University of Rochester Library Bulletin: William Dean Howells' Letters

Volume VI · Winter 1951 · Number 2
William Dean Howells' Letters

The Treasure Room at Rush Rhees Library now houses sixty-two original letters by William Dean Howells, and a card and a letter addressed to the famed "Dean of American Letters," as he was often called. Over half of the Howells letters, thirty-four to be exact, are addressed to Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of The Century;five, to Mrs. Jeannette Thurber, the founder of the National Conservatory in New York and the moving spirit in founding the American Opera Company; three, to Francis A. Duneka, the business manager of Harper & Brothers; two, to Henry Mills Alden, editor of Harper's Magazine, while the remaining eighteen were dispatched to a great variety of persons, including the publishers Bowker, Osgood, and Putnam, editor Richard Watson Gilder, poets Will Carleton and Madison Cawein, President Thwing of Western Reserve University, and a number of others. The letters cover the time from 1871 through 1916, with the eight letters dated 1895 and seven dated 1909 constituting the largest accumulation in any of the years mentioned.

While the unpublished letters touch on many subjects, they relate chiefly to Howells' activities as a business-man author. Without any family or other outside pecuniary assistance, lacking even a formal college education, he had become such a successful man-of-letters business man that he reared his family in comfort, owning city property as well as two summer estates in Maine, at Kittery Point and York Harbor. In an age when literary efforts were not rewarded by Hollywood or Book-of-the-Month clubs, how did he manage so well financially? What exactly was the outlook during the latter half of the nine­teenth century in the United States for an ambitious man who wished to make a living from creative or critical authorship?

In 1893 Howells summarized the situation, as he saw it, in an article in Scribner's Magazine on "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business." He there asserted that while the copyright laws had improved the remuneration for authors, literary property had "only forty-two years of life under our unjust statutes, and if it is attacked by robbers the law does not seek out the aggressors and punish them," but the aggrieved owner must bring suit against them. "The Constitution guarantees us all equality before the law," but Howells felt that the law-makers had forgotten the literary industry and, while this condition prevailed, it was not to be expected that the best business talent would go into literature, and the man of letters would continue to be of low rank among business men.

Howells maintained that literary incomes originate mainly from serial publication in the magazines, not from books; the return from the latter may be counted as "so much money found in the road" - a few hundreds, a very few thousands, at the most. Periodicals then paid from five or six dollars a thousand words for the work of unknown writers to a hundred and fifty dollars a thousand words for the most popular and famous. Most of the material contributed to the magazines was the subject of agreement between the editor and author (Howells had much experience in both roles), either suggested by the author, or recommended by the editor. In either event the price was agreed upon beforehand. The price would be so much per thousand words, "a truly odious method for computing literary value," commented Howells.

Throughout the great majority of his productive literary period, Howells did not depend exclusively on irregular royalty checks resulting from serial or book publications but had a regular salary check. In December, 1865, soon after he returned from Venice where he had been American Consul, he was engaged by Mr. Gotkin of The Nation to write for that magazine for a salary of forty dollars a week, which left him free to write for all other papers except The Round Table. His contract did not include articles on Italian subjects and poems, for which he was to receive extra payment.

In March, 1866, Howells accepted the assistant editorship of The Atlantic, for which he was to receive fifty dollars a week for reading proof, corresponding with contributors, and writing the "Reviews and Literary Notices," but he was to be paid extra for anything he contributed to the body of the magazine. In 1868 his salary was raised from $2500 to $3500 a year but this also paid for his articles, since his proof-reading work no longer was as important as his writing. In 1871 he was promoted to the editorship of The Atlantic, presumably with another raise in pay. In February, 1881, he resigned his editorship because he had grown "terribly, miserably tired of editing ... The MSS, the proofs, the books, the letters have become insupportable." Howells immediately entered the employ of James R. Osgood and Co.; Mr. Osgood took everything Howells wrote and paid him a yearly salary for it. He sold the Howells material wherever he could, mostly to The Century, where A Modern Instance, The Rise of Silas Lapham, and The Minister's Charge were serialized in the order given.

