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William Dean Howells - Biography

William Dean Howells (1837-1920)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

William Dean Howells, more often remembered as a critic than a writer, is typically associated with the realist movement in literature, in which a significant amount of emphasis was placed on portraying events accurately. In fact, Howells himself defined good writing -- realistic writing -- as "the truthful treatment of material." Yet this definition, seemingly simple on the surface, becomes puzzling when we look at Howells' fiction, which is scarcely as gritty and in-your-face as today's readers might expect.
What Howells seems to have meant by truth was in fact pragmatism, a philosophy that tests the validity of all concepts by their practical results. If it worked, it was true. If it was verifiable and repeatable, it was true. Realism, then, was the language of industry, of the Protestant work ethic, of solid, concrete, common sense. The goal of the realist was the recording of life as it really appeared. This, Howells felt, would make realism the literary language of democracy and the common man.

Yet when we compare two of Howells' best-known stories, "Editha" and "Christmas Every Day," we may feel we are comparing an antiwar tract with a fantasy, and neither seems to fulfill our expectations of realism. 'Editha' is about a young woman whose boyfriend has died in battle, and who sees not the loss and waste but only the glory -- because, of course, she was not there. "Christmas Every Day" is an amusing little tale, ostensibly aimed at children, about the havoc that would ensue if we actually did observe Christmas three hundred and sixty five days a year; it is a treatise on excess.
The common denominator between these two stories, of course, is their strong moral component. Howells felt that although the realist focuses his attention on the immediate action and its consequences, this inevitably leads one to project a moral on the story. Once we strip a premise of its romantic components -- for example, that dying for one's country is the most glorious thing one can do, or that celebration can be a way of life, we see that these concepts have consequences that are really not quite so pleasant. Howells believed that as the central themes of life have causes and effects, they have ethical components which realistic fiction must explore and present

Howells' realism, in short, was not at all what we would consider 'realistic' today, and in it we can still see shadows of the romantic idealism that Howells and his literary contemporaries seemed so determined to undermine. But the work of William Dean Howells perfectly illustrates the mindset of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and is thus worth studying today.

Christmas Every Day


"Editha" can be found in Howells' "Between Darkness and Daylight."

It is available in paperback from Amazon here:

and as a free Kindle download from Amazon here:

It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here:

and as a Nook download here:

"Christmas Every Day" can be found in a book of the same title.

It is available in paperback from Amazon here:

and as a Kindle download from Amazon here:

It is also available in paperback from Barnes and Noble here:

and also as a Nook download here

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