William Dean Howells was once the biggest name in American literature. howellswd-738119.jpgHe was the long-time editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a playwright, and a poet. Today he is equally best-known (though, not well enough) for his novels and his essays on American Realism, a genre he advocated as well as produced. His most famous novels are The Rise of Silas Lapham, the rags-to-riches story of self-made man amidst the landed Bostonian Gentry, and Indian Summer, the story of a midwestern newspaperman who sells his business and runs off to Florence, the city where he had been jilted as a young man. In real-life, Howells was once the American consul to Florence, a position that no doubt prepared him for his slot as editor of Cosmopolitan (one can only imagine what Howells’ quizzes must have been like).

Howells was one of the earliest members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and today they award the William Dean Howells Medal every five years to the best American novel of that period. The Medal is made of solid gold. I know this because Thomas Pynchon famously declined the award saying, “The (William Dean) Howells Medal is a great honor, and being gold, probably a good hedge against inflation, too. But I don’t want it. Please don’t impose on me something I don’t want. It makes the (American) Academy (of Arts & Letters) look arbitrary and me look rude… I know I should behave with more class, but there appears to be only one way to say no, and that’s no.”

Perhaps the best testament to Howells’ former fame is this Letter to the Editor of the New York Times written by one of Howells’ closest friends, Mark Twain:

October 4, 1907.


I would like to know what kind of a goddam govment this is that discriminates between two common carriers and makes a goddam railroad charge everybody equal and lets a goddam man charge any goddam price be wants to for his goddam opera box.



Howells it is an outrage the way the govment is acting so I sent this complaint to N. Y. Times with your name signed because it would have more weight.


Though Howells was a giant in his day, time hasn’t been kind to him. Though people still may go on a pilgrimage to Howells’ home in Louisburg Square, that probably has more to do with the general opulence of the surrounds than Howells’ lasting notoriety. Plus, John Kerry lives there. Howells’ eye for real-estate is actually unquestioned. He had a lovely home in Kittery Point, Maine–a home bequeathed to Harvard University and made available to their staff and faculty for vacations and retreats.

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