This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, November 29, 1931
How a Dayton’s “Printer’s Devil” Rose to Fame
By Howard Burba
From a “printer’s devil” to a place in the galaxy of literary immortals is not in itself a new step. It is not a road over which but one traveler has adventured. Benjamin Franklin traveled it. So did Samuel L. Clemens, and Opie Read and a dozen others readily recalled.
But so far as known the Miami Valley has had but one traveler along the highway that leads from the back office of a small-town newspaper to a niche in the literary Hall of Fame. In fact, the Miami valley lays claim to but one literary immortal—William Dean Howells—at one time in his life a “printer’s devil” in a Dayton newspaper office.
Since it was in Hamilton that William Dean Howells lived during the earliest years of his boyhood, and since it was Hamilton that he immortalized in one of his literary triumphs, “A Boy’s Town,” it has long been the general impression that his association with the Miami Valley was confined wholly to that town. But a bit of research dispels that belief. Delve into the more intimate personal papers of William Dean Howells and you will find that Hamilton must share honors with Dayton as the boyhood home of its beloved author.
Much has been written of the man. In fact, there is an entire shelf at the Dayton public library given over largely to Howells autobiographies. There, too, are the works which brought him lasting fame. But for those of us who like to “point with pride” to those whose lives were blended with the same atmosphere as our own, it is autobiographies with which we are most concerned. And here, in a few lines it is true, but in black and white, nevertheless, we learn of Howell’s days in Dayton.
Born in Martins ferry on March 1, 1837, in a little one-story brick house his father had built with his own hands, Howells spent his babyhood in the shadow of the Ohio river hills. His father, of a roving disposition, talented yet withal easily persuaded that a more fertile field for his talents lay just beyond, gave up his journalistic struggles at Martins Ferry and removed to Hamilton to take charge of a little Whig newspaper when William Dean was but three years of age. It was in his father’s printing office at Hamilton that the youngster learned his letters, from the type cases, and then learned to set up type when he was so small that he had to stand upon a chair to do it. Later on the elder Howells said, in speaking of his son’s early days in Hamilton:
“The fortunes of a Whig editor in a place so Democratic as Hamilton were not such as could have warranted his living in a palace, and he was poor, as the world goes now. My boy grew old enough to work when very young, and he was put to use in the printing office before he was ten years of age. This was not altogether because he was needed there, but a part of the Howells’ Swedenborgian philosophy that everyone should fulfill a use.
“If his mother did her own work, with help only now and then from a hired girl, that was the custom of the time and country. She was always the best and tenderest mother, and her love had the heavenly art of making each child feel the most important, though she was partial to none. In spite of her busy days, she followed me closely in my religion and literature, and when her long day was over she sat with the children and listened while I read at night.”
There was always reading going on in the family and this, with the printing office, formed the greater part of Howells' education. He went to a variety of schools in Hamilton, all of which he liked, and out of school he lived a boy’s life of hunting and swimming, fishing, skating, playing with other boys, and also fighting with them, although this was forbidden as against the Quaker traditions of his family.
When Howells was twelve years of age his father sold the paper at Hamilton and removed to Dayton. Here he undertook to buy another newspaper by a sort of progressive purchase, but never succeeded in quite paying for it. William Dean and his eldest brother had to leave school to help in the printing office, and it was a hard time for them all. In his well known volume, “Years Of My Youth, “ we find these words concerning his days in Dayton:
“Until 11 o’clock at night I helped put the telegraphic dispatches (then a new and proud thing with us) into type, and between four and five o’clock in the morning I was up carrying papers to our subscribers. The stress in my father’s affairs must have been very sore for him to allow this, and I dare say it did not last long, but while it lasted it was suffering which must make me forever tender of those who overwork, especially children who overwork. The suffering was such that when my brother, who had not gone to bed much later, woke me after my five or six hours sleep, I do not know how I got myself together for going to the printing office for the papers and making my rounds in the keen morning air.”
The paper William Cooper Howells had sought to possess in Dayton was the old Transcript, and the first issue bearing his name as “printer” was dated May 17, 1849. It was a tri-weekly when Howells came on from Hamilton to run it. But he was ambitious to publish a daily; he had faith in Dayton as a fertile field for his endeavors; so he transformed it into a six-day morning sheet within a few weeks after acquiring control.
That the patient publisher experienced a hard struggle with fortune is gleaned from this typical paragraph, taken from the files of The Transcript shortly after he had assumed the editorial chair:
“Never take a paper more than ten years without paying the printer, or at least sending him a lock of your hair to let him know you are about.”
