Howells, William Dean

Tagged: Author

(1837-1920) US author, best known for his many realist novels from 1870 onwards, and for his fairly numerous stories, several of them fantastic, like "Christmas Every Day" (January 1886 St Nicholas Magazine), a Time-Loop tale that Danny Rubin – scriptwriter for Groundhog Day (1993) – claimed was his only inspiration for that film. Some of Howells's tales of interest were assembled in Questionable Shapes (coll 1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight: Romances (coll 1907), most of which (though other tales are included) are Club Stories in which the psychologist Wanhope scientifically debunks the ghost stories of his fellow members.

Howells's best remembered and most significant sf remains the Altruria Utopian sequence, A Traveler from Altruria: Romance (November 1892-October 1893 Cosmopolitan; 1894) and Through the Eye of the Needle: A Romance (Part One November 1893-September 1894 Cosmopolitan; exp 1907), is a deceptively mild-mannered assault on the pretensions of late-nineteenth-century US democracy and culture, seen from the perspective of a dreamlike visitor from Altruria, an Island in the Aegean Sea, a Lost World which has been inhabited from the time of Christ, and where an ideal high Technology socialist society has evolved in secret. In the second volume the visitor returns to Altruria with his American bride, and both send letters back describing that land, an ideal country which somewhat resembles the future world depicted in the work of Edward Bellamy, though more so the Nowhere of William Morris. Capitalism has been replaced by a genuine, altruistic neighbourliness, and the two books attack hypocrisy and the more ruthless forms of capitalism in a manner both unmistakable and highly telling, even though gently put; in the sequel, the architectural principles governing the 150 buildings comprising the White City constructed to house the World's Columbian Exhibition (ie the Chicago World's Fair) of 1893 are seen as representing an Altrurian vision of the future as Athens reborn. Letters of an Altrurian Traveler (November 1893-September 1894 Cosmopolitan; 1961) assembles some material from Through the Eye of the Needle: A Romance that Howells had published only in magazine form; The Altrurian Romances (omni 1968) reprints everything in a critical edition.

Much the same narrative technique reappears movingly in The Seen and Unseen at Stratford-on-Avon: A Fantasy (1914), whose revived but ghostly Shakespeare, addressing the twentieth-century narrator, sweetly defends his right to be considered the author of his own plays; the book is an answer to Mark Twain's Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909) which, after the fashion of the time, argues Francis Bacon's authorship. Questionable Shapes (coll 1903) and Between the Dark and the Daylight: Romances (coll 1907), neither sf, assemble (along with other work) Club Stories in which the psychologist Wanhope scientifically debunks the ghost stories of his fellow members. [JC]

William Dean Howells

born Martin's Ferry, Ohio: 1 March 1837

died New York: 11 May 1920

works (selected)

series

Altruria

individual titles

nonfiction

works as editor

about the author

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