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.)