Monday, September 11, 2006

Thinking is my fighting, William Dean Howells edition

For reasons I’ll explain more fully tomorrow, I’ve declared it William Dean Howells week here at Fernham.

Still, I can hardly let this grim anniversary pass without comment even as I know how little I have to add to the discussion. Certainly, the circumstances of my personal connection to the day are too trivial to dilate on. Sitting in my farmhouse in Fillmore, Indiana, I decided to watch a bit of the Today Show before heading off to the airport to pick up a visiting speaker from Princeton. I watched as the second plane hit. As for my visitor, his plane had been due to leave Newark around ten. Of course, it never left the ground.

William Dean Howells does, it turns out, have something to offer us—those of us whose world has changed even as our grief is indirect—in thinking about how we carry on. A Hazard of New Fortunes is a novel that makes an argument: it pits a philistine capitalist against a cultured socialist. In short, this novel of 1890, pits two prominent and incompatible world views against each other. This, I think, is the position that nice people, good people, small-d democrats who had, thus far, lived fairly nonviolent and comfortable lives, now find ourselves facing: the fact that democracy must work to accommodate people whose ideologies strive to exclude each other.

The setting of Hazard is a literary magazine in New York and caught in the middle is Basil March, the editor, a good-humored man from “the West” (in this case, Indianapolis). The capitalist funds the venture as a sideline; the socialist works as a regular freelance translator. When the two meet, sparks fly. March’s efforts to keep the peace show us the difficulty, perhaps even the futility, of such efforts. And he (Howells, March) by no means splits the difference or is in any way stupid or blind about the imbalance of power or ethics. The power is all on the side of capital; the ethics, in this case, is almost entirely on the side of socialism.

It’s not hard to imagine translating this conflict into contemporary terms. In fact, it’s a conflict that plays out daily. An oilman, from Wyoming or Texas, funds a creative venture without much thought until he gets wind of the Palestinian on his staff, or the Saudi feminist, or the Venezuelan socialist… Caught in the middle is some good-natured liberal whose job is suddenly on the line. What should the editor do?

Distressed by the hanging deaths of anarchists in the Haymarket Affair, Howells wrote A Hazard of New Fortunes. Though the novel pits capitalism against socialism, it is the socialist Lindau with whom March has the prior connection (Lindau was his German and fencing tutor as a boy in Indianapolis); it is Lindau who is learned, intelligent and a linguist; it is Lindau who fought in the Civil War (losing a hand in the fighting) while the capitalist bought a substitute. There is no question as to where Howells’ sympathy lies, even as Lindau is annoying, impolite, impolitic, and often wrong. For all of us who are writers, thinking is our fighting, as Woolf said, and we must fight on towards peace.

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