Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

William Dean Howells, The Dean of American Letters

"I Should like, Mr. Howells," said I, by way of opening my interview with the famous novelist, to learn your opinion concerning what constitutes success in life. You should have the American view?"

"Not necessarily," said the novelist, seating himself.

"Do you share the belief that everything is open to the beginner who has sufficient energy and perseverance?"

"Add brains, and I will agree," said Mr. Howells with a smile. "A young man stands at the 'parting of two ways,' and can take his path this way or that. It is comparatively easy then, with good judgment. Youth is certainly the greatest advantage which life supplies."

"You began to carve out your place in life under conditions very different from those of today ?"

"Yes. I was born in a little southeastern Ohio village ,— Martin's Ferry, —and, of course, I had but little of what people deem advantages in the way of schools, railroads, population, and so on. I am not sure, however, that compensation was not had in other things."

"Do you consider that you were specially talented in the direction of literary composition?"

"I should not say that. I think that I came of a reading race, which had always loved literature in a way. My inclination was to read."

"Would you say that, with a special leaning toward a special study, and good health, a fair start, and perseverance, anyone can attain to distinction?"


"That is a probability, only. You may be sure that distinction will not come without those qualities. The only way to succeed, therefore, is to have them; though having them will not necessarily guarantee distinction. I can only say that I began with a lofty ideal, without saying how closely I have held to it. My own youth was not specially marked by advantages. There were none, unless you can call a small bookcase full of books, which my home contained, an advantage. The printing office was my school from a very early date. My father thoroughly believed in it, and he had his belief as to work, which he illustrated as soon as we were old enough to learn the trade he followed. We could go to school and study, or we could go into the printing office and work, with perhaps an equal chance of learning; but we could not be idle."

"And you chose the printing office?"

"Not wholly. As I recall it, I went to and fro between the schoolhouse and the printing office. When I tired of one, I was promptly given my choice of the other."

"Then you began life in poverty ?"

"I suppose that, as the world goes now, we were poor. My father's income was never above twelve hundred a year, and his family was large; but nobody was rich then. We lived in the simple fashion of that time and place."

"You found time to read?"

"My reading, somehow, went on pretty constantly. No doubt my love for it won me a chance to devote time to it."

"Might I ask how much time you devoted each day to your literary object?"

"The length varied with varying times. Sometimes I read but little. There were years of the work, of the over-work, indeed, —which falls to the lot of many, that I should be ashamed to speak of except in accounting for the fact. My father had sold his paper in Hamilton, and had bought an interest in another at Dayton, and at that time we were all straining our utmost to help pay for it."

"And that left you little time?"

"In that period very few hours were given to literature. My daily tasks began so early, and ended so late, that I had little time, even if I had the spirit for reading. Sometimes I had to sit up until midnight, waiting for telegraphic news, and be up again at dawn to deliver the papers, working afterward at the case; but that was only for a few years."

"When did you find time to seriously apply yourself to literature?"


"I think I did so before I really had the time. Literary aspirations were stirred in me by the great authors whom I successively discovered, and I was perpetually imitating the writings of these, —modeling some composition of my own after theirs, but never willing to own it."

"Do you attribute your style to the composite influence of these various models?"

"No doubt they had their effect, as a whole, but individually I was freed from the last by each succeeding author, until at length I came to understand that I must be like myself, and no other."

"Had you any conveniences for literary research, beyond the bookcase in your home?"

"If you mean a place to work, I had a narrow, little space, under the stairs at home. There was a desk pushed back against the wall, which the irregular ceiling sloped down to meet, behind it, and at my left was a window, which gave a good light on the writing leaf of my desk. This was my workshop for six or seven years, —and it was not at all a bad one. It seemed, for a while, so very simple and easy to come home in the middle of the afternoon, when my task at the printing office was done, and sit down to my books in my little study, which I did not finally leave until the family were all in bed. My father had a decided bent in the direction of literature; and, when I began to show a liking for literature, he was eager to direct my choice. This finally changed to merely recommending books, and eventually I was left to my own judgment, —a perplexed and sorrowful mistaken judgment, at times."

"In what manner did you manage to read the works of all your favorite authors?"

