A Hazard Of New Fortunes – William Dean Howells
No one can complain that in this story Mr. Howells has taken his type from the commonplace. It is a study of life in New York, and the author has brought together such a gallery of odd and strongly differentiated characters as could perhaps be found in no other city on the continent, while the conditions and phases of social life represented are not less distinctive and peculiar. The Marches, it is true, are from Boston, but they serve the purpose of external points of observation, whence to note and sufficiently to emphasize those features of our city life which of necessity strike strangers and outsiders most forcibly and with the greatest freshness of suggestion. A new magazine is founded with the money of old Dryfoos, a “natural gas millionaire,” whose primary object is to give his son Conrad – a youth of saint-like character and dominant altruism – opportunity to become a businessman. The prime mover of the venture is Fulkerson, a true Western Yankee, if the phrase be allowable, whose engaging impudence, fluent slang, indomitable assurance, and substantial loyalty and goodness of heart are sure to make him as great a favorite with the reader as he is with all who know him in the story. The Marches, too, are fantastic, and nowhere has Mr. Howells better presented that peculiar American humor which finds motives for half-sarcastic jest and quip in even the most serious things, less out of lightness of heart than from an almost desperate conscious ness of hopeless incongruities and perplexities inherent in the general scheme. The picture is in itself a condemnation of and protest against that rank growth of naked materialism which is the most depressing feature of our time. The character and the faults of society are shown plainly but temperately – the spirit of levity, the love of spectacle, the repugnance to serious thinking, the absence of jealousy of popular rights, constantly encroached upon, ignored and subordinated to selfish corporate or individual interests. The aspects of the city are also most graphically and admirably described in many a wandering of the Marches, and the book exhibits an amount of local study undertaken by the author which speaks well for his conscientiousness, and adds much to the charm and permanent interest of the story. There is, as we have intimated, an unwonted variety and an unwonted force in ” A Hazard of New Fortunes.” If it can hardly be said to have a dominant note, it is none the less a faithful and carefully elaborated study of New York life, and it presents some of the most salient characteristics of that life in a very impressive and artistic manner. Most readers will, we think, agree with us that the change in method here shown is a change for the better. Never, certainly, has Mr. Howells written more brilliantly, more clearly, more firmly, or more attractively, than in this instance. The reversion to these strong individualizations seems to have put new vigor into his hands, and he deals with the deeper tragedies, the graver emotions of life, with a power which may perhaps be regarded as a practical demonstration of the ultimate supremacy destined to be attained by Nature over Art ; by the true over the false Realism.
A Hazard Of New Fortunes.
Excerpt from the text:
“Now, you think this thing over, March, and let me know the last of next week,” said Fulkerson. He got up from the chair which he had been sitting astride, with his face to its back, and tilting toward March on its hind-legs, and came and rapped upon his table with his thin bamboo stick. “What you want to do is to get out of the insurance business, anyway. You acknowledge that yourself. You never liked it, and now it makes you sick; in other words, it’s killing you. You ain’t an insurance man by nature. You’re a natural-born literary man, and you’ve been going against the grain. Now, I offer you a chance to go with the grain. I don’t say you’re going to make your everlasting fortune, but I’ll give you a living salary, and if the thing succeeds you’ll share in its success. We’ll all share in its success. That’s the beauty of it. I tell you, March, this is the greatest idea that has been struck since”—Fulkerson stopped and searched his mind for a fit image—“since the creation of man.”
He put his leg up over the corner of March’s table and gave himself a sharp cut on the thigh, and leaned forward to get the full effect of his words upon his listener.
March had his hands clasped together behind his head, and he took one of them down long enough to put his inkstand and mucilage-bottle out of Fulkerson’s way. After many years’ experiment of a mustache and whiskers, he now wore his grizzled beard full, but cropped close; it gave him a certain grimness, corrected by the gentleness of his eyes.
“Some people don’t think much of the creation of man nowadays. Why stop at that? Why not say since the morning stars sang together?”
