Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham, published in 1885, is the best known novel of William Dean Howells and was one of the first novels to focus on the American businessman. Howells is remembered for his long, close friendship with Mark Twain and for being one of the fist seven people chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he was elected its first president. Despite the fact that Howells wrote over 100 books in various genres that included poems, novels, travel books, memoirs, plays and literary criticism he is largely out of print today.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is an American novel of manners that delves into what was then the relatively new societal clash between the old rich and the newly rich, each group well aware of their differences. It is set in a period by which time many old fortunes had become somewhat diminished and when the newly rich were often actually wealthier, if far less cultured, than the old rich whose manners and customs they tried so hard to emulate.

Silas Lapham is a self-made millionaire who made his fortune in the paint business. By the beginning of the novel, he has headquartered his business in Boston where he lives with his wife and two marriageable daughters. An act of kindness by Mrs. Lapham toward a stranger in need of medical attention happens to bring the Lapham family into contact with the Corey family, one of Boston’s many old money families. Complications set in when young Tom Corey falls in love with one of the Lapham girls and both families incorrectly assume that his love is for the pretty, younger daughter rather than for the older girl who wins Tom with her wit and personality. Both sisters are shocked when they realize the truth, and the Lapham family is severely strained by the stress placed on the relationship between the daughters.

If this were not enough, Silas Lapham begins to realize about the same time that his business and his personal fortune are suddenly at risk largely because of his own honesty and integrity. Rather than take advantage of less knowledgeable businessmen and possibly saving much of his fortune in the process, he decides on full disclosure of the details regarding his business outlook and watches as his business fails and he becomes bankrupt.

The Rise of Silas Lapham was considered to be a “realistic” novel at the time of its publication, and in comparison to much of American fiction that came before it, that was certainly the case. As Howells himself put it, “Let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know.” But according to the William Dean Howells Society, later authors such as Sinclair Lewis “denounced Howell’s fiction and his influence as being too genteel to represent the real America.”

I found that the novel reminds me of the best of Jane Austen’s work and I value it for the clear picture that it gives of American upper class society in the late nineteenth century. It is much more of a “page-turner” than one would imagine on first glance and I highly recommend it.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Your comparison to Austen is apt: Howells is interested in many of the same problems as Austen, though he approaches them in a different way, and from a different perspective. While she told her story through the intelligent, outspoken young daughter, Howells tells it through the patriarch. The book is concerned, therefore, much less with gossip and young love and much more about class and propriety than Austen's work. Lapham is very much the inverse of Mr. Bennet, blunt, rich and unsophisticated where Mr. Bennet is witty, poor (comparatively), and droll. However, Howells retains much of Austen's charm, if not her wit. He also writes better descriptions (though Austen writes better dialog), especially in the passages that concern the burning of the Lapham house.

    As for "realism" or "naturalism", this is not Flaubert, here. Not by a long shot. Maybe "proto-realism" would be a better descriptor. After all, Howells was a pioneer. It takes about a generation or two (around the time of Hemingway) before Americans are able to actually deliver on Howells' lofty theoretical ideas on realism.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts, CaptPoco. Howells was, indeed, a pioneer of realistic prose and it is interesting to look back now to see how realism has evolved over the decades. What was once shocking, and "cutting edge," is soon seen as dull and "too genteel." It certainly happened quickly to Howells.

  3. I thought the exact same thing--I was surprised at how interesting and readable this book was despite its period and subject matter. It's good stuff.

    Nice write up :)

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Heather. Looking back at my review makes me want to read this one again...always a good indicator that a book is one of the great ones.