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Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920 | Boston Public Library Archival and Manuscript Finding Aid Database

Name: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920

Historical Note:

William Dean Howells was born on March 1, 1837 in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Growing up, Howells taught himself Spanish, French, Latin and German, and read extensively. He worked as a typesetter, printer’s apprentice, and was the city editor of the Columbus newspaper the Ohio State Journal. After years of publishing poems, reviews, and stories, Howells traveled Boston and Concord in 1860 where he met James T. Fields, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others. Also during this time, Howells published Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, a biography of Lincoln’s campaign. As a result of the book, Abraham Lincoln appointed Howells consulate of Venice, where he lived from 1861 until after the Civil War.

Once back in the United States, Howells lived in New York City and wrote for the Nation magazine as well as various newspapers. In 1866, Howells moved to Boston to become the assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. During his early years at the magazine, Howells published his Italian sketches and early novels, including A Romance of Real Life. In addition, he wrote critical reviews on books by such writers as Mark Twain, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry James, in which he began to shape the course of American literature. From 1871-1881, Howells was editor in chief of the Atlantic and continued to publish his both his fiction and critical reviews.

After leaving the "Atlantic" in 1881, Howells spent the rest of his life writing full time. A Modern Instance, his first piece of realist fiction, was published 1882. This was followed by such novels as The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885),  A Hazard of New Fortune (1892), and Editha (1905). In addition to his novels, Howells also wrote several columns, including the ‘Editor’s Study’, ‘Life and Letters’, and the ‘Editor’s Easy Chair’ for Harper’s. Moreover, he published many works of non-fiction, among them Impressions and Experiences (1896), Literature and Life (1902), and My Mark Twain; Reminiscences and Criticisms (1910). Howells was elected first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908 and served in the position until his death in 1920.

Sources: Goodman, Susan and Carl Dawson. "William Dean Howells: a Writer's Life."  Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005. Print.

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