The Realism of William Dean Howells

Regarded by many as the major American novelist and critic of his age, William Dean Howells (1837–1920) began his career as a printer and journalist. He became sub-editor and then chief editor of the most prestigious journal on the East coast, The Atlantic Monthly, and associate editor of Harper’s Monthly in New York. His chief fictional work was The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), and his subsequent novels, such as A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and The World of Chance (1893), reflect his move toward both socialism and social realism, whereby he conducted a critique of American capitalism and imperialism. His status as the major American theorist of realism was established by his book Criticism and Fiction (1891), which effectively compiled articles he had written for his “Editor’s Study” section of Harper’s Monthly. As influential editor, novelist, and theorist, he occupied a central position in American literature. Influenced by Lowell and Hawthorne, as well as by European and Russian realists such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Zola, and Ibsen, he transmitted the aesthetic of these writers in a refined and revitalized form to his native soil and his own era. He was acquainted with most of the leading writers of his time, including Lowell, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman; he influenced the careers of Henry James, Mark Twain, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the time of his death he had exerted a powerful and pervasive influence on American letters, though subsequent generations of critics and writers tended somewhat to devalue his critical and literary reputation.


Howells’ Criticism and Fiction is a closely argued manifesto for realism. He begins by declaring his common ground with John Addington Symons, who had expressed a hope that future literature might abandon “sentimental or academical seekings after the ideal,” that it shall harness “the scientific spirit,” and shall “comprehend with more instinctive certitude what is simple, natural, and honest.”1 Howells further suggests that “what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so,” finding sanction for this partly in Keats’ poetic line, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.” From Edmund Burke’s essay on the sublime and the beautiful, Howells reaffirms the insight that the “true standard of the arts is in every man’s power; and an easy observation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest things, in nature will give the truest lights” (298– 299). Integrating these various insights, Howells expresses his own hope that “each new author, each new artist, will be considered, not in his proportion to any other author or artist, but in his relation to the human nature, known to us all, which it is his privilege, his high duty, to interpret” (300). The important issue at stake here, as raised by Burke, is the individuality and authenticity of an artist’s perception. Howells laments the custom of encouraging young artists to form their observations not upon life but upon the perceptions of previous masters. Instead of being encouraged to describe, for example, an actual grasshopper, the young artist is urged to describe an artificial one, which represents “the grasshopper in general . . . a type.” Such a grasshopper, formulated by generations of previous artists, represents a cultivation of the ideal, the ideal grasshopper through the lens of which the real one must be viewed. Howells voices the hope that the artist, as well as the “common, average man,” will reject “the ideal grasshopper, the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted, adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper,” in favor of the “simple, honest, and natural grasshopper” (301). Howells is of course attempting to extricate the novel from the characteristics of the conventional heroic and adventurous romance. In the passage above, Howells appropriates from Symonds a new criterion for art: it must be judged not by conformity with the so-called classics or with the authority of tradition but by “the standard of the arts which we all have in our power, the simple, the natural, and the honest” (302). In historical terms, Howells sees realism as continuing a rebellion initiated by Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of sympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape from the paralysis of tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse; and it remained for realism to assert that fidelity to experience and probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative literature” (302).

As he himself later acknowledges, Howells’ theory of realism is “democratic” in several senses. As seen above, he takes from Burke (ironically, given the antidemocratic strain of Burke’s conservative politics) the democratic notion that all people have the potential for aesthetic judgment. Howells adds that the true realist establishes no hierarchy in the material he considers to be at the disposal of art. The true realist “finds nothing insignificant,” and “feels in every nerve the equality of things and the unity of men; his soul is exalted, not by . . . ideals, but by realities, in which alone the truth lives.” For such a person, “no living man is a type, but a character” (302–303). Howells rejects the “tendency to allegorization” in recent fiction, as well as “the exaggerated passions and motives of the stage” (304–305).

In a manner that somewhat anticipates Northrop Frye and some of the New Critics of the earlier twentieth century, Howells drew attention to the deficiencies of literary criticism as conceived and practiced in his era. He suggests that the critic currently has no principles and indeed is amateurish (306–307). He tends to base his assessments of literary works on personal feelings and impressions; and, in general, his practice has been based on a perpetual resistance of whatever is new, and a blind adherence to past models (311). Interestingly, his position might be viewed as a critique of the “touchstone” theory advanced by Matthew Arnold, with whom Howells otherwise has much in common. Arnold erected this very dearth of critical principles itself into a theory, suggesting that we cannot judge literature by means of fixed and teachable concepts but that we must be exposed to past models of literary greatness, which will serve as touchstones for the assessment of any works we read.

