In his landmark comedy of manners, The Rise of Silas Lapham, published in 1885, William Dean Howells portrays an era in American history with perfect accuracy, evoking for readers the very tenor of life in post-Civil War Boston. Howells, indeed, stands prominently with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain and Scott Fitzgerald in the great line of novelists-as-cultural-historians. And like these celebrated fiction writers Howells has created real people and then allowed his novel’s plot to grow credibly out of who these characters are. Chief among his characters is the eponymous protagonist, Silas Lapham, a newly rich 55-year-old man instilled with perseverance, sobriety and honesty. Lapham migrates to Boston from rural Vermont and confronts the moral temptations of city life.
Almost immediately readers will discern in the novel a two-layered plot: the struggle of Lapham, a manufacturer and wholesaler of a one-of-a-kind mineral paint, to remain ethical when his once thriving business clings to the edge of bankruptcy; and a misconstrued love triangle involving Lapham’s two daughters and an eligible young Boston Brahmin named Tom Corey. As the novel opens a delightfully cynical young newspaper journalist is interviewing Silas Lapham for a “Solid Men of Boston” series. Through the interview, a perfect opening technique, Howells deftly presents his colorful protagonist and at the same time foreshadows the novel’s motifs, namely business ethics and social status. Lapham comes off as an un-grammatical, farm-bred millionaire full of cheerful boasting. Something about Lapham’s innocent vulgarity, blended with the hints of his moral probity, resonates with readers.
When the journalist asks Lapham if he discovered the miracle mineral paint on the old farm himself, Lapham scrupulously replies:
I didn’t discover it…My father found it in a hole made by a tree blowing down. There it was, lying loose in the pit and sticking to the roots that had pulled up a big cake of dirt with ‘em. I don’t know what gave him the idea there was money in it…
In the course of the interview Lapham states with pride, “I married the schoolteacher.” The schoolteacher, oddly named Persis, became the driving force in the launch of the mineral paint business. As Lapham says:
If it hadn’t been for her…the paint wouldn’t have come to anything. I used to tell her it wasn’t the seventy-five percent of peroxide of iron in the ore that made that paint [a success]; it was the seventy-five percent of peroxide of iron in her.
The journalist probes a sore place in Lapham’s memory when he brings up the subject of business partners. Looking away Lapham responds that he once took on a partner, a man with money. “But he didn’t know anything about paint. We hung together for a year or two. And then we quit,” he mutters.
It is Lapham’s treatment of this one time partner, a sinister man named Milton K. Rogers, that haunts Persis. Mrs. Lapham is every bit as conscientious as her husband when it comes to business dealings, and she suspects that Lapham’s treatment of Rogers was less than fair. The fact is that when Lapham sorely needed funds to grow his business, Rogers invested in it. Rogers, however, never loved the Lapham Paints Company to the degree Lapham did; not only did he seem distracted, he also proved inept in business dealings. Against Rogers’ will Lapham bought him out. As Persis explains:
“[Lapham’s] paint was something more than a business to him; it was a sentiment, almost a passion. He could not share its management and its profit with another without a measure of self sacrifice far beyond [reason].
When the company began to turn huge profits, making the Laphams exceedingly rich, first Persis and then Lapham began having qualms about the company’s treatment of Rogers. Had he not been bought out, he, too, would have become remarkably wealthy.
Along with workplace morality, social status is an underlying motif in the novel – social status particularly as it plays out in courtship and marriage proposals. The Laphams have two marriageable daughters. The older, Penelope (believed to have been modeled on Howell’s daughter, Winny), is independent, intelligent and witty. In contrast, her sister Irene, though astonishingly beautiful, is a young woman with no aspirations other than marriage, who depends on her mother and sister for her opinions.
