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Howells, William Dean (1837-1920)

Editor, Essayist, Novelist, Playwright, Poet

Born into an anti-slavery family of eight children, Howells aided his family by setting type in his journalist father's printing office. Though he never finished high school, Howells would later receive honorary degrees from six universities as well as the offer of Ivy League professorships. Howells published frequently in the Saturday Press (Belasco 252) and was one of the “foremost writers of fiction” in novel form. Percy Holmes Boynton puts him in the company of such writers as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Walt Whitman in being “scrupulously careful writers” (49). By the time he visited Pfaff's, his book of poetry Poems of Two Friends (1860) had been published and he had made the acquaintance of Boston literary society, including Robert Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Howells idolized Pfaff’s while in Ohio, finally venturing to see it in person in 1860 during a visit to the Saturday Press (Allen 230-31). He characterized Pfaff's as a "colony of ideas, of theories" which gained "violent expression, not to say explosion, against all existing forms of respectability" in the Saturday Press ("First Impressions" 63). Upon visiting Pfaff's "where I was given to know that the Bohemian nights were smoked and quaffed away," Howells, who neither smoked nor drank, was limited to eating a "German pancake" (which he proclaimed good) and listening to the talk which he states, "was not so good talk as I had heard in Boston" (64). He met writers for the Press as well as Vanity Fair and "artists who drew for the illustrated periodicals," probably Vedder and Eytinge (63). Reporting that he left before midnight, Howells relates his disappointment and his vain hopes to have seen "worse things" (64). The Pfaffians, for their part, viewed Howells as part of the “Boston Bourgeois” (Levin 58), but respected him as a member of that literary community (Parry 106). Described as "part of the more conservative literary element" who were critical of the Bohemians, Howells only visited Pfaff’s once or twice (Ford 1).

On his way out the door, however, he was introduced to Walt Whitman, which he wrote was "the chief fact of my experience...I remember how he leaned back in his chair, and reached out his great hand to me, as if he were going to give it me for good and all... [He had] gentle eyes that looked most kindly into mine, and seemed to wish the liking which I instantly gave him, though we hardly passed a word, and our acquaintance was summed up in that glance and the grasp of his mighty fist upon my hand" ("First Impressions" 65). Although Howells wrote of Bohemia, most notably in A Modern Issue and The Coast of Bohemia (1893), there is not enough to suggest that these works are connected to his experiences at Pfaff’s. Among his other literary acquaintances, he had a lifelong friendship with Mark Twain, writing a poem titled “My Mark Twain,” and was also an intimate of Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Boynton 393).

Howells would later give the "first important review" of Drum Taps in the Round Table, November 11,1865, having become one of the major tastemakers in the U.S. in the postwar period (Allen 359-360). He traveled around Europe for a brief stint, where he planned to visit London, Paris, and Holland before returning to New York. Barry reports, "Though he [Howells] has justly criticised many things here, he enjoys living in New York and finds it a good place to work in" (184). After he published a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the President sent Howells to the Venetian consulate where he remained for four years. He returned to America in 1865 and joined the staffs of the New York Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Magazine. Howells became assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, and would serve as editor-in-chief from 1871 to 1880 (Derby 232). He also wrote novels for the Century Magazine and Harper & Brothers Press, his most famous being The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). Later in his life he penned 31 plays, composed numerous poems, and wrote a series of memoirs about his literary life and acquaintances (Firkins).