The World Of Chance – William Dean Howells
In ‘A Hazard of New Fortunes’ Mr. Howells took for his hero the editor of a New York magazine. In ‘The World of Chance’ the leading character is a young journalist of Midland, a town indefinitely located a day’s journey west of New York City. He goes to the metropolis with the manuscript of his first novel, “A Modern Romeo,” in his pocket. The adventures of this manuscript, making its way from publisher to publisher, and finally returning to the first one, who had wished to publish it despite the adverse opinions expressed by all his “readers,” are of extreme interest. The book is finally issued by Mr. Brandreth, of the Chapley firm, as an almost desperate attempt to retrieve the fortunes of the house. In the two critical points for the author – the acceptance of his manuscript and the first important review of it – chance here plays the leading part. The leading characters of the book comment repeatedly on the apparent importance of mere luck in such matters. But the insistence of the book is upon the extremely large part which apparent luck, and luck only, plays in the literary world. It can hardly be said, however, by anyone who is well acquainted with these matters from the standpoint of the publisher or the author of experience, that Mr. Howells has greatly exaggerated the element of fortune in the case of authors who have their reputation to make. What it is that makes a book sell ; why, when it has reached a certain large sale, it stops just where it does; and will sell no longer ; and why the shrewdest publishers are again and again mistaken in their opinions, favorable or adverse to a manuscript – all these things are mysterious indeed. Mr. Howells does not write as a practical moralist but there is a very large audience waiting for ‘The World of Chance’, consisting of would- be authors, who will probably learn the force of some very hard and disagreeable facts in the matter of publishing, and take home the moral to themselves with much more thoroughness from a novel like this than from volumes of advice by publishers or authors of experience The socialistic element which has been so prominent in Mr. Howells’ works before is seen here in the Hughes family – the four members of which offer as many careful studies in character of a typical reformer’s family. Mr. Howells appears to have turned at length from the discipleship of Tolstoy, Bellamy and other social reformers. ‘The World of Chance’ is in many ways one of the most thoroughly interesting of Mr. Howells’ novels, as well as one of the best written.
The World Of Chance.
Excerpt from the text:
From the club where the farewell dinner was given him, Ray went to the depot of the East & West Railroad with a friend of his own age, and they walked up and down the platform talking of their lives and their loves, as young men do, till they both at once found themselves suddenly very drowsy. They each pretended not to be so; his friend made a show of not meaning to leave him till the through express should come along at two o’clock and pick up the sleeping-car waiting for it on the side track; and Ray feigned that he had no desire to turn in, but would much rather keep walking and talking.
They got rid of each other at last, and Ray hurried aboard his sleeper, and plunged into his berth as soon as he could get his coat and boots off. Then he found himself very wakeful. The soporific first effect of the champagne had passed, but it still sent the blood thumping in his neck and pounding in his ears as he lay smiling and thinking of the honor that had been done him, and the affection that had been shown him by his fellow-townsmen. In the reflected light of these the future stretched brightly before him. He scarcely felt it a hardship any more that he should be forced to leave Midland by the business change which had thrown him out of his place on the Midland Echo, and he certainly did not envy the friend who had just parted from him, and who was going to remain with the new owners. His mind kept, in spite of him, a sort of grudge toward the Hanks Brothers who had bought the paper, and who had thought they must reduce the editorial force as a first step towards making the property pay. He could not say that they had treated him unfairly or unkindly; they had been very frank and very considerate with him; but he could not conceal from himself the probability that if they had really appreciated him they would have seen that it would be a measure of the highest wisdom to keep him. He had given the paper standing and authority in certain matters; he knew that; and he smiled to think of Joe Hanks conducting his department. He hoped the estimation in which the dinner showed that his fellow-citizens held him, had done something to open the eyes of the brothers to the mistake they had made; they were all three at the dinner, and Martin Hanks had made a speech expressive of regard and regret which did not reconcile Ray to them. He now tried to see them as benefactors in disguise, and when he recalled the words of people who said that they always thought he was thrown away on a daily paper, he was willing to acknowledge that the Hankses had probably, at least, not done him an injury. He had often been sensible himself of a sort of incongruity in using up in ephemeral paragraphs, and even leading articles, the mind-stuff of a man who had published poems in the Century Bric-à-brac and Harper’s Drawer, and had for several years had a story accepted by the Atlantic, though not yet printed. With the manuscript of the novel which he was carrying to New York, and the four or five hundred dollars he had saved from his salary, he felt that he need not undertake newspaper work at once again. He meant to make a thorough failure of literature first. There would be time enough then to fall back upon journalism, as he could always do.
