A Hazard of New Fortunes is an 1890 book by William Dean Howells, middle part of the March Family Trilogy. It’s considered the best work of the American realist author, well-received for its portrayal of people from different backgrounds in New York City.
The book basically sets two completely different people against one another: a rich self-made man called Dryfoos and Fulkerson, a social revolutionary. We experience the story mostly through the viewpoint of a third, and neutral man called Basil March. We first meet Basil and his family in Boston. A friend of the family, the idealistic Fulkerson, has made himself quite wealthy and has the idea to start a new literary magazine in New York. He wants Basil to come to New York and be the editor for this magazine that he will be leading. The Basils do not jump at the opportunity. Mr and Mrs Basil go to New York where they spent the first few chapters looking for the perfect apartment. Once they’ve settled for something, Mrs Basil goes back to Boston to prepare the family for the move while Basil stays behind, having decided to take the job as editor of the magazine.
Fulkerson, being the idea-man, doesn’t really concern himself much with the magazine, named Every Other Week. He is happy to leave it in the capable hands of Basil who used to work in insurance but always had literary ambitions. The publisher of the magazine is Conrad, son of the rich self-made man Dryfoos who is funding this magazine as a way to keep his son out of politics. Dryfoos found gas on his farm and used it to get rich – further ensuring his wealth on Wall Street afterwards. They have also hired an artist to be the artistic director and Lindau, an old friend of Fulkerson and American Civil War veteran, who will be translating German war stories for the literary magazine. The way that they will be funding the magazine is quite ground-breaking: they plan not to pay the writers with huge guaranteed sum, but they let the writers share in the publication’s proceeds. March’s editorial prowess and the art director’s work make the magazine a success and in the beginning everyone is happy.
But then March starts clashing with Dryfoos who, together with his rich, upper-class friends, is trying to have a bigger say in what should and should not be published. They interfere in such a way that the original editorial ideas behind the magazine are threatened and things escalate. On top of that, Fulkerson and March start spending more and more money on editorial costs in order to attract writers that will make them stand out – which makes the writers earn less and less. Combined with Dryfoos’ meddling, the magazine is in trouble.
At the end of the book, the social discrepancies between the characters come to a head in a strike which turns into a riot. Dryfoos and his rich friends get into it with war veteran Lindau and they argue on how to resolve it. In the meantime, Dryfoos’ son Conrad has become even more involved in striving for the working class and he takes part in the strike. While he is trying to stop a policeman from beating the German translator and veteran Lindau, he is accidentally shot and he dies. March, ever the objective bystander, watches it happen from inside a street car. Dryfoos is heartbroken, and wanting nothing more to do with the magazine, sells it to Fulkerson and March for a very low price.
Now, what did I think of this book? Well, at first I didn’t much like it since I had to read it for class and then discuss it to death afterwards. This happened to a few of the books I had to read for university: being forced to read them and later graded on how well you understood them took away a lot of the pleasure in reading for me. I reread it later and I have to admit my opinions on it haven’t much changed. I’ll say it nice and clear: A Hazard of New Fortunes is a heavy and difficult read. Like many of the realists, Howells goes into everything in such detail, but unlike many of the realists I like, he does it in a way that bored me to death at times. The story is slowed down immensely by all the background and descriptive information and it really took me out of what was going on. Even right at the beginning, Basil and his wife are shopping for apartments – this takes 10 chapters!
But of course, this is not meant to be an entertaining read, it is however meant as a snapshot of what was going on in New York at the time. Did the story manage to capture that time’s spirit and essence? Looking from a slightly privileged, white male perspective I would say it did. The upper and middle classes are fairly well represented, and at times, I really did feel like I was being transported back to the New York of that time. So, if you are looking for an entertaining read, this is not the book for you. If, however, you enjoy realism and books filled with social commentary on a specific period in time, pick it up!
What did you guys think? Does anyone agree or disagree with me? I’d love to know in the comments!