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Dancing in Chains

The Youth of William Dean Howells

Rodney Olsen

Publication Year: 1992

"Dancing in Chains is far more than a sensitive biography (though it is surely that); it is also a model of psychologically informed social and cultural history. Olsen recognizes that psychic conflicts often play themselves out on a higher plane, that psychic and intellectual history are intertwined. He presents a wonderful nuanced picture of Howells."
—Jackson Lears,Rutgers University

In this insightful study of the childhood and youth of William Dean Howells, Dancing in Chains demonstrates how the turbulent social and cultural changes of the early nineteenth century shaped the young Howells's emotional and intellectual life. His early diaries, letters, poetry, fiction, and newspaper columns are used to illustrate Olsen's argument, which also in turn throws light on the dominant tensions in antebellum America.

Accepting the emergent middle-class ethos of civilized morality, with its new conceptions of child rearing and gender spheres, Howells's parents urged him to achieve self-control and individual success while also teaching him to seek the good of others rather than his own glory. For Howells the conflicts coalesced at the time of his leaving home, an increasing common rite of passage for antebellum youth. Trying to affirm his sense of literary vocation, he tested his aspirations against the family's Swedenborgian religious convictions and the antislavery commitments of his village while experimenting with competing literary ideologies in the process of meeting the demands of the new mass reading audience. For Howells the resulting tensions eased toward the end of his youth but reappeared in his more mature works of fiction and social criticism in later years.

Portraying the ordeal of coming of age during a momentous period of American history, Dancing in Chains is a fascinating study with a broad appeal to general readers as well as scholars.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. c-c

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-x


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pp. xi-xii


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xx

William Dean Howells was the premier novelist of the nineteenthcentury American middle class. He was a "domestic" novelist, master of the urban parlor scene, the setting reserved for tasteful display of affluence and elegant presentation of self. To outward appearances, Howells enjoyed a life of success and prosperity. Yet...

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pp. xxi-xxiv

I am pleased to acknowledge a Lewis E. Atherton Research Grant from the history department of the University of Missouri at Columbia. The grant bears the name of my mentor—a masterful teacher, dedicated historian, and wise man. The history department at Missouri also aided my work with two Frank F. and...

PART I Childhood

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CHAPTER 1 A Selfish Ideal of Glory

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pp. 3-26

In his autobiography Years of My Youth (1916), William Dean Howells recounted that his childhood village of Hamilton, Ohio, was a place of "almost unrivaled fitness" to be the home of boys who were swimmers, skaters, foragers, and enthusiasts of outdoor life. Two branches of the Great Miami River flowed through the village;...

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CHAPTER 2 A Kind of Double Life

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pp. 27-50

When he faltered in his later efforts to realize his father's ideal of usefulness, Howells often expressed his despair in Swedenborgian imagery. Remembering his earliest literary experiments in his autobiography A Boy's Town (1890), he contrasted his elder brother Joseph's "ideal of usefulness" with his own "ideal of glory." Referring...


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CHAPTER 3 An Instance of Nervous Prostration

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pp. 53-77

In the spring of 1852, the skies changed again for the H o wells family. Working as recorder of legislative debate, William Cooper Howells formed friendships with Free Soil politicians from the Western Reserve. Impressed by his antislavery battles in southern Ohio, Laban Sherman, a state senator from Ashtabula, suggested...

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CHAPTER 4 The Umbrella Man

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pp. 78-98

Many people in Jefferson accepted republican ideals of equality and fraternity as actual expressions of village life, however much a truly democratic ethos clashed with notions of middle-class respectability gaining popularity with the village elite. Joshua Giddings was among those Jeffersonians who idealized and spiritualized...

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CHAPTER 5 Striving away from Home

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pp. 99-136

Although elated over his journalistic and literary prospects, Howells was anxious about leaving home. He recalled the pain he suffered at Eureka Mills when he twice failed to endure separation from his family. His anxieties were reinforced by family stories. His grandfather and father recounted their fitful wanderings. His...

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CHAPTER 6 Woman's Sphere

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pp. 137-163

Recalling her brother's home-leaving struggles, Howells's sister Aurelia wrote that "though a home boy, he was not cowardly, and at a suitable time of his life he went out and took his place in the world, and kept it." In November 1858, Howells made his decisive break from home when he assumed his position as assistant editor...

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CHAPTER 7 The Laying On of Hands

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pp. 164-192

One of Howells's acquaintances in Columbus, William T . Coggeshall, was an ardent admirer of local scenes and a perennial defender of local literature. H e advocated a "protective policy in literature," an embargo designed to end "servile dependence upon the Atlantic States." He argued that the best literature had always...

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CHAPTER 8 The Province of Reason

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pp. 193-217

Confirmed in his reverence for Boston, Howells believed a consecrated path had opened before him. H e realized, however, that following it would demand his utmost devotion. "A man may have ever so much in him," Lowell had told him, "but ever so much depends on how he gets it out." Once he returned to Columbus,...

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CHAPTER 9 Desperate Leisure

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pp. 218-244

Howells viewed his four years in Venice as "a great part, a vital part" of his youth. He stated that he would never feel "exiled" from Venice. He believed that the city altered "the whole course of [his] literary life." In Venice, Howells became a "gentleman," by his own definition someone "who has trained himself in morals...

PART III Later Life and the Return to Youth

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CHAPTER 10 Bound to the Highest and the Lowest

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pp. 247-270

Returning to America in August 1865 with an edge of self-control and a literary success that opened opportunities in the East, Howells gained a position in New York as a writer for the Nation. After a period of seasoning, he was called to Boston to become the...

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pp. 271-276

After he had reached age seventy-nine, Howells explored his youth for the last time. In two stories—"The Pearl" (1916) and "A Tale Untold" (1917)—he recalled the spring of 1858 and the river journey he had taken on his uncle's sternwheeler, the Cambridge1 In his persona, "dreamy-eyed" Stephen West, Howells re-created his...


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pp. 277-330

Attributions, Permissions, and Notes for Illustrations

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pp. 331-334


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pp. 335-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780814762639
E-ISBN-10: 0814762638
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814761786
Print-ISBN-10: 081476178X

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 1992

OCLC Number: 44962753
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Dancing in Chains

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Subject Headings

  • Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920 -- Childhood and youth.
  • Novelists, American -- 19th century -- Biography.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 1783-1865.
  • Critics -- United States -- Biography.
  • Ohio -- Social life and customs.
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