2017 Politics Got You Down? Let William Dean Howells Be Your Guide

Nationalistic rhetoric, fear of immigrants, police killings of citizens? How the Haymarket case reflects 2017 politics.

William Dean Howells

Although he is neglected and perhaps largely forgotten today, Ohio-born writer and editor William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was, in his own era, a titan of American letters. The range of major writers whose circles he moved in never fails to astonish me. In his early career, he knew Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. On the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1912, he was feted by such up-and-comers as Willa Cather, Zane Grey and Emily Post. And, in the intervening years, he had become lifelong, intimate friends with two pillars of American literature with very different sensibilities: Mark Twain and Henry James. (He was also a champion of Clyde Fitch.) Howells served as editor of the Atlantic Monthly for a decade and later was contracted by Harper’s Magazine.

One hundred and thirty years ago this autumn, Howells was arguably at the height of his creative powers. Two years earlier, in 1885, he had enjoyed success with the publication of The Rise of Silas Lapham, which remains one of his best-remembered novels. Yet in late 1887 he faced a soul-stifling, very public crisis when he took a highly unpopular stand in support of a group of anarchists on death row in Chicago. He worked strenuously to save these men from the scaffold, but, eventually, on Nov. 11, four of them were hanged. A fifth condemned man escaped the gallows by killing himself in his cell with a small detonating device, perhaps an exploding cigar. Two other convicted men had their death sentences commuted.

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Violence in Chicago
The doomed men had been convicted of murder for their part in what has become known as the Haymarket Riot. As commentators have pointed out, “riot” is not an apt characterization of the short, bloody episode. True enough, on the evening of May 4, 1886, an unknown party lobbed a deadly bomb at a pro-labor rally in Haymarket Square. But a good share of the fatalities and injuries from the incident were the result of shootings by police. According to the late Paul Avrich in his excellent 1984 study, The Haymarket Tragedy, of the seven policemen killed and 60 injured, the majority were victims of friendly fire from fellow officers rather than of the bomb itself. (Some policemen, undoubtedly, were harmed by a combination of bomb fragments and bullets.) Avrich estimates that there were between 30 and 50 civilian casualties, including four confirmed deaths.

Howells followed the case closely as it went to trial — as did much of the nation. He, however, took a much different attitude toward the defendants than the vast majority of his countrymen. By and large, Americans loathed and feared anarchists. Nationalistic, anti-immigrant bias colored their feelings. (A number of the accused men were foreign-born.)

Avrich’s book was co-winner of the Philip Taft Labor History Award for 1984.

After the trial, Howells wrote fervently on the convicts’ behalf. He petitioned the governor of Illinois to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. He sent money to an amnesty fund. He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier to petition for clemency. Howells even communicated with Roger A. Pryor, one of the defense attorneys hired for the men’s appeal.

As Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson point out in their splendid, exhaustively detailed biography, William Dean Howells: An Artist’s Life, Howells was far from an anarchist himself. He and his wife, Elinor, lived handsomely, moving to and fro between Boston and NYC. Howells had recently signed a lucrative contract with Harper and Brothers for both book and magazine work. His biographers suggest that he would not have been troubled had the anarchists been tried for conspiracy rather than murder, and there may have been justification for such a stance. Some of the defendants had hurt their cases by advocating for dynamite as a cure for social inequity. And one of them, Louis Lingg — the defendant who would explode himself in his cell before his scheduled execution — was, not surprisingly, an ardent bomb-maker. Howells had no deep sympathy for Lingg. But others among the convicted men were, he felt, disgracefully served. Some had not even been present at the rally on the night of the bombing. And the ones who had spoken that night had not urged the crowd to violence.

The convicted men’s plight weighed heavily on Howells’s psyche.

In a letter to Harper’s editor George William Curtis, Howells cited two of the prisoners, Albert Parsons (the central figure in Avrich’s telling of the Haymarket story) and August Spies, as especially wronged by the conviction:

It was not a fair trial, either as to the selection of the jury or the rulings of the judge. The evidence shows that neither Parsons nor Spies was concerned in promoting riot and disorder, and their speeches show them to have been active friends of a peaceful solution of the labor troubles. They are condemned to death upon a principle that would have sent every ardent antislavery man to the gallows.

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A writer’s Gethsemane
Howells may have been swayed toward left-leaning causes at this point in his life in part by his absorption in the writings of Leo Tolstoy. As Goodman and Dawson note: “The Russian aristocrat’s pity for the poor and lowly, his abhorrence of violence and pride cast Howells down, exposing ‘the utter selfishness and insufficiency of my past life.’ ”

After reading the Avrich and Goodman/Dawson’s books practically back to back, I wondered whether there may also have been a more personal reason for Howells’ interest in Parsons. There were certain commonalities in their lives. The novelist had, as a boy, learned the typesetting trade while working with his father, a newspaper editor. Similarly, Parsons, while a youth in Galveston, TX, had apprenticed as a “printer’s devil.” Both men would go on to become editors, although Parsons would serve in that capacity not for The Atlantic or Harper’s, but for a Chicago-based anarchist publication called The Alarm.

