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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
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