- The Sublime Train of Sight in A Hazard of New Fortunes
In 1888, William Dean Howells moved with his family from Boston to New York City. In the heady years preceding this relocation, Howells undertook a famously unpopular campaign in support of the Haymarket defendants, resigned from his editorship of the Atlantic Monthly–whose readership had precipitously declined under his guidance–and signed a lucrative contract with Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. His departure from Boston’s Brahmin literary circles for the rough and tumble literary world of New York was initially set in motion by the developing tragedy of his daughter Winnie’s illness and death. The Howellses’ relocation coincided with the city’s historical emergence as the nation’s cultural and economic center. During this period–pointedly marked by the rise of Harper’s–the literary capital of the nation moved from Boston to New York, or as Van Wyck Brooks reports of common opinion at the time, “[Howells] carried it with him” (2).
Upon Howells’s arrival, Joseph W. Harper–the reigning head of the “House of Harper”–requested that he write
a feuillton for the `Weekly which would be a powerful presentation of the life of our great metropolis, social, educational, economical, political–as shown in our schools, colleges, charitable organizations, reformatory institutions, prisons, courts of law, occupations & amusements–the rich & the poor, the idler & the worker, the silly men & bad men & frivolous women–the elevated railroads, the monopolies [and] the nuisances.(qtd. in Prettyman 101)
The interest of the project, Harper’s editor Henry Mills Alden told Howells, should come from what he called “the social meaning of such sketches” (Prettyman 115). These sketches should have appeared a plum piece of work to Howells. As they call for the comprehensive representation of the nation’s [End Page 285] new metropolis and the diagnosis of its “social meaning,” the sketches were informed by representational and social principles central to the realism he was busy theorizing in his “Editor’s Study” column for Harper’s. And the feuillton, a mix of careful social observation and commentary, was a form to which Howells already owed much of his literary reputation.
Between 1868 and 1870, Howells had attempted a similar task in a series of articles for The Atlantic. These articles, collected as Suburban Sketches, provided comprehensive surveys of the social landscape of Cambridge from its elite enclaves to its immigrant slums. In their 2005 biography of Howells, Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson remind us that Howells’s initial literary fame came from the publication of travel literature–books like Venetian Life (1866) and Italian Journeys (1867) that depended upon the mobility and vision of a lightly ironic narrator. Beginning with his first novel, Their Wedding Journey (1871), Howells made frequent recourse to critical elements of travel writing in his practice of the realist novel form. The peculiar drama of travel, as it stages an individual’s encounter with various types of alterity, provides Howells’s fiction with its cosmopolitanism and cultural relativism. Meanwhile, the mobility, detachment, and heightened perception of Howells’s travelers provide his realism a critical purchase on American modernity by giving it scope, movement, and a distanced perspective from which to view and represent the rapid transformations of fin-de-siècle America. When, following the publication of his first novel, Howells confessed to a friend, “there’s nothing like having railroads and steamboats transact plot for you,” (qtd. in Goodman and Dawson) he both signified a certain amount of embarrassment for his continued dependence on travel writing and coyly announced its continuing value to his novel writing.
Nowhere in Howells’s fiction does realism’s detached, mobile narrative posture receive more sustained reflection than in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), the novel that Howells fashioned out of the abandoned project to write Harper’s feuillton for The Weekly. In a September 29 letter to his father, Howells announced that he had given up on Harper’s plan and had started on a new scheme for a novel–a novel that could only be Hazard (Carter xxviii). As it narrates the relocation of Basil and Isabel March from Boston to New York...