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Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Howells, William Dean

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HOWELLS, William Dean, author, b. in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, 1 March, 1837. His ancestors on the father's side were Welsh Quakers, and people of substance; his great-grandfather introduced the manufacture of flannel into his town and built three mills; his grandfather, impelled by his democratic sympathies, emigrated to this country, and became an ardent Methodist; while his father adopted the beliefs of Swedenborg, in which young Howells was educated. In all these generations the family was a cultivated race, living in an atmosphere of books and moral and literary refinement. His father had, for the time and place, a good collection of books, but it was mostly poetry, and familiarity with this doubtless decided the nature of his early literary efforts. Almost as soon as he could read he began to make verses and put them in type in his father's printing-office. In his inherited literary tastes and refinement and liberal and undogmatic religious tendency, in the plain living of his early years and his learning a trade, in his contact with a thoroughly democratic society, in the early habit of self-dependence and the knowledge of the realities of life, it is evident what has given the man his charm as a writer, his courage of opinion, his sturdy Americanism, and his profound sympathy with common life. When he was three years old his father removed to Hamilton, Ohio, and bought the Hamilton "Intelligencer," a weekly journal, in the office of which Howells learned to set type before he was twelve years old. In 1849, the elder Howells, unable, conscientiously, to support a slave-holding president, sold his newspaper, and removed with is family to Dayton, Ohio, where he purchased the Dayton "Transcript," a semi-weekly newspaper, which he turned into a daily. After a struggle of two years, this enterprise completely failed, not, however, from any want of industry, for all the sons worked at the case, and young Howells often set type till eleven o'clock at night, and then arose at four in the morning to deliver newspapers. The announcement of the catastrophe in business was accepted with American insouciance. "We all," says the author, "went down to the Miami river, and went in swimming." In expectation, which was disappointed, of taking the superintendence of a projected paper-mill, the elder Howells took his family to Greene county, where they remained a year. During this year, in a log house, the author had his sole experience of roughing it, away from the amenities of civilization, an experience which he has turned to account in a charming sketch of his boyhood. In 1851, when the father was clerk of the house at the state capital, Howells worked as a compositor on the "Ohio State Journal," earning four dollars a week, which he contributed to the family treasury. It was here that he made the acquaintance of John J. Piatt, an intimacy which stimulated his poetical tendency. In 1851 the family removed to Ashtabula, and all found employment on the "Sentinel," which the elder Howells purchased; but this newspaper was subsequently transferred to Jefferson, where it continued under the management of the family. Before this last removal the talents of the young author had attracted attention; at the age of nineteen he was the Columbus correspondent of the Cincinnati "Gazette," and when he was twenty-two he was made the news editor of the "State Journal" at Columbus. During his residence in Columbus he published poems in the "Atlantic Monthly," the first entitled "By the Dead," and in one year five others, "The Poet's Friends," "The Pilot's Story," "Pleasure Pain," "Lost Beliefs," and "Andenken." Upon the nomination of Lincoln in 1860, Howells wrote his life, and from the profits of this book, $160, he made his first excursion into the world, visiting Montreal and Boston, where he formed the acquaintance of James Russell Lowell, then editor of the "Atlantic Monthly," who introduced him to Oliver Wendell Holmes. By President Lincoln he was appointed consul to Venice, and he resided in that city from 1861 till 1865, devoting his leisure hours to the mastering of the Italian language and literature, and the general cultivation of letters. The earliest fruits of this residence were a series of papers on "Venetian Life," first published in book-form in England, in which was at once recognized the advent of a new writer of uncommon power, one capable of conveying to the reader exquisite delight merely by the charm of an original style, as vivid as it was subtle and flexible. The sketches had the novelty of realism; never was Venice so perfectly photographed, and the reader was agreeably surprised to find that the intrinsic romance of the city of the lagoons was heightened rather than diminished by this