A Hazard of New Fortunes
The following story was the first fruit of my New York life when I began to live it after my quarter of a century in Cambridge and Boston, ending in 1889; and I used my own transition to the commercial metropolis in framing the experience which was wholly that of my supposititious literary adventurer. He was a character whom, with his wife, I have employed in some six or eight other stories, and whom I made as much the hero and heroine of 'Their Wedding Journey' as the slight fable would bear. In venturing out of my adoptive New England, where I had found myself at home with many imaginary friends, I found it natural to ask the company of these familiar acquaintances, but their company was not to be had at once for the asking. When I began speaking of them as Basil and Isabel, in the fashion of 'Their Wedding Journey,' they would not respond with the effect of early middle age which I desired in them. They remained wilfully, not to say woodenly, the young bridal pair of that romance, without the promise of novel functioning. It was not till I tried addressing them as March and Mrs. March that they stirred under my hand with fresh impulse, and set about the work assigned them as people in something more than their second youth.
The scene into which I had invited them to figure filled the largest canvas I had yet allowed myself; and, though 'A Hazard of New Fortunes was not the first story I had written with the printer at my heels, it was the first which took its own time to prescribe its own dimensions. I had the general design well in mind when I began to write it, but as it advanced it compelled into its course incidents, interests, individualities, which I had not known lay near, and it specialized and amplified at points which I had not always meant to touch, though I should not like to intimate anything mystical in the fact. It became, to my thinking, the most vital of my fictions, through my quickened interest in the life about me, at a moment of great psychological import. We had passed through a period of strong emotioning in the direction of the humaner economics, if I may phrase it so; the rich seemed not so much to despise the poor, the poor did not so hopelessly repine. The solution of the riddle of the painful earth through the dreams of Henry George, through the dreams of Edward Bellamy, through the dreams of all the generous visionaries of the past, seemed not impossibly far off. That shedding of blood which is for the remission of sins had been symbolized by the bombs and scaffolds of Chicago, and the hearts of those who felt the wrongs bound up with our rights, the slavery implicated in our liberty, were thrilling with griefs and hopes hitherto strange to the average American breast. Opportunely for me there was a great street-car strike in New York, and the story began to find its way to issues nobler and larger than those of the love-affairs common to fiction. I was in my fifty-second year when I took it up, and in the prime, such as it was, of my powers. The scene which I had chosen appealed prodigiously to me, and the action passed as nearly without my conscious agency as I ever allow myself to think such things happen.
The opening chapters were written in a fine, old fashioned apartment house which had once been a family house, and in an uppermost room of which I could look from my work across the trees of the little park in Stuyvesant Square to the towers of St. George's Church. Then later in the spring of 1889 the unfinished novel was carried to a country house on the Belmont border of Cambridge. There I must have written very rapidly to have pressed it to conclusion before the summer ended. It came, indeed, so easily from the pen that I had the misgiving which I always have of things which do not cost me great trouble.
There is nothing in the book with which I amused myself more than the house-hunting of the Marches when they were placing themselves in New York; and if the contemporary reader should turn for instruction to the pages in which their experience is detailed I assure him that he may trust their fidelity and accuracy in the article of New York housing as it was early in the last decade of the last century: I mean, the housing of people of such moderate means as the Marches. In my zeal for truth I did not distinguish between reality and actuality in this or other matters--that is, one was as precious to me as the other. But the types here portrayed are as true as ever they were, though the world in which they were finding their habitat is wonderfully, almost incredibly different. Yet it is not wholly different, for a young literary pair now adventuring in New York might easily parallel the experience of the Marches with their own, if not for so little money; many phases of New York housing are better, but all are dearer. Other aspects of the material city have undergone a transformation much more wonderful. I find that in my book its population is once modestly spoken of as two millions, but now in twenty years it is twice as great, and the grandeur as well as grandiosity of its forms is doubly apparent. The transitional public that then moped about in mildly tinkling horse-cars is now hurried back and forth in clanging trolleys, in honking and whirring motors; the Elevated road which was the last word of speed is undermined by the Subway, shooting its swift shuttles through the subterranean woof of the city's haste. From these feet let the witness infer our whole massive Hercules, a bulk that sprawls and stretches beyond the rivers through the tunnels piercing their beds and that towers into the skies with innumerable tops--a Hercules blent of Briareus and Cerberus, but not so bad a monster as it seemed then to threaten becoming.
Certain hopes of truer and better conditions on which my heart was fixed twenty years ago are not less dear, and they are by no means touched with despair, though they have not yet found the fulfilment which I would then have prophesied for them. Events have not wholly played them false; events have not halted, though they have marched with a slowness that might affect a younger observer as marking time. They who were then mindful of the poor have not forgotten them, and what is better the poor have not often forgotten themselves in violences such as offered me the material of tragedy and pathos in my story. In my quality of artist I could not regret these, and I gratefully realize that they offered me the opportunity of a more strenuous action, a more impressive catastrophe than I could have achieved without them. They tended to give the whole fable dignity and doubtless made for its success as a book. As a serial it had crept a sluggish course before a public apparently so unmindful of it that no rumor of its acceptance or rejection reached the writer during the half year of its publication; but it rose in book form from that failure and stood upon its feet and went its way to greater favor than any book of his had yet enjoyed. I hope that my recognition of the fact will not seem like boasting, but that the reader will regard it as a special confidence from the author and will let it go no farther.
KITTERY POINT, MAINE, July, 1909.