William Dean Howells was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on 1st March, 1837. The son of a printer, Howells began work as a typesetter before becoming a reporter on the Ohio State Journal. He also began contributing poems to the Atlantic Monthly. and wrote for the Cincinnati Gazette and The Sentinel.
A supporter of the Republican Party, Howells was commissioned to write the campaign biographies for Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. The The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin was published during their 1860 Presidential Election campaign. The following year Lincoln appointed Howells counsul of Venice (1861-65).
On his return to the United States he settled in Boston where he wrote and published two novels based on his experiences in Italy: Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867). This was followed by other European novels: Their Wedding Journey (1872), A Chance Acquaintance (1873), A Foregone Conclusion (1874) and The Lady of the Aroostook (1879).
Howells also worked as assistant editor (1866-71) and then editor (1871-81) of the Atlantic Monthly. Later he became associate editor of Harper's Magazine (1886-91) and wrote for The Nation and Cosmopolitan. During this period he promoted the work of writers such as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Frank Norris and Hamlin Garland. Howells also wrote other novels including Undiscovered Country (1880), Dr. Been's Practice (1881), A Woman's Reason (1883), A Modern Instance (1882) and the Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).
In 1887 he controversially campaigned against the convictions of the anarchists found guilty of the Haymarket Bombing. He wrote in the New York Tribune that the trial had not established the guilt of the defendants. After the executions took place on 12th November 1887, he commented: "It blackens my life. This free Republic has killed five men for their opinions."
Deeply influenced by the ideas of William Morris, his novels became more political and critics considered Annie Kilburn (1888) to be supportive of trade unionism. His next novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), he highlighted the contrasts between wealth and poverty. Other books by Howells include the autobiographical, Literary Friends (1900), Reminiscences and Criticism (1910) and Years of My Youth (1915).
A staunch critic of racial intolerance, Howells was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. William Du Bois praised him with the words: "When a band of earnest men spoke for Negro emancipation, William Dean Howells was among the first to sign the call."
Howells became president of the American Anti-Imperialist League. He was also a strong supporter of women's suffrage and went on a march in support of their campaign at the age of 75. He called himself a socialist but he never joined any of the socialist groups in existence at that time.
The projection which death gives the work of a man against the history of his time, is the doubtful gain we have to set against the recent loss of such authors as George Douglas, the Scotchman, who wrote "The House with the Green Shutters," and Frank Norris, the American, who wrote "McTeague" and "The Octopus," and other novels, antedating and postdating the first of these, and less clearly prophesying his future than the last. The gain is doubtful, because, though their work is now freed from the cloud of question which always involves the work of a living man in the mind of the general, if his work is good (if it is bad they give it no faltering welcome), its value was already apparent to those who judge from the certainty within themselves, and not from the uncertainty without. Every one in a way knows a thing to be good, but the most have not the courage to acknowledge it, in their sophistication with canons and criterions. The many, who in the tale of the criticism are not worth minding, are immensely unworthy of the test which death alone seems to put into their power. The few, who had the test before, were ready to own that Douglas's study of Scottish temperaments offered a hope of Scottish fiction freed the Scottish sentimentality which had kept it provincial; and that Norris's two mature novels, one personal and one social, imparted the assurance of an American fiction so largely commensurate with American circumstance as to liberate it from the casual and the occasional, in which it seemed lastingly trammelled. But the parallel between the two does not hold much farther. What Norris did, not merely what he dreamed of doing, was of vaster frame, and inclusive of imaginative intentions far beyond those of the only immediate contemporary to be matched with him, while it was of as fine and firm an intellectual quality, and of as intense and fusing an emotionality.
In several times and places, it has been my rare pleasure to bear witness to the excellence of what Norris had done, and the richness of his promise. The vitality of his work was so abundant, the pulse of health was so full and strong in it, that it is incredible it should not be persistent still. The grief with which we accept such a death as his is without the consolation that we feel when we can say of some one that his life was a struggle, and that he is well out of the unequal strife, as we might say when Stephen Crane died. The physical slightness, if I may so suggest one characteristic of Crane's vibrant achievement, reflected the delicacy of energies that could be put forth only in nervous spurts, in impulses vivid and keen, but wanting in breadth and bulk of effect. Curiously enough, on the other hand, this very lyrical spirit, whose freedom was its life, was the absolute slave of reality. It was interesting to hear him defend what he had written, in obedience to his experience of things, against any change in the interest of convention. "No," he would contend, in behalf of the profanities of his people, "that is the way they talk. I have thought of that, and whether I ought to leave such things out, but if I do I am not giving the thing as I know it." He felt the constraint of those semi-savage natures, such as he depicted in "Maggie," and "George's Mother," and was forced through the fealty of his own nature to report them as they spoke no less than as they looked. When it came to "The Red Badge of Courage," where he took leave of these simple aesthetics, and lost himself in a whirl of wild guesses at the fact from the ground of insufficient witness, he made the failure which formed the break between his first and his second manner, though it was what the public counted a success, with every reason to do so from the report of the sales.
