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 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.

Honesty and realism were attributes that Howells likewise cultivated in his own writing. His nonfiction frequently addressed issues that were of current and compelling concern to the country. In "Police Report" (January 1882), for example, Howells vividly described a series of visits he had made to Boston's police courts, using the anecdotes he recounted as an opportunity to comment on the criminal-justice system:

The Irish case, which presently came on, was a question of assault and battery between Mrs. O'Hara and Mrs. MacMannis ... A dozen or more witnesses were called, principally young girls, who had come in their best, and with whom one could fancy this an occasion of present satisfying excitement and future celebrity ... I could not get tired of my fellow-spectators, I suppose, if I went a great many times. I liked to consider the hungry gravity of their countenances, as they listened to the facts elicited, and to speculate as to the ultimate effect upon their moral natures—or their immoral natures—of the gross and palpable shocks daily imparted to them by the details of vice and crime ... This procession of misdeeds, passing under their eyes day after day must leave a certain miasm of moral death behind it, which no prison or work-house can hereafter cure. We all know that the genius of our law is publicity; but it may be questioned whether criminal trials may not be as profitably kept private as hangings, the popular attendance on which was once supposed to be a bulwark of religion and morality.

Howells detested the melodrama of romance and sentiment, which he believed would lead readers astray into dangerous indulgence in fantasy. In his fiction as well as his nonfiction, Howells was therefore careful to take an unsentimentalized approach. His novels and short stories often took marriage as their central plot—not the passion and romance of courtship, but the sometimes disillusioning months and years that follow a wedding. In "Niagara Revisited—Twelve Years After Their Wedding Journey" (May 1883), Howells told the story of Basil and Isabel, an ordinary and moderately happy couple who set out for the spot where they had honeymooned in hopes of rediscovering the joy of their early days together:

They had not a very large family: they had a boy of eleven, who "took after" his father, and a girl of nine, who took after the boy, but with the American feeling that their children must have everything, they made it an expensive family, and they spent nearly all Basil earned.

The narrowness of their means, as well as their household cares, had kept them from taking many long journeys. They passed winters in Boston, and their summers on the South Shore,—cheaper than the North Shore, and near enough for Basil to go up and down every day for business; but they promised themselves that some day they would revisit certain points on their wedding journey, and perhaps somewhere find their lost second-youth on the track. It was not that they cared to be young, but they wished the children to see them as they used to be when they thought themselves very old; and one lovely afternoon in June they started for Niagara.

But the couple fails to find their "second youth." Rather, Isabel realizes, "Marriage was not the poetic dream of perfect union that a girl imagines it... Had not the commonplace, every-day experiences of marriage vulgarized them both?" Yet she does not allow herself to become preoccupied with the perfect fantasy that has eluded her; instead, she wills herself to close her mind to the exhilarating possibilities of unmarried life and continues home to her real life in Boston.

Three years before the end of Howells's life, in "Contemporary Novelists: William Dean Howells" (March 1917), Helen Thomas Follett and Wilson Follett reflected on Howells's literary achievements, providing a panoramic view of Howells's career, before, during, and after his Atlantic editorship. They focused especially on Howells's relationship to the realism that was so central to his work. It was this commitment to portraying life as it is really lived and experienced, they contended, that enabled him to write with such wisdom and insight about his country and its characters:

In a score of ways, America of 1875 was at a crossroads. And William Dean Howells was the man who was there with her to see everything. He saw—and he understood.

All these tendencies and forces ... are charted in the fiction of Mr. Howells, with an amplitude and a fidelity applied elsewhere, as in the novels of Trollope, to much narrower sectors of life, but never before in English to all the important phases in the life of a whole nation. It is as lavish as anything since Balzac, and it is focal. Howells is a master of village and town, farm and city, New England and the Middle West; he is at home in factory and lumber camp; he knows artisan and idler, preacher and teacher, the scientist, the journalist, the commercial traveler, the nouveaux-riches and their débutante daughter, the country squire, the oldest inhabitant, the village scapegrace and the village fool, the doctor and the lawyer; he misses nothing, as a review written by his greatest American contemporary [Henry James] once phrased it, of 'the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the optimistic, the domestic and the democratic.'

And he has through all this, in addition to the notion of where we are, the vision of where we are going.

Abigail Holstein