William Dean Howells began his prestigious literary career as an apprentice typesetter in his father’s Ohio printing office. He had moderate success with a few poems printed in local newspapers and in the Atlantic Monthly—precursors to a career that would include over fifty volumes of poetry, fiction, plays, and literary criticism. A campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln earned Howells a diplomatic post in Venice, where—armed with only a basic knowledge of Italian, French, German, and Spanish—he studied literature and wrote letters to the Boston Daily Advertiser, which were collected into his first work, Venetian Life. Italian Journeys, and later Tuscan Cities, would follow.
Newly married to Elinor Mead, Howells returned to the US and was invited by James Fields, of Ticknor and Fields, to join the staff of the Atlantic Monthly. There, he wrote book reviews and humorous anecdotes, which later became the collection Suburban Sketches. In Boston, he encountered figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain, with whom he maintained a lifelong friendship. His literary criticism during this period helped bring international authors to the attention of the American public, including Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, and Émile Zola. In addition, he was one of the chief proponents of realism in American fiction during a period in which the novel was being severed from its essentially romantic roots.
Howells later became politically active, especially in the trials of men involved Haymarket Riots of 1886 and in the annexation of the Philippines. In the early 1900s, he was elected president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, though already his works and ideas we beginning to go out of style.
Howells lived at 4 Louisburg Square for only a year, albeit a year in which two of his books were published. It was there that Howells began penning one of his most famous works, The Rise of Silas Lapham, about a man in the paint industry and his rise through American society.