After a time Osgood failed in business and in 1885 Howells made an agreement to place his work exclusively with Harper & Brothers. He agreed to write at least one short novel every year, with at least one farce, and as much more as he could or liked in the various kinds he was "a supposed expert in." Then the amiable Harper's chief, against much objecting and doubts on the part of Howells (who felt critical essaying would harm his novel writing) talked the latter into agreeing to write a department in the magazine every month, covering the whole ground of reviewing and book noticing. Howells was to make the department what he liked and call it what he liked, which turned out to be "The Editor's Study" conducted by Howells for six years. He still felt at the end of this period, that this activity had harmed his fiction writing, and believed that the Harpers agreed with him.

In 1900 the house of Harper & Brothers foundered financially and Howells says "it was as if I had read that the government of the United States had failed." However, the firm was reorganized under the management of Colonel George Harvey who reunited Howells' fortunes with Harper's.

Howells had been getting a salary for writing the "Editor's Easy Chair" and all that he wrote for Harper & Brothers under the "old arrangement," but in 1915 he took a "partial separation" to receive only a salary for the "Editor's Easy Chair" department, and the Harpers were to take such of his other work as they wished, with the provision that he should offer what he wrote to them before anyone else. He admitted in a letter to Francis A. Duneka that selling his wares to other editors would be "rather shivery business." In 1916 the agreement with the Harpers was revised so that Howells could offer his things first wherever he wished.

Howells, then, managed throughout his career to lead a very stable and secure financial life, despite the fact that he had to depend upon creative and critical writing. When economic panics came along, perhaps there were many business men who would have been perfectly willing to step into Howells' "infant literary industry," if they could have been paid as well and regularly as he was.

As Mildred Howells says in Life in Letters of William Dean Howells, Howells would not submit his work to editors but offered them an outline of his idea for a story or article, for them to accept or decline on the strength of his other writings, usually before the piece was written. A letter to Alden, dated January 5, 1895, informs the editor that Howells is enclosing a scenario of a story that they have spoken about on several occasions and states that it would be about the length of Silas Lapham, which he hopes it would also resemble in quality. He wants to get for it the same amount he received for Silas Lapham, namely $7500; and he offers to have the story ready by the beginning of 1896. If this proposal strikes Alden favorably, Howells proposes that the two talk the story over fully. Howells, it appears, had received over fifty dollars a page for Silas Lapham and, considering the purchasing power of money in those days, and the fact that beginning writers might get five to six dollars a page, his remuneration was not entirely inadequate.

The necessity of chaffering about prices, which he had hoped to avoid by taking the Cosmopolitan editorship, is well illustrated by a series of three letters to Johnson, then associate editor of The Century, which were written during August, 1895. On August 16 he suggests that if Johnson wants his essay badly enough to pay him $500 for it, which was the rate he had received for his essay "Tribulations of a Cheerful Giver," the payment would not be out of line. He adds that Scribners and Harpers both paid him $525 for seven pages. His letter of August 21 maintains that The Century had paid him all sorts of rates, fifty dollars a page for the story Wiles illustrated, and ninety dollars a page for the "Tribulations," and Howells asserts that he wants ninety dollars a page for his current article which has caused him a lot of work. The concluding episode of this "chaffering" series of letters occurs in a letter to Johnson, dated August 22, in which Howells tells Johnson to pay him as he likes and Howells can at least feel wronged, which is something, at least! They had discussed the title of the essay at some length, and finally published it under the title "Equality as the Basis of Good Society," and it appeared in the November, 1895, issue of The Century. A Howells letter, dated July 1, 1897, rather humorously insists that they should not discuss the price of an article until Johnson is so filled with admiration for it that he cannot help offering a high price.

