William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

    Contributing Editor: John W. Crowley

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students are usually unfamiliar with Howells and his central position in nineteenth-century American literature. If they have heard of him at all, they are likely to have picked up the (still) prevailing stereotype: that Howells was a genteel prude whose realism could not possibly be of any interest to contemporary readers. Another problem is that students are not often sensitive to quiet irony in what they read; they are not prepared to hear the subtle nuances in Howells's narrative voice--or to read between the lines in his treatment of sexuality, which he handled with Victorian decorum but did not avoid as a subject.

    It is useful to tell students about the history of Howells's literary reputation: his contemporary fame, his fall from grace during the 1920s, his currently anomalous position in the canon. Students are usually pleasantly surprised by Howells, in part because his prose is not "difficult" (like James's) and because they find more complexity than they had expected. It is best to start, perhaps, with the "Editor's Easy Chair" selection, which introduces students to his characteristic tone and prepares them to recognize his use of the dramatic method in the fiction: the apparent (but only apparent) narrative detachment, the embodiment of themes in the characters' dialogue and interactions.

    I have sometimes introduced Howells by reading from the famous account of the Whittier Birthday Dinner in 1877, as reported in My Mark Twain. The narrative is very engaging and amusing; it catches students' attention. It is also revealing of Howells's "inbetweenness" in the literary culture of his time and of the collision of East and West, decorum and humor. Howells often seems remote from the world of current students. They may wish to know why they are reading him at all--a question that can usher in a discussion of canon formation.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The personal theme I would emphasize--because it is not well recognized--is Howells's neuroticism: his history of psychological perturbation and its bearing on his sensitivity to undercurrents of motive in his characters. I would also stress his role as the "Dean" of American letters as indicative of the changing means of literary production in the late nineteenth century. It is also important that Howells's career spanned virtually the entirety of American literature up to his time: from the romantics to the forerunners of modernism.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Obviously, the key issue for Howells is literary realism: what it means, how it came to develop in America. Since realism has become something of a whipping boy for poststructuralist theory, it makes sense to use Howells to examine the enabling ideological assumptions of realism. There is in Howells, however, especially in his later work, a strong debt to Hawthorne and the American romance. This side of his work is not well known.

    Original Audience

    Howells was acutely aware of the female dominance of the audience for fiction in the period. He clearly imagined that he was writing for women primarily and believed further that he had a moral responsibility not to offend the sensibilities of young women readers. Insofar as the current audience for literature has been "masculinized" by modernism, Howells's work may sound out of key in the same way that much women's fiction from the period does. In this sense, Howells is best understood as a "woman's" writer.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Howells makes a nice contrast to almost any American fiction writer of the period because his work assimilated so many of its literary discourses. One conventional way of placing Howells is to put him between James and Twain, his closest literary friends--or to compare him to the generation of his literary sons (Crane, Dreiser, Norris, etc.). A fresher approach would be to pair him with women writers, many of whom he helped to establish. In this regard, "Editha" is a useful text.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    Although the general approach to teaching literature--and my own approach--seems to have become broader and more theoretical, I still find that students do not know how to read closely enough; they don't understand basic literary codes. With realism, it is especially important to stress the role of reader inference, and I tend to assign topics that focus closely on workably small bits of text.


    For a general orientation to recent Howells criticism, I know nothing better than my own omnibus surveys, published as "Howells in the Seventies" and "Howells in the Eighties" in ESQ:A Journal of the American Renaissance (1979, 1986-87). See also the recent Howells issue of American Literary Realism (1988), which contains several articles and a bibliography keyed to individual Howells texts.

    The standard biographies are still Edwin H. Cady, The Road to Realism/The Realist at War, and Kenneth S. Lynn, William Dean Howells.