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The following review appeared 20 September 2005 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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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" (296-97).
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