In still another issue appears this most interesting personal item:
“William D. Howells, son of the editor, 13 years old, who has set type occasionally in the last two years, began setting type yesterday on bourgeois at 6 o’clock in the morning and by 6 in the evening he had up 9,500 ems, or four columns of this day’s paper. He carried his route of papers in the morning before he began.”
The columns mentioned in that issue of The Transcript are seven and a quarter inches long and two and a quarter inches wide. That little bit of boyish skill was certainly not to be despised.
The last number of The Transcript issued by his father appeared on August 27, 1850. The proprietor and his son struggled hard to build up the fortunes of the paper, but the odds were too heavily against them. In the hour of disaster, however, the family pluck was unshaken. “We all went down to the Miami river,” wrote the younger Howells in later years, “and went in swimming. We fought a losing battle, and we lost it. In two years my father died, and we left Dayton for the country, which was always betraying us from generation to generation.”
If you have read “Years Of My Youth”—and you have missed a literary treat if you have not—you will probably recall these words from Howells’ pen:
“Changing the Dayton Transcript from a tri-weekly to a daily was a mistake that affected the whole enterprise. It made harder work for all of us than we had known before; and the printing office, which had been my delight, became my oppression after the brief moment of public schooling which I somehow knew. But before the change from tri-weekly to daily in our paper I had the unstinted advantage of a school of morals as it then appeared among us.
“The self-sacrificing company of players who suffered for the drama through this first summer of our life in Dayton paid my father for their printing in promises which he willingly took at their face value, and in tickets which were promptly honored at the door. As nearly as I can make out, I was thus enabled to go every night to the theater. I saw such plays of Shakespeare as ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello,’ then the stage favorites, and ‘Richard III’ and evermore ‘Richard III.’ I saw such other now quite forgotten favorites as Kotzebue’s ‘Stranger’ and Sheridan Knowles’ ‘Wife,’ and such moving action of unknown origin as Barbarossa’ and ‘The Miser of Marseilles,’ with many screaming farces such as helped fill every evening full with at least three plays.
“There was also at that time a native drama almost as acceptable to our public everywhere as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ afterward became. It seemed as if our public would never tire of ‘A Glance at New York,’ with its horribly vulgar stage conceptions of local character, Moze the fireman and Lize his girl, and Sikesy and their other companions, which drift up before me now like wraiths from the Pit, and its events of street fighting and I daresay heroic rescues from burning buildings by volunteer fire companies of the day. It is ‘with sick and scornful looks averse’ that I turn from the remembrance of my own ambition to shine in that drama.
“My father instantly quenched the histrionic spark in me with loathing; but I cannot say whether this was before or after the failure of a dramatic attempt of his own which I witnessed. Certainly I did not know that the melodrama which sacrificed his native to his adopted patriotism in the action, and brought off the Americans victors over the British in a sea fight, was his work. Very likely he trusted, in writing it, to the chance that he always expected to favor the amateur in taking up a musical instrument strange to him. He may even have dreamed of fortune from it. But after one performance of it the management seems to have gone back to such old public favorites as Shakespeare and Sheridan Knowles. Nothing was said of it in the family. I think some of the newspapers were not so silent; but I am not sure of this.
“It was certainly not the fault of the place (Dayton) that we were first and last rather unhappy there. For one thing, we were used to the greater ease and simplicity of a small town like Hamilton, and Dayton was a small city with the manners and customs of cities in those days; that is, there was more society and less neighborhood, and neither my father nor my mother could have cared for society. They missed the wont of old friends; there were no such teas as she used to give her neighbors, with a quilting still dimly visioned, at the vanishing-point of the perspective; our social life was almost wholly in our Sunday evening visits to the house of my young aunt, whose husband was my father’s youngest brother.
“As usual, we lived in more than one house, but the first was very acceptable because of its nearness to the canal. The yard stretched behind it quite to the tow-path, with an unused stable between, which served us boys for circus rehearsals, and for dressing after a plunge. As in a dream, I can still see my youngest brother rushing through this stable one day and calling out that he was going to jump into the canal, with me running after him and then dimly seeing him as he groped along the bottom, with me diving and saving him from drowning.
