William Dean Howells
( Originally Published 1907 )
MR. HOWELLS has reached that point of life and success where he can afford to sit down and look back. But he is not that sort of man. He will probably continue to work and to look forward until, in the words of Hamlet, he shuffles off this mortal coil.
William Dean Howells was born in Mar-tin's Ferry, Belmont County, Ohio, March 1, 1837. He has therefore reached the ripe age of sixty-four. When he was three years old his father moved from Martin's Ferry to Hamilton and bought The Intelligencer, a weekly paper. Nine years after-ward he sold The Intelligence and moved to Dayton, becoming proprietor of the Dayton Transcript. This paper had been a also as a compositor on the Ohio State Journal. William went to work as a re-porter on the Journal. Five years later he became the Columbus correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette. In 1859 he took the position of news editor of the Ohio State Journal. Later that same year Howells senior, from whom the son evidently inherited his industry and ambition, bought the Ashtabula Sentinel and transferred the property to Jefferson, whither the family moved. William took the position of sub-editor of the Sentinel.
From time to time poems by young Howells had appeared in the Ohio news-papers. Some of his verses, too, had even been published by The Atlantic Monthly. In 1860, in collaboration with John J. Piatt, he published his first volume of verse — "Poems by Two Friends." In 1860, also, Howells's Life of Abraham Lincoln" was published. With the earnings of this immediately popular work our author journeyed to the East by way of Canada. In Boston he first met James Russell Lowell, who was then editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Afterward he visited the publishers, Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, primarily in connection with one of his poems which The Atlantic then had in hand, " The Pilot's Story." Mr. Fields introduced Howells to Mr. Tick-nor, who, I fancied," says Howells in his " Literary Friends and Acquaintance," "had not then read my poem; but he seemed to know what it was from the junior partner, and he asked me whether I had been paid for it. I confessed that I had not, and then he got out a chamois-leather bag, and took from it five half-eagles in gold and laid them on the green cloth top of the desk, in much the shape and of much the size of the Great Bear. I have never since felt myself paid so lavishly for any literary work, though I have had more for a single piece than the twenty-five dollars that dazzled me in this constellation. The publisher seemed aware of the poetic character of the transaction ; he let the pieces lie a moment, before he gathered them up and put them into my hand, and said, ' I al-ways think it is pleasant to have it in gold.' "
While making his residence in Boston, Howells met Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hawthorne and Emerson. Emerson rather discouraged him by remarking as they were saying good-bye to each other, that one might very well give a pleasant hour to poetry " now and then."
When the young Ohioan met Mr. Fields again he proposed himself as assistant editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Mr. Fields replied that if the post had not just been filled the intrepid poet certainly should have had it.
He was charmingly kind," writes Mr. Howells of the interview ; " he entered with the sweetest interest into the story of my economic life, which had been full of changes and chances already. But when I said very seriously that I was tired of these fortuities, and would like to be settled in something he asked with dancing eyes,
"'Why, how old are you?'
I am twenty-three,' I answered, and then the laughing fit took him again.
Well he said, ' you begin young, out there ! ' "
From 1861 to 1865, during the War of the Rebellion, Mr. Howells was United States Consul at Venice, which position was a reward for his life of Lincoln. In Venice he wrote occasionally for American newspapers ; and there he also wrote the articles of which, eventually, his delightful "Venetian Life" and "Italian Journeys" were composed.
Returning to this country, he re-entered the newspaper world, working mostly for the New York Tribune and the New York Times ; and he also became a regular contributor to The Nation. In 1866 he achieved his great ambition, Mr. Fields appointing him assistant editor of The Atlantic Monthly. From that year until 1886, when he moved to New York, he lived on terms of enviable intimacy with the group of great writers which made Boston the one brilliant literary centre the country has ever seen.
However, this success did not come until after many defeats. Mr. Howells's letters from Venice were published regularly in the Boston Advertiser ; but elsewhere, for the most part, the young author had met little encouragement. It was only just before he left Venice, when Lowell, then, with Prof. Charles Eliot Norton, joint editor of the North American Review, accepted Howells's article on " Recent Italian Comedy," that the cloud broke. Lowell accepted the manuscript in " one of his loveliest letters," as Mr. Howells says. " His message" the author confesses, " came after years of thwarted endeavor, and reinstated me in the belief that I could still do something in literature. To be sure, the letters in the Advertiser had begun to make their impression ; among the first great pleasures they brought me was a recognition from my diplomatic chief in Vienna ; but I valued my admission to the North American peculiarly because it was Lowell let me in, and be-cause I felt that in his charge it must be the place of highest honor." Financially, the encouragement was slight. The North American was as poor as it was proud "; and it paid Howells for his article at the rate of only two dollars a page. From the Advertiser he had been paid at the rate of about a dollar a thousand words. It was on March 19, 1866, his Twenty-ninth birth-day, that the vagrant author began his work on The Atlantic at a salary of fifty dollars a week.
" The whole affair," Mr. Howells writes, "was conducted by Fields with his unfailing tact and kindness, but it could not be kept from me that the qualification I had as practical printer for the work was most valued, if not the most valued, and that as proof-reader I was expected to make it avail on the side of economy. Somewhere in life's feast the course of humble-pie must always come in ; and if I did not wholly relish this bit of it, I dare say it was good for me, and I digested it perfectly."
It was a most delicate position which he occupied on The Atlantic from 1866 to 1872, when Fields withdrew and Mr. Howells became sole editor. In the beginning, as he says himself, he ventured to distinguish mediocrity in some verses by Whittier. "He sent me a poem," says Howells, and I had the temerity to return it, and beg him for something else. He magnanimously refrained from all show of offence, and after a while, when he had printed the poem elsewhere, he gave me another. By this time, I perceived that I had been wrong, not as to the poem returned, but as to my function regarding him and such as he. I had made my reflections, and never again did I venture to pass upon what contributors of his quality sent me. I took it, and printed it, and praised the gods ; and even now I think that with such men it was not my duty to play the censor in the periodical which they had made what it was. They had set it in authority over American literature, and it was not for me to put myself in authority over them. Their fame was in their own keeping, and it was not my part to guard it against them."
At another time, when a choice was accidentally enforced between a poem by Holmes and a poem by Emerson, Mr. How-ells had the courage to request Emerson that his poem might be held over for the next number. Emerson wrote back to return the proofs and break up the forms." " I could not go to this iconoclastic extreme with the electrotypes of the magazine," says Mr. Howells, but I could return the proofs. I did so, feeling that I had done my possible, and silently grieving that there could be such ire in heavenly minds."
From 1872 until 1880 Mr. Howells was sole editor of The Atlantic ; and the rich social and literary experience which he gained during that term he has embodied in that most delightful of American bookmen's chronicles, " Literary Friends and Acquaintance."
Mr. Howells's first piece of fiction, "Their Wedding Journey," was published in 1872, the year that he became sole editor of The Atlantic. Seven years ago in a newspaper interview, Mr. Howells made this statement in regard to this work : " I wrote ' Their Wedding Journey' without intending to make it a piece of fiction or considering it to be one after I had finished it. It was simply a book of American travel, which I hoped to make attractive by a sugar coating of romance. I was very familiar with the route over which I had taken the bridal couple, and I knew it was beautiful, and, like most American scenery, was not appreciated.