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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 19. A Hazard of New Fortunes

This was some ten years after Howells had first read Tolstoy, ten years during which, in spite of Tolstoy’s example, he had not at all reverted to the preacher but had published many merry farces and had begun to be sunnily reminiscent in A Boy’s Town (1890). But though too much himself to be converted from his artistic practice, Howells had broadened his field and deepened his inquiries. A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), in which Basil and Isabel March, the bridal couple of Their Wedding Journey, now grown middle aged, give up Boston, as Howells had himself recently done, for a future in New York, is not content to point out merely the unfamiliar fashions of life which they meet but is full of conscience regarding certain evils of the modern social order. Or rather, Howells had turned from the clash of those lighter manners which belong to Comedy and had set himself to discuss the deeper manners of the race which belong to morals and religion. He wrote at a moment of hope:

  • We had passed through a period of strong emotioning in the direction of the humaner economics, if I may phrase it so; the rich seemed not so much to despise the poor, the poor did not so hopelessly repine. The solution of the riddle of the painful earth through the dreams of Henry George, through the dreams of Edward Bellamy, through the dreams of all the generous visionaries of the past, seemed not impossibly far off.
  • In this mood Howells’s theme compelled him so much that the story moved forward almost without his conscious agency, “though,” he carefully insists, “I should not like to intimate anything mystical in the fact.” A Hazard of New Fortunes outdoes all Howells’s novels in the conduct of different groups of characters, in the superb naturalness with which now one and now another rises to the surface of the narrative and then retreats without a trace of management. New Englanders, New Yorkers, Southerners, Westerners, all appear in their true native colours, as do the most diverse ranks of society, and many professions, in their proper dress and gesture. The episode of the street-car strike, brought in near the end, dramatizes the struggle which has been heretofore in the novel rather a shadow than a fact, but Howells, artist first then partisan, employs it almost wholly as a sort of focal point to which the attention of all his characters is drawn, with the result that, having already revealed themselves generally, they are more particularly revealed in their varying degrees of sympathy for the great injustice out of which class war arises. In this manner, without extravagant emphasis, Howells judges a generation at the same time that he portrays it in the best of all novels of New York.