Besides introducing Americans to Tolstoy, Howells championed the works of Turgenev, Zola and Hardy.

The convicted men’s plight weighed heavily on Howells’ psyche. He wrote to a friend that for months the case had not been out of his mind for an hour. “It blackens my life,” he added.

Elinor remained supportive of Howells’ campaign for justice, as did the writer’s father. But friends and colleagues — including Twain and writer Hamlin Garland — did not. At Harper’s Magazine, editor Curtis had spoken out against the anarchists. Howells may well have feared that his opposing position jeopardized his contract. He was excoriated in the press as well. Avrich writes that an editor from Maine scolded: “The position you have taken, Mr. Howells, must sever you from the loyal friendship of thousands of your readers and admirers.”

The November hangings proved especially grisly. The spinal cords of all four men failed to snap, leading to death by strangling. Howells was filled with anguish. He drafted what Goodman and Dawson call a “sardonic” letter to the Chicago Tribune, but, for reasons that remain unclear, it was never published. He later proposed that an anthology of articles on the case be compiled, with proceeds going to the families of the executed.

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Hazard-ous materials
The anthology never happened. Avrich, however, notes that Howells funneled some of his feelings about the Chicago anarchists into his 1889 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes. Set in NYC, the book resurrected the characters Basil and Isabel March, a married couple who had been the leading figures in a previous novel, 1872’s Their Wedding Journey. Basil and Isabel were clearly meant to be alter egos of William and Elinor. March is an esteemed editor in the Howells mold. He, Isabel and their children relocate from Boston to NYC, where he toils on the creation of a new magazine called Every Other Week.

In Manhattan, he and Isabel glimpse how the other half lives, as they wander into the city’s less posh neighborhoods, including Italian and Jewish enclaves. These scenes show Howells’ awakened concern about social and economic inequality. In search of a translator for the German-language articles that he hopes to publish in the new magazine, March hires Berthold Lindau, an old acquaintance of his. Lindau had fought for the North during the Civil War, losing one of his hands in battle. He is a cripplingly impoverished man, stridently devoted to socialist ideals. When the magazine’s owner — a gauche millionaire named Dryfoos, who has made his fortune from natural gas wells on his property — learns that a left-wing radical is on the Every Other Week payroll, he is furious. Suddenly March’s position as editor is threatened:

March shook his head, and his wife, with a sigh, felt herself plucked up from the soft circumstance of their lives, which she had sunk back into so quickly, and set beside him on that cold peak of principle again.

March then states the position to which he will adhere steadfastly, a position mirroring the one Howells himself had taken in the Haymarket affair:

I understand. [Dryfoos] wants to punish [Lindau] for his opinions. Well, I can’t consent to that, directly or indirectly. We don’t print his opinions, and he has a perfect right to hold them, whether Mr. Dryfoos agrees with them or not.

The crisis for March is eventually averted. But later, in the novel’s final chapters, a transportation strike erupts. Violence ensues, changing the fortunes of most of the book’s central characters.

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Political awakening
In my readings about Howells and the Haymarket affair over the last several months, I’ve been struck by its relevance to the political scene of 2017. And not just because the case involved nationalistic rhetoric, fear of immigrants, police killings of citizens and a botched execution.

During the past year, American artists and writers who care about justice and public decency seem often to have felt paralyzed by the dangers and indignities visited on the culture from the very top of our government. At times, neither speaking out vociferously nor channeling outrage into artistic endeavors seems to be enough. It’s easy to believe that our current situation is unprecedented, and in some ways it is.

Howells’ title derives from Shakespeare’s “King John.”

In any event, while learning about Howells’ quixotic quest to save the lives of the Haymarket defendants, I’ve felt incredibly moved, both by his tirelessness and his ability to move forward after what could only have felt like abject failure. It’s tempting to want to see a figure like Howells as some sort of brave man of principle — a super-heroic literary champion guided by an infallible moral underpinning. But that was not the case. Howells’ own life contained periods of doubt, tumult and even terror. As an adolescent, he had experienced episodes of paralyzing homesickness. Goodman and Dawson note that, for young Howells, the thought of spending a night with his grandparents, away from his parents’ home, could induce panic. He also suffered severe bouts of hypochondria, specifically a fear of contracting rabies. Dogs terrified him. While he controlled these struggles in adulthood, new troubles materialized. His daughter Winifred experienced a disabling neurological disease at about the time of the Haymarket tragedy. She died in 1889.

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That Howells could survive all of this and keep working I find to be beyond exemplary. Comparatively, we are lucky. No matter how dire the news from the White House may be these days, we can count ourselves fortunate to know that those who share our alarm number in the millions. That was not a boon Howells enjoyed. And yet he persisted. And in the remaining years of his life, he became increasingly more politically engaged, speaking out for the rights of African-Americans and against American imperialism. As Goodman and Dawson note:

When we read about literary careers – or rather the careers of most writers – the trajectory often runs from youthful zeal in liberal causes to a quieter and safer old age. … Howells moved differently. In his later years he embraced or reverted to liberal causes, more willing to take a stand and to stand alone.