The true Stephen Crane was the Stephen Crane of the earlier books, the earliest book; for "Maggie" remains the best thing he did. All he did was lyrical, but this was the aspect and accent as well as the spirit of the tragically squalid life he sang, while "The Red Badge of Courage," and the other things that followed it, were the throes of an art failing with material to which it could not render an absolute devotion from an absolute knowledge. He sang, but his voice erred up and down the scale, with occasional flashes of brilliant melody, which could not redeem the errors. New York was essentially his inspiration, the New York of suffering and baffled and beaten life, of inarticulate or blasphemous life; and away from it he was not at home, with any theme, or any sort of character. It was the pity of his fate that he must quit New York, first as a theme, and then as a habitat; for he rested nowhere else, and wrought with nothing else as with the lurid depths which he gave proof of knowing better than any one else. Every one is limited, and perhaps no one is more limited than another; only, the direction of the limitation is different in each. Perhaps George Douglas, if he had lived, would still have done nothing greater than "The House with the Green Shutters," and might have failed in the proportion of a larger range as Stephen Crane did. I am not going to say that either of these extraordinary talents was of narrower bound than Frank Norris; such measures are not of the map. But I am still less going to say that they were of finer quality because their achievement seems more poignant, through the sort of physical concentration which it has. Just as a whole unhappy world agonizes in the little space their stories circumscribe, so what is sharpest and subtlest in that anguish finds its like in the epical breadths of Norris's fiction.
While writing the "Editor's Study" (1886-1892) and "Editor's Easy Chair" (1899-1909) for Harper's New Monthly Magazine and occasional pieces for The North American Review, Howells championed the work of many writers, including Emily Dickinson, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charles W. Chesnutt, Frank Norris, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Abraham Cahan, and Stephen Crane. He was also responsible for promoting such European authors as Ibsen, Zola, Pérez Galdós, Verga, and Tolstoy. Despite Howells's professional success, his personal life during this period was marred in 1889 by the premature death of his daughter Winifred, whose physical symptoms were misdiagnosed as resulting from a nervous disorder and were ineffectively treated.
After the execution of the Haymarket radicals in 1887, which he risked his reputation to protest, Howells became increasingly concerned with social issues, as seen in stories such as "Editha" (1905) and novels concerned with race (An Imperative Duty, 1892), the problems of labor (Annie Kilburn, 1888), and professions for women (The Coast of Bohemia, 1893).
Widely acknowledged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the "Dean of American Letters," Howells was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908, which instituted its Howells Medal for Fiction in 1915. By the time of his death from pneumonia on 11 May 1920, Howells was still respected for his position in American literature. However, his later novels did not achieve the success of his early realistic work, and later authors such as Sinclair Lewis denounced Howells's fiction and his influence as being too genteel to represent the real America.
Although he wrote over a hundred books in various genres, including novels, poems, literary criticism, plays, memoirs, and travel narratives, Howells is best known today for his realistic fiction, including A Modern Instance (1881), on the then-new topic of the social consequences of divorce; The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), his best-known work and one of the first novels to study the American businessman; and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), an exploration of cosmopolitan life in New York City as seen through the eyes of Basil and Isabel March, the protagonists of Their Wedding Journey (1871) and other works. Other important novels include Dr. Breen's Practice, (1880), The Minister's Charge and Indian Summer (1886), April Hopes (1887), The Landlord at Lion's Head (1897), and The Son of Royal Langbrith (1904).
Howells remained proud of his Ohio roots throughout his life, returning to Columbus for the Ohio Centennial Celebration in 1888 and visiting his home in Jefferson late into the 1890s. In the later part of his career, he drew increasingly on his life in Ohio in autobiographical works (A Boy's Town, 1890) and novels (The Kentons, 1903). The legend of a man from Leatherwood Creek, Ohio, who convinces the people there that he is a god inspired one of Howells's last works, The Leatherwood God (1916).