He counted a good deal upon his novel in certain moods. He knew it had weak points which he was not able to strengthen because he was too ignorant of life, though he hated to own it; but he thought it had some strong ones too; and he believed it would succeed if he could get a publisher for it.
He had read passages of it to his friend, and Sanderson had praised them. Ray knew he had not entered fully into the spirit of the thing, because he was merely and helplessly a newspaper mind, though since Ray had left the Echo, Sanderson had talked of leaving it too, and going on to devote himself to literature in New York. Ray knew he would fail, but he encouraged him because he was so fond of him; he thought now what a good, faithful fellow Sanderson was. Sanderson not only praised the novel to its author, but he celebrated it to the young ladies. They all knew that Ray had written it, and several of them spoke to him about it; they said they were just dying to see it. One of them had seen it, and when he asked her what she thought of his novel, in the pretense that he did not imagine she had looked at the manuscript, it galled him a little to have her say that it was like Thackeray; he knew he had imitated Thackeray, but he feigned that he did not know; and he hoped no one else would see it. She recognized traits that he had drawn from himself, and he did not like that, either; in the same way that he feigned not to know that he had imitated Thackeray, he feigned not to know that he had drawn his own likeness. But the sum of what she said gave him great faith in himself, and in his novel. He theorized that if its subtleties of thought and its flavors of style pleased a girl like her, and at the same time a fellow like Sanderson was taken with the plot, he had got the two essentials of success in it. He thought how delicately charming that girl was; still he knew that he was not in love with her. He thought how nice girls were, anyway; there were lots of perfectly delightful girls in Midland, and he should probably have fallen in love with some of them if it had not been for that long passion of his early youth, which seemed to have vastated him before he came there. He was rather proud of his vastation, and he found it not only fine, but upon the whole very convenient, to be going away heart-free.
He had no embarrassing ties, no hindering obligations of any kind. He had no one but himself to look out for in seeking his fortune. His father, after long years of struggle, was very well placed in the little country town which Ray had come from to Midland; his brothers had struck out for themselves farther west; one of his sisters was going to be married; the other was at school. None of them needed his help,” or was in anywise dependent upon him. He realized, in thinking of it all, that he was a very lucky fellow; and he was not afraid, but he should get on if he kept trying, and if he did his best, the chances were that it would be found out. He lay in his berth, with a hopeful and flattered smile on his lips, and listened to the noises of the station: the feet on the platforms; the voices, as from some disembodied life; the clang of engine bells; the jar and clash and rumble of the trains that came and went, with a creaking and squealing of their slowing or starting wheels, while his sleeper was quietly side-tracked, waiting for the express to arrive and pick it up. He felt a sort of slight for the town he was to leave behind; a sort of contemptuous fondness; for though it was not New York, it had used him well; it had appreciated him, and Ray was not ungrateful. Upon the whole, he was glad that he had agreed to write those letters from New York which the Hanks Brothers had finally asked him to do for the Echo. He knew that they had asked him under a pressure of public sentiment, and because they had got it through them at last that other people thought he would be a loss to the paper. He liked well enough the notion of keeping the readers of the Echo in mind of him; if he failed to capture New York, Midland would always be a good point to fall back upon. He expected his novel to succeed, and then he should be independent. But till then, the five dollars a week which the Hanks Brothers proposed to pay him for his letters would be very convenient, though the sum was despicable in itself. Besides, he could give up the letters whenever he liked. He had his dreams of fame and wealth, but he knew very well that they were dreams, and he was not going to kick over his basket of glass till they had become realities.
A keen ray from one of the electric moons depending from the black roof of the depot suddenly pierced his window at the side of his drawn curtain; and he felt the car jolted backward. He must have been drowsing, for the express had come in unknown to him, and was picking up his sleeper. With a faint thrill of homesickness for the kindly town he was leaving, he felt the train pull forward and so out of its winking lamps into the night. He held his curtain aside to see the last of these lights. Then, with a luxurious sense of helplessness against fate, he let it fall; and Midland slipped back into the irrevocable past.
The next evening, under a rich, mild October sky, the train drew in towards New York over a long stretch of trestlework spanning a New Jersey estuary. Ray had thriftily left bis sleeper at the station where he breakfasted, and saved the expense of it for the day’s journey by taking an ordinary car. He could be free with his dollars when he did not suppose he might need them; but he thought he should be a fool to throw one of them away on the mere self-indulgence of a sleeper through to New York, when he had no use for it more than halfway. He experienced the reward of virtue in the satisfaction he felt at having that dollar still in his pocket; and he amused himself very well in making romances about the people who got on and off at different points throughout the day. He read a good deal in a book he had brought with him, and imagined a review of it. He talked with passengers who shared his seat with him, from time to time. He ate ravenously at the station where the train stopped twenty minutes for dinner, and he took little supernumerary naps during the course of the afternoon, and pieced out the broken and abbreviated slumbers of the night From the last of these naps he woke with a sort of formless alarm, which he identified presently as the anxiety he must naturally feel at drawing so near the great, strange city which had his future in keeping. He was not so hopeful as he was when he left Midland; but he knew he had really no more cause now than he had then for being less so.
