Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Hazard of New Fortunes

At one time, William Dean Howells was considered one of the big guns of 19th C American Lit - up there with Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, etc. But (based on my research, i.e. reading the afterword to A Hazard of New Fortunes) his reputation seems to have taken a serious hit sometime after the rise of modernism and the kind of novels he wrote aren't that fashionable in lit-fic circles. I don't think too many people nowadays are familiar with his work, which is too bad, IMHO.

Anyway, here are some things I liked about the book, along with some half-assed speculations/generalizations about why Howells's star has faded:

1. The "Journalistic" Aspect - Probably the most striking/coolest thing about the book from the perspective of a resident of 21st C New York City is the picture it paints of late 19th C New York City life. For instance, there's a relatively large section in the early part of the book that is all about the problems of finding a suitable NYC apartment - it was very neat to compare what has changed (which neighborhoods were considered good) with what hasn't (finding an apartment is a pain in the ass). There's also lots of great stuff about how the relatively new Elevated Train changed the way people lived their lives (not to mention another chunk of the book that deals with early transit worker strikes).

One of my big beefs with modernist & post-modernist novelists is that, for the most part, they've given up on this journalistic/documentarian aspect of the novel. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" tries to convey a sense of what day-to-day life was like, in a very matter-of-fact, laid-back manner.

I think the journalistic aspect has faded for two major reasons: One, modernist and post-modernist novels seem to be much more focused on issues of Identity. Take Philip Roth's "Zuckerman Unbound" (chosen because this is one of my favorite novels, so I feel that I am allowed to pick on it a little): lots of stuff about what it means to be Jewish (of a contempo, secular bent) and what it means to be a writer who has taken his Jewishness as a subject but virtually nothing on what it is like to live in NYC during the 1960s. Not that Roth is under any obligation to provide any "documentary details", but when every novel becomes, essentially, What It Means to Be Me, lit-fic (as a whole) becomes dangerously close to being swallowed up by solipsistic quicksand. Two, I wonder if narrative film & TV have somewhat displaced the novel in this regard. That's a bigger, sociological question that I am completely unprepared to answer, though.

2. The Characters - Of course I enjoy reading about characters that I can "identify with", but I also really like it when I'm reading an older novel and come across characters I can identify from my life. For instance, one of the main characters in the book is an artist living the NYC bohemian lifestyle while being supported by his father (a laborer from Upstate): I can easily imagine a lot of the parent-supported bohemians that I know making the same kind of rationalizations that Howells's artist character does.

3. No Big Deal - Compared to the other 19th C American Lit I've read, Howells's books are pretty low key: they aren't epics or huge tragedies or searing indictments of anything. They're much more modest and operate on a very down-to-earth level. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" doesn't go after a Big Theme and, if it can be honestly said to be "About" anything (in the sense that students write papers about
how a novel is "about" something) it's about what life was like in NYC at the end of the 19th C and, somewhat more specifically, about how the economic realities of 19th C America shaped NYC society. But it goes about its business in a fairly unfocused manner. Howells isn't interested in the Great Capitalized Themes: Love, Death, Honor, Revolution, Evil, Progress, etc. Or rather, he's not interested in capitalizing any of these themes - they're all there, floating around, but none ever threatens to take over the book.

I think, to a certain extent, we overvalue Big, Searing, Great Novels and undervalue novels that might be just as good, but keep a much lower profile. Not that there's anything wrong with Big, Searing, Great Novels, but variety being the spice of life and all that. (By "we" here, I might mean "Americans", as it seems the Brits, for
example, have done a pretty good job of honoring lower-key, "domestic" authors, like Trollope, for instance).

1 comment:

miriam said...

I read a couple of his novels and found them quite enjoyable. Sometimes writers who are not quite immortal are quite good fun.