Flashbacks December 2005

Howells Rediscovered

A collection of articles by and about The Atlantic's third editor, William Dean Howells, celebrates his contributions to the magazine and American literature.

Of all the men of letters who took the helm at The Atlantic Monthly in its first fifty years, perhaps its most prolific and well-known was William Dean Howells—at least in his day. In our time, however, Howells is relatively unknown, especially when compared with the writers he helped bring to national prominence—Mark Twain and Henry James, among others. But a new Howells biography by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, published this year, has returned this author of some forty novels to the literary spotlight. In light of the renewed interest in Howells and in honor of The Atlantic's upcoming 150th anniversary, we've collected a few written portraits of the editor along with some of Howells's writing from the magazine.

When Howells arrived in Boston for the first time in 1860, as a twenty-three-year-old self-educated journalist from very unliterary Ohio, he would hardly have seemed a likely heir to The Atlantic's editorship. Boston was the epicenter of the literary culture Howells revered and hoped to join, and home to some of his favorite authors—Emerson, Hawthorne, and Longfellow. Several of Howells's poems had been published in The Atlantic by its editor James Russell Lowell, who saw Howells as a western writer with significant promise. Howells visited Lowell at his home in Cambridge soon after reaching Boston. In "First Encounters: William Dean Howells and the Brahmins," Nancy Caldwell Sorel describes that afternoon meeting, in which Lowell took Howells under his wing. Howells was invited to dinner at the Parker House that night, where he met two of the magazine's other leading figures—Oliver Wendell Holmes, a physician, writer, and frequent contributor, and James T. Fields, the publisher. Howells later recalled in a letter to his father, "Lowell and Holmes both seemed to take me by the hands, and the Autocrat [Holmes], about the time the coffee came in, began to talk about the apostolic succession."

Howells became an assistant at The Atlantic in 1866, and by 1871 had risen to the position of editor. Twenty-six years after he had retired from that position, Howells wrote "Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship," in which, in honor of the magazine's fiftieth anniversary, he looked back from 1907 at his ten-year stint as an editor and the ways in which he had changed the magazine. Early in his tenure, he wrote, he "expanded the editorial departments at the end of the magazine so as to include comments on politics, art, and music, as well as literature." He filled these departments with authors and content until then as foreign as he had been to Boston in 1860. Howells modestly explained,

There was a long superstition, which each of the editors before me had tried to enlighten, that the Atlantic was unfriendly to all literature outside of Boston or New England, or at the farthest, New York or Philadelphia. The fact was that there was elsewhere little writing worth printing in it; but that little it had it welcomed. When the little became a good deal the welcome was not more cordial, for it could not have been; and in seeking a further expansion, I was only following the tradition of the magazine. I cannot claim that there was anything original in my passion for the common, for "the familiar and the low," which Emerson held the strange and the high. Lowell had the same passion for it in the intervals of his "toryism of the nerves" and nobody could have tasted its raciness with a keener gusto than my chief. But perhaps it was my sense not only of the quaint, the comic, but of the ever-poetic in the common, that made it dear to me.

Howells wasn't just charmed by the "common" or mundane—he championed it. As he himself became more liberal and democratic in his views, he opened the pages of The Atlantic to writers and subjects from beyond England and New England, and below the upper class:

[I]n the earlier rather than the later part of my term...the transatlantic muse was more invited; I thought either she did not give us her best, or that she had not anything so acceptable to give us as our own muse. The fact is we were growing, whether we liked it or not, more and more American. Without ceasing to be New England, without ceasing to be Bostonian, at heart, we had become southern, mid-western, and far-western in our sympathies.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly" (April 15, 1997)
A collection of writings by and about James—from his first published short story to his deathbed notes.

The new homegrown authors Howells discovered or encouraged were perhaps his greatest contribution to the magazine and to American literature. Although Henry James, the author of The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller, had published his work in The Atlantic under the previous editor, it was Howells who recognized the "unique artistry and beauty" of James's writing. As he described it in "Recollections:"

My desert in valuing him is so great that I can freely confess the fact that two of his stories and one of his criticisms appeared in the magazine some years before my time, though perhaps not with the band of music with which I welcomed every one afterwards... He was then writing also for other magazines... I did my best to keep him for the Atlantic.
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Mark Twain in The Atlantic Monthly" (June 25, 2001)
The story of Twain's association with The Atlantic, and a sampling of his writings.

Samuel Clemens, or as he is more commonly known, Mark Twain, was also one of Howells's famous recruits. In 1869, the editor reviewed Twain's first novel, The Innocents Abroad. At that point, although a well-known humorist, Twain was not yet considered a great writer. Howells's high praise, then and later, helped Twain achieve that distinction. Howells wrote, "Mark Twain...is well known to the very large world of newspaper-readers; and [Innocents Abroad] ought to secure him something better than the uncertain standing of a popular favorite...we think he is...quite worthy of the company of the best." Howells repeatedly solicited submissions from the author in the following years, but he did not succeed until 1874, after promising Twain double what the magazine paid its other contributors. In "Recollections," Howells wrote:

Mark Twain...came first with "A True Story" ... [It was] but three pages long, and I remember the anxiety with which the business side of the magazine tried to compute its pecuniary value. It was finally decided to give the author twenty dollars a page, a rate unexampled in our modest history. I believe that Mr. Clemens has since been offered a thousand dollars a thousands words, but I have never regretted that we paid him so handsomely for his first contribution. I myself felt that we were throwing in the highest recognition of his writing as literature.

In the following years, Howells published more of Twain's works, including, "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut" (June 1876), "Some Rambling Notes of an Idle Excursion" (October 1877-January 1878), and "A Telephonic Conversation" (June 1880). Howells took interest in the sharp and honest perspective the southern writer offered on a regional American culture unfamiliar to Atlantic readers.

Presented by

Abigail Holstein is an intern for The Atlantic Online.

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