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William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

W. D. Howells

[1837 - 1920]

By Edward S. Martin

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, vol 141, pp 265-6, June-Nov 1920.]

[Illustrated by somber Howells portrait]

WHEN Mr. Howells died we who have been his readers might have said that we had lost a friend and entertainer never to be replaced. But we haven't lost him. He has merely stopped work. We have what he did in wonderful measure. If he had been a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a man of business, even a clergyman, there would be left his reputation, his descendants, his accumulated property, if there was any, and his touch upon the lives he influenced and helped, but the great body of his daily achievement would be gone. But because he was a writer the important mass of his work lives on, accessible and consoling, a long row of books--seventy-five, or thereabouts--on library shelves all over the land and beyond the sea, and his spirit, his mind, the sound of his voice, the play of his thought and fancy in every one of them.

His life was the daily working of his mind. To record its operations was his task and his pleasure. It was a smooth-flowing life, but that was because he was so orderly a man, and found his vocation so early and was so happy in it, and pursued it with such undistracted diligence. He was not distracted even by the process of education, which, as a rule, is expected to separate its victim from whatever past and habits he had, and make a new man of him. Mr. Howells never had that sort of education. He was not sent away to school, he never went to college. He had in childhood in Ohio a great educational agent in his family, so that it might be said that he proceeded almost from the cradle to the printer's case, and began putting types together to make words, and words together to make sense. He did not go out, like Thackeray, to lose a patrimony in a prodigal pursuit of experience of life, or sail the seas as Conrad did, to study moods of men and nature. Life was everywhere for the taking. Why should he chase it? He looked around and began to put into words what his senses noticed and his mind told him. His adventures were mainly adventures in thought.

So he learned in Ohio to write, and to get his writing into print, and also, in a way, to bring it to market. But, having got what training he could out of newspapers and political writings, he cut loose from them and set out boldly to be, not a newspaper man, but a man of letters. That was what it meant when he went to Cambridge and then to Venice. He could print his thoughts, but he needed better thoughts. Having learned well enough to start with what a writer most needs to know, he proceeded to add to knowledge.

And of course he did add to knowledge in Cambridge, and still more in Venice, where art and history await folks in their waking hours and soak into them in their sleep. Even a lazy man, if he could keep his eyes open, would haVe got something out of Venice, and Howells had not a lazy bone in him. His business in life was to be a writer, and as all his life he attended remorselessly to that business, we may be sure he did so in Venice. He did not overdo it either there or elsewhere. He took time to be happy. He lived long and worked to the very end, but in the work he lived by he was almost as methodical and exacting with himself as Anthony Trollope was, making nulla dies sine linea his motto, and living well up to it. He was provident, prudent, persistent; when doggedness seemed necessary to do it, he could be dogged.

He had in remarkable measure the pleasures, rewards, and satisfactions that come to authors, and because of the qualities just mentioned he avoided the misfortunes and discomforts that have befallen some of them. He was a wise man and knew how to live, and he was admirably self-governed and hated "irregularities." Perhaps if he had hated them less he would have been a more shocking writer, and more acceptable to readers who prefer to be shocked; but that never troubled him. What he sought was reality--to portray actual people as they were and record faithfully their talk as they spoke it, the development of their characters. and the incidents that befell them. He stuck close to this life and this world, and to so much of what happened in it as came to his notice. What he saw he pictured with an admirable and charming art, and because his pictures are true they will live.

He had delightful and intimate friendships, especially with persons of his own profession or related to it, and notably with Mark Twain. He must have loved to talk, he talked so well, but in working hours he worked, and he loved his own home and his own family, and could well bear the company of his own mind.

The habit of furnishing discourse to printing-presses becomes established after a while in a person who lives by that activity, so that it ceases to produce much emotion. Nevertheless, when one is so blessed as to do it better than usual there is always a resulting glow, which is the calling's great reward. In early years it is apt ot be a glow of pride; in later ones it may be a glow of something nearer to piety--of thankfulness that it has been given him to say something that seemed worth saying. Whatever Mr. Howells thought about that, to him with his Welsh grandfather and his Quaker grandmother, a sense of the leading of the spirit--a sense that at his best he was helped to something beyond the reach of his unaided efforts--cannot have come hard. Certainly his spiritual inheritance from his paternal grandparents was very good for him as a writer, bringing him powers of seeing life as it is, and doubtless helping to account for the gentleness of his relations with mankind. In the long run pretty much all the distinctions that can come to an author in his lifetime came to him. Doubtless it gave him pleasure to be held in honor and affection, but it never made him vain. When a book of his was a "best seller" he was delighted, but he never was one of those who aim to find out what the great book-devouring public wanted, and give it to them. What he gave the public was what was given to him. He never grudged labor, he never did less than his best, but the picture he has left behind is of a man who duly fed his mind and was fed by it--of a man who looked at his world and listened to it and thought about it, and wrote down what it said and how it looked to him.

He liked the simple life and lived it. Possibly the rural Ohio of his youth stayed always in the back of his mind. He was full of simple kindliness, of helpfulness and encouragement to beginning writers, of appreciation that tended, perhaps, to be over~appreciative of aspirants whose hopes have been less lavishly fulfilled than his own. He read diligently the notable novels of foreign writers, and did much to bring the best of them, especially of the Russian and the Spanish novelists, to the notice and appreciation of his own countrymen. He lived to be the leading man of letters the United States. And his leadership was acknowledged with great good-will and affection. After all, the world likes a good man and rejoices in him, especially when he does honor to his vocation.

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