Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

'A Hazard of New Fortunes' and the Reproduction of Liberalism

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

'A Hazard of New Fortunes' and the Reproduction of Liberalism

Article excerpt

In his seventy-eighth year, William Dean Howells wrote Henry James, "I am a comparatively dead cult with my statues cut down and the grass growing over me in the pale moonlight."(1) When he made that typically accurate, typically ironic self-appraisal, literary modernism was on the rise. Howells' image was in the process of being simplified and solidified as the administrator of a genteel tradition he had felt ambivalent toward his whole life. Today the insights of the modem era are more open to question and the reputation of the notoriously equable realist has never been better. One reason Howells' fortunes have improved is because contemporary literary intellectuals, in comparison to those of the modernist era, have become less wary of everyday life. Mimicking Michel Foucault's eschewal of "masters" and "geniuses" in favor of solidly established non-geniuses (Ricardo rather than Smith, Bentham rather than Marx), some of today's most influential critics enjoy analyzing figures whose achievements typify rather than transcend the conflicts of their particular historical moment. In the last several years, Howells has thus attracted readers who have for the most part purged themselves of the crypto-romantic resentments that blinded the modernists, and who have analyzed his status as the normative literary figure of his time with relative disinterestedness. Alfred Kazin remarked that Howells "considered it his function to mediate between moral man and immoral society."(2) It is precisely that -- Howells' significance as his culture's mediator -- that so fascinates critics today.

Yet to a great extent, Howells is still being brought to the docket for a crime he considered his primary virtue: liberalism. Many of Howells' current readers view him from perspectives that wistfully yearn toward stances of whole-souled radicalism. Such critics feel obliged to describe Howells' characteristic self-divisions and inconsistencies as if they were fatal flaws -- as if they were qualities that finally justify his twentieth-century rank as a figure who can be pidgeonholed and dismissed by a few misquotations (such as his notorious "smiling aspects of life" remark). Indeed, a review of the current arguments shows that most of Howells' best readers have often been content to dwell upon the fact that liberal self-division is a hallmark of Howells' writing. This self-division has been usually described in terms borrowed from the historian Warren Susman, who has posited that after the Civil War there was a large shift in the "modal types"(23) for individual development in the United States. Economic prosperity and the rise of mass culture, Susman argues, caused the decline of a productivist, largely protestant, and hard-working "culture of character" and the growth of a consumerist, manifestly secular, and pleasure-oriented "culture of personality."(4) If the old culture of character valued consistency, moral centeredness, and expressing oneself through work, the new culture of personality valued (and still values) unpredictability, charismatic waywardness, and expressing oneself through play.

Susman's distinction has been directly echoed by such critics as Eric Sundquist and Richard Brodhead, among others. Sundquist has remarked that realists like Howells endlessly sought to capture in their fiction "the transformation of `father' and `family' into `boss' and `corporation,"'(5) and Brodhead, writing about A Modern Instance, remarks upon Howells' interest in "a new kind of personality, a character in which internalized cultural authority is strong enough still to impinge on self-esteem, but no longer strong enough to regulate behavior."(6) Repeatedly the case has been made that Howells' engagement with the centrifugal forces of the new culture of consumption overwhelmed the repeated and often dogmatic assertions of more centripetal ethical norms with which he often ended his books. Speaking of A Hazard of New Fortunes, Alfred Habbeger notes that the closure of the text -- in which Basil March insists that Margaret Vance's religious ecstasy "must"(7) contain the answer to the text's political riddles -- does not, in fact, lay to rest questions regarding social justice that are raised during the course of the novel. …

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