A Hazard of New Fortunes
A HAZARD OF NEW FORTUNES
William Dean Howells's (1837–1920) novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889) takes its title from William Shakespeare's play King John, in which English invaders of France are described as "rash, inconsiderate, fiery voluntaries" and are reported to
have sold their fortunes at their native homes,
Bearing their birthrights proudly on their backs,
To make a hazard of new fortunes here.
The phrase thus alludes to abrupt relocation, disputed territory, and imminent violence. It also conveys dramatic uncertainty through the double meanings of "hazard" and "fortune." To liquidate safe fortunes—"native homes" and "birthrights"—is to hazard (wager) with fortune, a hazardous state of affairs in which the only constant is endless change. This pervasive note of uncertainty was echoed by the illustration on the cover of the now rare paperback first edition: an image of fortune's wheel.
Despite its literary title, the novel's subjects are rooted in the vital political and economic tumult of the late 1880s and intensified by Howells's increasingly pained perceptions of American society and life in general. As a result the novel is a kind of historical crossroads in which a wide range of Gilded Age subjects intersect. When Basil March, the novel's central character, moves from Boston to New York to edit a new literary magazine, he encounters a foreign urban landscape, a starkly commercial literary marketplace, a host of disturbing political ideas, and a percolating socioeconomic unrest that culminates in a labor strike and random violence. More or less directly, then, the plot confronts the literary marketplace, the socioeconomic upheavals of industrialization, the "labor question" and middle-class reactions to it, socialist and anarchist ideas, and perceptions of the modern city. Indirectly the novel touches on the Haymarket affair, immigration and demographic changes, the formulation of literary realism, and even the contemporaneous fervor for utopian thought. Because Howells came to be considered "the Dean of American Letters" and A Hazard of New Fortunes is generally regarded as his best work, the novel is read as representative of various social perspectives such as elite culture, the literary establishment, bourgeois culture, feminized culture, middle-class liberalism, Christian socialism, and so on. As this list indicates, exactly what Howells represents and what his novel signifies are very much questions for interpretation.
HOWELLS IN THE 1880S
The author who generally signed his works W. D. Howells—the more formal William Dean was imposed upon him later—became a successful novelist and America's leading literary critic in the 1880s. At the same time, it was a period of increasing personal and intellectual uncertainty for him. In February 1881, Howells resigned as editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly to pursue his own writing. He was always a diligent writer, and freedom from editorial work allowed his literary craft to develop. He began to explore more modern subjects: A Modern Instance (1882) examined divorce; The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) probed business ethics; The Minister's Charge (1886) took readers on an odyssey through Boston's urban underclass; and Annie Kilburn (1889) confronted class inequality and personal political responsibility. These novels were commercially and critically successful, first as serials in leading magazines and then as books. When his Boston publisher, James R. Osgood & Company, went bankrupt in 1885, Howells was free to sign a lucrative contract with the New York firm of Harper & Brothers, the largest publisher in the United States, paying him ten thousand dollars a year for his basic literary contributions and more for book royalties. The contract also paid him three thousand dollars to write a literary column, and in January 1886 he began writing the influential "Editor's Study" column for Harper's New Monthly Magazine. By all measures Howells was a conspicuous literary success.
Not coincidentally he was also controversial. His novels generated controversy as explicit examples of "the new literature" of realism, which was accused of focusing attention on indecent subjects and rejecting higher moral and literary ideals. In addition he touched off a transatlantic feud with the British press in November 1882 for suggesting, in a Century magazine article, that Henry James was a better, because more modern, writer than such British luminaries as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. Howells used the prominent "Editor's Study" forum to engage these literary controversies and to fight what the biographer Edwin H. Cady calls the "war" over realism. At first the tone and subjects of these skirmishes were somewhat jocular, and Howells felt confident of his position—which valued realism for its opposition to the impossible simplifications of romance. In early 1886 he joked that his columns were "banging the babes of Romance about" and that his new novel, April Hopes (1887), would aim "for the covert discouragement of love-marriages, and the promotion of broken engagements" (Selected Letters 3:152, 154). However in the second half of the decade Howells experienced several significant upheavals that transformed him as an artist and a public figure.
