Study Guide

A Hazard of New Fortunes

by William Dean Howells

A Hazard of New Fortunes Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Using the execution of Chicago’s Haymarket anarchists, the Brooklyn trolley-car strike of 1889, and the legendary greed of the Gilded Age as backdrops, A Hazard of New Fortunes follows the struggles of fifteen major characters to establish a national magazine in New York City. These major characters, along with a substantial cast of minor ones, become a microcosm for Howells’s indictment of the American scramble for success.

In order to manage all the materials involved in this, his longest novel, Howells divided the book into five parts. In parts 1, 2, and 3, the characters involved with the magazine, Every Other Week, are introduced, and the process of interweaving their lives begins. Howells develops his characters through dramatic contrasts. The socialite Margaret Vance is contrasted with the rustic Dryfoos daughters, the newly rich entrepreneur and speculator Jacob Dryfoos is contrasted with his passive son Conrad, and the unreconstructed Confederate Colonel Woodburn is contrasted with the German revolutionary Lindau.

In the third part, the principal conflict underlying the story is introduced when Basil March, anticipating his first meeting with Jacob Dryfoos, experiences a “disagreeable feeling of being owned and of being about to be inspected by his proprietor.” The conflict latent in this type of employer-employee relationship erupts in the fourth part when March resigns as editor after Dryfoos demands that March’s friend Lindau be fired. At the end of the novel, the scene shifts to the New York streetcar street riot to show that the Dryfoos-March conflict is a microcosm of the conflicts inherent in American society as a...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

A Hazard of New Fortunes Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When he was young, Basil March wished for a literary career, but family responsibilities have led him to enter the insurance business, a field in which he has proven to be mediocre. After he has spent eighteen years with his firm, March’s employers decide to replace him and put him into a somewhat meaningless position. Rather than be so embarrassed, he resigns. Fortunately for him and his family, Mr. Fulkerson, a promoter of syndicated newspaper material who met the Marches years before, proposes that March take over the editorship of a new literary magazine that he is promoting. March at first demurs at Fulkerson’s proposal, but the promoter, certain that March has the necessary taste and tact to be successful, finally persuades him to take the position.

March’s wife and children have lived in Boston their entire lives, so, when the prospect of moving to New York City appears, even though it means a career for March, they need considerable persuasion. At last, Mrs. March is convinced that moving to the larger city is imperative. She and her husband go to New York to find an apartment. After many days of searching, Mrs. March returns to Boston, leaving her husband to make a decision about the editorship. He does so a short time later.

March fears that he will encounter problems with the magazine’s staff, but the situation proves less difficult than he had imagined. Fulkerson, the promoter, has engaged an artist, Angus Beaton, to serve as art director; procured a cover sketch for the first issue; and made all the financial arrangements with the magazine’s backer, Mr. Dryfoos, who recently made a fortune for himself through the control of natural gas holdings. Mr. Dryfoos, who is trying to win his son Conrad away from a career as a minister, has undertaken to finance the magazine in order to give Conrad a chance to enter business as the ostensible publisher of the periodical. March has made arrangements for foreign articles and reviews to be handled by an old German socialist, Henry Lindau, a former tutor of March whom the younger man happened to run into in New York.

Despite March’s fear and lack of confidence, the new magazine, Every Other Week, is a success from the very first issue; both the illustrations and the material catch the public’s fancy. On the periphery of the business, however, many complications arise. The Dryfoos family were simple farm folk before acquiring their fortune, and the two daughters want to enter society and be accepted in their new milieu. Christine Dryfoos, the older daughter, falls in love with Beaton. Beaton, however, admires Margaret Vance, a young woman from a good family who performs charity work among the poor. Beaton also has an interest in Alma Leighton, a young artist from whom he procured the cover sketch for the magazine. Fulkerson, the promoter, has also fallen in love. He is busy paying court to a Southern girl who boards at the same house he does. The...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)