The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 20 June 2017

The Rise of Silas Lapham

by William Dean Howells

The structure of Boston's "society" is historically notorious. It has a tradition more rigid and snooty than that of New York's Fifth Avenue swells. One isn't sure how that social structure expresses itself today, but surely there's some elevated remnants of it out there. The rich, today, are richer, more elevated above the hoi-polloi, than their Gilded Age ancestors. So, surely that airy stratification still exists. In 21st century America, we're told we're even more class conscious than the mother country. Shame on us. In writing a sly satire on that social layer cake, William Dean Howells, one of our early realist novelists, seems express that critique as well. We live in a country whose founding myth is that anyone can rise from nothing to riches and power. Despite notable counter-examples, that's never been wholly true for the average American Joe. And, once there, risen from grimy industrial beginnings, is there an entré to "Society"? Well, Mr. Silas Lapham tries to do so.

It is 1875, and the wounds from the "War of the Rebellion" are still vivid in the minds of the men who fought it. Silas Lapham, aged 55, lives a comfortable upper-middle-class existence, atop an empire built upon the minerals discovered on his father's farm, the raw material for a durable paint that covers everything from railroad wheels to picket fences. Rising from Vermont, he, his small family, and two marriagable daughters, reside in a large house in an unfashionable neighborhood of Boston. And things could well have gone this way for the remainder of his life. Through a series of unlikely encounters, Lapham is given a new perspective on his position. Howells slyly devises a network of events that guide Lapham's ambition to join Boston society. He aspires to build a large fancy house on the "water side of Beacon Street" in Boston's Back Bay, freshly land-filled and fashionable in this era. The construction of the house (at upwards of three million in 2017 dollars) is symbolic throughout the novel, reflecting Lapham's freedom with his money, his guileless honesty and susceptibility to the guidance of his architect, his aspiration to regal living, and his ultimate stagnation and collapse. In the meantime, his daughters both fall in love with a young man of society who is equally clueless about the mercantile world Lapham occupies. Lapham's business experiences reverses, and an unscrupulous former associate lurks in the corners of his life. Lapham's Protestant honesty allows him a life, if not entirely successful, at least free of moral lapse, or the dependency upon the generosity of others.

Howells was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly in its early years, and thus had much experience publishing the short works of many notable writers. His own writing has wit and grit. The book is cleverly constructed to guide Lapham's character through aspirations not of his own making. He ends up where he began, none the worse for the experience. In the end, there is virtue in the business of providing a basic and useful product, and there is a gentle hollowness to the life of "society". Howells doesn't damn either side of the story, nor does he elevate either in any moral way. His is a fairly successful attempt at describing a time and a place. In its details, it brings to life a corner of American culture and landscape. One isn't sure what kind of life the novel has, more than 130 years after its publication, but it retains its value as a moment in American literary history.

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See Also: [The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton]