Monday, September 1, 2008

Ohio In The 1850's Through The Eyes Of Author William Dean Howells

Last September we toured Hamilton, Butler, Ohio, the boyhood home (from 1840 to 1848) of author William Dean Howells, where there's an historical marker dedicated to him. Nearby there is a plaque depicting Fort Hamilton that had been located there.

An excerpt of Mr. Howells' writing was found in "THE CHANGING YEARS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE,"* By Clarence W. Wachner, Frank E. Ross, Eva Marie Van Houten [all Detroit educators!]New York, 1963, entitled "My Year in a Log Cabin":

In the fall of the year 1850 my father removed with his family from the city of D[ayton], where we had been living, to a property on the Little Miami River, to take charge of a saw-mill and grist-mill, and superintend their never-accomplished transformation into paper-mills. The property belonged to his brothers—physicians and druggists—who were to follow later, when they had disposed of the business in town. My father left a disastrous newspaper enterprise behind him when he came out to apply his mechanical taste and his knowledge of farming to the care of their place. Early in the century his parents had brought him to Ohio from Wales, and his boyhood was passed in the new country, where pioneer customs and traditions were still rife, and for him it was like renewing the wild romance of those days to take up once more the life in a log cabin interrupted by forty years’ sojourn in mater-of-fact dwellings of frame and brick. Our cabin stood close upon the road, but behind it broadened a cornfield of eighty acres. They still built log cabins for dwellings in that region forty years ago, but ours must have been nearly half a century old when we went into it. It had been recently vacated by a Virginia couple who had long occupied it….

Once aloft (in the cabin’s loft), however, we were in a domain sacred to the past. The rude floor rattled and wavered loosely under our tread, and the window in the gable stood open or shut at its own will. There were cracks in the shingles, through which we could see the stars, when there were stars, and which, when the first snow came, let the flakes sift in upon the floor. Our barrels of paper-covered books were stowed away in that loft, and overhauling them one day I found a paper copy of the poems of a certain Henry W. Longfellow, then wholly unknown to me; and while the old grist-mill, whistling and wheezing to itself, made a vague music in my ears, my soul was filled with this new, strange sweetness. I read the “Spanish Student” there, and the “Coplas de Manrique,” and the solemn and ever beautiful “Voices of the Night.” There were other books in those barrels which I must have read also, but I remember only these, that spirited me again to Spain, where I had already been with Irving, and led me to attack seriously the old Spanish grammar which had been knocking about our house ever since my father bought it from a soldier of the Mexican War.

The island (where he, Howells, lived) was always our battleground and it resounded in the long afternoons with the war-cries of the encountering tribes. We had a book in those days called “Western Adventure,” which was made up of tales of pioneer and frontier life, and we were constantly reading ourselves back into that life. I have wondered often since who wrote or compiled that book; we had printed it ourselves in D[ayton], from the stereotype plates of some temporary publisher whose name is quite lost to me. This book and Howe’s Collections for the History of Ohio, were full of stories of the backwoodsmen and warriors who had made our State a battleground for nearly fifty years, and our own life in the log-cabin gave new zest to the tales of “Simon Kenton, the Pioneer,” and “Simon Girty, the Renegade,” of the captivity of Crawford, and his death at the stake; of the massacre of the Moravian Indians at Gnadenhutten; of the defeat of St. Clair and the victory of Wayne; of a hundred other wild and bloody incidents of our annals. We read of them at night till we were afraid to go up the ladder to the ambuscade of savages in our loft, but we fought…

Log Cabin & Accompanying Sign at Hamilton, Butler, Ohio

*Even as Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were publishing their literary masterpieces, a new culture was developing to the south and west of the Allegheny Mountains. In time it would replace the mature culture of the East and produce a more ‘American’ literary tradition, because it was not modeled on, and had no close link with, the culture of the Old World.

William Dean Howells' writing represented the new culture west of the Alleghenies.

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