"Well, my hours in the printing office began at seven and ended at six, with an hour at noon for dinner, which I used for putting down such verses as had come to me in the morning. As soon as supper was over, I got out my manuscripts, and sawed, and filed, and hammered away at my blessed poems, which were little less than imitations, until nine, when I went regularly to bed, to rise again at five. Sometimes the foreman gave me an afternoon off on Saturday, which I devoted to literature."

"Might I ask concerning your next advance in your chosen work?"

"Certainly. As I recall it, my father had got one of those legislative clerkships, in 1858, which used to fall sometimes to deserving country editors, and together we managed and carried out a scheme for corresponding with some city papers. Going to Columbus, the state capital, we furnished a daily letter giving an account of the legislative proceedings, which I mainly wrote from the material he helped me to gather. The letters found favor, and my father withdrew from the work wholly."

"How long were you a correspondent?"


"Two years. At the end of the first winter, a Cincinnati paper offered me the city editorship, but one night's round with the reporters at the police station satisfied me that I was not meant for that kind of work. I then returned home for the summer, and spent my time in reading, and in sending off poems, which regularly came back. I worked in my father's printing office, of course; but, as soon as my task was done, went home to my books, and worked away at them until supper. Then a German bookbinder, with whom I was endeavoring to read Heine in the original, met me in my father's editorial room, and with a couple of candles on the table between us, and our Heine and the dictionary before us, we read until we were both tired out."

"Did you find it labor?"

"I fancy that reading is not merely a pastime, when it is apparently the merest pastime. It fatigues one after the manner of other work, and uses up a certain amount of mind-stuff; and I have found that, if you are using up all the mind-stuff you have, much or little, in some other way, you do not read, because you have not the mind-stuff for it. You cannot say more of any other form of work."

"Then it might be said that you worked at separate and equally difficult tasks, constantly?"

"Perhaps not equally difficult, but, certainly, constantly."

"Rather a severe schooling to give one's self, don't you think it ?"

Mr. Howells smiled. "It was not without its immediate use. I learned how to choose between words, after a study of their fitness; and, though I often employed them decoratively, and with no vital sense of their qualities, still, in mere decoration, they had to be chosen intelligently, and after some thought about their structure and meaning. I would not imitate great writers without imitating their method, which was to the last degree intelligent. They knew what they were doing, and, although I did not always know what I was doing, they made me wish to know, and ashamed of not knowing. The result was beneficial."

"It is very evident that you recovered your health, in spite of your toil?"


"Oh, yes. I got back health enough to be of use in the printing office at home, and was quietly at work there, when, to my astonishment, I was asked to come and take a place upon a Republican newspaper at the capital. I was given charge of the news department. This included the literary notices and the book reviews, and I am afraid that I at once gave my prime attention to these."

"When did you begin to contribute to the literature of the day?"

"If you mean, when did I begin to attempt to contribute, I should need to fix an early date, for I early had experience with rejected manuscripts. One of my pieces, which fell so far short of my visions of the immense subjects I should handle as to treat of the lowly and familiar theme of spring, was the first thing I ever had in print. My father offered it to the editor of the paper I worked on in Columbus, where we were then living, and I first knew what he had done when, with mingled shame and pride, I saw it in the journal. In the tumult of my emotions, I promised myself that if ever I got through that experience safely, I would never suffer anything else of mine to be published; but it was not long before I offered the editor a poem myself."

"When did you publish your first story?"

"My next venture was a story in the Ik Marvel manner, which it was my misfortune to carry into print. I did not really write it, but composed it, rather, in type, at the case. It was not altogether imitated from Ik Marvel, for I drew upon the easier art of Dickens, at times, and helped myself out in places with bald parodies of "Bleak House." It was all very well at the beginning, but I had not reckoned with the future sufficiently to start with any clear ending in my mind; and, as I went on, I began to find myself more and more in doubt about it. My material gave out; my incidents failed me; the characters wavered, and threatened to perish in my hands. To crown my misery, there grew up an impatience with the story among its readers; and this found its way to me one day, when I overheard an old farmer, who came in for his paper, say that he 'did not think that story amounted to much.' I did not think so, either, but it was deadly to have it put into words; and how I escaped the mortal effect of the stroke I do not know. Somehow, I managed to bring the wretched thing to a close, and to live it slowly down."


