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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Tue, 20 Sep 2005 10:10:44 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Jeffrey


Goodman, Susan, and Carl Dawson. _William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life_.
Berkeley: U of California P, 2005. Pp. 519. Cloth, 6" x 9". $34.95. ISBN

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Jeffrey W. Miller
University of Tennessee at Martin

Copyright (c) 2005 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

A common complaint about literary biographies is that they focus too much
on the subject's professional life at the expense of other personal
experiences and relationships. As one might infer from the subtitle of
Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson's _William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life_,
this literary biography focuses intensely on Howells's professional life.
Goodman and Dawson, however, may not have been able to do otherwise:
Howells devoted his life, even more than many writers, to the professional
arena. In fact, Howells's literary output is nothing short of
astounding--he published well over eighty books in his lifetime, in
addition to countless essays and newspaper articles, as well as writing
extensively in private letters and journals. He was a versatile writer,
regularly producing fiction, drama, poetry, travelogue, biography,
autobiography, criticism, and commentary. This body of work made Howells
one of the best-known authors in the world; he did as much as anyone in
shaping the literary landscape of the late nineteenth century.

His novels, especially _A Modern Instance_, _The Rise of Silas Lapham_, and
_A Hazard of New Fortunes_, helped to formulate American realism and, along
with his editorships at the _Atlantic Monthly_ and _Harper's Monthly_, gave
him a very high standard of living and allowed him to brush shoulders with
the most conspicuous literary types of the nineteenth century--Lowell,
Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Thoreau all made his acquaintance, with
Longfellow in particular becoming a frequent correspondent.

Through his Editor's columns in the _Atlantic Monthly_ and _Harper's
Monthly_, Howells was responsible for bringing dozens of writers to the
American public's attention. He can be credited with discovering,
publishing, encouraging, or calling attention to Mark Twain, Charles
Chesnutt, Hamlin Garland, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Bret Harte, Frank
Norris, Sarah Orne Jewett, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Henrik
Ibsen, among others.

It is precisely these relationships that give _A Writer's Life_ its power
and clarity. Goodman and Dawson portray them with copious detail,
especially Howells's relationships with writers that move beyond the realm
of author and critic. Such relations, with Bret Harte, Henry James, and
especially Mark Twain, fairly leap off the page. The ambivalence Howells
felt for the oft-times abrasive Harte comes through with comments such as,
"he is notorious for borrowing and...drinking....he writes with difficulty
and very little" (and this in a letter recommending him for a consulship to
Germany!) (162). In another complex and, at times, strained relation,
Howells grapples with the immense talent of James next to his personal
"oddity" and his preference of European over American culture (431).

The Howells-Twain friendship takes a prominent place in this biography in
many ways. Twain, in fact, is the only family member or friend of Howells
who warrants his own chapter in the book ("His Mark Twain"). Of course,
Twain is woven into the narrative throughout, but Goodman and Dawson step
away from the flow of their chronology to examine in depth the relationship
between Howells and Twain. They especially capture the sometimes playful
nature of their interaction--one late picture of the two included in this
book is captioned, "bad boys caught on camera." They also indicate, at
times, the intimacy they felt with each other--after the death of Twain's
daughter Susy and Howells's daughter Winny, Twain writes to Howells: "if
you were here I think we could cry down each other's necks, as in your
dream. For we _are_ a pair of old derelicts drifting around, now, with some
of our passengers gone & the sunniness of the others in (total) eclipse"

It is the rare biography which does not organize itself along chronological
lines, but Goodman and Dawson manage to avoid making the Howells timeline
predictable or overly rigid. They are deliberately sketchy about Howells's
boyhood, and they don't really account for much in great detail until his
family moves to Columbus, Ohio, in 1851, when Howells was fourteen. The
book takes some time to gather itself, but picks up steam upon Howells's
appointment to the consulship at Venice in 1861 and his publication in 1866
of his break-out travel book, _Venetian Life_. From there, it follows
Howells's publication record with remarkable fidelity. In some ways, _A
Writer's Life_ finds its way like an itinerant worker through the
Howellsian corpus--meandering from book to book through the years of
Howells's life, pausing from time to time to discuss significant
publications. It is no mean feat to adhere to the relentless Howells
publication record, yet somehow convey the sense that the reader is sharing
a walk in the park with Howells and his friends, rather than reading an
annotated bibliography.

Goodman and Dawson draw remarkably vivid portraits of Howells's
family--especially his father and mother; his sisters, Victoria, Aurelia,
and Anne; his brothers, Joe, Sam, John, and Henry; and his daughters,
Winifred and Mildred. The authors weave together a colorful dialogue of
quoted voices, and they know when to offer further comment and when to step
aside and let the Howells family do the talking. Consider, for instance,
Howells's lament to his father about Winny's ill health: "she is a burden
on my heart. I see these days of her beautiful youth slipping away, in this
sort of dull painful dream, and I grieve over her" (215).

Although numerous historians and critics have examined the life of Howells,
Goodman and Dawson achieve a fresh look at him by turning directly to the
man himself; the book is scrupulously researched, especially considering
the vast number of letters Howells wrote to his friends and family. In
fact, these letters appear in the notes more than any other source.
Howells's letters and his other autobiographical writings are integrated
into the narrative quite well, and often serve as the solitary entry point
into the mind of Howells on a variety of issues.

Because of the thorough and careful nature of this biography, I was
surprised by the strange omission of Howells's sister Victoria's death from
malaria in 1886. Other tragic events in Howells's life--the death of his
father, his wife, and his daughter, for instance--are covered in abundant
detail, but news of Victoria's death, inexplicably, does not appear in the
text, save for a brief note in the chronology which precedes the narrative.
Her loss is later mentioned in passing without explanation. The index,
which is quite detailed and comprehensive on other matters, points to a
page which does not mention her death. This is a small, perhaps
insignificant, complaint about a well-conceived and executed book, but
nonetheless perplexing.

The concluding chapters of this biography convey a profound, almost
elegiac, sadness surrounding Howells. He outlived many of his
contemporaries and family members--he lived through the deaths of three
brothers, his daughter, and his wife, as well as his friends Sam Clemens,
Henry James, Charles Eliot Norton, and others. In his last years, he also
found himself out of step with much of the younger literary generation. As
an agnostic, he found it difficult to find teleological solace in religion,
and Goodman and Dawson paint a lonely portrait of the man in his last
decade. By this time, all he had was his work, but much of it in this
period allowed him to revisit and rework his life. In books like _My Mark
Twain_, _New Leaf Mills_, and _Years of My Youth_, Howells reflected upon
those few corners of his life that remained unexamined.

_William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life_ offers a readable, at times even
gripping, run through the life and work of Howells. It provides a
near-perfect combination of meticulous, careful research and personal,
almost casual, warmth. Although its focus is on Howells and his work, it
effectively explores the historical and cultural context within which he
worked, especially when Howells was in the thick of it, as he was during
his protest of the execution of the Haymarket anarchists. It is required
reading for students and scholars of Howells or Twain, but anyone with an
interest in nineteenth-century literature would profit from it.