Howells also anticipates the New Critics in his insistence that criticism can have only a subsidiary function: it always exists in a relation of dependence to art; it cannot create literature, and it cannot make or unmake the reputation of authors (308–310). To this sorry state of affairs, Howells brings, as Frye was to do later, a message of admonition that criticism must “reconceive its office.” What we need is a “dispassionate, scientific” study of current literature (311, 314). The critic must with humility acknowledge that he can learn from the creative author who, like Wordsworth, expresses a “revolution, a new order of things, to which the critical perceptions and habitudes had painfully to adjust themselves” (312). Hence criticism must reduce its office, its function, “to the business of observing, recording, and comparing; to analyzing the material before it, and then synthesizing its impressions. Even then, it is not too much to say that literature as an art could get on perfectly well without it” (311). This sounds much like T. S. Eliot in his essay “The Function of Criticism,” where he claimed to be diverging from Arnold and suggested that the critic’s function was disinterested “comparison and analysis.” Each of these writers in his own way was attempting to reaffirm the genuine creativity of art, a creativity that could neither be anticipated nor entirely formulated by criticism. Such a posture reinvests art with an indefinable aura of authority, as expressed in the Romantic notion of “genius,” which soared above any attempts at rational analysis. Yet Howells, true to his democratic aesthetics, rejects the concept of genius outright, as “a mischievous superstition” aimed at mystifying the artistic process.

The democratic strain of Howells’ theory of realism is taken in part from the Spanish writer Palacio Valdés, and appears to be inspired also by insights from Emerson and George Eliot. Like George Eliot, Howells recognizes that truthful simplicity is “very difficult,” and that “nothing is so hard as to be honest” (315). From Valdés, Howells repeats a number of crucial elements of realism. He quotes with approval Valdés’ statement that “in nature there is neither great nor small; all is equal” (316). Following Valdés, Howells urges that artists need to learn how to interest the reader “with the ordinary events of life, and with the portrayal of characters truly human” (317). The novelist must not endeavor to “add anything to reality, to turn it and twist it, to restrict it,” but must paint images “as they appear” (319). And he must engage in a “direct, frank, and conscientious study of character” (318). Howells adds that “Realism is nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material” (319). He cites Emerson’s statement: “I embrace the common; I sit at the feet of the familiar and the low” (321).

Where Howells integrates these insights from various writers and makes them speak through his own voice is in his insistence on the political significance of their democratic sentiment. Since the creation and depiction of beauty rest upon truth, the finest effect of the beautiful, says Howells, “will be ethical and not aesthetic merely. Morality penetrates all things, it is the soul of all things” (322). The novelist “must be true to what life has taught me is the truth.” His work will be pernicious if it constructs a “metaphysical lie against righteousness and common-sense.” Howells looks forward to a day when “the poor honest herd of mankind shall give universal utterance to the universal instinct, and shall hold selfish power in politics, in art, in religion, for the devil that it is” (323). Fiction is harmful if it tells “idle lies about human nature and the social fabric.” Howells reacts against the literary “diet” on which readers have been “pampered to imbecility” (333). The truth alone, says Howells, can “exalt and purify men” (326). Hence this is the supreme test of any work of the imagination: “Is it true? – true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life of actual men and women? This truth . . . necessarily includes the highest morality and the highest artistry” (327). Beauty in literature “comes from truth alone” and the realistic novel has a moral, as well as an aesthetic, mission (331, 334). In the spirit of this mission, Howells admonishes: “let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know . . . let it speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know – and there can be no doubt of an unlimited future, not only of delightfulness but of usefulness, for it” (328). Such is the circuitous historical route by which literary aesthetics returns to the principles of Horace, that the work of art must delight and teach.

On the question of dialect and language, Howells is reluctant to ask writers to be consciously “American.” But he does encourage them to speak their own dialect, rather than indulge in a “priggish and artificial” endeavor to be “English” (328). He directly equates the democratic political beliefs of the country with a democratic aesthetic: the political state, he says, was built “on the affirmation of the essential equality of men in their rights and duties . . . these conditions invite the artist to the study and appreciation of the common . . . The arts must become democratic, and then we shall have the expression of America in art” (339).

Howells issues a ringing judgment against the classics: at “least three-fifths of the literature called classic . . . is not alive; it is as dead as the people who wrote it and read it . . . A superstitious piety preserves it” (341). Howells sees literature as one of the last refuges of the aristocratic spirit which is disappearing from the political and social fabric and “is now seeking to shelter itself in aesthetics . . . Democracy in literature is the reverse of all this. It wishes to know and tell the truth, confident that consolation and delight are there; it does not care to paint the marvellous and impossible” (353). Neither arts nor sciences can be viewed as serious pursuits unless they “tend to make the race better and kinder . . . and they cannot do this except from and through the truth” (354).


!. Criticism and Fiction, reprinted in W. D. Howells: Selected Literary Criticism. Volume II: 1886–1869, ed. Donald Pizer and Christoph K. Lohmann (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 298. Hereafter page citations are given in the text.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. love “A circle in the water”. Is it a novel or story?


  1. The Realism of Henry James – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: