Toward the close of his life Howells comforted himself with the notion that ""if people did not know his work they knew about it."" One wonders if that holds up today since, like his English contemporary Meredith he is rarely, read outside the classroom. This is one of Mr. Wagenknecht's worthy if essentially dull ""Portraits of American Writers""--qualities which Howells indeed shared or perhaps promoted. Alfred Kazin once said that ""He wrote with the undeviating industry of a librarian cataloguing books"" and quoted here, William Lyon Phelps--""a skillful player without any trumps."" Unless it might be his essential solidity of character and realism of outlook since Howells' main objective was to give a true picture of life. Mr. Wagenknecht portrays him topically, always relating his very representative works: what he read and how he evaluated it (""literature and its associations . . . must always be first with me""); his feeling about women (mother first) and marriage; his social and not too defined political views; his surprising neuroticism, prudery (overemphasize by others), morality and firm faith. Since Howells was such a good friend of Twain's and wrote an outstanding memoir of him (My Mark Twain) one wonders if something of more stirring interest might not have emerged from this particular relationship than does here in what is so decidedly deliberate a study.