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American Literary History 18.1 (2006) 29-58
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William Dean Howells and the Insurance of the Real
Near the beginning of William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), Basil March's employer Reciprocity Life forces him out of his job and offers him a position as the editor of an in-house periodical, an "insurance paper" (10). It may seem strange to contemporary readers that an insurance company would have such a newspaper, but, in fact, the industry had dozens, possibly hundreds, of them. Beginning in the nineteenth century, insurance propagated a massive publishing arm that produced internal company periodicals and supported a vigorous independent press. Journals such as the Western Underwriter and the Insurance Monitor, to name just two, combined the dry work of trade magazines—reporting on market conditions and pending legislation—with greater literary ambition, and often they were run by men with no small amount of education and artistic experience. Banking and other financial services had no comparable publishing empire, nor did they house writers and artists of comparable skill. Wallace Stevens, the linguist Benjamin Whorf, and the composer Charles Ives were all insurance men, and all published serious literary and critical work in insurance industry magazines.
Readers typically treat Stevens's insurance career as a curious aberration, but, in fact, the insurance industry had been a warehouse for literary talent and ambition for decades. Almost alone among American writers, William Dean Howells noticed the growing cultural importance of insurance and its increasingly intimate relationship with literature, particularly during his political phase during the late 1880s and in his most ambitious novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes. By 1890, even the word "hazard" was a recognizable insurance term, used more often in that context than any other. The central character in Hazard, Basil March, had made a living in insurance for the previous eighteen years, and he was already an insurance agent in Howells's first book, Their Wedding Journey (1871). That book is a virtual travelogue of Howells's own honeymoon, and so, from the beginning, the career of the fictional insurance agent and [End Page 29] the biography of the aspiring novelist are strangely superimposed. March returns in The Shadow of a Dream (1890), An Open-Eyed Conspiracy (1897), Their Silver Wedding Journey (1899), and a number of short stories, which makes him by far the most frequently recurring character in Howells's canon. Throughout his career, then, Howells returned often to this smug and stuffy insurance man not because March's personality was particularly compelling, but because the white-collar work of underwriting served as a complex shadow of realism's own labors in the literary marketplace.
Many of Howells's recent critics have focused on realism's affiliation with productive labor and have traced realism's complex involvements with business and the fiction market. Michael Davitt Bell, for instance, highlights Howellsian realism's insistence that it be classed as masculine work in The Problem of American Realism (1993). In Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market (1989), Daniel Borus has shown how the mass marketplace generated new forms and practices in realist novels. And Amy Kaplan's treatment of Howells's "mass-mediated realism" (her subtitle) argues that realism helped construct a society that seemed "more interdependent and interconnected than ever before" (43) by cultivating a national readership made up of a broad constituency.1 I am arguing here for a much more specific way in which the work of realism in the literary marketplace furthered Howells's broader goal of fostering social cohesion and communal interdependence. Imagining realism as a kind of insurance allowed writing, like underwriting, to participate fully and unashamedly in capitalism's markets while still working to construct communities of interdependent risk- and asset-sharers. Insurance became a valuable metaphor for Howellsian realism around 1890, because it asserted a set of communitarian credentials that did not threaten to deepen the class divisions increasingly troubling to post-Haymarket America. And because insurance has no pretension to reform society, merely to compensate...