The summer before the events of the narrative begin, at a seaside resort, Persis and her daughters become acquainted with a Mrs. Corey. The Coreys are “old money” and as the plot plays out their family and the “new money Lapham family are thrown together for two reasons. The charming, amiable Tom Corey starts work at Lapham Paints Company overseeing sales and distribution in Mexico and South America, and he unpredictably falls in love with Penelope and she with him. Class difference is not, however, the only barrier to their happiness; Irene is also in love with Tom and believes, as do all others, that it is she whom he loves. The dramatic portrayal of Tom’s marriage proposal to Penelope, Penelope’s confession to her mother that it is she whom Tom loves, and Persis’ brutal revelation of Tom’s preference to the stunned Irene are unquestionably some of the novel’s strongest moments.
After Tom becomes Lapham’s employee (but before he makes known which of the Lapham daughters he loves), the Coreys include the Laphams in one of their genteel dinner parties. Persis and Lapham are filled with anxiety over the invitation. Persis cautions her husband that he can’t expect to meet Tom’s blue blooded father as an equal. “You can’t,” warns Persis:
He’s got a better education than you, and if he hasn’t got more brains than you he’s got different. And he and his wife and their fathers and grandfathers before ‘em have always had a high position, and can’t help it.
With uncanny psychological acuity Howells depicts Lapham’s behavior,
as well as his inner thoughts and emotions, at the Corey dinner party. From clever foreshadowing we are prepared for Lapham’s pitiful blunders. A man who seldom drinks alcohol in any form, Lapham becomes hopelessly drunk, failing the tests of polite speech and manners and violating every rule of civilized good taste. He shares a gory, rambling account of his part in a Civil War battle during which shrapnel became embedded in his right leg, and he raises the question of social injustice – a taboo subject at the dinner parties of the “old rich.” Most memorably he boasts loudly about the new mansion he is building for his family on the water side of fashionable Beacon Street.
Though the Laphams have lived comfortably for more than a decade in Boston’s unfashionable South End, the new mansion is, indeed, a statement of their wealth and importance. Following his humiliation at the Corey dinner party, Lapham returns once again to his abstemious habits; he needs to tend to business. Suddenly, so it seems to him, the economy suffers a lull which means, of course, a decline in the paint market. Lapham finds himself in the quandary of having to pay creditors at the same time that customers are unable to pay him. He complains to Persis, “ Pretty near everybody but the fellows that owe me seem to expect me to do a cash business.”
While his once robust company disintegrates before his eyes, Lapham is forced to deal with the villainous Rogers once again. For months Lapham has been lending money to Rogers, and as a security on one of these loans Rogers put up the deed on a West Virginia mill. Now Rogers is pressuring Lapham to sell the mill to a group of unwary, naive investors from England. The idea is tempting to Lapham. Stock losses, continual business setbacks due to the slow economy, and the tragic fire that gutted his uninsured Beacon Street mansion threaten to destroy the Lapham Paints Company unless a lot of cash can be raised. The novel concludes on a heartening note when Lapham refuses to sell the mill to the would-be English buyers. He understands perfectly that a seller is not legally obligated to volunteer information that the buyer has not requested, yet he insists on disclosing that the property may soon depreciate.
In addition to the narratives involving the Lapham Paints Company and the love-life of Tom Corey, another story line surfaces. Readers will note the mysterious presence of Lapham’s secretary, Zerilla Millon Dewey, an “uncommonly pretty” young woman. An anonymous letter written to Persis about Zerilla triggers doubts in Persis -- usually a sensible woman -- about Lapham’s faithfulness. In developing this idea, Howells wisely writes, “The silken texture of the marriage tie bears a daily strain of wrong and insult to which no other human relation can be subjected without lesion…” Persis is a blameless woman undeserving of this new worry.
In the same way, Lapham, Penelope and Irene do not merit the tribulations dealt to them in the course of the narrative. At its core, Howell’s novel is exploring one of literature’s oldest themes: the fragile human figure dwarfed by life’s circumstances. With its impressive delineation of characters and a plot that sheds light on human choices, relationships, and suffering, the Rise of Silas Lapham will remain a classic example of American literature at its best.