The Rise of Silas Lapham

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9780451471451: The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham was the first important novel to center on the American businessman and the first to treat its theme with a realism that foreshadowed the work of modern writers. In his story of one of the millionaire industrialists who flourished in the post-Civil War years, William Dean Howells probes the moral and social conflicts that confront a self-made man trying to crash Boston’s old-guard aristocracy. Silas Lapham is a man of conscience who fully realizes his folly; but he is also an ambitious man who lets his aspirations lead him to risk both his fortune and his family’s happiness for status in a society that will never truly accept him.
 
“His perceptions were sure, his integrity was absolute,” wrote Henry Seidel Canby of William Dean Howells, whom he credited as being “responsible for giving the American novel form.”

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About the Author:

William Dean Howells was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, on March 1, 1837. Between 1856 and 1861 he worked as a reporter for the Ohio State Journal. About this time his poems began to appear in The Atlantic Monthly. His campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, compiled in 1860, prompted the administration to offer him the consulship at Venice, a post he held from 1861 to 1865. He married Elinor Gertrude Meade, a young woman from Vermont, in Paris in 1862. On his return to the United States in 1865, Howells worked in New York before going to Boston as assistant to James T. Fields of The Atlantic Monthly. In 1871 he became editor-in-chief of the magazine. In this position he worked with many young writers, among them Mark Twain and Henry James, both of whom became his close friends. His first novel, Their Wedding Journey, appeared in 1872. The Rise of Silas Lapham was serialized in Century Magazine before it was published in book form in 1885. A Hazard of New Fortunes was published five years later. His position as critic, writer, and enthusiastic exponent of the new realism earned William Dean Howells the title of Dean of American Letters. He died in 1920.
 
Louis Auchincloss was a highly acclaimed novelist, literary critic, and historian. His more than fifty books include The Rector of Justin, The House of Five Talents, and The Atonement. He is also the author of several nonfiction works, including The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles, and a member and President Emeritus of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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INTRODUCTION

The Rise of Silas Lapham has been a steady seller since its publication in book form in 1885, perhaps the only survivor, except for A Hazard of New Fortunes, of the many-volumed fiction of the writer once known as the dean of American letters. Howells’s gift as a storyteller continues to make this novel a page-turner, and his ability to delineate character to make him a kind of John the Baptist to proclaim the coming of his younger friend Henry James, whose early work he had promoted and whose genius he generously declared to be far superior to his own. Ohio-born Howells was closer to the American soil than the New York– and Newport- bred James, and his characters were simpler and more directly motivated. Even when he moved to Boston and then New York, Howells’s eyes tended to look westward, while those of his more sophisticated and cosmopolitan colleague were directed toward Europe.

Perhaps to the readers of the eighteen eighties, the primary interest in Silas Lapham lay in the interplay of the two plots: the struggle of the newly rich, quinquagenarian metal paint producer, Lapham, to resist the tempting offer of a wicked associate to save his tottering empire, and the equally violent struggle of his younger daughter, Penelope, to maintain her imagined duty to turn down the man she loves—and who loves her—because her sister is also infatuated with him. But we pretty well know from the start that Lapham—a loving and faithful husband and father, a Civil War hero and a decent if somewhat pompously conceited businessman—is going to play straight, even if the standard postwar robber baron would not have, and the details of the villain’s plot fill the only dull spot in the book. And as for Penelope’s problem, it wouldn’t exist for a young woman today, nor does it indeed seem to for any of the more sensible characters in the novel itself. She has had nothing to do with her sister’s attraction to Tom Corey, nor was he himself even aware of it. What solace would it be for the sister to have three persons miserable instead of one? And this very question is asked over and over in the text. The reader’s reaction today is apt to be one of impatience.

The particular interest of the novel for us lies in Howells’s dramatization of the process of amalgamation between the old and the new rich. This dominated the American social scene in the eighteen seventies and eighties, when the rising tide of railroad, oil, and steel millionaires threatened to overwhelm the Boston enclaves of Cabots and Lowells and their New York counterparts of Livingstons and Van Rensselaers. Howells had seen the initial conflict between the two and knew that it could only end in merger, for the common denominator of money was too great to keep them long apart. He also saw that it was a fine subject for the novel of manners, and indeed it has played a predominate role in that genre right up to the day of John P. Marquand and John O’Hara.

