Places: A Hazard of New Fortunes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1889

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Hazard of New Fortunes, AYork City. City in which the protagonist, Basil March, and his family settle early in the novel. March, who in his dislocation as in other respects resembles his creator, has come here to assume editorship of a magazine at a time when New York is replacing Boston as the literary capital of the nation. The specific settings are varied, but collectively they form the backdrop of the “new fortunes.” To March, New York, especially the borough of Manhattan, is the place of new professional opportunity.

To other characters, this largest of the American urban environments offers a variety of other opportunities and challenges. March’s wife Isabel compares New York unfavorably to Boston, their former home. To her it is too large and full of uncultivated and uncivilized newcomers, both native and foreign. To the fiery German socialist Lindau, who once taught March German, and whom March hires to review foreign literature for the magazine, New York provides an opportunity to associate with his fellow poor. Lindau views them as victims of the robber barons of the era and strives to undermine the power of the latter. The publisher of the magazine, a transplanted midwesterner named Dryfoos, is a boorish man for whom the big city is just the place to augment his already considerable fortune. In short, New York is a magnet drawing together people of all sorts and in the process exacerbating their inevitable social conflicts.

*Third Avenue Elevated

*Third Avenue Elevated. Section of Manhattan’s earliest rail transit system, the Third Avenue Line, before the advent of subways in the twentieth century. March rides this train regularly, and it gives him the opportunity to observe the variety of New York life and realize that on Manhattan’s East Side his own dominant Anglo-Saxon stock is actually a minority among a swarm of diverse immigrants. The author first presents March as enjoying the picturesque view but thinking little about the hopes, fears, and sufferings of the people he studies. Only gradually does he become aware of the potentially destructive forces at work in the teeming streets.

*Union Square

*Union Square. Park bounded by Fourteenth and Seventeenth Streets and by Broadway and Park Avenues, in lower Manhattan. Here labor and radical groups tend to gather, and stump orators present their views to passersby. In this area the activities of striking streetcar workers lead to violence in which Conrad Dryfoos, the publisher’s idealistic son, is killed and the equally idealistic but more excitable Lindau is clubbed by a policeman. This area serves as the focus of the conflict, previously little understood either by March or Dryfoos, that brings home one “hazard” that the possessors of the “new fortunes” face: the resentment of oppressed laborers who have been inflamed by Lindau and his radical kindred spirits.

*Washington Square

*Washington Square. Another public park in lower Manhattan, a retreat for fashionable folk but now also for New York’s growing Italian population. The Marches often sit in the park and observe those who congregate there. These visits demonstrate the limited extent of their contact with less privileged New Yorkers.

*Greenwich Village

*Greenwich Village (GREH-nich). Residential section of Lower Manhattan. While wandering through the streets of the adjacent Greenwich Village, March again fails to see poverty’s warning signals. Here, in Lindau’s neighborhood, March talks to a young boy who has listened to the socialist’s declamations but fails to understand the extent to which they have influenced even this boy.

*Madison Avenue

*Madison Avenue. Street that is not yet the center of New York commercial life but an avenue of elegant houses interspersed with prospering shops. When the Marches walk here, they are led to question the dullness of material civilization. March prefers shabby Greenwich Village as more vital and colorful but again cannot, prior to the climactic violence of the streetcar strike, grasp the implications of vast economic disparities in neighborhoods in close proximity to one another.

BibliographyCady, Edwin H. The Realist at War: The Mature Years, 1885-1920. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1958. An excellent source of autobiographical criticism. Traces parallels between Howells and Basil March. Uses events in Howells’ life to explain his fictional choices in this period.Crowley, John W. “Howells in the Eighties: A Review of Criticism.” Emerson Society Quarterly: A Journal of the American Renaissance 32, no. 4 (1986): 253-277; 33, no. 1 (1987): 45-65. A fairly extensive annotated checklist of Howells’ criticism published between 1979 and 1986.Kaplan, Ann. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. An insightful study of representations of class within American realism. Includes a lengthy chapter about A Hazard of New Fortunes that examines the roles of the city and social difference in the novel.Nettels, Elsa. Language, Race, and Social Class in Howells’ America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Examines Howells’ use of dialect and vernacular as markers of class and ethnicity. Analysis of the speech patterns of Lindau, Madison Woodburn, and the Dryfoos family are included.Taylor, Walter F. “William Dean Howells and the Economic Novel.” In Critics on William Dean Howells, edited by Paul A. Eschholz. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1975. An early analysis of the novel and its economic implications. Contains a bibliography of other economic critiques.
Categories: Places