Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

William Dean Howells is known as one of the principal proponents of the nineteenth century American school of realism. Realism is a broad category of literature whose precise definition is in dispute, but it tends to value detailed descriptions of everyday life and to reject improbable or extraordinary solutions to the problems of a novel’s characters. The main goal of realism is to represent the world of the novel (usually a middle-class world, although occasionally a working-class world) as accurately as possible, although different writers and critics disagree as to what constitutes accuracy. Howells not only wrote many realist novels himself, but he also promoted other, younger realist writers such as Stephen Crane, Charles Chesnutt, and Frank Norris. In addition, Howells wrote one of the key defenses of realism, Criticism and Fiction (1891), in which he urges, “Let [fiction] portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know; let it leave off painting dolls and working them by springs and wires.”

A Hazard of New Fortunes came at a turning point in Howells’s career. Previously, Howells was primarily concerned with reproducing middle-class manners and morals, as can be seen in his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). However, influenced by what he believed to be the unfair executions of activists following the Haymarket labor riot in Chicago in 1886, Howells began to examine issues of economic and class struggle. Once seen as a weak, flawed novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes has come to be seen as one of Howells’s finest works, in good part because of Howells’s new focus. In the first half of the twentieth century, the novel was not valued by critics, largely because issues of class and economics were not considered worthy of serious study in literature. However, starting in the 1980’s, a new interest in social concerns led to a reevaluation of A Hazard of New Fortunes.

The main characters of A Hazard of New Fortunes, Mr. and Mrs. March, occupy prominent positions in several of Howells’s other novels. Probably the best-known of these is Howells’s first novel, Their Wedding Journey (1872), which follows the Marches on their honeymoon. Howells revisits the Marches once again in Their Silver Wedding Journey (1899). Howells’s technique of following a married couple over the...

(The entire section is 995 words.)