William Dean Howells was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on 1st March, 1837. The son of a printer, Howells began work as a typesetter before becoming a reporter on the Ohio State Journal. He also began contributing poems to the Atlantic Monthly. and wrote for the Cincinnati Gazette and The Sentinel.
A supporter of the Republican Party, Howells was commissioned to write the campaign biographies for Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin. The The Lives and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin was published during their 1860 Presidential Election campaign. The following year Lincoln appointed Howells counsul of Venice (1861-65).
On his return to the United States he settled in Boston where he wrote and published two novels based on his experiences in Italy: Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867). This was followed by other European novels: Their Wedding Journey (1872), A Chance Acquaintance (1873), A Foregone Conclusion (1874) and The Lady of the Aroostook (1879).
Howells also worked as assistant editor (1866-71) and then editor (1871-81) of the Atlantic Monthly. Later he became associate editor of Harper's Magazine (1886-91) and wrote for The Nation and Cosmopolitan. During this period he promoted the work of writers such as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, Frank Norris and Hamlin Garland. Howells also wrote other novels including Undiscovered Country (1880), Dr. Been's Practice (1881), A Woman's Reason (1883), A Modern Instance (1882) and the Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).
In 1887 he controversially campaigned against the convictions of the anarchists found guilty of the Haymarket Bombing. He wrote in the New York Tribune that the trial had not established the guilt of the defendants. After the executions took place on 12th November 1887, he commented: "It blackens my life. This free Republic has killed five men for their opinions."
Deeply influenced by the ideas of William Morris, his novels became more political and critics considered Annie Kilburn (1888) to be supportive of trade unionism. His next novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), he highlighted the contrasts between wealth and poverty. Other books by Howells include the autobiographical, Literary Friends (1900), Reminiscences and Criticism (1910) and Years of My Youth (1915).
A staunch critic of racial intolerance, Howells was a founder member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. William Du Bois praised him with the words: "When a band of earnest men spoke for Negro emancipation, William Dean Howells was among the first to sign the call."
Howells became president of the American Anti-Imperialist League. He was also a strong supporter of women's suffrage and went on a march in support of their campaign at the age of 75. He called himself a socialist but he never joined any of the socialist groups in existence at that time.