The train was at a station. Before it started, a brakeman came in and called out in a voice of formal warning: “This train express to Jersey City. Passengers for way stations change cars. This train does not stop between here and Jersey City.”
He went out and shut the door behind him, and at the same time a young woman with a baby in her arms jumped from her seat and called out, ” Oh, dear, what did he say? “
Another young woman, with another baby in her arms, rose and looked round, but she did not say anything. She had the place in front of the first, and their two seats were faced, as if the two young women were travelling together. Ray noted, with the interest that he felt in all young women as the elements both of love and of literature, that they looked a good deal alike, as to complexion and feature. The distraction of the one who rose first seemed to communicate itself to her dull, golden-brown hair, and make a wisp of it come loose from the knot at the back of her head, and stick out at one side. The child in her arms was fretful, and she did not cease to move it to and fro and up and down, even in the panic which brought her to her feet. Her demand was launched at the whole earful of passengers, but one old man answered for all:
” He said, this train doesn’t stop till it gets to Jersey City.”
The young woman said, ” Oh! ” and she and the other sat down again, and she stretched across the fretful child which clung to her, and tried to open her window. She could not raise it, and the old man who had answered her question lifted it for her. Then she sank back in her seat, and her sister, if it was her sister, leaned forward, and seemed to whisper to her. She put up her hand and thrust the loosened wisp of her hair back into the knot. To do this she gave the child the pocketbook which she seemed to have been holding, and she did not take it away again. The child stopped fretting, and began to pull at its plaything to get it open; then it made aimless dabs with it at the back of the car seat and at its mother’s face. She moved her head patiently from side to side to escape the blows; and the child entered with more zest into the sport, and began to laugh and strike harder. Suddenly, mid-way of the long trestlework, the child turned towards the window and made a dab at the sail of a passing sloop. The pocketbook flew from its hand, and the mother sprang to her feet again with a wail that filled the car.
” Oh, what shall I do! He’s thrown my pocketbook out of the window, and it’s got every cent of my money in it. Oh, couldn’t they stop the train? “
The child began to cry. The passengers all looked out of the windows on that side of the aisle; and Ray could see the pocketbook drifting by in the water. A brakeman whom the young woman’s lamentation had called to the rescue, passed through the car with a face of sarcastic compassion, and spoke to the conductor entering from the other end. The conductor shook his head; the train kept moving slowly on. Of course it was impossible and useless to stop. The young women leaned forward and talked anxiously together, as Ray could see from his distant seat; they gave the conductor their tickets, and explained to him what had happened; he only shook his head again.
When he came to get Ray’s ticket, the young fellow tried to find out something about them from him.
” Yes, I guess she told the truth. She had all her money, ten dollars and some change, in that pocketbook, and of course she gave it to her baby to play with right by an open window. Just like a woman! They’re just about as Jit as babies to handle money. If they had to earn it, they’d be different. Some poor fellow’s week’s work was in that pocketbook, like as not. They don’t look like the sort that would have a great deal of money to throw out of the window, if they were men.”
” Do you know where they’re going? ” Ray asked. ” Are they going on any further? “
” Oh, no. They live in New York. ‘Way up on the East Side somewhere.”
” But how will they get there with those two babies? They can’t walk.”
The conductor shrugged. “Guess they’ll have to try it.”
” Look here! ” said Ray. He took a dollar note out of his pocket, and gave it to the conductor. ” Find out whether they’ve got any change, and if they haven’t, tell them one of the passengers wanted them to take this for car fares. Don’t tell them which one.”
” All right,” said the conductor.
He passed into the next car. When he came back Ray saw him stop and parley with the young women. He went through the whole train again before he stopped for a final word with Ray, who felt that he had entered into the poetry of his intentions towards the women, and had made these delays and detours of purpose. He bent over Ray with a detached and casual air, and said:
” Every cent they had was in that pocket-book. Only wonder is they hadn’t their tickets there, too. They didn’t want to take the dollar, but I guess they had to. They live ‘way up on Third Avenue about Hundred and First Street; and the one that gave her baby her money to hold looks all played out. They couldn’t have walked it. I told ’em the dollar was from a lady passenger. Seemed as if it would make it kind of easier for ’em.”
” Yes, that was right,” said Ray.