The Novel That Foretold the TNR Meltdown

The 19th author and magazine editor William Dean Howells once wrote a novel that eerily anticipated the recent troubles at The New Republic.

Adam Hunger/Reuters

In 1890, 24 years before The New Republic was founded, William Dean Howells, the novelist and longtime editor of The Atlantic Monthly, took on the question of what the editor of a magazine can expect from the owner. In A Hazard of New Fortunes, the most political of his novels, Howells’s central figure, a magazine editor, faces a confrontation in which he can keep his integrity only if he defies his millionaire publisher.

Today, the time is right for a second look at A Hazard of New Fortunes in light of the crisis created at The New Republic by its owner, Chris Hughes, when he fired the magazine’s highly respected editor, Franklin Foer, and caused a mass exodus of The New Republic’s staff and contributing writers.

Howells never anticipated how the difficulty of turning out a successful print magazine and a successful web project would roil modern journalism. Nor could he ever have imagined the firestorm ignited by the decision of Hughes, who bought The New Republic in 2012, and Guy Vidra, Hughes’s CEO, to cut the magazine’s print issues to 10 a year and rebuild it as a “vertically integrated digital media company.”

But what Howells did see very clearly is the built-in tension between owner and editor that, sooner or later, is bound to affect any magazine that aspires to have a cutting edge. As the editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871 to 1881 and the publisher of, among others, Henry James and Mark Twain, Howells was uniquely positioned to observe the literary battles of the Gilded Age.

In A Hazard of New Fortunes, Howells’s equivalent is Basil March, who has come from Boston to New York to take over the editorship of a new magazine, Every Other Week. Fulkerson, the founder of the magazine who has hired March, is someone he can cope with. It’s a different story with the owner of Every Other Week, Jacob Dryfoos, an ex-farmer who has gotten rich after oil was discovered on his property.

March’s troubles come when Dryfoos, who believes that being the publisher of a magazine is little different from being the owner of a company, asks him to fire Berthold Lindau, a German-born translator for Every Other Week, because of the political remarks that Lindau, a militant socialist, makes at a magazine party.

March is outraged by the request, and his first response is to complain to Fulkerson about the crudity of Dryfoos’s demand. “I am not used to being spoken to as if I were the foreman of a shop and told to discharge a sensitive and cultivated man like Lindau, as if he were a drunken mechanic,” March protests. Fulkerson sympathizes with March, and he gets Dryfoos to admit that he should not have spoke to March as he did. Dryfoos’s admission does not, however, come with a willingness to rehire Lindau, and March is left with a situation in which he must choose between his job and his principles.

It is a turning point for March. In the genteel literary world in which he is living, he can demand and get personal respect but he is forced to acknowledge that at Every Other Week, he remains an employee. As Howells observes, “He realized, as every hireling must, no matter how skillfully or gracefully the tie is contrived for his wearing, that he belongs to another whose will is his law.”

In March’s case his self-awareness is compounded by his attachment to his job and his family’s reliance on his salary. “It was not merely the work in which he had constantly grown happier that he saw taken from him,” Howells notes. “He faced the fact, which no good man can front without terror, that he was risking the support of his family, and for a point of pride, of honor, which perhaps he had no right to consider in view of the possible adversity.”

March does not buckle under pressure, and, through a stroke of luck, he gets to keep both his integrity and his job when Lindau resigns from Every Other Week. Not so lucky are the editors and writers at The New Republic. They are out of work, and it’s hard to imagine what would get them to return to the new New Republic.

The Harvard-educated Hughes, who took ownership of The New Republic in 2012, is no crude-talking oil millionaire, but as Facebook’s co-founder (worth an estimated $700 million), he is today’s equivalent of a Gilded Age mogul. As such Hughes represents the kind of wealthy figure to whom serious literary and political magazines, especially on the left, continue to be drawn.

Near the end of A Hazard of New Fortunes, March thinks that the key to securing the future of Every Other Week might be to find someone to buy the magazine from Dryfoos. The thought cheers him—but not for long. “It must come to another Angel,” he admits to his wife when he thinks of putting the magazine in a different owner’s hands. The best he can hope for, March realizes, is to find a more compatible version of Dryfoos. For Howells, this dependency, rather than any particular clash between publisher and editor, is the problem he saw as permanent and the problem the controversy over The New Republic has left unresolved.

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Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.