"My next contribution to literature was jointly with John J. Piatt, the poet, who had worked with me as a boy in the printing office at Columbus. We met in Columbus, where I was then an editor, and we made our first literary venture together in a volume entitled, 'Poems of Two Friends.' The volume became instantly and lastingly unknown to fame; the west waited, as it always does, to hear what the east should say. The east said nothing, and two-thirds of the small edition of five hundred copies came back upon the publisher's hands. This did not deter me, however, from contributing to the periodicals, which, from time to time, accepted my efforts."

"Did you remain long, as an editor, in Columbus ?"

"No; only until 1861, when I was appointed consul at Venice. I really wanted to go to Germany, that I might carry forward my studies in German literature; and I first applied for the consulate at Munich. The powers at Washington thought it quite the same thing to offer me Rome, but I found that the income of the Roman consulate would not give me a living, and I was forced to decline it. Then the president's private secretaries, Mr, John Nicolay and Mr. John Hay, who did not know me, except as a young westerner who had written poems in the 'Atlantic Monthly,' asked me how I would like Venice, promising that the salary would be put up to $1,000 a year. It was really put up to $1,500, and I accepted. I had four years of nearly uninterrupted leisure at Venice."

"Was it easier when you returned from Venice?"

"Not at all. On my return to America my literary life took such form that most of my reading was done for review. I wrote at first a good many of the lighter criticisms in 'The Nation,' and then I went to Boston, to become assistant editor of 'The Atlantic Monthly,' where I wrote the literary notices for that periodical for four or five years."

"You were eventually editor of the 'Atlantic,' were you not ?"

"Yes, until 1881; and I have had some sort of close relation with magazines ever since."

"Would you say that all literary success is very difficult to achieve?" I ventured.

"All that is enduring."

"It seems to me ours is an age when fame comes quickly."

"Speaking of quickly made reputations," said Mr. Howells, meditatively, did you ever hear of Alexander Smith? He was a poet who, in the fifties, was proclaimed immortal by the critics, and ranked with Shakespeare. I myself read him with an ecstacy which, when I look over his work to-day, seems ridiculous. His poem, 'Life-Drama' was heralded as an epic, and set alongside of 'Paradise Lost.' I cannot tell how we all came out of this craze, but the reading world is very susceptible of such lunacies. He is not the only thirdrate poet who has been thus apotheosized, before and since. You might have envied his great success, as I certainly did; but it was not success, after all; and I am sure that real success is always dijfificult to achieve."

"Do you believe that success comes to those who have a special bent or taste, which they cultivate by hard work ?"

"I can only answer that out of my literary experience. For my own part, I believe I have never got any good from a book that I did not read merely because I wanted to read it. I think this may be applied to anything a person does. The book, I know, which you read from a sense of duty, or because for any reason you must, is apt to yield you little. This, I think, is also true of everything, and the endeavor that does one good, —and lasting good, —is the endeavor one makes with pleasure. Labor done in another spirit will serve in a way, but pleasurable labor brings, on the whole, I think, the greatest reward."


"You were probably strongly fascinated by the supposed rewards of a literary career?"

"Yes. A definite literary ambition grew up in me, and in the long reveries of the afternoon, when I was distributing my case in the printing office, I fashioned a future of overpowering magnificence and undying celebrity. I should be ashamed to say what literary triumphs I achieved in those preposterous deliriums. But I realize now that such dreams are nerving, and sustain one in an otherwise barren struggle."

"Were you ever tempted and willing to abandon your object of a literary life for something else?"

"I was once. My first and only essay, aside from literature, was in the realm of law. It was arranged with a United States senator that I should study law in his office. I tried it a month, but almost from the first day, I yearned to return to my books. I had not only to go back to literature, but to the printing office, and I gladly chose to do it, —a step I never regretted."

"You started out to attain personal distinction and happiness, did you not?"

"I did."


"You have attained the first, —but I should like to know if your view of what constitutes happiness is the same as when you began?"

"It is quite different. I have come to see life, not as the chase of a forever-impossible personal happiness, but as a field for endeavor toward the happiness of the whole human family. There is no other success.

"I know, indeed, of nothing more subtly satisfying and cheering than a knowledge of the real good will and appreciation of others. Such happiness does not come with money, nor does it flow from a fine physical state. It cannot be bought. But it is the keenest joy, after all, and the toiler's truest and best reward."

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