William Dean Howells: Overview

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Editor: Jim Kamp
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,495 words

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William Dean Howells's literary career was remarkable not only for its length and variousness but for its continuous and conscientious productivity. For more than fifty years, extending from the 19th well into the 20th century, Howells appeared in print as a journalist, a poet, a sensitively observant but unsentimental traveler, a novelist, a playwright, a critic and a polemicist in the cause of realism (these last two functions merging in Criticism and Fiction), a publicist and explicator of foreign writers for an ill-informed American public, and the educator of that same public to the greatness of its own writers like James and Twain.

The experience behind this writing was also rich and varied, directly furnishing much of the material for the immense productivity. Moreover, it was an experience that had its public occasions, most notably Howells's outspoken opposition to the treatment of the Chicago anarchists in the Haymarket affair. Beneath the surface of a life that moved from midwestern print-shops and newspapers through the consulship at Venice and the editorship of the Atlantic to the new center of literary activity in New York, and brought varied relationships with the literary giants of New England and deep literary and personal friendships with the new giants of American literature, James and Twain, there was profound personal experience: the challenge of Darwinian science to religious faith, and an increasing awareness of cultural dislocations, political corruptions, and economic inequities. Thus, Howells's writing became a permanently valuable record of a broad spectrum of the American literary, social, economic, religious, and moral experience. Even more importantly, in an impressive number of his fictions Howells achieved the transmutation of actual and vicarious experience into realistic art, and met his own criterion of "dispersing the conventional acceptations by which men live on easy terms with themselves" without falling into the error of claiming thereby to have solved "the riddle of the painful earth."

Howells's relatively late decision to become a novelist kept him close to his own experience and led to the unsophisticated literary devices in the early novels. The tentatively novelistic Their Wedding Journey stated his intention to deal with "poor Real life." But the pronouncement stemmed more from his distrust of his ability to manage a sustained narrative and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004115