March 1, 2010

Birth of William Dean Howells as editor

"Don't despise Boston!" publisher James T. Fields once said to William Dean Howells, a native of Ohio. The two were meeting at the home of poet Bayard Taylor. Three days later, Fields sent a letter inviting Howells to serve as assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He started working in that role on March 1, 1866 – the anniversary of his birth on March 1, 1837.

The details, as Howells noted, involved proof-reading, correspondence with contributors, gathering manuscripts, and writing a few reviews for each issue. He negotiated with Fields for a $50 a week salary. "Upon these terms we closed," Howells wrote, "and on the 1st of March, which was my twenty-ninth birthday, I went to Boston and began my work."

Howells also met with James Russell Lowell, the monthly's founding editor, to get his blessing. Howells spent the next fifteen years with the magazine, the last ten as its head editor. He enjoyed it, noting he "found it by no means drudgery." Under his guidance, the Atlantic moved beyond its traditional New England roots and established itself as an important national periodical. Through his association with the magazine, he built friendships with Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Celia Thaxter.

Howells was a writer himself; by the end of his life, he published poetry, travel essays, novels, biographies, and everything else. Later in his life, he wrote about his experience as editor of the Atlantic Monthly in "Recollections of an Atlantic Editorship."

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