Anguish of a New York Liberal

William Dean Howells
William Dean Howells; drawing by David Levine

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…

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