Friday, January 20, 2017

On Howells and the power of gatekeepers

Today in American Lit Survey I told the thrilling story of William Dean Howells, the self-educated nobody from the howling Ohio wilderness who wrote a campaign biography of an upstart presidential candidate named Abe Lincoln and, as a reward, was appointed American consul to Venice, where he sat out the Civil War educating himself in art and music and history and culture and parlaying that experience into writing that earned the attention of the patrician gatekeepers of American publishing, who welcomed Howells into their fold and eased him eventually into a position as arbiter of American literary tastes--Howells, the hick from the sticks who threw open the doors of literary magazines to a broad diversity of writers, welcoming the voices of women and minorities and residents of every region of the country.

I tell this story every time I teach the class (condensing and simplifying and no doubt leaving out important elements) because here in the midwestern flyover states Howells feels like one of us, but also because it's important for students to think about the power of the gatekeepers who determine which authors get published, how certain voices get to stand for American literature while others are ignored or marginalized or silenced. He had his limitations and his crotchets, but Howells staked out new territory for American literature, enraging European readers by claiming that American authors need not bow down to European masters but could stand side-by-side with Thackeray and Dickens without being ashamed. He supported struggling writers with money and encouragement and publication, welcoming into the literary canon authors as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sara Orne Jewett, Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Henry James. He knew that America's strength lies in its diversity, its ability to nurture divergent voices that mingle to create harmony or cacophony or whatever the situation requires.

But most of all he shoved open the gates and welcomed in new and neglected writers because he understood that no single voice can speak for all of us--a message that resonates today, nearly 100 years after Howells's death.  

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