William Dean Howells

American author, critic, and playwright

William Dean Howells (March 1, 1837May 11, 1920) was an American realist author and literary critic.

We live, but a world has passed away
With the years that perished to make us men.


The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested…
I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand.
What the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.
  • We live, but a world has passed away
    With the years that perished to make us men.
    • The Mulberries (1871)
  • The life of Christ, it wasn't only in healing the sick and going about to do good; it was suffering for the sins of others. That's as great a mystery as the mystery of death. Why should there be such a principle in the world? But it's been felt, and more or less dumbly, blindly recognized ever since Calvary. If we love mankind, pity them, we even wish to suffer for them. That's what has created the religious orders in all times--the brotherhoods and sisterhoods that belong to our day as much as to the mediaeval past. That's what is driving a girl like Margaret Vance, who has everything that the world can offer her young beauty, on to the work of a Sister of Charity among the poor and the dying.
  • And before you know me gone
    Eternity and I are one.
    • Time
  • Her mouth is a honey-blossom,
    No doubt, as the poet sings;
    But within her lips, the petals,
    Lurks a cruel bee that stings.
    • The Sarcastic Fair
  • He who sleeps in continual noise is wakened by silence [...]
  • See how today's achievement is only tomorrow's confusion;
    See how possession always cheapens the thing that was precious.
    • Pordenone, IV
  • Christ and the life of Christ is at this moment inspiring the literature of the world as never before, and raising it up a witness against waste and want and war. It may confess Him, as in Tolstoi's work it does, or it may deny Him, but it cannot exclude Him; and in the degree that it ignores His spirit, modern literature is artistically inferior. In other words, all good literature is now Christmas literature.
    • In Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Editor's Study Christmas Literature (December 1888), p. 158-59, as quoted in An Imperative Duty, Appendix D, 7
  • An artistic atmosphere does not create artists a literary atmosphere does not create literators; poets and painters spring up where there was never a verse made or a picture seen. This suggests that God is no more idle now than He was at the beginning, but that He is still and forever shaping the human chaos into the instruments and means of beauty.
    • My Literary Passions (1895)
  • The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested, and this was, above all, the secret of the charm that Doctor Holmes had for every one. No doubt he knew it, for what that most alert intelligence did not know of itself was scarcely worth knowing. This knowledge was one of his chief pleasures, I fancy; he rejoiced in the consciousness which is one of the highest attributes of the highly organized man, and he did not care for the consequences in your mind, if you were so stupid as not to take him aright.
  • The mortality of all inanimate things is terrible to me, but that of books most of all.
    • Letter to Charles Eliot Norton (6 April 1903)
  • I am not sorry for having wrought in common, crude material so much; that is the right American stuff; and perhaps hereafter, when my din is done, if anyone is curious to know what that noise was, it will be found to have proceeded from a small insect which was scraping about on the surface of our life and trying to get into its meaning for the sake of the other insects larger or smaller. That is, such has been my unconscious work; consciously, I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand.
    • Letter to Charles Eliot Norton (26 April 1903)

Quotes about Howells

  • I recently came upon the unjustly neglected but blissful novels of William Dean Howells. Like Jane Austen, they revel in domestic success and unsuccess; like Henry James, they sometimes set their Americans in Europe; like Anthony Trollope, they are skeptically aware of political turmoil.
  • William Dean Howells (who ought to be venerated at least as much as Willa Cather, if not more)
  • At his best, Howells was considered a novelist on a par with his other great friend, Henry James. Though that level of esteem did not survive the 19th century, Howells finished his long life enjoying the sobriquet, "the Dean of American Letters."
  • For forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and astonishment. In the sustained exhibition of certain great qualities — clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing — he is, in my belief, without his peer in the English-writing world. SUSTAINED. I entrench myself behind that protecting word. There are others who exhibit those great qualities as greatly as he does, but only by intervaled distributions of rich moonlight, with stretches of veiled and dimmer landscape between; whereas Howells's moon sails cloudless skies all night and all the nights.
    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. Others have to put up with approximations, more or less frequently; he has better luck.
    ...Mr. Howells has done much work, and the spirit of it is as beautiful as the make of it. I have held him in admiration and affection so many years that I know by the number of those years that he is old now; but his heart isn't, nor his pen; and years do not count. Let him have plenty of them; there is profit in them for us.
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