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The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham (Paperback) by William Dean Howells (Author)

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From the Publisher

The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is Howell's best-known work, and this elegant tale of Boston society and manners is rightly regarded as a subtle classic of its time. Silas Lapham inherits his father's paint business, from which he makes a great deal of money, and moves his family from rural Vermont to cosmopolitan Boston. Attempting to break into the city's sophisticated society he becomes bent on the acquisition of both money and social position. Howells contrasts "old" and "new" money, presenting the representatives of both sympathetically and portraying the attempts of the self-made man to break into the world inhabited by those from "established" families with humour and delicacy. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Contemporary Review

A lengthy notice of Recent American Fiction from the October 1885 issue of The Atlantic Monthly

The first installment from the serialization of The Rise of Silas Lapham from the November 1884 issue of The Century, a Popular Quarterly


5 out of 5 stars The Rise of Silas Lapham, August 10, 2002

By Melvin Pena (Evanston, IL United States)

This review is from: The Rise of Silas Lapham (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)

I've had William Dean Howells' "A Modern Instance" and "The Rise of Silas Lapham," like many, many other books on my bookshelf for a long time. A recent meeting of a reading group of mine finally allowed me to make the time to read Howells' 1885 work, "Silas Lapham". I am extraordinarily glad I did. From the start of the novel, we are drawn into the world of late 19th century Boston, post-Reconstruction America, where newly rich industrialists attempt to enter the society life of old money. Howells crafts an extraordinarily realistic look at the American Dream gone awry.

"The Rise of Silas Lapham" begins with an interview that a local newspaperman is doing of Colonel Silas Lapham, a mineral paint tycoon. Lapham's account of his rise from the backwoods of Vermont to his marriage, to service in the Civil War, to his propagation of a successful mineral paint business is chronicled and gives us a taste of the effort and perseverance necessary for his rise, as well indicating the possibility of some potential failings, especially with regard to his one-time partner, Milton Rogers. We soon learn that Mrs. Persis Lapham aided a society woman in distress the year before, and the return of her son, Tom Corey, from Texas, signals another sort of ambition on the part of the Lapham daughters, Irene and her older sister Penelope. The rest of the novel plays out the ways in which the Laphams try to parley their financial success into social status - and how the Laphams are affected by the gambit.

Howells explores a number of significant cultural issues in "Silas Lapham": isolationism, social adaptability, economic solvency among all classes, personal integrity and familial ties, and the relationship between literature and life. The fact that the story is set about 20 or so years after the end of the American Civil War sets an important and subtle context that runs throughout the novel and inflects all of the thematic elements. The ways that the characters interact, the way that the society functions, even though the majority of the novel takes place in Boston, is importantly affected by the fact that Reconstruction is drawing to a close, Manifest Destiny is in full swing, and ultimately, America was at a point of still putting itself together and trying to view itself as the "United" States.

Howells' treatment of the social interactions between the industrially rich Laphams and the old moneyed Coreys underscores the difficulty in creating and maintaining a national identity, especially when the people even in one northern city seem so essentially different. The romance story involving the Laphams and Tom Corey is obviously an important element of the story, and Howells does an amazing job of not allowing the romance plot to become as overblown and ludicrously sentimental as the works of fiction he critiques in discussions of novels throughout his own work. "The Rise of Silas Lapham" questions the nature of relationships, how they begin, how they endure - the contrast between the married lives of the Coreys and the Laphams is worth noting, as is the family dynamic in both instances.

I'm very pleased to have gotten a chance to read this novel. Generally when I say an author or a work has been neglected, I mean that it's been neglected primarily by me. Having turned an eye now to Howells, I am very impressed with the depth of his characterization, the ways he puts scenery and backdrop to work for him, the scope of his literary allusions, and his historical consciousness. This is certainly a great American novel that more people should read. It may not be exciting, but it is involving, and that is always an excellent recommendation.

4 out of 5 stars Mogul with a conscience, March 30, 2004

By A.J. (Maryland) (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    

This review is from: The Rise of Silas Lapham (Paperback)

William Dean Howells's "The Rise of Silas Lapham" is one of the earliest American novels about a businessman, and that qualification alone makes it a literary curiosity, but what is most remarkable about it is what its title character is not, rather than what he is. Silas Lapham is not a ruthless, villainously greedy tycoon who bullies his employees and relishes destroying the careers of his competitors and enemies, but a conscientious, likeable man to whom misfortune happens because of his gullibility and sense of guilt rather than hubris.

Lapham is a human emblem of the new American industrial economy of the 1870s. A self-made millionaire in the paint business, he is now one of the richest men in Boston and is radiantly proud of the fact that he has earned every dollar. Having grown up poor and undereducated in Vermont, he still speaks in a rustic vernacular and has yet to understand the rationale behind the rules of high society, let alone assimilate them. A simple, practical man with a sense of duty, he even put aside his business to serve in the Civil War, in which he was seriously wounded and achieved the rank of colonel. He can be boastful and garrulous, but he is not arrogant or overbearing.

Lapham is dearly devoted to his wife Persis, who in turn has supported him through thick and thin, and his two daughters. Penelope, the older girl, is relatively plain but witty and sardonic and, at least in the first half of the novel, never seems to take anything seriously; her sister Irene is the more beautiful but vapid and superficial. Irene falls for Tom Corey, the young man who comes to work for her father as a foreign sales representative, but Tom and Penelope have a mutual attraction that, Penelope fears, could break Irene's heart. This romantic subplot allows Howells to contrast Tom's family, part of the old Boston aristocracy, with the even wealthier but socially crude Laphams with whose daughter Tom's mother has snobbish doubts about his possible union.

The novel has almost the air of Greek tragedy in that Lapham is a man of stature who has fatal flaws that threaten to destroy him. He is a teetotaller, and when he does take the liberty of trying some wine at a dinner party, he embarrasses himself and his family by talking too much. He abstains from gambling, but, instigated by his former business partner and current gadfly Milton Rogers, he gets into financial trouble when he stakes money on bad property and bad stocks. And, to compensate for a traumatic event in his past, he is charitable almost to a fault to a pretty girl whom he employs as a typist in his office.

The style of "The Rise of Silas Lapham" is a dramatic realism similar to that found in the novels of Howells's contemporaries Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser; the structure is straightforward, and the dialogue cuts to the core in laying bare the characters' sentiments and unfolding the plot. It may fall short of being a "great" novel, but for its candid portrayal of a specimen of the nouveau riche, it can be considered a minor monument of nineteenth century American literature.

4 out of 5 stars A Gem of Its Time, September 26, 2000

By A Customer

This review is from: The Rise of Silas Lapham (Signet classics) (Paperback)

These days Howells is usually overlooked in favor of the more overtly urbane Henry James or the grittier Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser. That's a shame, since Howells at his best is a more varied and thought-provoking author than any of them. The Rise of Silas Lapham is Howells at his best. The title is quite ironic, of course, but ultimately spot-on, as Howells' nouveau-riche bumpkin is redeemed only in losing it all. Lapham is keenly drawn, alternately frustrating in his bluster and affected pompousness and endearing in his genuine (if sometimes poorly expressed) love for his family. Other characters are not so fortunate; one of his daughters remains mostly a cipher, and both Mrs. Lapham and Bromfield Corey, the rich scion of society whose favor Lapham so earnestly covets, are dangerously close to stock characters. Howells excels at elaborate descriptive prose focused on intricate detail, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Some elements of the plot may seem quaint to modern readers, but Howells does not treat them with condescension. The Rise of Silas Lapham is definitely a book of its time. Perhaps it is so rewarding because his time and ours are not necessarily so different as we think.

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