Intersections: Hazard and other readings

Over the weekend, I’ve been catching up on our course readings and thinking through some of their intersections, particularly in relation to A Hazard of New Fortunes. Although Carrie Bramen notes that the “urban picturesque” emerges in late-nineteenth-century fiction, such as Hazard, it seems to me the picturesque operates somewhat differently in Howells’ text than in the walking-tour sketches Bramen focuses on. While March attempts to manage city space by rendering it “picturesque,” turning streets into scenery through train views and literary sketches, Howells highlights the implications of the kind of aestheticizing spectatorship Bramen traces. Like de Certeau’s visit to the top of the World Trade Center, the Marches’ pastime of looking into buildings and onto streets from elevated trains “transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes” (de Certeau). The vertical advantage distances the couple from the objects of their observation, expanding their vision of urban life while dislocating them from what they see. In making legible activity on the streets as well as private spaces of city strangers, the L-train, March reflects, enables “some violent invasion of others’ lives.” Still, he aims to repeat its intrusive views through his periodical sketches. After passing the East Side Slums, March determines to “work up some of these New York sights” as literary takes on urban life. Although Conrad believes such pieces could be a means of reform (“If you can make the comfortable people understand how the uncomfortable people live, it will be a very good thing”), March’s only concern is how to achieve the penetrating vantage of the elevated train: “those phases of low life are immensely picturesque. Of course we must try to get the contrasts of luxury for the sake of the full effect.” Reflecting on the same kind of ventures into lower-class space treated by earlier writers like George Foster and, later, Jacob Riis, Howells emphasizes the exploitive potential of his protagonist’s curious gaze, whose anticipated literary expression is paradoxically realized through Howells’ own descriptions of the city.


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