March 1, 2012, will mark the 175th anniversary of William Dean Howells's birth. Experience has disgraced my prophetic abilities more than once, but I will venture this cautious prediction: the date will pass unnoticed. Such disregard is regrettable, and was not the case in 1912, when 400 eminent writers, journalists, editors, social reformers, university presidents, and public men, including William Howard Taft, who had altered his schedule to attend, crowded Sherry's restaurant in New York City to celebrate Howells's 75th birthday. From England, Thomas Hardy and Henry James were only the most eminent of Howells's contemporaries to send letters of congratulation. The gala event received front-page coverage in the New York Times and was extensively recounted in other publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post. (1) At that moment, Howells was, the Times reported with perhaps an intentional pun, "the Dean of American letters." (2) As an acclaimed novelist, critic, and editor, Howells understood his place in the history of American literature. In his prepared remarks, he observed that he had known all those "in whom the story of American literature sums itself," except for Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, and William H. Prescott. (3) Howells's roll of literary acquaintances included George Bancroft, William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Francis Parkman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and many others. He was a living bond to the past and the revered embodiment of the American literary tradition.
Not only did the assembled guests know one another and share a common literary history and culture; they also embraced a common set of ideals and values. In The End of American Innocence, which, like many of Howells's novels, has suffered undue neglect, Henry F. May investigated these principles in careful detail. To condense them to the essentials, they were: first, belief in the existence of an objective, universal morality; second, belief in the inevitability of progress; third, belief in the importance of manners and refinement. This creed was the gravitational force around which the intellectual cosmos of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America cohered.
Such agreements did not prevent discord. Many of the number commemorating Howells's literary achievements and stature objected to his politics, which were often controversial. Yet, as gentlemen, they could disagree without becoming disagreeable, understanding that reasonable men could debate contentious subjects in civil tones. Whatever their differences with Howells, he was still one of them, perhaps the best of them. He shared their convictions and spoke their language. "Everything he has written," said President Taft, "sustains the highest standard of social purity and aspiration, of refinement and morality and of wholesome ideals." He, like the others in attendance, could still regard Howells as an unalloyed "force for good." (4)
Although continuing to embrace the myth of American exceptionalism, Howells was critical of American foreign policy. His faith that America was fundamentally different from, and better than, the other nations of the world, in fact, became the basis of his critique. In a public letter, for instance, he had once written that "when our country is wrong she is worse than other countries when they are wrong, because she has more light than other countries, and we ought somehow to make her feel that we are sorry and ashamed of her. ...," ashamed, as he wrote during the Spanish-American war, of the "era of blood-bought prosperity" that the United States seemed intent to bring about, punishing Spain "for putting us to the trouble of using violence in robbing her." (5)
Howells was also far from an exemplary conservative in his opinion of domestic politics. He advocated a version of Christian socialism and was consistently sympathetic to the working class in the labor disputes of the Gilded Age. Earlier generations, he explained, could dream "of human perfectibility through one mighty reform. Now long ago the slaves were freed, but ... the faces of the underwaged women and overworked children stare at us." (6) The Haymarket Affair, which took place in Chicago on May 4, 1886, and its aftermath marked a crucial turning point in Howells's intellectual and moral life, jarring him from his complacency. (7) Never again did he quite believe in the inherent justice and goodness of American society. The summary judgment and execution of men whose guilt the state had not proved, Howells informed Francis F. Browne, founder and editor of the Dial, was a "thing forever damnable before God and abominable to...