This letter was written by a young (17 year-old) William Dean Howells (1837-1920), several years before he earned a world-wide reputation as author, editor, and literary critic. Howells was born in March 1837 in Martinsville, now Martins Ferry, Ohio, the second son of eight children born to Mary Dean Howells and William Cooper Howells, a printer and publisher. As the family moved from town to town, including a year-long residence at a utopian commune in Eureka Mills, later described in his New Leaf Mills (1913), Howells worked as a typesetter and a printer’s apprentice, educating himself through intensive reading and the study of Spanish, French, Latin, and German. After a term as city editor of the Ohio State Journal in 1858, Howells published poems, stories, and reviews in the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines.
A longer work, his campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln, earned him enough money to travel to New England and meet the great literary figures of the day-Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, and Walt Whitman among them. Awarded the post of U. S. Consul to Venice in 1861 for his service to the Lincoln campaign, Howells lived in Italy for nearly four years. During his residence there, he married Elinor Mead Howells in 1862, and by 1872 the couple had three children: Winifred (b. 1863), John Mead (b. 1868), and Mildred (b. 1872).
After leaving Venice, Howells became first the assistant editor (1866-71) and then the editor (1871-1881) of the Atlantic Monthly, a post that gave him enormous influence as an arbiter of American taste. Publishing work by authors such as Mark Twain and Henry James, both of whom would become personal friends, Howells became a proponent of American realism, and his defense of Henry James in an article for The Century (1882) provoked what was called the “Realism War,” with writers on both sides of the Atlantic ocean debating the merits of realistic and romantic fiction.
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.
Howells wrote the letter to his close friend, James Harvey (“Hervey”) Greene, who lived with the Howells for a time while apprenticed to Howell’s father, a newspaper publisher. Greene and Howells carried on an intellectual and social correspondence throughout their lives, treating each other almost as brothers. This letter is significant for revealing Howells’s early self-characterization of his personal beliefs and gives us a taste of his gift for writing from direct observation of his surroundings. Even the “outhouse” draws the attention of Howells’s pen.
Sunday, June 4th, 1854
Jefferson, Ash[tabula] Co., O[hio]
How naturally does one put off everything in the way of letter=writing till Sunday. My little library is filled from morning till late at night with eager and countless letter=writers. The printer=girls writing endless epistles to far off friends, [my sister] Vic[toria] scratching notes to her acquaintance, and for answering correspondence from all quarters. Truth to tell, I look with not a little envy on the many and gilt=edged notes which [my brother] Joe receives. He has a dozen she=friends when I have none, and I have often marveled that he should be as popular with them, when I find no favor in their eyes at all. I console myself, however, when I reflect that the ladies are a giddy, superficial set, and are ridiculed by some of our most eminent writers.
As I was saying, the library is besieged by scribblers all Sunday long, and I am not a little surprised, therefore, to find myself in peaceful possession of it at one o’clock. The view from the window at which I sit gazing, in the vacancy of don’t know=what=to=say=ness – is passing lovely! The most striking object in the foreground is a useful but not=to=be=named little building, embowered in the shade of the grandest of wild cherry trees. On either hand stretches a tract of clay, facetiously up and planted with corn, from which the heat hazes upward, like it used to do from the stone at school. Chickens are making beds in the garden beds, and a solitary and sultry turkey gobbler is stalking thro’ a thick growth of smartgrass, picking succulent insects therefrom. He has not even the ambition to gobble when I whistle at him. There is, however, an importune old chicken cock in full chase of a coy and virtuous pullet. I am in no pain for her honor, however, for the old fellow is so wholly a prey to the weakness of age that he will never harm her. He reminds me of one [of] those wornout gallants whom [Joseph] Addison describes in his [Papers from the] Spectator, who without the power of gratifying their licentious desires, were forever losing their self=command, and the “gravity of age in the presence.” However, I shall not stray off into an essay on chastity, but will come at once to your letter.
To your questions as to whether or no I am a progressive, etc., I hardly know what to say. I fear that in most things you will deem me a conservative. I hate young America, brass, boots, collar and all. I eat meat. I drink coffee. I am not a believer in socialism and place very little faith in the “good time coming.” Slavery, however, I abhor from the bottom of my heart, as the son of an Englishman can and ought. I do not use tobacco, and thoroughly mislike the puppyism which vents itself in bad cigars. I am in favor (if you except the drinking of wine) of teetotalism. But withal, I have a great love for whatever is old and time hallowed, and in this love, I am more and more confined every day. I do not see that the world is a whit better now than it ever was. Nor do I see how it is to be improved by the disuse of meat-eating, and a perfection of table=tilting. However, I am open to conviction, and I should like to see some thoughts from you on the subject.
I am proud of the praise you bestow upon my attempts at poetizing. There is, perhaps, no admiration which is so welcome to me as that he receives in private from his friends, and to a young writer, you will agree with and understand me when I say it is doubly so.
You speak of my coming to see you. I fear that is one of the not=to=be=done of this life, though nothing would give me more pleasure. You, however, who are about withdrawing from business, might easily come to see us. What do you say to the Fourth of July as a day? I will be at the cars in readiness, if you will but come. I think you might. We all want to see you so much and there is to be the latest kind of a blowout here on the anniversary of our national independence. If you do not answer this straightaway, I shall conclude that you are coming.
Your friend, — Will. D. Howells