More on Hazard and Howells

One of the reasons, beyond my enthusiasm, that I wanted to write about A Hazard of New Fortunes and Howells this week is that the book I read was so different from what I expected.

Having heard my husband talk about it for years, I knew to expect a story about conflicting values in the Gilded Age. In fact, while this is the book’s climax and its central message, it’s not what dominates the first two-thirds. I knew, too, about the famous apartment-hunting scene (and I’d even read much of it), in which a middle-class family tries to find a place to live in Manhattan and is shocked at the high rents and pervasive squalor. I wasn’t particularly surprised to find myself more interested in some of the minor women characters than he was. (I’ll write more about these women tomorrow.) Two things did surprise me, however: the pervasiveness of the humor and the attention given to the setting—in the offices of a literary magazine.

The editorial meetings at Every Other Week, especially those just before the launch are so deliciously familiar and exhilarating. I have never worked on a glossy magazine, but I have worked for all kinds of ill-fated little periodicals and Howells (who was editor of The Atlantic after all) captures the mix of ambition, vision, and pragmatism of the early days. Everyone wants it to be totally new and different and no one can really think of much that’s all that different from what’s gone before. All the most thrilling and strange innovations turn, upon closer inspection, to be totally impractical and, in the end, the magazine is a really good version of what already exists.

Almost every scene with Beaton, the magazine’s artistic editor, is comic. A pretentious prodigal son (his father is a poor stonecutter in Syracuse), Beaton constantly finds excuses for not sending money home. My favorite scene has him morosely drinking Chianti in a restaurant, thinking that if he gave up drinking, he could send home three dollars a week. Two sentences later, he’s off with a scheme—if he switched to half-bottles and got the waiter to set aside what others leave behind, he might be able to send home two dollars. Of course, if he hadn’t bought that fur coat…

These two qualities of the novel—the powerful, insightful and humorous depiction of literary work and the humor overall—elevate it to a very high rank with me. I cannot figure out why its reputation is not higher than it is. When people describe Howells as a realist, reading him sounds like a chore. I expected to feel that I was getting a dutiful and dull snapshot of New York in the 1880s. Instead, I got a lively, funny insights. Why don’t people tell you this?

All of which brings me to a thought for another day about the experience of admiring—for totally different reasons—something a loved one also admires.