Silas Lapham, the hero of William Dean Howells’ famous novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is a self-made man. Born on a homestead in Vermont, Lapham combines the minerals in his farm’s soil into a specially weather-resistant paint. The paint establishes Lapham’s fortune: He moves to Boston and builds a flourishing business. As we first encounter him, Lapham proudly estimates his own wealth at the talismanic figure of a million dollars.
Paint becomes Lapham’s life and, despite nominal church attendance, his only religion. He judges everything and everyone in relation to his paint.
As he rises, Lapham becomes fascinated by his adopted city’s elusive high society. He commences work on a lavish house in the new Back Bay. He is enormously flattered when a son of one of Boston’s leading families applies to him for a job – and then begins to court one of Lapham’s daughters. Tellingly, the young man gains Lapham’s trust by declaring a passionate faith in the qualities of the paint: “I believe in it!”
Social ambition leads Lapham into a series of mistakes and disasters, at first comical, then less so. He speculates. He neglects the insurance of the house he is building. He invests too much faith in a business associate he knew to be crooked. Business reverses strike and accumulate. Lapham faces ruin.
Underneath his gathering pretensions, Lapham is a man of character. He took leave from his business to fight in the Civil War, urged by his wife who asked: “I guess you’ve got a country worth fighting for.” He fights gallantly, is wounded in the leg, is promoted full colonel. He risked his reputation in a censorious city by supporting the very dubious widow of the man who had saved his life in combat. His over-investment in his crooked business associate originates in a conscientious wish to make amends to a man who has convinced Lapham that Lapham has wronged him.
It’s in business disaster that Lapham truly finds himself. Offered a chance to escape financial disaster by a corrupt business deal, Lapham refuses. Lapham’s business shuts its doors, and Lapham returns to the family farm in Vermont.
Yet the title of the book is not meant ironically. In Howells’ eyes, Lapham really has risen – risen to a higher moral and intellectual level. Lapham’s marriage, which had gone slack in prosperity, gains new unity, and his daughters put aside the culture of empty display that was threatening to claim them. The courtship of Lapham’s daughter flourishes (after a plot twist that will not surprise the modern reader very much). Lapham’s fortunes are at last partially restored by a partnership with his former employee now son-in-law.
The Rise of Silas Lapham is often described as one of the rare American novels to present a positive view of an American businessman. I am not sure this accolade is quite deserved. As the story unfolds, Lapham ceases to act in any way recognizable as businesslike. His culminating act of noble self-denial would I think seem excessively fastidious to most practicing businesspeople.
As the novel closes, Lapham has achieved moral fulfillment by surrendering worldly success. Incidentally – or not so incidentally – the inherited class structure of Boston has been reaffirmed. The younger Laphams will join the social elite to which the father aspired, but in two generational jumps rather than one. Meanwhile the aristocratic Corey family has its wealth enhanced and its vigor rekindled by the semi-mesalliance with the Laphams – a mesalliance made more endurable to them by Lapham’s prior humbling.
From the point of view of the modern reader – ok, this modern reader- the most interesting personality in the novel is the collective personality of the mercantile elite of the late 19th century Boston. This is an inward and unwelcoming city, whose elite is an assemblage of
those cousinships which form the admiration and terror of the adventurer in Boston society. He finds himself hemmed in and left out at every turn by ramifications that forbid him all hope of safe personality in his comments on people; he is never less secure than when he hears some given Bostonian denouncing or ridiculing another. If he will be advised, he will guard himself from concurring in these criticisms, however just they appear, for the probability is that their object is a cousin of not more than one remove from the censor. When the alien hears a group of Boston ladies calling one another, and speaking of all their gentlemen friends, by the familiar abbreviations of their Christian names, he must feel keenly the exile to which he was born; but he is then, at least, in comparatively little danger; while these latent and tacit cousinships open pitfalls at every step around him, in a society where Middlesexes have married Essexes and produced Suffolks for two hundred and fifty years.
These conditions, however, so perilous to the foreigner, are a source of strength and security to those native to them. An uncertain acquaintance may be so effectually involved in the meshes of such a cousinship, as never to be heard of outside of it and tremendous stories are told of people who have spent a whole winter in Boston, in a whirl of gaiety, and who, the original guests of the Suffolks, discover upon reflection that they have met no one but Essexes and Middlesexes.
The Rise of Silas Lapham was published in 1885, a moment when Boston itself had unmistakably begun to lag behind New York and upstart Chicago. The “American Athens” was becoming what Athens itself became after the rise of the Greek East: a museum of its former self, and so it would remain for a century until the technology boom of the 1980s, touching bottom in the ossified period memorialized by John P. Marquand’s satire in The Late George Apley.
The Ohio-born Howells satirizes his adopted city’s intensifying ancestor worship. The Coreys live in a house built by Mrs. Corey’s father on Beacon Hill, near a lightly fictionalized Louisburg Square. At a dinner party given in honor of Lapham, the architect building Lapham’s own house rhapsodizes over the superior elegance of the pre-Civil War houses of the Hill like Mrs. Corey’s.
Even the younger Corey, although independent-minded enough to marry outside his class and clan, can only escape the grip of Boston’s codes by moving away entirely – to Mexico City as it happens with his new wife. Howells endorsed young Corey’s move wholeheartedly. He himself had permanently moved to New York City in 1882.