An example of his insistence on submitting an outline or sketch of a story, rather than the completed work, to the editors appears in his letter to Johnson, dated June 21, 1896, in which he declares that he is pleased that Johnson likes the notion of the long story Howells had suggested and asks him to mention it to Richard Watson Gilder, then the editor of The Century. Howells did not want to go ahead with the story if Gilder did not like the subject. He insists that Gilder would not be committing himself by asking Howells for a synopsis of the story, should the subject please him. In this case, obviously, Howells would not take Johnson's judgment but preferred to get approval of his plan from the editor himself.

That Howells kept a close eye on even the details of the publishing becomes evident from his letter to Francis A. Duneka, Harper & Brothers' business manager, dated July 25, 1907, which expresses his anxiety that the book is too lean in body and suggests adding pictures used in the periodical publication of the separate stories now to be published as the book, Between the Dark and the Daylight, and to include them in the pagination. Or, Howells is willing to add another article if the book is not to be published until near Christmas. Otherwise how would they dare charge $1.50 for a book of only 168 pages? It is interesting to note that when the volume came out on November 9, 1907, priced at $1.50, it contained 185 pages, including 6 illustrations, but they were not numbered as pages. Perhaps another short story was added but it was not the one sent to Alden, which Howells had suggested using, for the seven short pieces in the collection all had been printed in Harper publications previously.

Howells' final letter in this group is addressed to Duneka, dated April 3, 1916, and deals with Howells' effort to persuade Duneka to prevent the crowding together of two of his books in the autumn. Howells believes that the Century firm will publish his Leatherwood God in September and that would be three books of his in one year. He doesn't want to push the public too much and asks that Duneka postpone the publication date of Years of My Youth, an autobiographical book, until the following year. Despite this plea, Harper & Brothers did publish both The Daughter of the Storage and Years of My Youth in 1916 and Century brought out the Leatherwood God the same year. And Howells was seventy-nine years old!

Howells had been a very prolific writer and while Harper & Brothers were the largest, by far, of the takers of his fiction, he occasionally serialized a story elsewhere, in The Century, Scribner's, and The Ladies' Home Journal. He continued to write until his death in 1920 and some of his work appeared posthumously. Such output was, of course, no accident. He had trained himself to work regular hours, as indicated in a letter to a Miss Hasse, dated January 29, 1899, in which he apologizes for not seeing her when she had come to his door that morning but states that he sees no visitors in the morning in order to keep his working hours intact.

The necessity of making a living for himself and family and his ambition to further his own ideals and do something for humanity and the humanities always were powerful stimuli to productive effort. Almost to the end of his life he seemed to have the fear of want at the back of his mind, based no doubt on the experiences of his youth. His qualms at the time Harper & Brothers changed management, despite his established reputation in the field of letters, illustrate well his reaction to any shadow of financial danger. In an article in the Harper's Weekly of March 29, 1902, he dealt with the fear of want; "the black shadow of want is always with the poor and many others imagining themselves in danger of it should they lose a job, or have some misfortune." Apparently he had little trouble visualizing the possibility for himself and family, consequently he worked hard, regularly, and well, and his financial rewards were substantial.

The information to be gleaned from the unpublished Howells letters in the Library is scattered in subject matter and covers many years of time. However, the letters rather reinforce prevailing opinions of the "Dean of American Letters" than add any startlingly new information about his writings or character. The genial, kindly writer, editor, and critic constantly strove to help his younger, unknown colleagues but at the same time strove diligently to accumulate his share of the world's goods and with no small measure of success. He gave his name, prestige, and personal aid to make a success of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Institute of Arts and Letters. He gave "readings," though he disliked public speaking, wrote vigorous, and sometimes almost acidulous articles, made personal visits, and got his friends to help the cause of international copyright. Also touched upon in the letters are his efforts to get his operetta, A Sea-Change, produced, his friendship for Mark Twain, regard for his wife, and love of nature. William Dean Howells' letters show him, then, as a man of strong character, devoted to his duty, his ideals, and family, who served them and his country to the best of his ability.