Howells chose Boston of the Grant era as the site of his version of the struggle, and he reduced to a minimum the differences between the two sides. Silas Lapham is not a crook, as many of those who resisted the rise of the robber barons liked to allege; he has been, despite the one rough but legitimate ousting of an undesirable partner, scrupulously honest in his business practices, nor do the Coreys, whose ancestors have been painted by Copley, claim otherwise. Lapham and his wife are simple, decent folk, plain as old shoes, and although he is rather pompously conceited and a bit in awe of the bluer blood of the Coreys, neither he nor his spouse would dream of seeking a marital alliance with the latter if Tom, handsome, good-hearted, democratic and in love with their daughter, were not a son-in-law any parent would covet. Mrs. Lapham, indeed, and both her daughters are quite content with their unadorned social position; it is only the attraction of Irene and Penelope to Tom that brings them into contact with the Coreys, and it is he who has invaded the Laphams’ territory by coming to work for their father. The opposition to the match—and it is never very fierce—comes entirely from the Coreys, and in particular from Mrs. Corey and her daughters.

Howells, of course, here puts his finger on the real resister to the social aspirant, i.e., the established society matron. Women, right up to our own times, have been able to wrest very little power from men; society is one of the rare fields in which they had triumphed and held their sway. Look at a social resort like Newport, where the mansions, the dress, the entertainments were solely in the hands of dominating women whose husbands notoriously hid away in Wall Street and only visited them on such weekends as absolutely required their presence. Small wonder that these wives were called “dowagers.” Were such hard-earned positions as theirs to be lightly shared with Jenny-come-latelies? Hardly. One can see in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country how the newcomer could be met with a hate that was almost vitriolic, and this opposition became shriller as conformity in dress and deportment began to steal over the American scene, making it more and more difficult to discern the outward difference between a climber and a tree dweller. But the loss of the appearance heralded the loss of the battle.

Howells sees the ultimate amalgamation as already hovering. Mrs. Corey’s opposition to the Laphams is only halfhearted, not because she doesn’t care—she does, and fervently—but because she knows that her son is going to marry the girl he wants and that she cares too much for him to refuse civility to his wife. She is seen as clinging to her own world in the hope that it will at least last her lifetime and rather listlessly accepting the new. She has called on Mrs. Lapham; she has even asked her to dinner—what more can even her cynical husband expect of her?

In the end it is clear that Mrs. Corey is concerned only with the cultural difference between her family and the Laphams; their wealth is a matter of indifference to her, even though her own is much diminished from what it was. The loss by the Laphams of their fortune does not make Tom’s marriage to their daughter better or worse. “We never cared for the money,” Mrs. Corey tells her husband, and he replies: “No; and now we can’t seem to care for the loss of it. That would be still worse. Either horn of the dilemma gores us” (338).

What they really can’t stand in the new rich is their lack of taste. Bromfield Corey, visualizing his son’s marriage reception in the Laphams’ house, before the Laphams’ art masterpiece—a sentimental statue group showing Lincoln emancipating the slaves—exclaims in horror: “But that drawing room . . . really I don’t see how Tom stands that. Anna, a terrible thought occurs to me! Fancy Tom being married in front of that group, with a floral horseshoe in tuberoses coming down on either side of it” (341).

Nor do they ever quite get over this attitude. Howells predicts that, for all their good efforts, the Coreys will never wholly succeed in taking Penelope to their bosom. Indeed, he seems more pessimistic than the reader about this, for Penelope is shown as culturally far superior to her family. But it is certain, he tells us in the end of his tale, “that our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities. The price that we pay for civilization is the fine yet impassable differentiation of these. Perhaps we pay too much; but it will not be possible to persuade those who have the difference in their favor that this is so” (353–54).

Bromfield Corey acts as a kind of cynical chorus to the drama of the Laphams and Coreys. He is the perfect Boston aristocrat: a gifted amateur painter who has been too indolent to develop what might have been a real talent; widely traveled, indeed having once contemplated an expatriate life in Rome; cultivated to his fingertips; totally indifferent to the praise or abuse of his acquaintances; amused; realistic but not inspired by the passing scene; content to lead a life of comfortable leisure and make no mark in the world, yet of a gentle, kind and tolerant disposition. Howells’s portrait of him is one of mild contempt, though he gives him all his best lines. It is Bromfield whose evaluation of every character and situation in the novel is closest to the author’s.

Bromfield sees no reason for his son to seek gainful employment or to wish to live otherwise than with and on his parents, but he is perfectly reasonable about Tom’s wish to be independent and to work in Lapham’s paint business. He merely observes: “Ah, we shall never have a real aristocracy while this plebeian reluctance to live upon a parent or a wife continues the animating spirit of our youth. It strikes at the root of the whole feudal system. I really think you owe me an apology, Tom. I supposed you wished to marry the girl’s money, and here you are basely seeking to go into business with her father” (63).

