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Entries in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1)


A Hazard of New York

Fifth Avenue, 1891Howells' complex, multi-voiced, and sprawling (yes, definitely sprawling) novel is considered the first novel about New York City, the first novel that tries to make the city a character in the fiction, something almost every New York novelist since Howells has tried to do. Yes, there had been a few New York novels published before this big one.

Just three, to be exact:


  1. 1809. Washington Irving's A History Of New York From The Beginning Of The World To The End Of The Dutch Dynasty, a dense, even opaque, long-winded satire of the town's history, politics, and insider society--not so much a novel as a novelized (thus, fictionalized) history. Irving sold the book to the public by sheer flimflam. He claimed a noted, crusty, Dutch historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had gone missing from his hotel room and left behind a manuscript which he, Irving, would publish if the man did not return to pay his debts. A man-hunt got underway, people became obsessed with the story of a local disappearance, Irving finally published the book, it was an instant best-seller, and Irving himself became something of a celebrity when the ruse was revealed.
  2. 1867. Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, first sold as a series of twelve installments about the rise to middle-class respectability of an innocent, hard-working bootblack, then later sold together as a novel. Alger's story was an instant hit with post-Civil War America, the country's reconstruction written as urban (even New York) mythology. Its setting, Manhattan, added the grime to this tale of capitalist success.
  3. 1880. Henry James's Washington Square, the small, spare novel about the simple-minded Catherine Sloper, her conniving and idiotic aunt, and her overbearing (most would say "abusive") father, a physician of some repute. (Washington Square was one of the first novels we read in this group.) It's a lurid tale of innocence lost and the ultimate "victory" to be found in suffering; most readers would not readily identify the story with New York City per se, although a townhouse on the famous park is its setting. James could just as easily have set the tale in London.


New York City, 1890And thus runs out out tale of novels set in New York before Howells went to work. Although the city was already the nation's largest, although it held most of the nation's capital, and although it was fast becoming the glaring experiment of the "huddled masses yearning to be free" writ large, it remained outside--or perhaps "beneath"--the notice of most of the writerly (and artistic) class until the very end of the nineteenth century. Everybody else was writing about Boston, about San Francisco, about New Orleans, about Charleston. Or having decided that the American scene was already exhausted, they were setting sail by the droves for Europe to write about the Old World clashing with the New, or vice versa. What they missed was right under their noses. What they missed was the very place their books were being published.

Lower East Side tenement, 1890So what Howells undertakes is what no one else has tried to do: to write the city. Yes, he fails in many ways. But where he succeeds, he succeeds brilliantly. The tropes and scenes he set are today's clichés. Everybody knows about the street-by-street economics of the city. Everybody knows about the intensity of the city's poverty--and the insularity of its wealth. Everybody knows about the crowds. Everybody knows about the filth. The bare-knuckle capitalism. The brawling ethnic strife. The publishing business. The nouveau riche among the Dutch dynasties. The quixotic quality of the meteoric rise of some. The tragedy contained within the shining economic success. 

The El on the Bowery, 1891. (Notice that the El was driven by steam engines!)We know these things because Howells wrote them. Today, he's a forgotten novelist, solidly in the terrain of English majors and scholars. But he was one of the most influential writers (and editors) of his day. He shaped the discourse of American literature for decades to come. And this book, A Hazard of New Fortunes, shaped the way writers of all types, novelists and screenwriters, essayists and playwrights, have thought and talked and imagined the city ever since. It's because Howells created this initial vision; he laid down the rules of the game. From there, writing about New York has ever since been "merely" a rearrangement of the big box of jigsaw puzzle pieces he cut out and poured onto the table--and then tried to put together. Whether and how and in what ways he succeeded will form the backbone of our discussion at book group.