60 William Dean Howells (1837-1920)

Angela Weiler

A Traveler from Altruria: A Romance

William Dean Howells was born on March 1, 1837 in Martinsville (now Martin’s Ferry), Ohio. His father was an editor and printer who moved regularly from job to job, and Howells spent many hours of his youth in various print shops. His formal education consisted of less than two years, obtained mostly in Hamilton, Ohio in a number of short stretches throughout his childhood. He was, however, clearly eager to learn, and his father encouraged him. He read and wrote on his own, and his interest in languages was so strong that at one point he was studying five different languages at one time.

At age fourteen, he began working on an Ohio newspaper in Columbus. As he matured, he worked at other newspapers as well; he also wrote poetry on his own time. The Atlantic Monthly, which began publication in 1857 when Howells was twenty years old, was the first publication to receive his work. By age twenty-four, he had authored a book on Abraham Lincoln, and the attention it brought him eventually resulted in his appointment as American consul at Venice.

Howell’s four years in Venice gave him the time to not only become familiar with Europe, but to continue his independent studies and to further his language skills. He married Elinor Meade of Brattleboro, Vermont, whom he had met in Columbus, and they lived in Venice until the end of his consulship. During this time he wrote two more books, both about living abroad.

When Howells returned to the United States in 1865, he pursued a literary career, initially through freelance work. After only a few months, he became editorial assistant on a newly-established publication, The Nation, in 1865. A year later, at age twenty-nine, he became assistant editor at The Atlantic Monthly, which was rapidly becoming influential in the literary world. Fifteen years after he joined The Atlantic, he became chief editor and remained in that position until 1881, when he left to spend more time writing. He was known as an editor who could mediate between the old and the new, the East and the West.

In the literary canon, Howells is considered a “realist” writer, and his most well-known works are A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and A Hazard of New Fortunes. Most of his work is about the experiences of everyday people. He felt that the sentiment and romanticism rife in the literature of the Romantic Period tended to trivialize or conceal social issues and conflicts. As a writer, he was most concerned with showing reality and class differences as they actually existed, unembellished by either emotion or opinion. However, because his wrote largely about the middle class, and because he chose to stay well within society’s accepted limits regarding sex, violence, and other topics, critics at times have regarded his works a “safe” and “commonplace”.

In the 1960s Howells work fell out of favor in the literary community. His work was considered to be too “safe”, and neither ground-breaking nor controversial; his aim was simply to depict life as accurately as possible. For the next twenty years, Howells’ work was neither taught in college classrooms nor widely anthologized in American literature collections. However, in the 1990s there was renewed interest in his work, not only for its own sake in laying a solid groundwork for later realism movements, but also for his social conscience.

Howells was quick to speak out on what he perceived as the important social issues of the time. For example, he was the only American writer to publicly condemn the prosecution and conviction of eight labor activists in connection with the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, in support of the labor strike at the McCormick Reaper Works in 1886. The riot grew from a peaceful demonstration of workers seeking an 8-hour work day at a time when many Americans worked seventy hours or more per week. Public opinion was split on support for those convicted, but despite his elevated position in the literary world of the time, Howells always refused to compromise on principles, regardless of the possibility of consequences.

His later years brought Howells much recognition. He served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and prominent institutions sought him out to teach and lecture. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities all conferred honorary degrees on Howells, and Oxford awarded him a doctorate of literature in 1904. He died at his home in 1920.

A Traveler from Altruria (1894) is one of Howells later novels, and his only work dealing with utopian themes. In his fictional country of Altruria, altruism, honesty, and helping others is the normal fabric of society, and in many cases is law. The “traveler” arrives in the United States and makes new friends, all of them eager to show him their wealthy, powerful country. What he actually sees is the America of the late nineteenth century, where a few very powerful industrialists work poorly-paid laborers 60 hours or more per week. Industries digest and destroy as many natural resources as possible in order to amass as much wealth as possible, exhibiting a “savage sense of greed”. The traveler never denounces this “American Way”; he is simply puzzled and saddened as he is shown more and more evidence of greed and destruction, and he regularly compares it to how things are done in his own country of Altruria. The themes in A Traveler from Altruria and the 19th century “literature of reform” were more stridently articulated in the later “Muckraking” works of authors and journalists such as Ida Tarbell (The History of the Standard Oil Company, 1904) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906).

William Dean Howells was a self-taught writer who read, studied, and wrote independently as well as professionally. He wrote primarily novels and short fiction, but he produced poetry and drama as well. He also wrote about literature, producing a large body of literary criticism. As an editor he was skilled at finding the middle ground between extremes in writing and editing styles. Arguably his largest contribution to literature was not necessarily his writing, but his work at The Atlantic Monthly, where he not only recognized some of America’s most important writers (including Mark Twain and Henry James) at the very beginning of their careers, but nurtured and promoted them as well.

Full text: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8449/8449-h/8449-h.htm


William Dean Howells – Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January, 2017 http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=88826813&site=eds-live

“Haymarket Riot “. Digital History, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3192

“Explanation of: A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howells.” LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Gale, 2000. LitFinder, http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2077/ps/i.do?p=GLS&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CLTF0000000496CE&asid=3caf798651ea337d29f1f74798fd92f8 . Accessed 19 July 2017.

MacDonald, M. Irwin. “Ida M. Tarbell: The Woman Who Has Made People Comprehend the Meaning of the Trusts.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Paula Kepos, vol. 40, Gale, 1991. Literature Resource Center, http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2077/ps/i.do?p=GLS&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1420020330&asid=e6d3f480568759b61ee5f6483d7e472a . Accessed 21 July 2017. Originally published in The Craftsman, vol. 14, no. 1, Apr. 1908, pp. 3-10.

Heim, William J. “Upton Sinclair: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by Jim Kamp, 3rd ed., St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center, http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.sunyocc.edu:2077/ps/i.do?p=GLS&sw=w&u=onondaga&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1420007443&asid=5d9a4141379a0b0e9eef64b9899a2a48 . Accessed 21 July 2017.


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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature Copyright © by Angela Weiler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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