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  • W. D. Howells’ A Hazard of New Fortunes:A Mostly Formalist Reading
  • Donald Pizer

Until recently, much criticism of A Hazard of New Fortunes tended to stress either the biographical roots of the novel in Howells’ move to New York in 1888 or the ways in which the work’s themes bring to a climax Howells’ social preoccupations of the late 1880s.1 This criticism has seldom ventured into discussions of the novel’s formal character aside from brief comments on the fact that it is Howells’ most ambitious work of fiction. In more recent years, the novel has also been re-examined by cultural critics for its reflection of late-nineteenth-century American ideological and social currents. Amy Kaplan’s frequently cited discussion of the novel in her Social Construction of American Realism2 is characteristic of much of this criticism in that she seeks to find the significance of the work by means of close readings of specific cultural elements, in her case principally the Marches’ search for a New York apartment. What is absent in this and most similar recent readings is attention to the novel’s most distinctive fictional characteristic, its extraordinary breadth—a quality which includes a variety of subject matters, a large cast of characters, and a number of interacting plots. In this paper I will seek to demonstrate that in order to appreciate fully both the nature of Howells’ beliefs in A Hazard of New Fortunes and the relationship of these beliefs to the thinking of his time it is necessary to examine closely the complex fictional architectonics of the work—that is, the way in which its many plot lines, large dramatis personae, and distinctive narrative voice communicate these beliefs. Other critical methods may of course also perform useful critical work, but, in old fashioned terms, an analysis of the interplay of character, plot, and theme is the necessary foundation for any further exploration of the novel. [End Page 1]

Howells sets A Hazard of New Fortunes in New York, the nation’s most populous, wealthy, and cosmopolitan city, but casts the novel not with native-born New Yorkers (perhaps only the Vances, an old New York family, qualify for this role) but rather with representatives from almost every geographical area, social background, and belief of the country. In addition, though almost all the events depicted in the novel occur in New York, these local actions refer as well to major social conditions found in the nation as a whole.

Howells and his family moved to New York from Boston in early 1888 and after a period in temporary quarters, he and his wife looked for a New York apartment in October of that year, an event that provides the basis for the long opening section of the novel. Its climactic action, a street railway strike, is based on a similar New York strike of early February 1889. Although the internal chronology of the novel is the passage of a year and a half from the Marches’ search for an apartment to the strike, it is clear that Howells is less interested in a precise correlation of fictional events to historical events than in a rendering of the broad characteristics of the national experience from approximately the Civil War to the present.

By the late 1880s, New York was already the home of former residents of every area of the country, to say nothing of other countries. Howells’ device for bringing representatives from these varied backgrounds together was to organize their interaction around the founding of a new magazine. In the decades following the Civil War, Boston appeared to be declining both as the intellectual and financial center of the country. Its antebellum generation of literary giants was dying off, and its authors and publishers were increasingly shifting their base of operations to New York. Howells’ own move to the city in 1888 was much discussed as symptomatic of the shift. In choosing to make March’s move to New York to start a new journal the fulcrum upon which the novel rests, Howells was thus reflecting both his own personal hazard of new fortunes and that of an entire literary and...


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