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Haymarket and Hazard: The lonely politics of William Dean Howells

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A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) came out of Howell's experience with the 1887 execution of the Chicago Haymarket Square anarchists, and it documented the constellation of issues that combined to make the Haymarket riots such a traumatic episode. The decline of agrarian values and the rise of industrialism, the pervasiveness of the free market, the strike wars between labor and management, and the rapidly growing urban areas which were changing under the tide of immigration all receive Howells's sustained treatment in the novel. Yet if most commentators can agree that the novel was Howells's most politically ambitions, hardly anyone has explored the of Howells's personal stake in the novel.(1) As much as Howells wanted to explore the almost unimaginable and certainly frightening changes that were confronting American society, Howells wrote the novel to explore consequences of his bitterness and alienation as a result of his Haymarket protest. Beginning with his travel narratives, Venetian Life (1886) and Italian Journeys (1867), on up through The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Howells had enjoyed an unprecedented rise in both popularity and critical stature which seemed to justify his ascension to the "apostolic succession" Oliver Wendell Holmes had conferred upon him when he was a young man making a literary pilgrimage of sorts to visit his own literary idols, Lowell, Hawthorne, Emerson, et al.(2) Though Howells's commitment to realism, as biographers Lynn and Cady have shown, subjected Howells to some occasionally harsh criticism from his audience for his willingness to paint life too harshly, there was no question that by the late 1880s William Dean Howells was America's preeminent author. Haymarket, however, severed Howells from his conception of realism, of his audience, of America itself. Stripped from the comfort of all that had previously sustained him, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes...