First Encounters November 1987

William Dean Howells and the Brahmins

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William Dean Howells and the Atlantic founders

He thought of himself, that summer of 1860, as a young man wholly immersed in literature. He worked as a journalist in his native Ohio and had just completed a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, but his gods were the English poets and, more locally, Hawthorne, Emerson, Longfellow. Above all, Heine. At twenty-three Howells had himself made a start—five or six of his poems had been accepted by James Russell Lowell, the editor of the fledgling Atlantic Monthly—and on the strength of that "the passionate pilgrim from the West," as he called himself, "approached his holy land at Boston."

His first objective was actually Cambridge, where Lowell lived. Howells was nervous—inwardly quaking, in fact, when at last he was shown into Lowell's study. There was a moment of frosty uncertainty; then Lowell smiled and reached for his pipe. Howells could breathe easy. He might fall short—his twang grated, for example, when set against "the clear enunciation, the exquisite accent," of his host—but he had been admitted into grace.

Before he left, Lowell asked him to dine at the Parker House, and when the day came, Howells found big, shaggy James T. Fields present and, even more remarkable, tiny Oliver Wendell Holmes. It was the first dinner served in courses that the Howells had ever sat down to, and he had never before heard such talk. there seemed no cap to Dr. Holmes's effervescent wit or Lowell's quixotic range of subject or Fields's jollity. However society viewed them—doctor, editor, publisher, journalist—here all were poets together, and when Holmes, with a laughing glance at their guest, observed to Lowell, "Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands," Howells needed no more wine to be heady with joy. After the coffee came cognac with floating sugar lummps ablaze—who would believe that in Ohio?—but still they lingered until Lowell's last cigar gleamed in the semi-darkness and, as Howells put it, "the time that never had, nor can ever have, its fellow for me had ... come to an end."

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