1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Howells, William Dean

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HOWELLS, WILLIAM DEAN (1837– ), American novelist, was born at Martin's Ferry, Ohio, on the 1st of March 1837. His father, William Cooper Howells, a printer-journalist, moved in 1840 to Hamilton, Ohio, and here the boy's early life was spent successively as type-setter, reporter and editor in the offices of various newspapers. In the midst of routine work he contrived to familiarize himself with a wide range of authors in several modern tongues, and to drill himself thoroughly in the use of good English. In 1860, as assistant editor of the leading Republican newspaper in Ohio, he wrote — in connexion with the Presidential contest — the campaign life of Lincoln; and in the same year he was appointed consul at Venice, where he remained till 1865. On his return to America he joined the staff of the Atlantic Monthly, and from 1872 to 1881 he was its editor-in-chief. Since 1885 he has lived in New York. For a time he conducted for Harper's Magazine the department called “The Editor's Study,” and in December 1900 he revived for the same periodical the department of “The Easy Chair,” which had lapsed with the death of George William Curtis. Of Mr Howells's many novels, the following may be mentioned as specially noteworthy: Their Wedding Journey (1872); The Lady of the Aroostook (1879); A Modern Instance (1882); The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885); The Minister's Charge (1886); A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889); The Quality of Mercy (1892); The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897). He also published Poems (1873 and 1886); Stops of Various Quills (1895), a book of verse; books of travel; several amusing farces; and volumes of essays and literary criticism, among others, Literary Friends and Acquaintance (1901), which contains much autobiographical matter, Literature and Life (1902), and English Films (1905).

Howells is by general consent the foremost representative of the realistic school of indigenous American fiction. From the outset his aim was to portray life with entire fidelity in all its commonplaceness, and yet to charm the reader into a liking for this commonplaceness and into reverence for what it conceals. Though in his earliest novels his method was not consistently realistic — he is at times almost as personal and as whimsical as Thackeray — yet his vivid impressionism and his choice of subjects, as well as an occasional explicit protest that “dulness is dear to him,” already revealed unmistakably his realistic bias. In A Modern Instance (1882) he gained complete command of his method, and began a series of studies of American life that are remarkable for their loyalty to fact, their truth of tone, and their power to reveal, despite their strictly objective method, both the inner springs of American character and the sociological forces that are shaping American civilization. He refuses to over-sophisticate or to over-intellectualize his characters, and he is very sparing in his use of psychological analysis. He insists on seeing and portraying American life as it exists in and for itself, under its own skies and with its own atmosphere; he does not scrutinize it with foreign comparisons in mind, and thus try to find and to throw into relief unsuspected configurations of surface. He keeps his dialogue toned down to almost the pitch of everyday conversation, although he has shown in his comedy sketches how easy a master he is of adroit and witty talk.

See also J. M. Robertson, Essays towards a Critical Method (London, 1889); H. C. Vedder, American Writers (Boston, 1894).