“No, sir; no, sir! I don’t want to claim too much, and I draw the line at the creation of man. I’m satisfied with that. But if you want to ring the morning stars into the prospectus all right; I won’t go back on you.”
“But I don’t understand why you’ve set your mind on me,” March said. “I haven’t had, any magazine experience, you know that; and I haven’t seriously attempted to do anything in literature since I was married. I gave up smoking and the Muse together. I suppose I could still manage a cigar, but I don’t believe I could—”
“Muse worth a cent.” Fulkerson took the thought out of his mouth and put it into his own words. “I know. Well, I don’t want you to. I don’t care if you never write a line for the thing, though you needn’t reject anything of yours, if it happens to be good, on that account. And I don’t want much experience in my editor; rather not have it. You told me, didn’t you, that you used to do some newspaper work before you settled down?”
“Yes; I thought my lines were permanently cast in those places once. It was more an accident than anything else that I got into the insurance business. I suppose I secretly hoped that if I made my living by something utterly different, I could come more freshly to literature proper in my leisure.”
“I see; and you found the insurance business too many, for you. Well, anyway, you’ve always had a hankering for the inkpots; and the fact that you first gave me the idea of this thing shows that you’ve done more or less thinking about magazines.”
“Well, all right. Now don’t you be troubled. I know what I want, generally, speaking, and in this particular instance I want you. I might get a man of more experience, but I should probably get a man of more prejudice and self-conceit along with him, and a man with a following of the literary hangers-on that are sure to get round an editor sooner or later. I want to start fair, and I’ve found out in the syndicate business all the men that are worth having. But they know me, and they don’t know you, and that’s where we shall have the pull on them. They won’t be able to work the thing. Don’t you be anxious about the experience. I’ve got experience enough of my own to run a dozen editors. What I want is an editor who has taste, and you’ve got it; and conscience, and you’ve got it; and horse sense, and you’ve got that. And I like you because you’re a Western man, and I’m another. I do cotton to a Western man when I find him off East here, holding his own with the best of ’em, and showing ’em that he’s just as much civilized as they are. We both know what it is to have our bright home in the setting sun; heigh?”
“I think we Western men who’ve come East are apt to take ourselves a little too objectively and to feel ourselves rather more representative than we need,” March remarked.
Fulkerson was delighted. “You’ve hit it! We do! We are!”
“And as for holding my own, I’m not very proud of what I’ve done in that way; it’s been very little to hold. But I know what you mean, Fulkerson, and I’ve felt the same thing myself; it warmed me toward you when we first met. I can’t help suffusing a little to any man when I hear that he was born on the other side of the Alleghanies. It’s perfectly stupid. I despise the same thing when I see it in Boston people.”
Fulkerson pulled first one of his blond whiskers and then the other, and twisted the end of each into a point, which he left to untwine itself. He fixed March with his little eyes, which had a curious innocence in their cunning, and tapped the desk immediately in front of him. “What I like about you is that you’re broad in your sympathies. The first time I saw you, that night on the Quebec boat, I said to myself: ‘There’s a man I want to know. There’s a human being.’ I was a little afraid of Mrs. March and the children, but I felt at home with you—thoroughly domesticated—before I passed a word with you; and when you spoke first, and opened up with a joke over that fellow’s tableful of light literature and Indian moccasins and birch-bark toy canoes and stereoscopic views, I knew that we were brothers—spiritual twins. I recognized the Western style of fun, and I thought, when you said you were from Boston, that it was some of the same. But I see now that its being a cold fact, as far as the last fifteen or twenty years count, is just so much gain. You know both sections, and you can make this thing go, from ocean to ocean.”
“We might ring that into the prospectus, too,” March suggested, with a smile. “You might call the thing ‘From Sea to Sea.’ By-the-way, what are you going to call it?”
“I haven’t decided yet; that’s one of the things I wanted to talk with you about. I had thought of ‘The Syndicate’; but it sounds kind of dry, and doesn’t seem to cover the ground exactly. I should like something that would express the co-operative character of the thing, but I don’t know as I can get it.”
