By Jason Puskar
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This show trial is widely regarded as one of the most scandalous injustices in American legal history, for in the throes of the anti-red hysteria that gripped Chicago in the summer of 1886, few voices resisted the inexorable march to the gallows or opposed convictions based on little more than guilt by association. 4 But from that date, critics have long recognized a clear shift of emphasis in his work, as Annie Kilburn (1888) and then A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) took a greater interest in the working class, more overtly addressed jarring social and economic changes, and more openly engaged, without exactly embracing, the appeal of socialism.
For Lukács, any writer who cannot discern some sort of social order within or behind chance is ideologically complicit with capitalism. For Howells, in contrast, totalizing narratives seemed far more dangerous than atomizing descriptions, given that the Haymarket trials had shown that the rationalizing and moralizing powers of narrative were by no means guaranteed to be virtuous, or even benign. There is a complicated split, however, between two different impulses in Hazard. On the one hand, Hazard asks us to read it as a traditional realist attempt to render mimetically the complexity of the modern city’s social, material, and economic indeterminacy, especially the very real play of chance in modern urban and economic life.
In the throes of such internal conflict, it seems most likely that the kinds of accidents Williams describes would provoke an ambivalent sense of both guilt and innocence, power and powerlessness. Indeed, the intolerability of either extreme—guilt or powerlessness—structures the special cruelty of the choice. Agent-regret, then, is perhaps best seen as an active oscillation between two irreconcilable alternatives, at least as they register within the values system of modern liberal society. The point worth emphasizing, however, is that under the conditions of urban and industrial modernity, there were likely far more occasions for agent-regret than ever before and, certainly, more than there The Insurance of the Real had been in smaller social systems and in less complexly built environments.