It is interesting to trace in the American novel of manners the different defenses of the ever-retreating old guard before the ineluctable advance of their richer opponents. In Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, which preceded Silas Lapham by a dozen years, the new rich are still regarded as crooks, which affords reason enough to resist them. This attitude pervades the contemporary novels on the subject produced in England and France, viz., Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and much of Zola. But in Europe there existed an aristocracy whose wealth had not been dishonestly gained, or if so, so far back in history as to be irrelevant, whereas in the United States both old and new money often had a tainted source that could operate as a boomerang if used offensively. A safer defense was simply that the new rich were uncouth, as seen in Silas Lapham and in Henry James’s The Reverberator, where the hero’s father, an elegant expatriate living in France, who might be a double for Bromfield Corey, can see no virtue in his son’s newly rich fiancée because she pronounces Paris “Parus.” But as education spread and the newspapers increased conformity among the classes by making well-known how society dressed, talked and played, it was not a difficult matter for the people of new fortune to emulate their betters, and we find Edith Wharton in The House of Mirth rather bitterly conceding that the gates of society are now wide-open. In that novel, Carrie Fisher, who makes a living by preparing rich climbers for the assault on the citadel, is exasperated when confronted with the rare client who can’t make the grade. She complains: “It’s all very well to say that everybody with money can get into society, but it would be truer to say that nearly everybody can.”

As we approach our own times, we find the two novelists primarily concerned with the subject, Marquand and O’Hara, making finer and finer distinctions between the possessors of old and new money, perhaps in an unconscious effort to preserve this once rich but withering field for their art. Marquand is the master of the theme, but the difference between The Late George Apley and H. M. Pulham Esquire is significant. The Apleys in nineteen hundred are still by their customs and manners and strongly held traditions recognizably different from those who seek to join their clubs and marry their offspring. But a generation later Marvin Miles, the New York advertising girl whom Pulham wants to marry, finds him too stuffy and his family only curious relics, and she wisely chooses to go her own way. In O’Hara’s fiction, we find him groping almost feverishly for remaining tokens of class differences, and he is reduced to the trivia of clothes and accents. Indeed, some of his old guard have no identifying characteristics other than their arrogance.

The final elimination of the social climber as a staple of fiction came with Nancy Mitford’s celebrated use of “U” and “Non-U” (upper and non-upper) words, phrases and pronunciations to mark the borderlines between the classes. To say “drapes” instead of “curtains” or “wealthy” instead of “filthy rich,” to refer to a person’s “lovely home” instead of his house, or to pronounce tomato like potato was to place oneself beyond the pale. But when the game is reduced to such nonsense, it ceases to be played.

—Louis Auchincloss

I

WHEN Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for the “Solid Men of Boston” series, which he undertook to finish up in The Events, after he replaced their original projector on that newspaper, Lapham received him in his private office by previous appointment.

“Walk right in!” he called out to the journalist, whom he caught sight of through the door of the counting room.

He did not rise from the desk at which he was writing, but he gave Bartley his left hand for welcome, and he rolled his large head in the direction of a vacant chair. “Sit down! I’ll be with you in just half a minute.”

“Take your time,” said Bartley, with the ease he instantly felt. “I’m in no hurry.” He took a notebook from his pocket, laid it on his knee, and began to sharpen a pencil.

“There!” Lapham pounded with his great hairy fist on the envelope he had been addressing. “William!” he called out, and he handed the letter to a boy who came to get it. “I want that to go right away. Well, sir,” he continued, wheeling ’round in his leather-cushioned swivel chair, and facing Bartley, seated so near that their knees almost touched, “so you want my life, death, and Christian sufferings, do you, young man?”

“That’s what I’m after,” said Bartley. “Your money or your life.”

“I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money,” said Lapham, as if he were willing to prolong these moments of preparation.

“Take ’em both,” Bartley suggested. “Don’t want your money without your life, if you come to that. But you’re just one million times more interesting to the public than if you hadn’t a dollar; and you know that as well as I do, Mr. Lapham. There’s no use beating about the bush.”

“No,” said Lapham, somewhat absently. He put out his huge foot and pushed the ground-glass door shut between his little den and the bookkeepers, in their larger den outside.

“In personal appearance,” wrote Bartley in the sketch for which he now studied his subject, while he waited patiently for him to continue, “Silas Lapham is a fine type of the successful American. He has a square, bold chin, only partially concealed by the short reddish-gray beard, growing to the edges of his firmly closing lips. His nose is short and straight; his forehead good, but broad rather than high; his eyes blue, and with a light in them that is kindly or sharp according to his mood. He is of medium height, and fills an average armchair with a solid bulk, which on the day of our interview was unpretentiously clad in a business suit of blue serge. His head droops somewhat from a short neck, which does not trouble itself to rise far from a pair of massive shoulders.”

“I don’t know as I know just where you want me to begin,” said Lapham.

“Might begin with your birth; that’s where most of us begin,” replied Bartley.

A gleam of humorous appreciation shot into Lapham’s blue eyes.<...

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