March 1

William Dean Howells, photographed by Francis Blake

On this day in 1837 was born a man who became one of the great literary critics of his time—William Dean Howells. Beginning as a compositor in his father’s country printing office in Ohio, Howells received very little schooling. He is an outstanding example of the self-educated man. He served as U.S. Consul in Venice, became editor of the Atlantic Monthly 1871–81, and produced novels, plays, and books of criticism, his great book being The Rise of Silas Lapham. He received honorary degrees from many universities, and served as the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Howells never quite forgot his early career as a country printer. In several essays of reminiscence, he wrote of such a life. His essay, The Country Printer, is one of the best accounts ever to be written of the life of such a printer in mid-19th century America.

Included in the essay is an amusing episode concerning the purchase of a steam press, with which to replace the hand press which had seen long years of service.

“We were very vain of that press, which replaced the hand press hitherto employed in printing the paper. This was of the style and make of the hand press which superseded the Ramage press of Franklin’s time [actually the first Ramage Press was built after Franklin’s death]; but it had been decided to signalize our new departure by the purchase of a power press of modern contrivance and of a speed fitted to meet the demands of a subscription list which might be indefinitely extended. A deputation of the leading politicians accompanied the editor to New York, where he went to choose the machine, and where he bought a second-hand Adams press of the earliest pattern and patent. I do not know, or at this date I would not undertake to say, just what principle governed his selection of this superannuated veteran; it seems not to have been very cheap; but possibly he had a prescience of the disabilities which were to task his ingenuity to the very last days of the press.

“Certainly no man of less gift and skill could have coped with its infirmities, and I am sure that he thoroughly enjoyed nursing it into such activity as carried it hysterically through those far-off publication days. It had obscure functional disorders of various kinds, so that it would from time to time cease to act, and would have to be doctored by the poor pressman before it would go on. There was probably some organic trouble, too, for, though it did not really fall to pieces on our hands, it showed itself incapable of profiting by several improvements which he invented, and could, no doubt, have successfully applied to the press if its constitution had not been undermined.

“It went with a crank set in a prodigious fly-wheel which revolved at a great rate, till it came to the moment of making an impression, when the whole mechanism was seized with such a reluctance as nothing but an heroic effort at the crank could overcome. It finally made so great a draught upon our forces that it was decided to substitute steam for muscles in its operation, and we got a small engine which could fully sympathize with the press in having seen better days. . . . What is certain is that, somehow, the engine and the press did always get us through publication day, and not only with safety, but often with credit; so that not long ago, when I was at home, and my brother and I were looking over an old file of his paper, we found it much better printed than either of us expected; as well printed, in fact, as if it had been done on an old hand press, instead of the steam-power press which it vaunted the use of.”

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