William Dean Howells

A Hazard of New Fortunes

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A Hazard of New Fortunes Summary

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A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) by William Dean Howells is a realistic novel depicting Gilded Age New York City and post-Civil War America. Using dramatic contrasts and ironic parallels, Howells seeks to offer commentary on what were then contemporary issues facing society, including social justice, the labor movement, and the failure of Reconstruction. He does this mainly through the interaction of a few main characters, each representing an aspect of society.

The story opens in Boston, where Basil March, a middle-aged insurance executive, is asked by his friend Fulkerson to join him in launching a new periodical in New York City. March is intrigued by the idea because he can foresee a downturn in his business, and so he agrees to accept the position of editor, moving his family to New York. The Marches spend much time and energy seeking out an apartment in the city, eventually settling in exhaustion on a home that is overly designed and filled with flourishes that do not suit their taste.

Fulkerson introduces March to their backer, Jacob Dryfoos, who came into money when natural gas was discovered on his farm. Fulkerson explains his vision for the new magazine—instead of paying salaries or lump sums to writers, he offers instead very low or no pay at all in exchange for a portion of the profits of each issue. This innovative idea allows the periodical to launch with a low overhead. Dryfoos installs his son, Conrad, as the business manager of the magazine in hopes that it will give the passive man direction and life experience. March and Fulkerson fill the other staff positions with their own people; March hires his former teacher Berthold Lindau to identify and translate articles from foreign magazines, Fulkerson brings on his old friend Angus Beaton to be the art director, who in turn hires a woman he secretly loves, Alma Leighton, to create the cover. Through Leighton, the magazine’s growing staff meets Colonel Woodburn, a wealthy Southerner who still strongly supports the Confederacy and the system of slavery. Fulkerson, intrigued, sees a chance to court controversy and sell magazines by publishing some of Woodburn’s writings on the subject, despite the fact that Lindau lost a hand fighting in the Civil War because he is an ardent abolitionist and a fierce believer in Socialism.

At a dinner party, Woodburn, Lindau, and Dryfoos come into conflict over their very different views of the world—Dryfoos is a committed capitalist who believes he has the unfettered right to do as he wishes with the things he owns, which he believes includes the magazine and its staff; Woodburn is an unreconstructed pro-slavery conservative; and Lindau is a progressive firebrand. The conversation becomes quite heated, and Lindau insults Dryfoos in German, incorrectly assuming the American cannot speak German. Dryfoos, offended, demands that March fire Lindau, bringing the subtext of the relationship between the wealthy and the worker to the fore: March resents the feeling of being “owned” and refuses, resigning in protest.

Meanwhile, Dryfoos’s son Conrad finds success managing the magazine, though the success is due to Fulkerson’s innovative business model, March’s editorial finesse, and Beaton’s art direction—a subtle echo of the communist concept of the capitalist oppressor reaping the rewards of others’ work. Conrad is a liberal and sympathetic man concerned with social justice; he meets the beautiful and refined Margaret Vance, who shares his sympathies and charitable efforts. Vance is another parallel layer, representing “old money” sophistication that looks down on people like Dryfoos; her elegant manners are contrasted with Dryfoos’s country daughters unflatteringly.

A streetcar driver’s strike is called, paralyzing the city and plunging it into a dangerous state of conflict. Inspired by the Haymarket Riots of 1886, the strike coalesces all the characters’ various points of view. The strike parallels the smaller-scale conflict between March and Dryfoos as the laborers protest the unfairness of their situation. Margaret encourages Conrad, who sees himself as a benevolent member of the upper class, to use his influence to end the strike peacefully; Conrad goes into the street and comes across a police officer beating Lindau, despite the man’s age and disability. Attempting to come to Lindau’s aid and prevent the violence from spreading, Conrad is shot dead by the officer just as March arrives on the scene.

As Dryfoos grieves over his son, Lindau has the rest of his arm amputated in an effort to save his life, which is ultimately unsuccessful; he dies with Margaret Vance next to him, tending to him as a nurse. Dryfoos, shaken, admits he may have misjudged Lindau, and wearily sells the magazine to March and Fulkerson for a fraction of its value. Fulkerson marries Colonel Woodburn’s daughter and Margaret Vance, heartbroken, takes vows and becomes a nun.

The conflicts in parallel presented in the novel suggest that everything is personal, from politics to economics. The same arguments hammered in private erupt into protest and riot in public in this novel, but despite the sympathy the story has for the working class and the burgeoning labor movement, Howells reserves most of his enthusiasm for the idea that a new business—in this case, a magazine launched in an age when new magazines in New York City were exciting events—can have an impact on the world and even change things for good. The novel is notable as well for its realistic portrayal of life in New York City, which had never been treated as a major literary setting before in American fiction, and for Howell’s inclusion of characters from various economic and political backgrounds.