The last decades of the nineteenth century are notable as a time of great social unrest, giving rise to the first national strike - the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 - and its ensuing riots as well as the Haymarket Square Riot of 1886 and the great Pullman strike of 1894. As labor was increasingly pitted against capital, and strikes and talk of strikes gripped the national consciousness, authors and critics began to reimagine the ends to which relationships structure in brotherhood could be deployed in response to these uncertain times. The literary enterprise embarked upon by the men of William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes, through its egalitarian goals, represents one early utopian effort to restructure bonds around the thematic of brotherhood in the midst of great social upheaval. The talk begins with Howells's 1890 novel, follows Howells's involvement in the Nationalist movement initiated by Edward Bellamy's incredibly successful utopian novel Looking Backward, and then focuses on Howells's own utopian imaginings about the possibility of universal brotherhood in his Altrurian romances. I conclude with an article penned by William Dean Howells for The Century Magazine in 1896 entitled "Who Are Our Brethren?" In this essay, Howells challenges unsuccessful conceptions of brotherhood and offers "supernatural" brotherhood as a solution - one which appears more likely of success given its own ability to mirror larger societal changes coincident with the rise of capitalism.
A Hazard of New Fortunes begins rather optimistically with the promise that the literary magazine for which Fulkerson has secured March as editor is to be run cooperatively. What follows, however, proceeds as an extended ironic commentary on the inability of these or any other men to successfully utilize brotherhood as a panacea to social and economic pressures: relationships become strained between all involved with the magazine, money interferes with the purported cooperative effort, and differing opinions toward labor and the strikers who populate the urban landscape of New York taint the possibility of successful fraternal relations. This novel, then, by highlighting the changing economic and social landscape of late nineteenth-century America, presents the problem of utopian enterprise and the need of new conceptions of brotherhood in response.
One possible response actually chronologically precedes A Hazard of New Fortunes: Edward Bellamy's best-selling 1887 novel Looking Backward. This novel, through its promulgation of universal human brotherhood in the service of the nation, promotes one possible solution to the economic and social unrest described in A Hazard of New Fortunes. Howells's interest in the movement spawned by this novel - the Nationalist movement - is important: not only did Howells suggest to Bellamy that clubs be formed to further his interests, but he later left the organization and went on to imagine his own utopian societies in the form of his A Traveller from Altruria, his "Letters of an Altrurian Traveller, I-V," and his Through the Eye of the Needle. Much of these works, meanwhile, set out to describe utopian constructs and conceptions of human radically different from Bellamy's earlier conception. My readings of these texts, however, will demonstrate the failure of both these texts and Bellamy's Looking Backward to imagine a truly viable form of universal human brotherhood. I conclude, therefore, with Howells's "Who Are Our Brethren?" and its assertion that we need "supernatural" forms of brotherhood instead of universal ones. By separating the institution of brotherhood from either biological models or larger universal ones, and instead insisting upon the importance of individual choice, "supernatural" brotherhood models itself upon the capitalist society it emerges in response to and therefore remains as the one remaining viable form.
This paper deals with The Home-Towners, the fragment of a novel by Howells recently published in El Escribano; it ends with the rejection of the protagonist's manuscript by an unseen editor (both figures being stand-ins for Howells himself). The manuscript, which dates from about 1916, suggests that even as he approached 80 years, Howells remained an astute critic of a fragmented American culture that limited the possibilities of a realistic fiction (not only his own) - and of cinema as well. He was certainly more prophetic that those who falsely accused him of complacency.
The Home-Towners relates to Howells' "problem novels," particularly The World of Chance and An Imperative Duty. Although a lynching provokes guilty fear in the protagonist, he wonders whether "these Negroes" were worth fighting for. Gender anxiety also become an issue, in that Rayburn's ill health and concomitant failure as a novelist may lead to dependence on the maternal figure whom he has patronized. John Crowley's recent book on Howells' late years, The Dean of American Letters, is cited, and relevant contrasts with James are drawn with respect to their cultural criticism.
Juxtaposing William Dean Howells's the Life of Abraham Lincoln
(1860) with The Minister's Charge (1886) and A Hazard of New
Fortunes (1890), I analyze Howells's disillusionment with universal
principles, his willingness to dispense with rugged individualism, and
his attempt to institutionalize an ethos of care and nourishment traditionally
associated with women. Early in the chapter, I deploy Habermas and
other social historians of bourgeois culture to show that Howells portrays
Lincoln as a humanitarian hero whose universal principles and sentimental
ethics are developed through participation in literary activities and civic
associations. While Howells's campaign biography helps to produce
the culture's "Lincoln ideal," his realist novels of the 1880s and 1890s,
skeptical of idealism of any stripe, evince his growing anxieties about
democratic citizenship and an ethos of communal compassion in the more
complex, increasingly anonymous social order. Writing with profound
consciousness of both cultural memories and emerging conditions, Howell
illustrates how the conscientious, bourgeois self loses cultural agency
and becomes identified with shame when universal principles no longer seem
to apply and sentimental ethics seem naive. As the post-bellum, urban
nation fails to create an open, collective democratic culture, "complicity,"
a term of confusing incoherence for Howells, replaces and connotes the
failure of sentimentalism's coherent ideology of human sympathy.
Still, especially in his representation of the Haymarket Affair in the
strike scene in Hazard, Howells rejects both the coercive ideology of social
control and the temptation to idealize humanitarian martyrdom found, for
instance, in Tolstoy and Stowe. Howells instead takes a middle way.
Indeed, while lifted up by interludes of comedy, Howellsian realism ultimately
offers a pessimistic diagnosis of modern society that emerges from and
marks his own continued commitments to tolerance and democratic compromise.
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