"GRIEFS AND HOPES"
The first upheaval was a sort of literary conversion experience: his discovery of Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). In Tolstoy's works Howells found a powerful model for the social function of literature, a comparatively radical critique of modern industrial society, and a moral outlook that stressed the complicity of the privileged classes in the economic ills of the age. In his "Editor's Study" for July 1887, Howells said of Tolstoy's What Then Must We Do? (1886), which he read in the French translation, Que Faire?, "After reading it you cannot be quite the same person you were before; you will be better by taking its truth to heart, or worse by hardening your heart against it" (Editor's Study, p. 87). Tolstoy's ethics and art slowly precipitated a certain political clarity and social purpose in Howells's thinking, and one hears the echo of Tolstoy's title in the refrain "What is the next thing?" that dominates the doomed dinner celebration in A Hazard of New Fortunes (p. 338).
The second upheaval resulted from the trial, conviction, and execution of the "anarchists" charged in the Haymarket Square bombing. Despite his discovery of Tolstoy, Howells was slow to perceive the severity of corporate capitalism's impact on the United States. In the September 1886 "Editor's Study," Howells wrote that Fyodor Dostoevsky's "formidable and disquieting" and "profoundly tragic" literary style would not apply to American subjects because "there were so few shadows and inequalities in our broad level of prosperity" (Editor's Study, pp. 40–41). "We invite our novelists, therefore," Howells wrote, "to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests" (p. 41). These comments were likely written about four months before the column was published—shortly after the events at Haymarket Square in May. At least at first, then, Howells failed to see a connection between the Haymarket bombing and literary concerns. By the summer of 1887, however, he was actively soliciting professional colleagues to join him in protesting the murder conviction of the seven men, whom he now believed had been tried "for socialism and not for murder" and were "doomed to suffer for their opinion's sake" (Selected Letters 3:193). He spent several months trying to secure a pardon for the convicted anarchists, and he was the only prominent American to criticize publicly their conviction and execution. The experience turned Howells's thinking explicitly toward the manifest social and political injustices that these men decried.
The central plot device of A Hazard of New Fortunes is the literary magazine Every Other Week. The magazine brings together an unlikely collection of people including the man of letters Basil March, the Southern apologist Colonel Woodburn, the socialist immigrant Lindau, the nouveau riche capitalist Dryfoos, and his Christ-like son Conrad. But at the gaudy dinner intended to advertise their collective success, grave differences among the contributors—and within industrialized America—foreshadow inevitable violence to come.
The hobby was out, [and] the Colonel was in the saddle with so firm a seat that no effort sufficed to dis-lodge him. The dinner went on from course to course with barbaric profusion, and from time to time Fulkerson tried to bring the talk back to Every Other Week. But perhaps because that was only the ostensible and not the real object of the dinner, which was to bring a number of men together under Dryfoos's roof, and make them the witnesses of his splendor, make them feel the power of his wealth, Fulkerson's attempts failed. The Colonel showed how commercialism was the poison at the heart of our national life; how we began as a simple, agricultural people, who had fled to these shores with the instinct, divinely implanted, of building a state such as the sun never shone upon before; how we had conquered the wilderness and the savage; how we had flung off, in our struggle with the mother country, the trammels of tradition and precedent, and had settled down, a free nation, to the practice of the arts of peace; how the spirit of commercialism had stolen insidiously upon us, and the infernal impulse of competition had embroiled us in a perpetual warfare of interests, developing the worst passions of our nature, and teaching us to trick and betray and destroy one another in the strife for money, till now that impulse had exhausted itself, and we found competition gone and the whole economic problem in the hands of the monopolies—the Standard Oil Company, the Sugar Trust, the Rubber Trust, and what not. And now what was the next thing? Affairs could not remain as they were; it was impossible; and what was the next thing? . . .
