Other than English majors and literary scholars, who reads William Dean Howells? If your project is 19th-century American fiction, then Hawthorne, Melville, James, Twain, Crane, and the early Wharton and Dreiser head the list. Yet Howells wrote magnificent travel books (he was U. S. consul in Venice), and at least three novels that deserve their place in the canon. "A Modern Instance" (1882) is a shrewd and diverting study of a corrupt and womanizing Boston journalist, Bartley Hubbard; "The Rise of Silas Lapham" (1885) dramatizes the fate of a self-made Vermont businessman; "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890), set in New York City, reflects profound misgivings about rampant capitalism.
Howells is a social novelist with great range. If he is not as robust as Twain (Howells's great friend and collaborator on several plays) or as subtle as James (whose fiction Howells touted) or as brutally honest as Dreiser about the role sex plays in human affairs, Howells's fiction, his work as editor at Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly, and his literary criticism - which established the aesthetic of American realism - nonetheless make him a pivotal figure in the history of American literature.
I see that I have already run into the rut reviewers rarely steer clear of: summarizing the subject rather than assessing the biography. What Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson accomplish, I hasten to say, is a deft depiction of the author and his era. They begin their engrossing book in June 1871, a month before Howells assumed the editorship of the Atlantic. He was 34 but still, in some respects, a homesick Ohio boy, traveling from Boston back to visit the old family home. He was, in the parlance of his day, a westerner who had made good, befriending the Brahmins of Boston and becoming their chosen one, a member of the elite who set the literary tone for the country. Ohio is the place he wanted to leave, yet it is the place he yearned to revisit. Devoting himself to "a writer's life," as the biography's subtitle emphasizes, he felt rootless. The claims of home and family would always remain compelling - though not compelling enough to make him stay.
This divided sensibility may have been at the heart of Howells's inability to gain quite the right distance from his origins. He lacked Crane's hard ironies, Dreiser's amorality, Sherwood Anderson's searing vision of small-town life. But what excludes Howells's best work from the category of "minor" is his steady gaze, the objectivity of the editor and realist who does not want to sentimentalize or idealize but, in his words, to record the "dialect, the language, that most Americans know - the language of unaffected people everywhere."
This impeccably researched and well-written biography shows an America in which the arts played a vital role that is no longer recognized. Howells took an active part in politics, writing campaign biographies for Abraham Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes. He joined others such as Bret Harte, Richard Hildreth (historian and novelist), William J. Stillman (painter, critic and journalist), and Harrison Brown (painter) in the diplomatic corps.
A stunning scene near the beginning of the biography shows Howells during his sojourn at home visiting James Garfield (10 years before Garfield would be elected president):
I was beginning to speak of the famous poets I knew when Garfield stopped me with "Just a minute!" He ran down into the grassy space, first to one fence and then to the other at the sides, and waved a wild arm of invitation to the neighbors who were also sitting on their back porches. "Come over here!" he shouted. "He's telling about Holmes, and Longfellow, and Lowell, and Whittier!" and at his bidding dim forms began to mount the fences and follow him up to his veranda. "Now go on!" he called to me, when were all seated, and I went on, while the whippoorwhills whirred and whistled round, and the hours drew toward midnight.
The excitement and enchantment of literature - which Howells had no hope of finding in Ohio - suddenly enveloped him in this grassy space of the imagination. This community of literature lovers embraced New England writers - as Howells did - as a national treasure.
Such scenes are never to be repeated, alas. Even as Howells was recording them with such fidelity and grace, this world was breaking apart. The Atlantic Monthly steadily lost circulation under Howells's stewardship - not due to any incompetence on his part, but rather to a growing sense that the journal was elitist, a relic of a smaller country once dominated by Boston but now reinventing itself in the hurly-burly of New York.
Howells, sensing the shifting zeitgeist, himself moved from Boston to New York and spent a good deal of time in Hartford, Conn., with Mark Twain. Howells would not have been surprised to read Hemingway's comment that American literature begins with Twain. But Howells remained faithful to James, as well. Indeed, between them Twain and James spoke to the two sides of William Dean Howells. As his biographers observe, his letters to James "tend to be more 'literary' than those to Twain, in the sense of being more composed." With Twain Howells reveled in the vernacular and the informal.
So this Howells biography becomes a kind of focal point for discussing not only the tenor of a writer's life but also the tensions that inform our national literature. His biographers, rejecting any urge to inflate their subject, maintain this dual perspective with an exquisite sense of tact and balance.