The Rise of Silas Lapham

The Rise of Silas Lapham Racism in "The Rise of Silas Lapham": Ironic Commentary or Casual Complicity?

One unfortunate element that readers are sure to encounter while reading The Rise of Silas Lapham is the text's exploration and deployment of racial prejudice and racial stereotypes. Primarily, these epithets and judgements are used and passed, respectively, by the Coreys and those in their immediate circle. For example, when Tom tells Bromfield that Irene and the Laphams have asked for his advice on which books to stock their new home with, Bromfield makes a comment that common sense is not equivalent to civilization, during which he gives the Sioux tribe as an example (118). This anti-indigenous language goes uncontested by Tom, and others in the Coreys' immediate circle will not contest or challenge similar language when it appears later in the novel during their dinner. Consider, for example, how humorous the other guests at the party find the Coreys' discussion of Miss Kingsbury's "indigent Italian" tenants (193). Despite the presence of these xenophobic and racist comments in the text, some readers—as well as Howells himself—have suggested that Howells' use of such language is not meant to be taken offensively, since it used in an act of ironic social commentary. If only the Coreys—who are depicted as snobbish, biased, and foolish in their stodginess—use such language, after all, might it be the case that Howells seeks to also lampoon these characters' "civilized" racism and prejudices by putting these words in their mouths?

Though this may be an appealing idea on account of Howells' progressive politics and our desire to uphold Howells as a role model and literary pioneer, several facts in the text contradict this claim and compel us to reexamine Howells' trafficking in racial stereotypes and racist language. First, when Silas laments the excessive heat from his furnace at the beginning of the novel, he does so by blaming one of the workers that tends his furnace using offensive and racialized language (i.e., "I'll be the death of that darkey yet" (37)). While the fact that our morally upright protagonist uses racist language is enough of an indictment, however, the original version of this insult was much worse. As Kermit Vanderbilt attests in his introduction to the novel, the serialized version of the novel saw Silas actually speaking a legitimate slur against Black people in this scene (xii). Moreover, this was not the only revision that Howells made in the book version to counteract accusations of prejudice and racism.

Notably, Howells also faced a significant deal of criticism on account of his portrayal of Jewish people in the serialization, almost entirely bowdlerized and removed in the book version of the story. For example, as Kermit Vanderbilt attests in his appendix to the novel, the serialization's account of the Laphams' first encounter with the Coreys was quite different insofar as the "novel point of view" (28) that the Coreys share with the Laphams is revealed to be antisemitism (366). In fact, the original sees a quite lengthy discussion between Persis and Silas about how Jewish people drive down the property values in whatever areas they move into, and the fact that a Jewish family has moved into Nankeen Square worries both Persis and Silas (366-367). Moreover, as Vanderbilt attests, this dialogue is shortly followed by an additional piece of anti-semitic dialogue in which Persis states her belief in the stereotype that Jewish people "all have money" (367). That Howells received a great deal of flak for printing these remarks is a testament to the fact that—though such language might also be a criticism of Silas for being naive and believing whatever people like the Coreys say—it was and is, more importantly, offensive to a wide variety of people. Depending on one's perspective, Howells' choice to censor this statement perhaps reflects increased conscientiousness regarding these social issues; to others, it is simply the embarrassed and damage-controlling reaction of a man whose racism has been exposed.

In making up one's own mind in this debate over the offensive content of Howells' novel, it is worth mentioning that these racial comments were not the only things that Howells excised in response to external pressure. For example, as Kermit Vanderbilt points out in his introduction to the text, the scene in which Bromfield Corey suggests blowing up vacant homes of the wealthy did not sit right with the owner of the Century, Roswell Smith (xiv). When it was discovered that Howells was describing a situation of class inequality verging on social revolution, as well as seemingly advocating for it through the words of Bromfield, the paper intercepted copies of the serialization and forced Howells to change the language to something less inflammatory (xiii-xiv). Thus, while it is still up to readers to decide how they personally view Howells' mobilization of offensive rhetoric, there is some evidence which suggests that Howells was at leasts aware that these statements were problematic and was willing to take action in response to public pressure, rather than choose not to use them based on his own intuitions and values.