American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

HOWELLS, WILLIAM DEAN (1837-1920). A native of Ohio, William Dean Howells began to work in his father’s printing shop at age nine. A self-taught student of languages and literature, he early entered a career in journalism. After writing a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, Howells was appointed American consul to Venice, where he resided during the Civil War. From 1871 to 1881 he was chief editor of The Atlantic Monthly and, beginning in 1886, contributed to Harper’s, moving to New York in 1888. In addition to his journalistic work, Howells wrote numerous novels, stories, plays, poems, travel sketches, and pieces of literary criticism. He also commented on the political events of his time and made himself the spokesperson and promoter of literary realism, becoming America’s preeminent man of letters.

Intimately acquainted with Europe, particularly Italy, Howells frequently wrote about the cultural peculiarities of the New World and the Old World, and he occasionally used a transatlantic voyage as setting for his stories. In the romance The Lady of the Aroostook (1879) and in the musical farce A Sea Change; or Love’s Stowaway (1888), young Americans woo each other aboard ships bound for Europe. Part of Their Wedding Journey (1871) takes place on board a ship crossing Lake Ontario; part of Their Silver Wedding Journey (1899), on a German vessel sailing from New York to Cuxhaven.

Travel by ship is also the topic of four of Howells’ contributions to the “Editor’s Easy Chair” column in Harper’s Monthly: he describes a ship and its passengers just returned from Europe (October 1907), the Great Lakes* and their towns and countrysides (April 1908), music on transatlantic vessels (July 1909), and the differences between sea and air travel (January 1911).

Sea voyages and a shipwreck* are central plot twists in A Woman’s Reason (1883), in which protagonist Helen Harkness, daughter of a bankrupt India trader, awaits the return of her erstwhile fiance, naval officer Robert Fenton, from China. Howells describes in detail Fenton’s efforts to survive on an uncharted coral island in the Pacific, where he and a companion have been abandoned by shipmates after a wreck of the clipper Meteor, en route to San Francisco from Yokohama. Helen attempts to survive financially on the rocky Massachusetts Bay shore following her father’s death and the presumed death of Fenton. [See also OCEAN LINER DRAMA]

Udo Nattermann