Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/95

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77
Howells's Training

From the Middle West, too, came the principal exponent of native realism, in himself almost an entire literary movement, almost an academy. William Dean Howells was born at Martin’s Ferry, Ohio, 1 March, 1837, the grandson of a Welsh Quaker and the son of a country printer and editor. Like his friend Mark Twain he saw little of schools and nothing of colleges, and like him he got his systematic literary training from enforced duties as a printer and journalist. But, unlike Mark Twain, he fell as naturally into the best classical traditions as Goldsmith or Irving, who, with Cervantes, earliest delighted him. In My Literary Passions Howells has delicately recorded the development of his taste. At first he desired to write verse, and devoted months to imitating Pope in a youthful fanaticism for regularity and exactness. From this worship he turned, at about sixteen, to Shakespeare. particularly to the histories; then to Chaucer, admired for his sense of earth in human life; and to Dickens, whose magic, Howells saw, was rough. Macaulay taught him to like criticism and furnished him an early model of prose style. Thackeray, Longfellow, Tennyson followed in due course. Having taught himself some Latin and Greek and more French and Spanish, Howells took up German and came under the spell of Heine, who dominated him longer than any other author and who showed him once for all that the dialect and subjects of literature should be the dialect and facts of life.

Poems in the manner of Heine won Howells a place in the Atlantic, then the very zenith of his aspiration, and in 1860 he undertook the reverent pilgrimage to New England which he recounts with such winning grace in Literary Friends and Acquaintance. Already a journalist of promise, and something of a poet, he made friends wherever he went and was reconfirmed in his literary ambitions. At the outbreak of the Civil War appointed United States consult at Venice, married at Paris in 1862 to Miss Elinor G. Mead of Vermont, he spent four years of almost undisturbed leisure in studying Italian literature, notably Dante, as the great authoritative voice of an age, and Goldoni, whom Howells called “the first of the realists.” In Italy, though he wrote poetry for the most part, he formed the habit of close, sympathetic, humorous observation and discovered the ripe, easy style which made him, beginning with