In the 1880s, novelist and critic William Dean Howells (1835-1920) was widely regarded as the leading American man of letters. He advocated a social-minded literary realism, and spoke of the high obligation of the writer to tell the truth and of art to assist the poor and powerless in ways that would make society better and kinder. Several other authors shared his outlook, but when Howells tried to rally members of the literary community to speak out along with him against the Haymarket verdict, he found no supporters.

Much to his dismay, no one would join Howells in signing a letter of protest he wrote to the New York Tribune. Even John Greenleaf Whittier, who had allied himself with almost every high-principled cause that had presented itself throughout his long lifetime, and whom Albert Parsons was fond of quoting, turned Howells down.

Howells, like the defendants and their attorneys, was especially bitter about how the press covered the case. Shortly after the executions, Howells wrote to William Salter, "What a squalid and vulgar oligarchy of half-bred scribblers we live under! Somehow their power must be broken." In contrast to the response of American authors, a number of leading English writers, central among them William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, signed a petition for clemency sent to Governor Oglesby.

The influence of Haymarket in Howells's work is apparent in perhaps his finest novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890). The book, set in New York, climaxes in a violent strike that involves several main characters, including a stubbornly principled German-born socialist.