William Dean Howells, (1837-1920), was an American fiction writer, editor, and critic. He discouraged artificial sentimentality and romanticism in American fiction. He also played an important part in the rise of the Realism movement in the United States.
Howells was born on March 1, 1837, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him U.S. consul in Venice, Italy, as a reward for writing a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860. Howells lived in Venice until 1865 and described his experiences there in his first important work, VENETIAN LIFE (1866). In 1866, he began working for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY magazine in Boston. He was THE ATLANTIC'S editor from 1871 to 1881.
Howells wrote his best novels after he left THE ATLANTIC. Each of these novels deals with various issues of the day in an increasingly Realistic manner. A MODERN INSTANCE (1882) concerns the then-daring subjects of divorce and the loss of religious faith. THE RISE OF SILAS LAPHAM (1885) is generally considered Howells' finest work. It describes the economic ruin but moral salvation of an ethical businessman in a Boston society controlled by families who inherited positions of power. A HAZARD OF NEW FORTUNES
(1890) portrays urban problems of New York City caused by industrialization, immigration, and clashes between socialism and capitalism. Howells died on May 11, 1920.
Howells produced more than 40 novels and story collections, but his influence as an editor and critic was perhaps even greater than as a fiction writer. As editor of THE ATLANTIC, he helped introduce European writers -- especially leading Realists -- to American readers. He challenged American authors to choose American subjects, to portray them honestly, and to create characters who used native American speech.
Howells also wrote columns in HARPER'S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE (later HARPER'S MONTHLY MAGAZINE) called the "Editor's Study" (1886-1892) and the "Editor's Easy Chair" (1900-1920). In these columns, he campaigned for literary Realism that examined life with scientific detachment. He helped introduce and support such Realistic writers as Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, and Stephen Crane. The letters exchanged by Howells and Twain form one of the major collections of literary correspondence in American literature.
Alan Gribben, Ph.D., Department Head and Distinguished Research Professor, Department of English, Auburn University Montgomery.
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