Social Trials in Howell’s A Hazard of New Fortunes
William Dean Howell’s book A Hazard of New Fortunes draws on the context of social injustice awareness, providing a glimpse of the society and the struggles among social classes from a seemingly realist’s perspective. What the book generally does is to portray the actuality of the things as the eyes can see them, depicting the persisting class struggles revolving around the lives of men.
By using the lives of three main characters, the book deeply emphasizes the contrasts of the lives of these three men: a social revolutionary, a self-made millionaire and a third character who appears as a mediator. There are numerous specific details in the book which gives it a large hint of a realist’s attitude or perception towards social injustice, specifically depicted on how one of the main characters, Basil March, “thought of the injustice of the New York press” (p. 200).
To start with, it should be important to note that Dryfoos’ character or personality embodies the typical capitalist engaged in money-making schemes through the use of manpower. This is seen to be made more obvious in the case of Fulkerson who had his eyes on March as the prospect of being a member of Dryfoos’ magazine.
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Although March has not had “any magazine experience (p. 2)”, Fulkerson is convinced that March is the man for the job, insisting the offer of “a chance to go with the grain” instead of “going against the grain” (p. 1). By this what Fulkerson is trying to imply is the idea that March has been trying “to get out of the insurance business” as it has been making him sick as he “never liked it” (p. 1).
This gives us the impression that there is an existing conflict between the ideals of March Basil and the ideals of an insurance scheme. Whatever this conflict may be in the context of the story, it is apparent that Basil has an aversive stand on insurance schemes and policies. And Basil’s aversion is perhaps the pivotal element which Fulkerson uses in order to get the attention of Basil and win him over his side.
It is equally important to note as well that Basil March appears to be on the neutral side, giving one the impression that he is the central point where the story revolves, developing a story line where March is balancing the odds of maintaining either an anti-slavery attitude and other similar socialist perspectives or a seemingly pro-slavery character where benefits include “a living salary” where all the staff will eventually “share in its success” (p. 1).
On the other hand, Berthold Lindau, who happens to be an old friend of March, is a socialist and a staunch abolitionist—one who strongly condemns and seeks the total removal of slavery—epitomizes the individual seeking to bring into light the oftentimes unnoticed social injustices and call the attention of people, especially those who are either aware or unaware that they are engaged in forms of slavery, even if it takes to personally come into contact with the propagators of slavery and root them out of their cause.
With regard to the decision of March concerning the proposal of Fulkerson, the earlier parts of the book tell us that external forces would have to come into play, creating a sort of a persuasion in order to bring about March’s ultimate decision.
One crucial passage in the book is when Basil March’s wife is convincing him to take Fulkerson’s offer since Basil “always wanted to get out of the insurance business (p. 29)”. As his wife tells him that he “mustn’t neglect” Fulkerson’s offer supposing that even if “it has its risks” nevertheless these risks are risks that will continue as they both do (p. 29).
Apparently, Basil decided to move to New York and do as his wife and Fulkerson have been insisting. It sends one the perception that although engaging into activities which have hints of capitalism has its real risks (such as abandoning a former life all for the name of a change promising (albeit unguaranteed) with benefits which were unattainable in the past, these risks must have been worth the while to take.
All these things denote the ‘struggle’ of Basil, the individual whose thoughts hang in the median of things lying at extreme ends. It brings into play the realist perspective of how social struggles come in many different forms, affecting people from all walks of life irrelevant of location. This trial dealt by Basil and his wife has its direct connection with the current situation of Basil and his wife in the social hierarchy and its corresponding ideals.
As things apparently went, “it was too bad to make her comfort him in a trial that was really so much more a trial to her (p. 38)”. They even had the trouble of looking for a place to formally stay in New York after they got there, something that “they could easily afford for the day or two…in looking up a furnished flat (p. 41)”, signaling the presumption that the promise of a better life away from ‘insurance’ was yet to be sought.
