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Anguish of a New York Liberal

William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes, published in 1890, is the first memorable novel about New York City.* Earlier novelists had touched on aspects of the city; Melville in particular had searing insights in Pierre and in short stories like “Bartleby the Scrivener.” And there was, of course, Henry James’s Washington Square. But no one before Howells had sought to capture the teeming, heterogeneous, multifarious, high-tension city on a single great canvas.

A Hazard of New Fortunes, said Mark Twain, was “the exactest & truest portrayal of New York and New York life ever written…a great book.” “It has filled me with communicable rapture,” said Henry James. “The Hazard is simply prodigious.” (Both Clemens and James thought highly of Howells, though neither thought much of the other, as today John Updike and Gore Vidal, though far from admiring each other, agree in admiring Howells.) William James could “hardly recollect a novel that has [so] taken hold of me…. The observation of detail, the everlasting wit and humor, and beneath all the bass accompaniment of the human problem, the entire Americanness of it, all make it a very great book.”

Hazard’s fifty-three-year-old author came from small-town Ohio. He was born in the last days of Andrew Jackson’s presidency and was to die shortly before the election of Warren G. Harding. His father was a country printer and also an abolitionist, not a popular position in southern Ohio in the 1840s. Young Howells never made it to high school; college was an unattainable dream; but he read voraciously in the print shop and wrote fluently for Ohio newspapers. In 1860, at the age of twenty-three, he produced a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, for which he was suitably rewarded the next year by appointment as consul in Venice.

Returning to the United States after Appomattox, he briefly worked for the Nation in New York, then moved to Boston as assistant editor of the awesome Atlantic Monthly; in 1871 he became the editor. With his literary skills and his instinct for friendship Howells was a great hit in Boston. He discovered brilliant friends among his own generation—Henry and William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Henry Adams—and associated with the triple-named grandees of the day—James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., John Greenleaf Whittier. He was invited to a luncheon with Lowell and the elder Holmes at which the autocrat of the breakfast table remarked whimsically to Lowell about their guest, “Well, James, this is something like the apostolic succession; this is the laying on of hands.”

In the 1870s Howells showed a certain facility in fiction, and in 1881 he decided to resign the Atlantic editorship to concentrate on his novels. In Their Wedding Journey (1872) he had introduced Basil and Isabel March, thinly veiled representations of himself and his wife. The Marches were to reappear in half a dozen later books, including A Hazard of New Fortunes.

His early novels were amusing, urbane, freshly observed domestic comedies. Then in 1885 he began reading Tolstoy. “I can never again see life in the way I saw it before I knew him,” he wrote. “…He taught me to see life not as a chase of forever impossible human happiness, but as a field for endeavor toward the happiness of the whole human family…. He gave me new criterions, new principles.”

In 1886 came the Haymarket Affair. An anarchist rally in Chicago calling for the eight-hour working day and protesting police brutality had a bloody denouement when a bomb was thrown into a crowd of advancing cops, killing half a dozen. No one ever found the bomb-thrower, but five anarchist leaders, none of whom had thrown the bomb but some of whom had given speeches, were indicted for conspiracy to commit murder. One killed himself; four were hanged by the state of Illinois.

Howells was appalled. The anarchists were killed, he said, by “the first Republic the world has ever known, for their opinions’ sake.” He called it “civic murder” and tried to get other writers to join in condemning a palpable miscarriage of justice. No one came along; even the old abolitionist Whittier refused. Howells went public by himself and was denounced by the respectable press.

The Haymarket executions reinforced Tolstoy. “I am reading and thinking about questions,” Howells wrote, “that carry me beyond myself and my miserable literary idolatries of the past.” Tolstoy and Haymarket were also carrying Howells beyond the thin air of Boston. He had exhausted the local glories. “There is little or nothing left for me in Boston,” he told a fellow novelist in 1887.

He began to spend more and more time in New York. “There’s only one city that belongs to the whole country,” as the public relations man Fulkerson tells Basil March in the first chapter of A Hazard of New Fortunes, “and that’s New York.” In 1888 Howells rented an apartment at 330 East 17th Street overlooking Stuyvesant Park. There he began writing his New York novel.

The novel takes its title from the scene in Shakespeare’s King John when the French ambassador warns his king that the English are coming:

And all th’ unsettled humours of the land, Rash, inconsiderate, fiery voluntaries,
With ladies’ faces and fierce dragons’ spleens,
Have sold their fortunes at their native homes,
Bearing their birthrights proudly on their backs
To make a hazard of new fortunes here.
In brief, a braver choice of dauntless spirits
Than now the English bottoms have waft o’er
Did never float upon the swelling tide
To do offense and scathe in Christendom.

This suggests the action that opens the book. Basil and Isabel March are moving from Boston to New York to make a hazard of new fortunes—a move increasingly in Howells’s mind as he wrote and the move he definitively made in 1891. “Hazard” may mean gamble; it also may mean danger. The “hazard of new fortunes” phrase suggests another theme of the book—the arrival of crude and greedy nouveaux riches threatening “offense and scathe in Christendom.”

