William Dean Howells
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
William Dean Howells (1837-1920), author of more than forty novels, was one of the most popular novelists of the late nineteenth century. He was normally mentioned in the same breath as Mark Twain and Henry James, and he was eventually crowned "America's Greatest Living Novelist" and "The Dean of American Letters." As the editor of various literary magazines and as a powerful literary critic, Howells was in a position to promote other authors, including Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris. The surprisingly nebulous concept of literary realism traces in part back to Howells.
Howells was a "theoretical socialist and practicing aristocrat," in the words of the otherwise workmanlike biography, William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life (2005) by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson. He worked during childhood as a printer in his father's newspaper in Ohio; as a young man worked as a journalist; was appointed American consul to Venice, Italy, through political maneuvering; married into a solidly middle class yet artistic family; inserted himself into Boston literary society; and found himself making an extremely good living as an editor, critic, and novelist.
Although for his time, Howells was adventurous in subject matter and style, there is something transitional about his work, neither modern nor antiquated, which perhaps captured the spirit of the 1880's and 1890's. The range of class origins of his characters, stemming from his personal experience in situations ranging from hard-scrabble to society, must also have had major appeal.
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), his most well-regarded novel today, concerns the varied characters surrounding a New York literary magazine: the crude businessman owner; his thoughtful son; the creatively scheming publisher; the solidly middle-class editor; the semi-failed art director; the German socialist contributor; the independent young woman illustrator; and all their families and entanglements.
I also enjoyed The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), his most well-regarded novel up until World War II--made required reading at Yale and other Ivy League universities in 1911. The novel balances a story of businessman Silas Lapham and his ethical dilemmas with the story of his daughters' romantic ethical dilemmas. It contrasts the proper yet practical family of the Laphams with a genteel yet fundamentally snobbish Boston society family.
Both A Modern Instance (1882), which treats the then-shocking subject of divorce, and The Landlord at Lion's Head (1908), involve "country" people, from remote parts of New England, and their collision with upper-class and society people in Boston.
I don't know if Howells intended conflict between people of different classes to be the overriding theme of his work; if so, he muted it sufficiently to make it acceptable to the powers of the time. Even so, his novels are an enjoyable and extremely interesting look at the nineteenth century mindset.
Copyright © 2008 by Heidi Boudro