All the rest listened silently, except Lindau; at every point the Colonel made against the present condition of things he said more and more fiercely, "You are righdt, you are righdt." His eyes glowed, his hand played with his knife hilt. When the Colonel demanded, "And what is the next thing?" he threw himself forward, and repeated: "Yes, sir! What is the next thing?"
Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes, pp. 337–338.
These experiences led Howells, like so many other intellectuals of the period, to explicit contemplation of social solutions. Edward Bellamy's novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888) sparked a national craze for utopian texts, and Howells not only reviewed it favorably but also participated in the organization of the first Nationalist Club in Boston. Such clubs, dedicated to studying and promoting the ideas set forth in the book, were soon established nationwide. Howells also read socialist texts, heard Christian Socialist sermons, and attended socialist meetings. In January 1888 he told his father that "I incline greatly to think our safety and happiness are in that direction; though as yet the Socialists offer us nothing definite or practical to take hold of " (Selected Letters 3:216). In a preface for A Hazard of New Fortunes written in 1909, Howells recalls it as a period when
the solution of the riddle of the painful earth through the dreams of Henry George, through the dreams of Edward Bellamy, through the dreams of all the generous visionaries of the past, seemed not impossibly far off. That shedding of blood which is for the remission of sins had been symbolized by the bombs and scaffolds of Chicago, and the hearts of those who felt the wrongs bound up with our rights, the slavery implicated in our liberty, were thrilling with griefs and hopes hitherto strange to the average American breast. (P. 4)
Howells's political and social ruminations were heightened by his move to New York City in February 1888. The Howells family was always moving; he once wrote to his sister, "I suppose you wouldn't be much surprised at getting a letter from me in the moon" (Selected Letters 3:207). Still, the Boston area—his wife's native ground and the nation's historic intellectual center—had been home base since Howells arrived as a young "westerner" from Ohio. When they moved to New York, Howells thought Boston "of another planet" compared to New York's "foreign touches of all kinds" and "abounding Americanism" (Selected Letters 3:223). The intracultural shock sparked Howells's imagination. He found himself keeping notes and writing sketches in the familiar role of a traveler, and he called the beginning of Hazard simply "my N.Y. story" (Selected Letters 3:246).
The last major upheaval of this period was an intense personal shock: the death of his eldest daughter Winifred on 2 March 1889 from "a sudden failure of the heart" (Selected Letters 3:246). From a modern medical perspective it seems likely that Winny suffered some form of anorexia nervosa, a disease virtually unknown to doctors at the time. A few months before her death at age twenty-six, her weight had fallen to fifty-eight pounds. After years of moving from place to place seeking treatments, Howells ultimately insisted that she be sent to Philadelphia for treatment by S. Weir Mitchell, the prominent doctor whose "rest cure" for "hysterical" women inspired Charlotte Perkins Gilman's psychological horror story "The Yellow Wall-Paper" (1892). Winny was thus away from home when she died, leaving Howells with a crushing sense of guilt. His grief profoundly changed his perception of life and cast a long shadow over the ending of the novel.
While the major building blocks of A Hazard of New Fortunes were already gathering in his mind, the Harper publishing house initiated the project. In September 1888, Henry Mills Alden, editor of Harper's Monthly Magazine and longtime house literary advisor, wrote a letter suggesting that Howells undertake a "feuilleton," a series of literary stories or sketches, for Harper's Weekly. Alden and the Harpers envisioned "something very strong and striking" that would "be a powerful presentation of the life of our great metropolis" (Kirk, pp. 18, 19). Such sketches were common in the timely and highly illustrated Weekly, and Howells's publishers felt that his controversial status as literary realist and defender of anarchists would help the project to "command the interest of all classes" (Kirk, p. 19). Howells declined to do the sketches and instead wrote a novel for serialization. Interestingly, when the Howells-like Basil March attempts a similar series of "picturesque" sketches within the novel, their social value becomes an explicit subject of discussion. The magazine business also inspired the novel's central organizing device: the fictional magazine Every Other Week. As Howells explained to his father, "Basil March simply comes to New York in charge of a literary enterprise, and the fortunes of this periodical form the plot, such as there is" (Selected Letters 3:241). Hazard is thus both a commercial narrative of urban exploration and a commentary upon such literary forms.
