By Anne Trubek
At the turn of the twentieth century, William Dean Howells was arguably the most influential person in American literature. He had been the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, then the most powerful magazine in the nation. He picked many future literary greats, arguably the person most responsible for the careers of Mark Twain and Henry James. He championed the writing of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Paul Laurence Dunbar as American realism, the literary genre he helped create. He also promoted, under this rubric, regional writers, such as Hamlin Garland and George Washington Cable. His primary goal was to widen American literature, which he then considered to be too focused on New England writers. Women and African-American writers, including Sarah Orne Jewett and Charles Chesnutt, were offered places at the literary table because of Howells. He was a one-man recommendation algorithm, suggesting to millions of Americans what to read next; the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His peers often referred to him as “the dean of American literature.” Mark Twain called him “the Boss.”
Howells was a writer as well, dizzyingly prodigious, publishing over one hundred books. His best-known books today are his novels, namely The Rise of Silas Lapham and The Hazard of New Fortunes, but he made his career by publishing a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. The success of that book led him to a consulship in Venice, during which he wrote Venetian Life, published in 1863. When he returned to the United States, he ensconced himself in eastern establishment intellectual circles, and by 1871 he became editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a job he held for a decade before resigning to allow more time for writing. Starting in 1885, he helmed the Editor’s Study column for Harper’s Monthly. During this period his always-leftward politics became more radical, aided by his reading of Leo Tolstoy and socialist literature. He became one of the loudest and influential critics of the conviction of the Haymarket ‘riot’ anarchists, and advocated publicly on their behalf. He joined the Anti-Imperialist League in 1890.
Howells grew up in Ohio, and although he left when he was thirty, he was always a fierce Ohio patriot. “Patriot” may sound like the wrong term; Ohio is not a state with a clear sense of identity. It is not like, say, Texas or California, places with a proud heritage that goes beyond statehood. Today, if Ohio is thought of as having any defining identity, it is for being indistinct, paradigmatic, standard, the accurate mixture of the whole. It stands for typical: “As goes Ohio, so goes the nation”. But patriotism is an accurate description for Howells’ relationship to his home state. During his lifetime, the state was known as a maker of presidents and statesmen. While he was a child there, the state was growing faster than any other; by 1850 it would be the third most populous in the nation. Howells argued that so many leaders came from the state because Ohio’s history, demographics, values, and geography were strong enough to form a distinctive statewide identity. As he writes in Stories of Ohio, “the Ohio man has, in all ages, been one of the foremost men.”
Howells was born in 1837 in Martins Ferry (then Martinsville). His grandfather was the Quaker son of Welsh immigrants who came to Ohio to farm, mostly unsuccessfully. His father was an itinerant printer and newspaper publisher, and the family moved often when William was young. For a decade they settled in Hamilton, and his father, newly converted to Swedenborgianism, an extremely liberal Christian denomination, took over the Hamilton Intelligencer, where he published his anti-slavery and socialist views—and often got into political trouble for so doing. William did not go to school, working instead as a “printer’s devil,” or shop assistant, for his father, setting type for newspapers. When he was twelve, and his father was running the Dayton Transcript, William “rose in the morning between four and five to deliver papers; in the evenings he worked until eleven putting into type… dispatches…In between, he set four columns of the day’s paper.” A possibly apocryphal tale holds that Howells wrote his first short story by placing it in a compositor’s stick, upside down and backwards.
The family was always poor; his father was unable to keep jobs long. The Howells were political outliers, but that was not uncommon in nineteenth-century Ohio. In 1850, they decided to create a utopian community at Eureka Mills, on the Little Miami River near Dayton. There, they built and lived in log cabins. The experiment only lasted a year.
The family would move again often—to Columbus, to Ashtabula, to Jefferson. During his twenties, Howells began his own career writing for Ohio newspapers. In 1861, when he was awarded the consulship at Venice, Howells moved out of the state and would never live there again. As a self-made man, who grew up laboring in a print shop, from a family who supported John Brown, held fierce political principles, and who spent a year learning intimately the hardships of life in a log cabin, Howells’ Ohio life was, like the state, both typical and unusual.
Howells’ background and political views are important for twenty-first century readers of Stories of Ohio, a history of the state published in 1897 and written primarily for schoolchildren. Contemporary readers may well be put off by the language in this book; Howells describes Native Americans as savages and “red men,” for example. The racism is clear. Native tribes are important throughout the entire book, though, something more recent histories of the state cannot claim. He can be as offensive as he can be idealized: “The Ohio Indians were unspeakably vicious, treacherous, and filthy, but they were as brave as they were vile, and they were as sagacious as they were false,” he writes. Whites, be they French, English, or American, are often portrayed as far less virtuous: after all, as Howells writes, “Neither the French nor the English had any right to the Ohio country which they both claimed.”
That the largest portion of this history of Ohio takes place before the eighteenth century provides readers with a new perspective upon the present. There are no turnpikes in this history; Howells jokes how much Ohioans love roads, never imagining such a thing as a highway. The beginning of the state also extends further back than what might expect: the book opens with Ice Age Mound Builders, “as worthy ancestors as a people could have,” and discusses the importance of preserving the Serpent Mound and other burial grounds. It is not clear if, in the century since this book was published that we have, indeed, managed to remember these ancestors, despite some National Parks. And Howells reminds us that Ohio was once part of France, for example, its residents subjects of the “very bad king” Louis XV. The French, Howells argues, were much better rulers than the English who defeated them. Had the French prevailed, Natives “would still be found in almost as great numbers as ever throughout the vast region where hardly one of their blood remains.”
Thus some of the history Howells tells rightly should make us cringe today; other parts remind us of what we should not forget. The book contains stories about whites being captured by Natives and vice versa, about happy marriages between Natives and whites, and about the perils of backwoods life. One chapter is devoted to a terrifying series of stories about “lost children” who wandered away from their log cabins in forests, got lost, and died from starvation or exposure. And as the decades get closer to the time of their writing, Howells turns to then-modern means of transportation, from steamboats to canals to trains. Howells raves about the canals, “dug by Ohioans for Ohioans, and publicly run,” and slams the railroads, spearheaded by Michigan men (some rivalries never die), and privately run, profit-making ventures.
To read a history that ends in the nineteenth century is to see Ohio anew, and Stories of Ohio manages to be both a fascinating history and a historic document itself, teaching us as much about the late nineteenth century as it does the earlier times it recounts. ■
From the introduction to a new edition of William Dean Howells’ Stories of Ohio, published by Belt Publishing’s Belt Revivals imprint, which is dedicated to reprinting forgotten, newly-resonant works from the American Midwest.
Anne Trubek is the founder and director of Belt Publishing. She is the author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting and A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, and the co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, as well as chair of the board for Belt Media Collaborative. She lives in Cleveland.
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