Continuing her series of articles on the history of social activism at the Chelsea Hotel, Sherrill Tippins, author of the upcoming Dream Palace, a history of the Chelsea, writes:
William Dean Howells, former editor of Boston's prestigious Atlantic Monthly, stayed at the Chelsea as he was moving to New York in order to write for Harper's magazines and lead the development of American literature in New York. At the Chelsea in 1888, he read Looking Backward, the utopian novel by his Massachusetts protege, Edward Bellamy. Bellamy's vision of a Henry-George-type society in which all natural resources are owned by the state, reducing the waste of private enterprise and freeing citizens from penury, covetousness, and neglected talents, changed Howells's life. Previously a comfortable armchair liberal, Howells became an angry activist for social justice--pushing the cause of literary realism as a tool for creating social change, writing his own realistic novels addressing the damaging issue of real estate prices in New York; the plight of factory workers in Massachusetts; the rising anger of the working class in downtown Manhattan, etc. He embarrassed his upper-class friends with his sarcastic columns in Harper's criticizing American imperialism in Cuba and the Philippines, railing against the executions of the alleged conspirators in Chicago's Haymarket riot, and praising Tolstoy's socialist ideas. (In 1892 he also wrote a novel titled The Coast of Bohemia that captures the atmosphere of the Chelsea, and of the city's social and artistic changes, in the late 1880s.) But in the end, Howells was unable to venture fully out of his fastidious middle-class worldview. It would take years for another shabby young protege, Stephen Crane, to persuade Howells to actually venture inside some of the miserable tenement apartments on the Lower East Side--and to show the older writer how a truly realistic New York novel like Crane's own Maggie: A Girl of the Streets really could create social change.