Howells began the novel in October 1888 while he and his wife were, like the fictional Marches, apartment hunting. Just before Christmas of that year Howells reported: "I've written 500 pp., and hope to have 800 done before I begin printing" (Selected Letters 3:241). By the time of Winny's death in March of the next year, the first installment was about to appear. His despair "took away everything but work," which he pursued "through the leaden hours and days" (Hazard, p. 509). In May 1889 Howells retreated to the Boston area, where the novel seemed to unfold "nearly without my conscious agency" (Hazard, p. 4). Howells recalled writing "with the printer at my heels" (p. 3), and William A. Rogers, the prominent Harpers artist and cartoonist who illustrated the serial, reported that "I never saw more than three installments ahead, and that only at the beginning. Later on I had often to read hastily the galley proofs on Thursday afternoon and turn in my drawing Friday morning" (p. 40).
The Marches first appeared in Their Wedding Journey (1872) and reappear in several other stories. Despite being familiar and semiautobiographical characters, Howells reports that "when I began speaking of them as Basil and Isabel, in the fashion of Their Wedding Journey, they would not respond with the effect of early middle age which I desired in them. . . . It was not till I tried addressing them as March and Mrs. March that they stirred under my hand with fresh impulse" (Hazard, p. 3). Howells also subjected the Marches to considerable irony, reflecting the author's pained perceptions of socioeconomic injustice and the restrictions imposed by his own social class. In his long letter of congratulations to Howells after the novel's publication, Henry James teased Howells for this self-flagellation, saying, "Poor March, my dear Howells—what tricks you play him," and signing the letter to "my dear Basil" (Anesko, pp. 277, 278).
Many of Hazard's other elements also derived from identifiable sources. Howells intended the name Dryfoos to signify Pennsylvania Dutch origins similar to those of his own ancestors (Hazard, p. 506). The mechanism of the Dryfooses' transformation from hardworking Ohio farmers to nouveau riche New Yorkers who underwrite the publication of Every Other Week was inspired by a May 1887 trip to Ohio where Howells observed "a town in full boom from the discovery of natural gas" (Selected Letters 3:188). Howells based Lindau, the German immigrant and socialist who works as a translator at Every Other Week, on "an old German revolutionist" whom he knew as a young man in Ohio, and the author confessed "a tenderness for the character which I feel for no other in the book, and a reverence for an inherent nobleness in it" (Hazard, p. 505). Howells ascribes inspiration for the genial syndicate man and literary entrepreneur Fulkerson to a deceased friend, Ralph Keeler (p. 505). Some readers have seen echoes of Samuel Clemens in Fulkerson's character, and others thought he must be based on S. S. McClure, the publishing entrepreneur who furnished syndicated stories to magazines before founding McClure's Magazine. Although Howells denied this, he conceded that if someone were to see in Fulkerson "the circumstances of another friend of mine, still potently and usefully alive, it could not be to the disadvantage of the mainly imaginary Fulkerson" (p. 505). Certainly Howells's ample experience of the magazine business contributed vitality to his portrayals of Fulkerson and the self-indulgent artist Beaton. Into the deaths of the Christ-like Conrad Dryfoos and the fervently moral Lindau, meanwhile, Howells channeled his personal and political pain, admitting that in their cases "I suffered more things than I commonly allow myself to suffer in the adverse fate of my characters" (pp. 508–509).
Immediate events also influenced the composition. "I had the general design well in mind when I began to write it," Howells says in his 1909 preface to Hazard, "but as it advanced it compelled into its course incidents, interests, [and] individualities, which I had not known lay near, and it specialized and amplified at points which I had not always meant to touch" (pp. 3–4). For example, Howells's encounter with a street person became the basis for Basil's similar encounter in the novel. More dramatically, a New York streetcar strike in February 1889—a few weeks before the serialization of Hazard began—inspired the story "to find its way to issues nobler and larger than those of the love-affairs common to fiction" (p. 4). Coverage of the strike, including vivid illustrations, appeared in the 9 February 1889 issue of Harper's Weekly. The serial itself appeared from 23 March to 16 November 1889. It consisted of thirty-four installments and included sixteen illustrations. A cheap paperback edition was published simultaneously with the clothbound edition—a strategy Howells suggested to his friend Henry James as a way to get copies "into the hands of the people" (Life in Letters 2:7). The strategy seems to have worked for Hazard. In June 1890 Howells wrote that his book "is keeping along in a sort of incredible prosperity with the public" (Life in Letters 2:5).