“Might call it ‘The Mutual’.”
“They’d think it was an insurance paper. No, that won’t do. But Mutual comes pretty near the idea. If we could get something like that, it would pique curiosity; and then if we could get paragraphs afloat explaining that the contributors were to be paid according to the sales, it would be a first-rate ad.”
He bent a wide, anxious, inquiring smile upon March, who suggested, lazily: “You might call it ‘The Round-Robin’. That would express the central idea of irresponsibility. As I understand, everybody is to share the profits and be exempt from the losses. Or, if I’m wrong, and the reverse is true, you might call it ‘The Army of Martyrs’. Come, that sounds attractive, Fulkerson! Or what do you think of ‘The Fifth Wheel’? That would forestall the criticism that there are too many literary periodicals already. Or, if you want to put forward the idea of complete independence, you could call it ‘The Free Lance’; or—”
“Or ‘The Hog on Ice’—either stand up or fall down, you know,” Fulkerson broke in coarsely. “But we’ll leave the name of the magazine till we get the editor. I see the poison’s beginning to work in you, March; and if I had time I’d leave the result to time. But I haven’t. I’ve got to know inside of the next week. To come down to business with you, March, I sha’n’t start this thing unless I can get you to take hold of it.”
He seemed to expect some acknowledgment, and March said, “Well, that’s very nice of you, Fulkerson.”
“No, sir; no, sir! I’ve always liked you and wanted you ever since we met that first night. I had this thing inchoately in my mind then, when I was telling you about the newspaper syndicate business—beautiful vision of a lot of literary fellows breaking loose from the bondage of publishers and playing it alone—”
“You might call it ‘The Lone Hand’; that would be attractive,” March interrupted. “The whole West would know what you meant.”
Fulkerson was talking seriously, and March was listening seriously; but they both broke off and laughed. Fulkerson got down off the table and made some turns about the room. It was growing late; the October sun had left the top of the tall windows; it was still clear day, but it would soon be twilight; they had been talking a long time. Fulkerson came and stood with his little feet wide apart, and bent his little lean, square face on March. “See here! How much do you get out of this thing here, anyway?”
“The insurance business?” March hesitated a moment and then said, with a certain effort of reserve, “At present about three thousand.” He looked up at Fulkerson with a glance, as if he had a mind to enlarge upon the fact, and then dropped his eyes without saying more.
Whether Fulkerson had not thought it so much or not, he said: “Well, I’ll give you thirty-five hundred. Come! And your chances in the success.”
“We won’t count the chances in the success. And I don’t believe thirty-five hundred would go any further in New York than three thousand in Boston.”
“But you don’t live on three thousand here?”
“No; my wife has a little property.”
“Well, she won’t lose the income if you go to New York. I suppose you pay ten or twelve hundred a year for your house here. You can get plenty of flats in New York for the same money; and I understand you can get all sorts of provisions for less than you pay now—three or four cents on the pound. Come!”
This was by no means the first talk they had had about the matter; every three or four months during the past two years the syndicate man had dropped in upon March to air the scheme and to get his impressions of it. This had happened so often that it had come to be a sort of joke between them. But now Fulkerson clearly meant business, and March had a struggle to maintain himself in a firm poise of refusal.
“I dare say it wouldn’t—or it needn’t—cost so very much more, but I don’t want to go to New York; or my wife doesn’t. It’s the same thing.”
“A good deal samer,” Fulkerson admitted.
March did not quite like his candor, and he went on with dignity. “It’s very natural she shouldn’t. She has always lived in Boston; she’s attached to the place. Now, if you were going to start ‘The Fifth Wheel’ in Boston—”
Fulkerson slowly and sadly shook his head, but decidedly. “Wouldn’t do. You might as well say St. Louis or Cincinnati. There’s only one city that belongs to the whole country, and that’s New York.”