For A Hazard of New Fortunes is not only the first major New York novel. It is also the first major exploration in American fiction of the liberal dilemma. Against the variegated backdrop of New York City, Howells dramatizes the intellectual and spiritual conflicts of the democratic future.

Earlier American political novels—Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, James’s Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima—concentrated not on liberals but on radicals; that is, on ideologues possessed by specific formulas for social salvation and fanatically certain that their way was the only way. As Hawthorne wrote in Blithedale of such possessed people,

They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly strait path.

The Marches are not like that at all. They are decent and intelligent, but are disarmed by their tolerance and a certain complacency, paralyzed by their capacity to see every side of every person and every question, waiting to have decisions made for them. There was no good cause they did not wish well, “their hearts so easily moved to any cheap sympathy…. If it had ever come into their way to sacrifice themselves for others, they thought they would have done so, but they never asked why it had not come in their way.” They are, in short, liberal spectators rather than liberal activists. The novel’s distinctive and original note is liberal anguish.

A Hazard of New Fortunes describes the collapse of values after the Civil War and foretells new values demanding to be born. Howells portrays Basil March as challenged by a rich diversity of viewpoints. This is not done in an unduly schematic way. Mark Twain praised “the high art” by which the novel “is made to preach its great sermon without seeming to take sides or preach at all.”

It is Fulkerson, the first PR man in literature, who gets the story started by enticing Basil March, who is about to lose his Boston job anyway, to come to New York and edit a fortnightly magazine called Every Other Week. With the “shameless vigor of a born advertiser,” Fulkerson is a booster, a promoter, a spinmeister, his ingenuity equal to every exigency, a perpetual optimist with an amusing strain of self-satire, who rejects “the old exploded idea that the demand creates the supply, when everybody knows, if he’s watched the course of modern events, that it’s just as apt to be the other way.”

Fulkerson also persuades Jacob Dryfoos, a natural gas millionaire from Moffitt, Indiana, to back Every Other Week. Dryfoos fell into his money when natural gas was discovered on his farm, but he moves to New York, shows unexpected talent as a speculator, and turns into a hard-bitten capitalist who hates trade unions as much as he hates government. When he hears that Every Other Week might clear $25,000 a year, he says with genial contempt, “I made that much in half a day in Moffitt, once. I see it made in half a minute in Wall Street.”

There are others in a loose circle around the magazine. Berthold Lindau, who translates articles from foreign journals, is a German immigrant and a fierce socialist. He lost his hand in the Civil War and now despises the consequences of the Northern victory. “Do you think,” he tells Basil March,

that I knowingly gave my hand to save this oligarchy of traders and tricksters, this aristocracy of railroad wreckers and stock gamblers and mine slave drivers and mill serf owners? No; I gave it to the slave; the slave—Ha! Ha! Ha!—whom I helped to unshackle to the common liberty of hunger and cold.

There is Jacob Dryfoos’s son Conrad, the business manager, who, to his father’s rage, is a Christian socialist; there is Angus Beaton, the hedonist who serves as the magazine’s art director; there is Alma Leighton, the feminist who draws covers for the magazine; there is Colonel Woodburn, the unreconstructed Confederate who abominates the “commercial spirit” of Yankee capitalism as “the poison at the heart of our national life” and contributes articles advocating “responsible slavery.”

A Hazard of New Fortunes begins quietly enough as an acute but gentle comedy of manners in the familiar Howells vein. The only excitement at the start is the Marches’ search for a New York apartment. (Twenty-first- century readers must remember to multiply every 1890 dollar figure by about twenty.) As the Marches wander the streets of Manhattan, they are at first struck only by the picturesqueness, the entertainment value, of the people who dwell in tenements and slums. Gradually tension heightens, the pace quickens, the novel darkens. Lindau attacks old Dryfoos at a disastrous dinner party; Dryfoos demands his dismissal from the magazine; Basil March, the liberal, decides he must take a stand in defense of Lindau. There is a bitter streetcar strike. Howells had witnessed the great traction strike of 1886, and he, and his readers, well knew the ferocity incited by capital–labor conflict. The comedy of manners finally explodes in violence and death when young Conrad is killed trying to rescue the fatally wounded Lindau from the clubs of the police.

Basil March, who started out as “too self-enwrapt to perceive the chaos to which the individual selfishness must always lead,” is driven to acknowledge “a sense of complicity” with the striving and suffering generated by “the economic chance world.” He bursts out to Isabel,

So we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot, lying, cheating, stealing; and when we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we’ve come to a palace of our own, or the poorhouse, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother men, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.

The contrast between the power of the indictment and the impotence of the conclusion shows Howells’s characteristic irony. He leaves March still essentially uncommitted. Old Dryfoos’s freebooting capitalism, Lindau’s class war, Beaton’s hedonism, Woodburn’s Confederate nostalgia all seem wrongheaded and demeaning. Young Dryfoos had pointed in a direction that March approves but to which he cannot pledge himself.

All this rather suggests that the future belongs to the great spinner and handler, the archetypal public relations man, Fulkerson. Would William Dean Howells be all that much surprised by twenty-first-century New York City?

  1. *

    A Hazard of New Fortunes will be reissued by the Modern Library this month. This essay will appear as the introduction.

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