RECEPTION AND CRITICAL HISTORY
Critics generally consider A Hazard of New Fortunes to be the high-water mark of Howells's literary achievement, and Howells judged it "the most vital of my fictions, through my quickened interest in the life about me, at a moment of great psychological import" (Hazard, p. 4). Despite the excitement the Harpers had envisioned from the project, though, Howells claimed that he heard no talk of his story during the long serialization. Perhaps his literary confidants were less likely to follow a weekly serial, or perhaps Winny's death discouraged casual literary correspondence. Certainly the serial was massively upstaged by the story of the Johnstown Flood disaster of 31 May 1889, which dominated national media, including the Weekly, all summer.
Once the book was published, however, private and public reactions were strongly positive. Henry James gently criticized the title and the apartmenthunting section but praised the novel's window on characters and culture. "The life, the truth, the light, the heat, the breadth & depth & thickness," he told Howells, "are absolutely admirable" (Anesko, p. 275). Henry's brother William James, the eminent Harvard psychologist, praised the book as "damned humane" (Alexander, p. 138), and many others added private and public praise. Howells accepted the compliments with a mixture of hope and self-chastisement that matched his grimly resilient sense of the political, literary, and emotional portent of the moment. In response to praise from reformist author and clergyman Edward Everett Hale, Howells wrote "Praise is sweet, and I feel as if I might have been the man to deserve it, though I know I'm not. I am all the time stumbling to my feet from the dirt of such falls through vanity and evil will, and hate, that I can hardly believe in that self that seems to write books which help people" (Life in Letters 2:4).
Since then critical evaluations of A Hazard of New Fortunes have varied considerably, based largely on readers' desires to situate Howells's fictional subjects, literary theories, economic beliefs, and political effects. Given his prominence, critics often treat Howells as a metonym of some definite intellectual or political position. In the decade following Hazard's publication, it became commonplace to consider Howells a socialist. The "fact" of Howells's socialism, together with his utopian A Traveler from Altruria (1894) and other overtly political writings of the early 1890s, colored Hazard as a bold text representative of the author's heroic political principles. Similarly, younger authors such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser credited Howells in a general way with enabling their art. By the time of Howells's death on 11 May 1920, he had been lionized as the "Dean of American Letters," and Hazard was used as prime evidence of his venerable literary ability and progressive legacy.
But for modern-minded authors in the early twentieth century Howells made a prominent target as a representative of the genteel literary establishment and the Victorian past. H. L. Mencken ridiculed Howells's work as "elegant and shallow," and Frank Norris labeled it "the drama of a broken teacup" (Crowley, Dean, pp. 103, 93). From this perspective Howells's writing was considered to be effeminate, dry, and (in terms of the new Freudian analysis) repressed. This overzealous attack culminated in Sinclair Lewis's 1930 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in which he ridiculed Howells as like "a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage" (Crowley, Dean, p. 108). Such criticisms seldom mentioned Hazard or examined any specific works, preferring instead to slur Howells in general terms as a writer of courtship stories and lifeless domestic fictions.