delicate and sympathetic analysis. Returning home well equipped for newspaper work, by a knowledge of foreign politics and literature, and the acquisition of French and Italian, Howells was for some time an editorial writer on the New York "Tribune" and the "Times," and a salaried contributor of the "Nation," and in 1866 he was made by James T. Fields assistant editor of the "Atlantic Monthly." In 1872 he became its editor, which post he retained till 1881, when he resigned and was succeeded by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Besides his strictly editorial work on this periodical, he contributed to it a vast amount of criticism, miscellaneous sketches, and fiction. During this period he was an occasional contributor to the "North American Review" of papers on Italian literature, and, residing in Cambridge, he was a valuable member of the coterie that gathered at Longfellow's house to assist in the translation of Dante. About this time he began his acquaintance with Spanish literature. While editor of the "Atlantic Monthly," he edited with delightful introductory essays a series of "Choice Autobiographies." His first tentative attempt at a story in "Their Wedding Journey" was so successful with the public that it determined his career as a writer of fiction, and since he dissolved his connection with the "Atlantic" he has pursued the career of a professional man of letters, devoting himself mainly to fiction, with the occasional production of plays, travel sketches, and literary criticism. Since 1881 most of his work has had a preliminary publication in "The Century" and "Harper's Magazine." In 1882-'3 Mr. Howells was again in Europe with his family, spending some time in England and revisiting Italy. Since his return his residence has been in Boston. In 1886 he made a salaried connection with "Harper's," taking charge of a new and critical department called the "Editor's Study," and contributing exclusively to its pages. In this department he exposes and explains his theory of modern fiction, taking part with signal courage and acumen in that conflict which is always raging, under one name or another, between the idealists and the realists. To his apprehension there is a new spirit in the world, or a new era in fiction, which concerns itself with life as it actually is, has a profound sympathy with humanity, and reckons more important the statement of the facts of life than the weaving these facts, by any process of selection, which in a painter would be called "composition," into any sort of story, more or less ideal. Anything ceases to be commonplace when it is frankly and exactly stated. In this new literary movement, the novels of the past seem unreal and artificial. This tendency is best exemplified in the modern Russian school, which is remorseless in its fidelity to the actual, the lowly, the sordid, the sinful, and the sorrowful in life, and accepts the inevitable, the fateful, without sarcasm, but with a tender pity. Because he portrays life as it is, or rather has the power of transferring the real, throbbing, human life, and not merely its incidents, to his pages as no writer has done before, Mr. Howells regards Count Leo Tolstoi as the first of all novelists that have written. Howells adds to his theory of realism the notion that genius is merely the power of taking conscientious pains. In practice he is a methodical and industrious worker, with a keen literary conscience, mindful of the responsibilities of a writer, serious in mind, but genial and even gay in temperament, and a delightful talker and companion. Mr. Howells married in Paris, 24 Dec., 1862, Elinor G. Mead, sister of Larkin G. Mead, the sculptor. They have three children, two girls and a boy. Besides his occasional uncollected writings, some translations, and four popular farces, "The Parlor Car," "The Sleeping Car," "The Register," and "The Elevator," the writings of Mr. Howells are "Poems of Two Friends," with John J. Piatt (Columbus, Ohio, 1860); "Life of Abraham Lincoln" (1860); "Venetian Life" (London and New York, 1866); "Italian Journeys" (1867); "Suburban Sketches" (1868); "No Love Lost, a Poem of Travel" (1868); "Their Wedding Journey" (Boston, 1871); "A Chance Acquaintance" (1873); "A Foregone Conclusion" (1874); "Out of the Question" (Boston, 1876): "Life of Rutherford B. Hayes" (New York, 1876); "A Counterfeit Presentment" (1877); "Choice Biographies," edited with essays (8 vols., 1877-'8); "The Lady of the Aroostook" (1878); "The Undiscovered Country" (1880); "A Fearful Responsibility, and other Tales" (1882); "Dr. Breen's Practice" (1883); "A Modern Instance" (1883); "A Woman's Reason" (1884); "Three Villages" (1885): "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885); "Tuscan Cities" (1885); "A Little Girl among the Old Masters," drawings by his daughter (1886); "The Minister's Charge" 1886); "Indian Summer" (1886); "Modern Italian Poets" (1887); and "April Hopes" (New York, 1887).