“Yes, I know,” sighed March; “and Boston belongs to the Bostonians, but they like you to make yourself at home while you’re visiting.”
“If you’ll agree to make phrases like that, right along, and get them into ‘The Round-Robin’ somehow, I’ll say four thousand,” said Fulkerson. “You think it over now, March. You talk it over with Mrs. March; I know you will, anyway; and I might as well make a virtue of advising you to do it. Tell her I advised you to do it, and you let me know before next Saturday what you’ve decided.”
March shut down the rolling top of his desk in the corner of the room, and walked Fulkerson out before him. It was so late that the last of the chore-women who washed down the marble halls and stairs of the great building had wrung out her floor-cloth and departed, leaving spotless stone and a clean, damp smell in the darkening corridors behind her.
“Couldn’t offer you such swell quarters in New York, March,” Fulkerson said, as he went tack-tacking down the steps with his small boot-heels. “But I’ve got my eye on a little house round in West Eleventh Street that I’m going to fit up for my bachelor’s hall in the third story, and adapt for ‘The Lone Hand’ in the first and second, if this thing goes through; and I guess we’ll be pretty comfortable. It’s right on the Sand Strip—no malaria of any kind.”
“I don’t know that I’m going to share its salubrity with you yet,” March sighed, in an obvious travail which gave Fulkerson hopes.
“Oh yes, you are,” he coaxed. “Now, you talk it over with your wife. You give her a fair, unprejudiced chance at the thing on its merits, and I’m very much mistaken in Mrs. March if she doesn’t tell you to go in and win. We’re bound to win!”
They stood on the outside steps of the vast edifice beetling like a granite crag above them, with the stone groups of an allegory of life-insurance foreshortened in the bas-relief overhead. March absently lifted his eyes to it. It was suddenly strange after so many years’ familiarity, and so was the well-known street in its Saturday-evening solitude. He asked himself, with prophetic homesickness, if it were an omen of what was to be. But he only said, musingly: “A fortnightly. You know that didn’t work in England. The fortnightly is published once a month now.”
“It works in France,” Fulkerson retorted. “The ‘Revue des Deux Mondes’ is still published twice a month. I guess we can make it work in America—with illustrations.”
“Going to have illustrations?”
“My dear boy! What are you giving me? Do I look like the sort of lunatic who would start a thing in the twilight of the nineteenth century without illustrations? Come off!”
“Ah, that complicates it! I don’t know anything about art.” March’s look of discouragement confessed the hold the scheme had taken upon him.
“I don’t want you to!” Fulkerson retorted. “Don’t you suppose I shall have an art man?”
“And will they—the artists—work at a reduced rate, too, like the writers, with the hopes of a share in the success?”
“Of course they will! And if I want any particular man, for a card, I’ll pay him big money besides. But I can get plenty of first-rate sketches on my own terms. You’ll see! They’ll pour in!”
“Look here, Fulkerson,” said March, “you’d better call this fortnightly of yours ‘The Madness of the Half-Moon’; or ‘Bedlam Broke Loose’ wouldn’t be bad! Why do you throw away all your hard earnings on such a crazy venture? Don’t do it!” The kindness which March had always felt, in spite of his wife’s first misgivings and reservations, for the merry, hopeful, slangy, energetic little creature trembled in his voice. They had both formed a friendship for Fulkerson during the week they were together in Quebec. When he was not working the newspapers there, he went about with them over the familiar ground they were showing their children, and was simply grateful for the chance, as well as very entertaining about it all. The children liked him, too; when they got the clew to his intention, and found that he was not quite serious in many of the things he said, they thought he was great fun. They were always glad when their father brought him home on the occasion of Fulkerson’s visits to Boston; and Mrs. March, though of a charier hospitality, welcomed Fulkerson with a grateful sense of his admiration for her husband. He had a way of treating March with deference, as an older and abler man, and of qualifying the freedom he used toward every one with an implication that March tolerated it voluntarily, which she thought very sweet and even refined.