Howells had moved to Massachusetts in the 1860s and became influential as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a role he held until 1881. The 1880s proved to be an extremely prolific period for him; in that decade, Howells published nine novels, a novella, several magazine articles, and a few plays. He completed The Rise of Silas Lapham while living at 302 Beacon Street in Boston.
Historian Francis Parkman had difficulty understanding the realism of the book and judged it by his more romantic standards and sought a didactic purpose for the story. As he wrote, "It is an admirable portraiture, realistic in the best sense of the word. It must touch the consciousness of a great many people; and as we descendants of the Puritans are said to be always on the lookout for a moral — it will teach the much needed lesson that money cannot do everything."