The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Study Guide

William Dean Howells is one of the most esteemed American authors of the late nineteenth century, and his literary output is immense, totaling over 100 books across different genres. He is most famous, however, for his Realist novels, a centerpiece of which is The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). With events set in Boston and around New England during the Gilded Age (the period following the Civil War, approximately 1870–1900), the story is one of the first extended studies of the life of an American businessman. Interestingly, however, rather than a Romantic portrayal of the rise of a simple country person to extreme wealth in the city, the novel represents an unrelenting and realistic display of the shortcomings and trials of wealthy society in Gilded Age America. As such, while the novel takes a rather grim approach in its depiction of courtship, business, and wealthy society, it can be classified as a "comedy of manners" (i.e., a work that satirizes the behaviors of the upper class).

Howells' recovered papers suggests that the novel first began with a brief, private synopsis by Howells entitled "The Rise of Silas Needham." Over time, this story—which followed a crass yet morally upright businessman with vacillating business fortunes—developed in Howells' diary into a story which also incorporated a subplot regarding the protagonist's daughter and an affluent, proper Bostonian. The name of the family in this diary entry was also changed from "Needham" to "Lapham". By the summer of 1884, Howells' had thus thoroughly thought up the structure of The Rise of Silas Lapham, and he began serializing the novel in the Century. This serialization then continued until the novel's last installment was published in August 1885 to mixed reviews. While many critics saw Howells' Realism as depressing, pointless, or else far too literal, others such as Edmund Gosse praised the novel and saw it as a genius and nuanced portrayal of the American spirit. The New York Times and The Independent also agreed that the conflicting morals and business ambitions at the center of the novel were rendered skillfully and accurately.

One important thing to note about Silas Lapham is the variety and diversity of connections between its characters and its author. For example, Howells later admitted that, during the period of the novel's writing, he had experienced an emotional breakdown, saying that "the bottom dropped out" of his life. Interestingly, the tensions that William Dean Howells felt in his personal life in many ways mirror or parallel the conflicts explored in the novel, so it is likely that Howell's creative process was marked by a great deal of personal introspection and turmoil as he wrought the turmoil and inner thoughts of his own characters. As a midwesterner, for example, Howells was acutely attuned to the same culture shock and status shock that troubles Lapham upon his entry from rural Vermont into Boston high society. Further, as Kermit Vanderbilt explains, the humiliating experience of Silas at the Coreys' dinner closely mirrors the experience of Mark Twain—a fellow midwesterner and close friend of Howells—at the Whittier Birthday Dinner in 1877. Even more close to Howells' own experiences, however, are the fact that the character of Penelope may have been based on his own daughter Winny and the fact that Howells himself lived on Beacon Street, a central location for Lapham in the novel.

Even today, this entanglement between Howells' own life and those of his characters continues to fascinate critics and readers alike. Moreover, the novel has maintained a steady series of advocates and detractors, mirroring the mixed critical reception that it received upon publication. Notably, for example, Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken did not like the novel for many of the same reasons as contemporary critics. Others, however, point to Silas' complex moral calculus—as well as the prevalence of status, will, chance, and gender as motifs—as both skillfully done and useful in teaching us about the unique and dynamic system of factors that shaped American society towards the end of the 19th century. No matter which camp one falls into, however, it is clear that The Rise of Silas Lapham is one of Howells' most popular and significant works.