William Dean Howells: Biography, Books & Realism

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

William Dean Howells is possibly the most important writer, literary critic, and editor in nineteenth century America of whom you've never heard. Learn more about him and his role in steering the course of American literature.

Early Life

One of eight children, William Dean Howells was born in 1837 Ohio, and worked with his father as a typesetter. He could not stay in school because of the time spent helping the family business, but he read widely and educated himself. Meanwhile, the newspaper he and his father worked so hard to make profitable failed, and they moved again and again, trying to make a living. They settled in Columbus Ohio, and while working as a journalist Howells fell in love with poetry. The Atlantic Monthly accepted and published some of his poems, as well as stories and book reviews.

William Dean Howells 1866
Howells in 1866

Campaign Biographies & Professional Connections

Howells used his skill with words to write a campaign biography about Abraham Lincoln, and it sold well. He traveled with the money, visiting New England and meeting important writers of the day, including Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Emerson, and James Russell Lowell, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. His work impressed Lincoln and secured him a spot as the consulate to Italy. He wrote another campaign biography for Rutherford B. Hayes. Through Hayes Howells met Elinor Gertrude Mead, and they married.

Howells came back to America without a job but was invited to work as an assistant editor at the Atlantic Monthly. It was 1865, and this self-educated young man was attending dinners at the White House and living in Boston, meeting and corresponding with important writers and thinkers of his time.

Engraved Portrait
Portrait of Howells


William Dean Howells became editor-in-chief at the Atlantic Monthly when he was just 29 years old. He held this post for more than 40 years, accepting work from all around the country. He also published important voices from Europe, giving Americans a broader view of literature. He helped writers like Henry James and Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) gain popularity. His preference for realism influenced the entire literary culture of the country. Later, he was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is still an important force in encouraging and supporting literary talent today.


Like the name suggests, realism in literature focuses on describing everyday things with insight and clarity. It's set against the ideals of romanticism, and it is generally said to span the time from 1860-1890. Here are some key points of American realism:

  • It focuses on character and motivation rather than action.
  • Language is natural and not fancy or elevated.
  • Narrators are not preachy, and story is presented objectively.
  • It largely features middle class and social conflicts.
  • Events are believable.

Novel Writing & More

Howells once said that if he had the chance and the money, he would spend all his time writing novels. His success as an editor at the Atlantic Monthly gave him some time for novel writing, and he made good use of it. He was an extremely productive writer, publishing five poetry books, over 30 novels, 36 plays, four autobiographies, many works of short fiction, travel writing and autobiographical work.

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