Art and craft
The creative life of literary eminence William Dean Howells is captured in a new biography
William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life
By Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson
University of California, 519 pp., illustrated, $34.95
The departure from Boston of The Atlantic Monthly magazine after 148 years coincides with the arrival of Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson's meticulous and highly readable biography of William Dean Howells. In the 1880s Howells was the dominant literary eminence of the era. He was revered by other writers, the author of almost 100 books of fiction, prose, and subjects of critical and cultural significance, countless polemics, poems, and 36 plays (one produced), and his writing embraced the full sweep of contemporary literature.
Realism was his watchword, and ''reality" didn't have to signify the unpleasant or a bogus romanticism governed by public taste. ''What is literature in America?" Howells asked. ''Almost anyone can tell us what it will be. But it wants a prophet to tell us what it is and has been." He called for original voices, and in his regime African-Americans and women graced the Atlantic's pages. In time, however, the initial subscribers vanished; the Atlantic couldn't compete with the immense press runs of the new illustrated journals. Goodman and Dawson find resemblances in the technologies of Howells's day not too remote from the editorial strategies of periodicals in our own time.
William Dean Howells grew up in daunting poverty in Ohio's Western Reserve. The father of the family was a vagabond printer with eight children, from whom Howells learned the printing trade. He wanted to become a newspaper reporter and to learn enough German to read his favorite poet, Heinrich Heine, in the original. Soon, he was writing verse of his own and translating French and Spanish journals.
Howells bombarded the new literary magazine the Atlantic Monthly with his poems, receiving rejections on a regular basis. In time acceptance finally came in the mail, and his first poem was published in 1860. Not only did the Atlantic encourage the poet's talents, but it kindled an enterprise he had long envisioned -- a literary pilgrimage around New England, where he would interview the masters of American letters.
In the spring of 1860 Howells took a job as a ''professional reader" for the publishing house of Follett, Foster & Co., editing and sometimes rewriting entire manuscripts. The firm had published, with little success, his first book of poems the previous December. Hoping for another bestseller, Follett suggested that Howells write a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, then struggling to convince both the North and the South that he deserved nomination. Without interviewing or corresponding with Lincoln or his running mate, Howells cobbled together a hagiography in less than a week. ''The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin" sold well enough and encouraged the publisher to advance expenses for travel through Canada, New York, and New England to gather material. While in Boston, Howell embarked on his literary pilgrimage, making contact with James Russell Lowell, whom he knew through correspondence with the Atlantic. Lowell introduced him to Oliver Wendell Holmes, which led to an introduction to James T. Fields, the editor of the Atlantic, and from there to the famous meetings with Nathaniel Hawthorne -- at which he uttered a classic of condescension: ''I find this young man worthy" -- and Henry David Thoreau. Howells ended the journey in a trip to New York, where he dined with Walt Whitman.
Howells then chose to pursue his literary career in an astonishing manner. Falling back on his flimsy Republican credentials, in particular his Lincoln biography, he wrote a letter to one of Lincoln's private secretaries, requesting the post of consul in Munich. Instead he was appointed consul to Venice, where he spent the years of the Civil War. In 1862, Howells was married to Elinor Mead, a teacher with artistic leanings and a cousin of future president Rutherford Hayes, in Paris. The marriage lasted for 48 years, until her death in 1910.
Howells did travel writing during this period, later stating that he invented the modern travel book. Both ''Venetian Life" and ''Italian Journeys" were published before he returned to America. Howells reacquainted himself with the Boston literary establishment but, having no job offers, settled in New York. A salary of $40 a week was offered by the Nation. Within months Fields was beckoning from the Atlantic, willing to negotiate salary and dangling the possibility of a future editorship of the magazine. In February 1866 the Howellses moved to Cambridge, not without deep reservations on the part of Elinor, who wrote to her father-in-law, ''It does seem like retrograding to go from New York to Boston."
Howells joined the Atlantic on his 29th birthday. He was assistant editor for five years; then Fields retired and Howells replaced him as editor. Altogether he remained as editor for 10 years, honing his critical opinions and riding the magazine's financial seesaw. Competition came from the new illustrated monthlies, Harper's and Scribner's; in the Atlantic decade, Howells's friendship with Mark Twain flourished. Over the years they collaborated on writing projects and manuscript editing, and exchanged over 700 letters, which illumine the writer's vocation.
The Cambridge house on Concord Avenue gave way to Redtop, an elegant country house in Belmont, designed by McKim, Mead, and White. Howells became a wealthy man, his family at the center of Boston-Cambridge society. The energies he put into the magazine took a toll on his own writing, however, and he made the decision in 1881 to leave the Atlantic. After his retirement, Howells wrote about taboo themes in ''A Modern Instance," which he thought his strongest work, and completed ''The Rise of Silas Lapham" and ''Indian Summer."
Howells's ''My Mark Twain" was published in 1910, the year of Clemens's death. A few later works fell by the wayside, no longer read or mentioned by contemporary readers. Nevertheless, he is considered by many the concise historian and man of letters of his age, who produced the most extended and accurate transcript of American manners yet made by one man. His long years as an editor of a Boston institution at the declining end of an epoch spoke to his devotion not only to letters but to respectability and civility. He died after a lifetime of reaching out to writers of past and present, likening himself to the pilot on a Mississippi steamboat who reads the landmarks and steers as he must to the end.
Robert Taylor is the former chief book critic of The Boston Globe.