“Already, with the Hamilton facilities, I could hardly help being a good swimmer, and at Dayton I spent much of my leisure in the canal. Within the city limits we had to wear some sort of bathing-dress, and we preferred going with a crowd of other boys beyond the line where no such formality was expected of us. On the way to and fro we had to pass a soap factory, where the boys employed in it swarmed out at sight of us stealing along under the canal bank, and in the strange outlawry of boyhood murderously stoned us, but somehow did not kill us. I do not know what boys we played with in Dayton, but after we had paid the immemorial penalty of the stranger, and fought for our standing among them, the boys of our neighborhood were kind enough.
“One, whose father was a tobacconist, abetted our efforts to learn smoking by making cigars flavored with cinnamon drops. I suppose there would have been of more actual advantage to me if I had learned to like smoking. When we went from one house to another, in what may have been a better quarter, we made no friends that I can remember, and we were never so gay. In fact, a sense of my father’s adversity now began to penetrate to his older children, with the knowledge of our mother’s unhappiness from it.
“I am not following any chronological order here, and I should not be able to date my aesthetic devotion to a certain gas-burner in the window of a store under the printing office in Dayton. It was the form of a calla lily, with the flame forking from the tongue in its white cup; and I could never pass it, by day or night, without stopping to adore it. If I could be perfectly candid, I should still own my preference of it to the great painting of Adam and Eve by Debuffe, then showing throughout our simple-hearted commonwealth. This had the double attraction of a religious interest and the awful novelty of the nude, for the first time seen by untraveled American eyes. The huge canvas was lighted up so as to throw the life-size figures into strong relief, and the spectator strickenly studied them through a sort of pasteboard binocle supplied for the purpose. If that was the way our parents looked before the Fall, and the Bible said it was, there was nothing to be urged against it; but many kind people must have suffered secret misgiving at a sight from which a boy might well shrink in shame, with a feeling that the taste of Eden was improved by the Fall. I had no such joy in it as in the dramas which I witnessed in the same hall; as yet there was nothing in Dayton openly declared a theater.
“Dayton had many airs of a city, and there were even some policemen who wore a silver-plated star inside their coats for proof of their profession. There were water-works, and there was gas everywhere for those who would pay the charge for it. My father found the expense of piping the printing office too great for his means, or else he preferred falling back upon his invention, and instead of the usual iron tubes we had the place fitted with tin tubes at much less cost. Perhaps the cost was equalized in the end by the leaking of these tubes, which was so constant that we breathed gas by day as well as burned it by night. We burned it a good deal, for our tri-weekly was now changed to a daily, and a morning paper at that.
“My father’s struggle against the inevitable began from the moment of his arrival in Dayton, and the freest and happiest hours we knew there were when the long strain ended. Then there was an interval, perhaps of months, when there was a casting about for some means of living, and to this interval belongs somehow the employment of my brother and myself in a German printing office, such as used to be found in every considerable Ohio town. I do not know what we did there, but I remember the kindly German printer-folk, and the merry times we had with them, in the smoke of their pipes and the warmth of their stove heated red against the autumned cold. I explore my memory in vain for proof that my father had some job printing interest in this German office, but I remember my interest in the German type and its difference from the English. I was yet far from any interest in the Germany poetry which afterward became one of my passions, and there is no one now left alive whom I can ask whether the whole incident was fact, or not, rather, the sort of dream which all the past becomes when we try to question it.
“What I am distinctly aware of is that a plan for our going into the country evolved itself in full detail between my father and uncle. My uncle was to supply the capital for the venture, and was finally, with two other uncles, to join my father on a grist milling privilege which they had bought at a point on the Little Miami river, where all the families were to be settled. In the meantime, my father was to have charge of a grist mill and saw mill on the property until they could be turned into a paper mill and a sort of communal settlement of suitable people could be gathered. He had never run a saw mill or a grist mill, much less evoked a paper mill from them. But neither had he ever gathered a community of choice spirits for the enjoyment of a social form which enthusiasts like Robert Owen had dreamed into being, and then non-being, in the Middle West in those or somewhat earlier days. What was definite and palpable in the matter was that he must do something, and that he had the heart and hope for the experiment.”
Thus William Dean Howells, “printer’s devil,” passed from Dayton to the new settlement on the Little Miami, a settlement that was at best but a short-lived Utopian dream. His graduation to a full-fledged “knight of the composing stick” in a Xenia newspaper office; his subsequent rise to the editorship of the Atlantic Magazine; his triumph in the world of letters is too well known to make necessary its repetition here. I have only sought to give the Miami Valley still another opportunity to “point with pride.” And after reading this little feature offering I believe you will agree that I have done so.