Lindau, on the other hand, had no problems regarding finding a place to stay since he “could probably find as cheap a lodging in some decenter part of the town (p. 187)”, perhaps living up to his very impression that “there was not equality of opportunity in America (p. 293)”. It can be observed that Basil March is also influenced in some way by the principles of Lindau.
More to the fact of being old friends, there is strong reason to believe that Lindau has incorporated into the mind of Basil quite a number of his principles as a socialist revolutionary, especially the part wherein Basil disgraces even the thought of insurance schemes.
The character of Lindau perhaps best depicts the lot of mankind who decisively and firmly went “against the grain (p. 1)”, treating social injustice more than an obstacle but the very foundation for changes in the society. And one of these changes includes the urge to abandon the old ways of living, especially the helm of ‘insurance’ companies.
Being a socialist himself struggling to publicize and condemn the many different manifestations of slavery, Lindau is keen to pronouncing “a disgrace to human nature (p. 334)”, subtly and, most of the time, obviously sending across his message of how humanity, especially in the larger part of America, has become so absorbed into the recesses of treating man more of as a commodity rather than a human being.
Yet this remorse against the current status of man in his society, the perils of condemning and abolishing the forces that belittle and abuse the workforce, would have to come at a price. Lindau was ordered to be fired out of work from the magazine as Dryfoos sees fit after Lindau said several things that were ‘offensive’, giving Dryfoos “a right to punish it (p. 356)”.
This instance essentially portrays the clash of ideals that struggle against one another in the hopes of sustaining one and displacing the other principle. Socialist and capitalist principles have always been under conflict, and rarely have they been under harmony assuming there has been one instance of it.
The clash of ideas between Dryfoos, Lindau, and Colonel Woodburn embodies the unceasing disparity between ideals that aim to propagate separate means to different ends. As the clash becomes more and more evident in the book, Basil March finds himself caught against the traffic of these ideals and principles: principles “against the slavery which Lindau claims still exists (p. 357), and the principles of Dryfoos who is “one of the foremost capitalists of the country (p. 284).
The context of the life of Dryfoos in the story narrates an individual whose life rests way beyond the lives of ordinary men, whose fortune exceeds his reputation. Although his reputation as a capitalist has been deeply etched into his name and reputation, it can nevertheless be observed that Dryfoos “had always had the potentiality of better things in him than he has ever been yet (p. 486).”
After the incident of the death of his own son and of Lindau, perhaps grief stricken, Lindau sold the ownership of his magazine Every Other Week “to the joint ownership of March and Fulkerson (p. 492)”.
This act implies the essence of ‘change’ where a person so entangled into the thought of capitalism still has the option to abandon the old ways and relieve one’s self of the burdens they bring given, perhaps, the fitting—especially life changing—and right circumstances.
On the other hand, March and Fulkerson now find themselves armed with task of handling the magazine sold to them being “publishers and proprietors” of Every Other Week (p. 483).
Especially for March, it can be presumed that he has now the capability to either decide whether to continue what Dryfoos began or abandon them and adopt the principles espoused by Lindau. It’s as if even after the death of a champion of a principle, his work is never undone and erased. Quite on the contrary, it continues only that it now hangs in the balance between what one desires to do and what one ought to do.
The fate of the magazine rests on the proprietorship of March and Fulkerson, whether they follow the things that they desire to do or not, or follow the things they ought to do or otherwise. With the feeling of being “bound to Mr. Fulkerson in every way (p. 482)”, it appears that March has yet to determine the principle that he will adopt.
In conclusion, Howell’s A Hazard of New Fortunes brings to light the circumstances under the social classes and the struggles they face in their lives through the story of Basil March, Lindau, Dryfoos and many others.
The book’s realist perspective allows one to have a closer look at the actual workings of capitalism, the lives of ordinary men caught against the struggle of social classes, and what appears to be the quest for what ought to be the situation of the whole society.
Howells, W. D. (2002). A Hazard of New Fortunes (Modern Lib ed.). New York: Modern