The Later Historians
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William Dean Howells
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
William Dean Howells, born at Martinsville, Ohio, in 1837, is descended from Welsh Quakers. His father was a printer and published local newspapers. The son learned the same business and at nineteen went to Columbus, the State Capital, to become correspondent and editor. With his friend, John James Piatt, he published a volume of verses, which showed poetic talent. A campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln helped to procure for the young journalist an appointment as Consul at Venice. His four years' sojourn in the romantic Italian city of the sea gave opportunity for his graphic sketches of "Venetian Life." On returning to the United States, he settled in New York and wrote for the "Tribune" and "Nation." In 1871 he became assistant editor of the "Atlantic Monthly," and for it wrote "Their Wedding Journey," a pleasant portrayal of American character. In this mode of sketching actual life he went on with "A Chance Acquaintance" (1873) "A Foregone Conclusion" (1874) "The Lady of the Aroostook" (1878) "Dr. Breen's Practice" (1885). But his strongest work was "The Rise of Silas Lapham," a realistic description of the success of a country-bred man who acquires wealth by the discovery on his farm of a substance from which mineral paint is made. He and his family are brought into con-tact and contrast with cultured Boston people with resulting comedies and tragedies. The story abounds in humor and shows kindly sympathy with the actors. In 1886 Howells became connected with "Harper's Magazine," having charge of "The Editor's Study," and in it explained and inculcated realism as the proper method of fiction. Sensationalism and every species of Romanticism are entirely banished, as giving false ideas of life. People are sketched and characters revealed in ordinary incidents. Howells has exemplified this in his later work, as "April Hopes" (1888), "Annie Kilburn" (1889), "A Hazard of New Fortunes" (1890), "The World of Chance" (1893). In the romance "A Traveler from Altruria" (1894), he has set forth the contrast between the actual life of American people and their ideals. His interest in social problems and the relations of labor and capital is shown in several stories. But in general he is content to exhibit pictures of ordinary life, leaving the moral to suggest itself. He has been called the apostle of the commonplace. Some of his stories have been dramatized, and he has shown skill in writing parlor dramas and farces. Many essays in criticism and on social questions have come from his pen. He has especially been the interpreter and advocate of the ideas and methods of the Russian Tolstoi, whom he regards as the greatest novelist of the Century. "Modern Italian Poets" (1887) is an instructive review of the Italian literature of this Century. "Stops of Various Quills" (' 895) is a collection of his poems, showing brotherly interest in the movements of humanity.