Both lionization and vilification were exaggerations. Howells has since assumed a significant but secondary place among postbellum American authors, overshadowed by his friends Henry James and Samuel Clemens. Since the middle of the twentieth century, critics of Hazard have typically been literary scholars or historians who return for specific evidence of the author's political principles and literary methods—whether to defend them or to criticize them. Defenders have praised the novel's liberal intentions and political observations, and regard it as more or less effective social critique. Detractors have viewed it as representative of self-serving middle class ideals and ideologies. These interpretations question Howells's apparently socialist ideals for failing to confront hard political realities. Often literary interpretations turn on the relationship between characters' perspectives and those of the author. As John Crowley shows, Howells did indeed rely on the "mask of fiction" in complex ways to explore his personal milieu. Sophisticated versions of this criticism examine the largely unintentional psychic and social energies in Howells's texts as revealed through such critical lenses as psychoanalytic theory. Weaker readings simply conflate Howells and his characters, taking a given character's statements as representative of the author's fixed perspective.
Controversies over the function of literary realism still bring readers back to Hazard as well, although the terms of the debate are constantly changing. Realism, as Howells conceived it, should be honest, enlightening, and transformative. As Conrad Dryfoos says to Basil March, "If you can make the comfortable people understand how the uncomfortable people live, it will be a very good thing" (p. 147). This view of realism stresses its use as a tool, its moral superiority to romance illusions, and its potential for creating documentary knowledge and political insight. It is also rooted in the individualistic assumption that the author's and reader's individual perceptions are the logical basis for essentially individual political action. By contrast theoretical shifts in literary studies away from authorial intention as the primary focus and toward textual and historical contexts have made Hazard important for a later generation of critics interested in systematic ideologies and epistemologies rather than in individual perceptions and beliefs. Amy Kaplan explains that, from the perspective of late-twentieth-century literary theory, realism has changed "from a progressive force exposing the conditions of industrial society" into "a conservative force whose very act of exposure reveals its complicity with structures of power" (Kaplan, p. 1). Kaplan and others thus read Hazard for the things that Howells's literary and political paradigms circumscribe or actively exclude. Similarly, scholarly concerns with social class and socioeconomic issues make Hazard important for modern scholars. Alan Trachtenberg, for example, reads Hazard as the reaction of middle-class "nervous intellectuals" in the face of the social and economic changes of the age of incorporation (p. 185), and Daniel Borus notes that "entering the homes and lives of the poor is a task that the narrator does not attempt" (p. 177). Here again, the essential critical questions concern relationships between literary representations and broader historical and political processes.
A Hazard of New Fortunes, then, has come to be more of a historical artifact than a literary classic. Nonetheless, the fact that the novel can be interpreted in so many and conflicting ways is a sign of its continued intellectual relevance—and of its essential fidelity to the complexities of its originating historical situation.
Howells, William Dean. Editor's Study. Edited by James W. Simpson. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1983. In facsimile reproductions all of Howells's "Editor's Study" articles are available online at the William Dean Howells Society website, http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/campbell/howells/edstudy.htm.
Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1889. Harper & Brothers, 1890. Reprint with an introduction by Everett Carter. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976. The reprint edition is used for quotations and page references in the current article.
Howells, William Dean. Life in Letters of William DeanHowells. 2 vols. Edited by Mildred Howells. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran, 1928. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
Howells, William Dean. Selected Letters. 6 vols. Edited by George Arms et al. Boston: Twayne, 1979–1983.
Alexander, William. William Dean Howells: The Realist asHumanist. New York: Burt Franklin, 1981.
Anesko, Michael. Letters, Fictions, Lives: Henry James andWilliam Dean Howells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Borus, Daniel H. Howells, James, and Norris in the MassMarket. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Cady, Edwin H. The Realist at War: The Mature Years,1885–1920, of William Dean Howells. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1958.
Crowley, John W. The Dean of American Letters: The LateCareer of William Dean Howells. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Crowley, John W. The Mask of Fiction: Essays on W. D. Howells. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Crowley, John W. "The Unsmiling Aspects of Life: AHazard of New Fortunes." In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Kirk, Clara Marburg. W. D. Howells, Traveler from Altruria1889–1894. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962.
Lynn, Kenneth S. William Dean Howells: An American Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
Rogers, William Allen. A World Worth While: A Record of"Auld Acquaintance." New York: Harper & Brothers, 1922. Details Rogers's experience of illustrating the serialization of A Hazard of New Fortunes for Harper's Weekly.
Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.