Unseen for US Literature (OCR): Howells – A hazard of new fortune

Taken form the 2018 summer examination paper, this passage was the basis for my current U6th mock examination …

howells unseen  passage for consideration.


From the outset the passage establishes contradictions between attitudes to the Sabbath; perspectives of the newly crowded tenements of New York City; Europe and America; old and new in America and the central persona of the passage – a man named ‘March’ who is ‘strolling’ through his city observing his world. The apparent contradiction in terms – that March should be moving with little purpose in such a relaxed manner helps to create a sense of his failing to be aware of the impoverished reality behind all he sees.

Writing in 1890, at the height of the Gilded Age, a time of economic prosperity and of increased immigration from Europe, yet which acted as a mere veneer of respectability shrouding the reality of the impoverished underclasses, Howells is following many of the tropes seen in writers such as Theodore Dreiser in his novel Sister Carrie.

Although written in 3rd person with an omnisicent narrative voice, the passage seems to be split in two to present first the perspective of March and then the greater reality of the same world seen through the lens of the narrator, before presenting the essential irony of the wealthy who are unable to recognise the plight and suffering of the poor.

In March’s view, the setting is one of ‘quaintness’ suggesting a fascination with the surface level of the city which he sees as somehow charming and intriguing. Within this world he admires clotheslines for their ‘picturesqueness’ completely missing the notion of poverty which requires hanging clothes to dry in the squalor of a world with decreasing natural light – the new buildings ‘break[ing]’ the natural skyline and are ‘towering’ suggesting in his eyes achievement, ye tin the reader’s mind the image is one of increasing entrapment and of darkness. Within this world he notes church bells ringing with a ‘nasal’ quality suggesting some form of decay of the ‘pure’ Christianity seen in his wife’s ‘Sabbatarianism’. March seems deaf to the negative sense captured in this adjective, yet the idea, common for many commentators, that the social fabric is in decay is clear to read.

As he moves towards the docks, he is fascinated by the appearance of the houses and notes the European features of design -the portal of fluted pillars, suggestive of a small Greek temple – and the red and white colours of the wall painting. In this frame of mind, the clotheslines recall the beauty of Medieval Florence and he comments on the new buildings as ‘alien to the American manner’. This begins to get to the heart of the social comment in the passage. Howells allows March to muse upon the shifting nature of America. He links his wife to the earliest Puritan arrivals – intent on marking Sunday as a the Lord’s day, yet now feeling so let down by the reality of New York, that she remains at home, rather than visiting the church with its ‘nasal bells’. He does link the bells to ‘Pure Americanism’ and the phrase calls to mind the simple life beloved of the earliest settlers- hard work and prayer being the tenets of a ‘good life’. Within this image, the appartment blocks themselves can be seen as ‘alien’ to the American way – the idea of large tenement blocks, with multiple occupancy on each floor, growing up to house a new multitude of poor immigrants seen at the turn of the 20th Century would be replacing the simple housing dwarfed by civic grandeur which epitomises the American cities of the 19th century. His idealistic view of the city has already been challenged by Twain in Huckleberry Finn in the description of Bricksville – the average American town, and therefore on wider scale the urban governance, in the South is seen to be in dire need of repair and care in the earlier years of the century.

Within this world, March, intrigued by the ‘earrings’ of the Italians – noting the surface level ostentation – which ‘twinkle’ as things of beauty and value, tempting him from alleyways and basements, suggesting a race of almost troglodytic beings living away from the norm and in squalor. These latest immigrants are supplanting the Germans and Irish who arrived in an earlier migration in the mid 19th Century and Howells allows March to see them as still a dominant force – a’sturdier’ race than the Italians – yet one which is ceding ground to the new arrivals by resting on the Sabbath. March finds nothing threatening in these ‘swarthy’ faces (using a description of colour as a partial positive in his mind), yet the modern reader knows with hindsight that the migrants from Southern Italy brought the Mafia to the continent among their many genuine charms. Indeed he views the latest arrivals positively when comparing them for ‘wickedness’ with the ‘bhoys’ – the Irish. The adjectives ‘sneering’ and ‘insolent’ help to p;lace March in a social stratum; to recognise insolence, one must view oneself as a social superior. Indeed in this light it is easy to recognise the voice of social bias in March: Paris is seen as a place of ‘cleanliness’ and New York, a place of ‘filth’.

His is a view of immigration and of the developing city removed form reality, and in the manner of many of the East Coast elite of the 19th century, laden with an idealistic vision of Europe as the model for development of the New World. In the second paragraph the writer begins to address the stark reality of the city, once the veneer is removed.

All the sidewalks have ‘boxes and barrels’ of ‘kitchen offal’ on them – animal waste left out with little care for hygeine and cleanliness, furthermore the ‘manure heaps’ are common and described as being ‘not everywhere’ – the negative helping to draw attention to their ubiquity as an example of faint praise. Howells uses the dichotomy between ‘stench’ and ‘savory’ aromas to build up a palate of sensory imagery which is intensified by the visual image of the ‘melting’ refuse – suggesting a horrorendous world of semi liquid filth which is then explored in a polysyndeton of detritus – the repetitive ‘and’ adding power to the image.

March’s response is a ‘whimsical’ shrug – as though this is a thing of slight interest which matters not. He seems to be above such ideas and stuck in his blind idealism for the nature of the emerging ‘melting pot’ society. He is seen to comment to the ‘boy’ who we learn to be his companion – A familiar symbol of innocence who recalls Huckleberry Finn himself in the idea of the Picaro – the urchin at the centre of a Picaresque novel – in his straightforward and innocent response to the world around him.

To March, the poor live this life because they are ‘fond’ of life in this way, as though it is a choice. Cutting through this veneer is the innocent voice of reality: to the boy the issueb is clear- the idea of ‘every sort of fraud’ bringing to mind the stereotypical American conman, seen emerging in the King and the Duke  and emerging fully grown in the 20th century in the form of Jay Gatsby. As Fitzgerald puts it in a bitter take on a popular song -the rich get richer and the poor get… children!’  The poor cannot escape this squalor – they are poor and cannot pay twice. In other words the city has become a centre of vice in which money is being siphoned off to make the rich richer. The city is falling into disrepair at the same time as the population is swelling exponentially. Only the rich can maintain any good standard of living, because they can afford not only the taxes or backhanders, but also the price of paying privately for their small patches of privilege to be well-maintained.