Assuming for the moment that something called literary culture exists in the United States, where, exactly, might it be found today? From sea to shining sea, I suppose the answer is, but before putting one’s hat over one’s heart and finishing the song perhaps one would do well to ponder the significance of having to ask the question in the first place. Thirty, fifty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty years ago the question of where literary culture could be found would not need to have been raised, for the answer, though it might differ from time to time, was always evident.

The whereabouts of literary culture in August 1860 was certainly not a serious question for William Dean Howells. Then still a young newspaperman from Columbus, Ohio, Howells checked in at the Tremont Hotel in Boston. Howells had had four poems published in The Atlantic Monthly, and now had set himself up to...


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