Howells, William Dean

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Howells, William Dean

Howells, William Dean, 1837–1920, American novelist, critic, and editor, b. Martins Ferry, Ohio. Both in his own novels and in his critical writing, Howells was a champion of realism in American literature. His education was gained by voracious reading as he worked for his father, a printer in various small towns in Ohio. Howells early turned to writing and to editorial work on the Ohio State Journal (1856–61). He wrote a campaign biography of Lincoln in 1860 and was given an appointment as consul in Venice in 1861. The first of his many travel books, Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journey (1867), brought popular success and recognition. After his return to the United States in 1865, he worked for various periodicals. Settling in Boston, he was associated with The Atlantic for 15 years and later wrote the “Editor's Study” (1886–91) and the “Easy Chair” (1900–1920) for Harper's Magazine.

His first novels, Their Wedding Journey (1872), The Lady of the Aroostook (1879), and others, were moralistic comedies of manners that aroused only mild interest. However, when he turned to realism with A Modern Instance (1882) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), he became a leading novelist. In these two books, which are regarded as his major achievements, Howells portrayed with minute detail characters attempting to solve lifelike problems, often arising from social distinctions. His unromantic love story, Indian Summer (1886), was also highly popular. Howells' critical essays on the works of such realistic European writers as Tolstoy, Zola, and Ibsen helped to mold American taste, and he was a literary mentor to Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Thorstein Veblen, and Stephen Crane.

From the late 1880s on Howells spent much of his time New York City. During these years he became more and more concerned with social conflict and the problems of industrialization. Socialist thought is apparent in his novels A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), The Quality of Mercy (1892), and An Imperative Duty (1893), and even more forthright in his utopian works, A Traveler from Altruria (1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907). He was an amazingly prolific author; besides his many novels he wrote plays ranging from blank verse tragedy to farce; critical works; several volumes of reminiscence; and short stories. The most notable of his critical volumes is Criticism and Fiction (1891). His books of reminiscences include A Boy's Town (1890), My Year in a Log Cabin (1893), Impressions and Experiences (1896), Literary Friends and Acquaintances (1900), My Mark Twain (1910), and Years of My Youth (1916).


See his life in letters (ed. by his daughter, Mildred Howells, 1928); biographies by E. H. Cady (2 vol., 1956–58, repr. 1986), K. S. Lynn (1972), and S. Goodman and C. Dawson (2005); studies by E. H. Cady (1956 and 1958, both repr. 1986) and as ed. with L. J. Budd (1993), G. N. Bennett (1973), K. E. Eble (1982), J. W. Crowley (1985 and 1999), and P. Abeln (2004); bibliography by V. J. Brenni (1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Howells, William Dean


Born Mar. 1, 1837, in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio; died May 11, 1920, in New York City. American writer.

Howells was the son of a journalist. He became a reporter and later wrote a biography of Abraham Lincoln during the election campaign of 1860; from 1861 to 1865 he was the US consul in Venice. In the early novels, including Their Wedding Journey (1872) and A Chance Acquaintance (1873), Howells painted a penetratingly vivid picture of the life of the American aristocracy. Later, however, in the mid-1880’s, under the influence of the social strife in the USA, he emphasized themes of social criticism in his works, for example, the novels A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890; Russian translation, 1890) and The World of Chance (1893; Russian translation, 1898). Howells’ views became radicalized: he declared his sympathies with the socialism of the Christian reformist trend in the Utopian novels A Traveler From Altruria (1894; Russian translation, 1895) and Through the Eye of the Needle (1907) and condemned imperialistic wars. Howells was also the author of several books of travel essays, including Venetian Life (1866).

An authoritative literary critic, Howells was a champion of realistic art, and he popularized Russian (Turgenev and Tolstoy) and Western European (Ibsen, Zola, and Hardy) literature in the USA.


Representative Selections. New York [1961].
In Russian translation:
“Edita.” In Amerikanskaia novella, vol. 1. Moscow, 1958.


Istoriia amerikanskoi literatury, part 1. Moscow, 1971.
Elistratova, A. A. “Vil’iam Din Gouels i Genri Dzheims.” In Problemy istorii literatury SShA. Moscow, 1964.
Gilenson, B. A. “U. D. Khouells i sotsialisticheskoe dvizhenie.” Uch. zap. Ural’skogo un-ta, 1970, issue 15, no. 98.
Brooks V. W. Howells: His Life and World. New York, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Howells, William Dean

(1837–1920) writer; born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. He was self-educated, worked in his father's print shop, and became a journalist and editor for the Ohio State Journal, Columbus, Ohio (1856–61). After writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he was appointed U.S. consul in Venice, Italy (1861–65), then returned to live near Boston. There he was associated with the Atlantic Monthly as assistant editor (1866–71), and as editor in chief (1871–81). He moved to New York City to write columns for Harper's Monthly (1886–91; 1900–20), and he wrote novels, poetry, plays, literary criticism, travel books, and short stories. As a literary critic he stressed the need for realism, morality, and edification. His major novels—The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)—exhibited these qualities and have retained their status as fine examples of their kind.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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