Echoes of Harper’s Ferry, in which James Redpath reprinted his poem “The Pilot’s Story,” originally published in the Atlantic Monthly, with pieces by Emerson, Whittier, and Thoreau. “The Pilot’s Story” dramatizes the suicide of a mulatto woman whose lover sells her to repay a gambling debt.
Howells had mixed feelings not only about Redpath’s reprinting his poem but equally about the raid and its consequences, which his signature would have seemed to condone. “My sentiments with regard to John Brown remain unchanged,” he wrote his father; “but I am as yet a person of too little consequence to confer celebrity on a work by my connection with it; and, at any rate, I do not seek notoriety in any but a purely literary way.”
In his book of Ohio stories for schoolchildren, published in his sixtieth year, Howells summed up Brown for a younger generation: “Some think that Brown was mad, some that he was inspired, some that he was right, some that he was wrong; but whatever men think of him, there are none who doubt that he was a hero, ready to shed his blood for the cause he held just. His name can never die, so long as the name of America lives.” Brown also enters Howells’ fiction. In A Chance Acquaintance (1873), he pitted the convictions of Boston against those of the West, to Boston’s disadvantage, and invoked Brown, oddly enough, to compare the oppression of African Americans with that of women in Boston’s hereditary aristocracy. He believed Brown’s legacy to be one of conscience and creed, preferring it to a genteel, intellectual alternative. When he wrote about Brown, he did not measure the horror or the triumph of the man’s life but marveled at the conviction necessary to kill and die for a belief.
Given his fascination with Brown, it seems almost preordained that on his &first trip to Boston Howells should have spied the conspirator Barclay Coppoc asleep in the coach. Making this encounter the centerpiece in one of his travel “letters,” he was struck by Coppoc’s vulnerability more than by his strength or determination. In a letter dated June 30, 1860, he quoted from Walt Whitman: “You are the same as I / You are no different from me.” Where, after all, was the line that one man crossed and another did not? Harpers Ferry taught Howells the significance of basic principles on the one hand and public harmony, along with due process, on the other. “No man or order of men,” he would write in old age, “can pervert a whole people without their complicity.”
—w. d. howells to his family, April 21, 1860
For some months the Ohio State Journal had been on the verge of failing, and in the ensuing reorganization Howells lost both his ten-dollar-a-week salary and the prospect of collecting back wages of about two hundred dollars (which he received the following year). Casting around for a job in the spring of 1860, he found one as “professional reader” for the publishing house of Follett, Foster & Company, editing and sometimes entirely rewriting manuscripts. He worked with Joshua Giddings to promote his antislavery message and with William Coggeshall, the state librarian and booster of regional literature, on The Poets and Poetry of the West (1860), an edition that included poems by Howells. Follett & Foster had published, with little success, Howells’ first book of poetry, Poems of Two Friends (December 1859). Motivated by the Atlantic’s acceptance of “Andenken,” he had turned to John J. Piatt, a journalist he knew from his early years with the Ohio State Journal. In those days he had admired his friend’s aim with wet sponges thrown whenever Piatt’s uncle, Charles Scott, left the two apprentices unsupervised. Piatt had since won modest success as a poet, selling several pieces to the Atlantic. Howells would live to sigh about “poor Piatt,” whose demands for preferential treatment from the magazine grew so persistent they seemed to exceed the debts of several lifetimes. In 1859 it was Howells who sought the favors. On September 19, he first approached Piatt about adding Piatt’s poems to a Follett & Foster holiday book. Three days later he wrote: “When you are here, we can look your poems over together; and I constituting myself an awful judge of what you propose to print, could be a sort of pre-public to you. There, too, we might decide about publishing our verses together.” Within the space of two sentences, he moved from friendly editor to critic, and from literary agent to coauthor, as if in response to Piatt’s invitation.
Howells’ collaboration with Piatt added to his literary standing at a time when he may have lacked the confidence (or a sufficiently large body of work) to attempt a volume on his own. Overseeing the marketing of their book, he asked his more successful collaborator to approach Eastern publications such as the New York Post and Boston Courier, so that when their book came out editors would mention Piatt as a contributor and give them both free advertising. Having learned from his father to push his own wares if he wanted them sold, he saw no conflict of interest in touting Piatt’s genius when he wrote a long review of their book for the Ohio State Journal (in December 1859).
Howells’ relationship with Follett & Foster proved to be one of those happy accidents that change the course of a life. Follett suggested that How-ells write a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, then struggling against Northern opponents and Southern hostility in his bid for the presidency. Follett & Foster, who had published—in fact built their house upon—the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, hoped for another coup. Howells had little enthusiasm for an assignment he treated as hack work and that came with an early deadline: the book had to be finished within a month of Lincoln’s nomination on May 18, 1860. Nor did he take Lincoln seriously as a candidate. Like most citizens of Columbus, he supported his mentor, Senator Chase, a scholarly man known for his good looks, social graces, and ardent antislavery positions, in comparison with whom Lincoln appeared awkward and uncommitted. Declining to interview or correspond with Lincoln or Lincoln’s running mate, he wrote The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin from published materials and from notes gathered by a law student named James Quay H