Born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, William Dean Howells rose from the lowest position on his father's newspaper staff to novelist, critic, and spokesman for realism. From his father, he acquired equalitarian ideas; from his reading of Swedenborg, he gained a persisting ethical bent. He incorporated these elements into the poetry that he wrote late at night after he had finished his work on the newspaper. He read Cervantes, Heine, and Shakespeare and learned Spanish, German, and French.
He did not fully put his talents to work until after he wrote the campaign biography of Lincoln. Money earned from this biography afforded him a trip to New England, where he met James Russell Lowell. Lowell used his influence to help Howells gain the United States consul post in Venice.
Following his assignment, he returned to the United States to edit and popularize The Atlantic Monthly. He published works of Mark Twain and Henry James in an effort to make the magazine nationally known.
He wrote travel novels. The most important were A Chance Acquaintance (1873), A Foregone Conclusion (1875), The Lady of Aroostook (1875), Their Wedding Journey (1881), Indian Summer (1886).
As a spokesman for realism, he wrote an essay entitled "Henry James Jr.," which asserted that "the art of Fiction has become a finer art in our day than it was with Dickens and Thackery." His realistic novels included The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), A Hazard of New Fortune (1889), Annie Kilburn (1891), A Traveller from Altruria (1894).
The quality of Howells' work may be questioned today, for even he recognized that he was fading from literary acclaim in his later years. The Rise of Silas Lapham is not only the most popular of his novels, but it is probably the one best in literary quality, because it is so representative of the early realistic novel.
He wrote 34 other novels, 29 plays, 9 books of travel, 6 books of literary criticism, 4 books of poetry, and 25 miscellaneous works.