William Dean Howells was born in Martinsville (now Martin's Ferry) Ohio, but early in life, his family settled for a while in Hamilton, Ohio. His father was a printer and publisher, and Howells worked as a typesetter and printer's apprentice. Self-taught through a regiment of intensive reading, Howells learned Spanish, French, Latin, and German.
After Hamilton, the family lived in Dayton and then moved to Xenia. Howells's book New Leaf Mills was based on the year they spent at a utopian commune in Eureka Mills. When his father got a government job, they moved to Columbus, later relocating to Ashtabula and Jefferson. Howells's early life gave him material for his semi-fictional A Boy's Town and for his two autobiographical works, My Year in a Log Cabin and Years of My Youth.
When he was twenty-one years old, Howells moved back to Columbus and started work as a reporter and city editor for the Ohio State Journal. He sent out poems and stories to the Atlantic Monthly and also wrote a "Letters from Columbus" column for The Cincinnati Gazette. Involvement in the Republican Party led members to commission him to write campaign literature for Presidential Candidate Abraham Lincoln. That work paid enough for Howells to travel to New England and meet, among others, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Howells's connections to prominent literary figures of the times would help him later in his career.
His service to the Lincoln campaign next landed him a position in Venice, as a United States Consul. He stayed in Italy for four years and while he was there, married Elinor Mead. After returning to the United States, Howells lived in New York as a freelance writer until taking an assistant editor position at the Atlantic Monthly. He published two accounts of his life in Europe, Venetian Life and Italian Journeys; other novels would also take a European style and setting.
In 1871, Howells became editor of the Atlantic Monthly and gained enormous influence over the literary shaping of the country. He selected works by Mark Twain and Henry James, promoting the new "realism" style of writing; his defense of James in a magazine article caused the "Realism War" among writers and critics. As American intellectuals debated literature in public media and private letters, Howells promoted such American writers as Emily Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Stephen Crane, and European writers like Henry Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy. He believed writing should be "simple, natural, and honest," not plunging into any "romantic exaggeration."
Howells made no attempt to hide his literary preferences, nor his politics. He was a strong opponent to the Spanish-American war, and, like many, was not in favor of the United States becoming an empire through warfare. In 1898, he joined four associates to write "A Peace Appeal to Labor" against the fighting, and pledged membership in several anti-imperialism groups. He spent much time creating and signing petitions, leading organizations, and writing articles for the anti-imperialist cause, namely Philippine Independence. In 1909, he became a founding member of the new National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, today's NAACP.
His social awareness also manifested itself in Howells's fiction; short stories "Editha" and novels An Imperative Duty and The Coast of Bohemia dealt with issues of race and women's rights. By this time in his career Howells was widely known as the "Dean of American Letters" and was elected the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1908. His public life thrived, despite the waning popularity of his later novels. In these, he frequently returned to his Ohio childhood for inspiration. One of his later works, The Leatherwood God, recreates a Leatherwood Creek, Ohio legend-about a man who convinces an entire town that he is a god.
In the late 1800s, Howells was considered one of several major literary figures. Later in his life, critics complained he was too "genteel" for the new breed of American writing and his stature waned. It is true that the turn-of-the-century was an unpredictable time for literature; new writers and new trends were being discovered every minute. Until his death in 1920, Howells remained a formidable force in the literary world, encouraging and contributing to the Realism movement. Mark Twain himself once wrote an essay on Howells; remembering his good friend and fellow writer, he paid him a grand compliment as an author: "In the matter of verbal exactness Mr. Howells has no superior, I suppose. He seems to be almost always able to find that elusive and shifty grain of gold, the RIGHT WORD."