Ohio History Journal

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11




William Dean Howells and

the Gilded Age: Socialist

in a Fur-lined Overcoat



William Dean Howells was among the foremost of several late-

nineteenth century novelists, including Mark Twain and Hamlin Garland,

who left small midwestern towns to seek their literary fortunes in the East.

Esteemed as a first-rank novelist, the "Father of American Realism," and

the nation's most prominent literary critic, he became a celebrated symbol

of Gilded Age culture. When four hundred guests attended the testimonial

dinner in New York tendered by Harper's magazine on his seventy-fifth

birthday in 1912, the New York Times hailed it as "such a gathering of

distinguished men . . . as few occasions in the past have called together in

this city."1 Guests included such unlikely bedfellows as Ida Tarbell and

Albert Beveridge, Ray Stannard Baker and Admiral Alfred Thayer

Mahan, and President William H. Taft. Yet while Howells grew quite

comfortable in his position and prided himself upon his climb from lowly

origins, many of his biographers have noted that he later developed grave

reservations about the socioeconomic system which made his rise possible.

Howells expressed these reservations in his economic novels and became

an avowed socialist. But his socialism always remained circumscribed by

his hard-earned prosperity. While he wrote his friend Henry James that "I

should hardly like to trust pen and ink with all the audacity of my social

ideas," he went on to confess that "Meantime, I wear a fur-lined overcoat,

and live in all the luxury my money can buy."2




Gregory L. Crider, a Professor of History and American Studies, is presently enrolled at

the Indiana University Law School.




1. New York Times, March 3, 1912.

2. W. D. Howells to Henry James, Jr., October 10, 1888, Howells MSS, Houghton

Library, Harvard University. This and subsequent correspondence found in the Houghton

Library are used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Permission

to cite the letter is given by W. W. Howell of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and

Ethnology, Harvard University; any further publication of the letter requires new permission.