Historian Scott E. Casper suggested that The Rise of Silas Lapham was partly a satire on contemporary biography conventions. Howells, who had written a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, attacked the formulaic style of biographies of the day, including the "rise" from early adversity to later success. Howells emphasized this early in the book where Lapham is interviewed by Bartley Hubbard (a character revived from his 1882 novel A Modern Instance) who interjects while his subject tells his life story with assumptions of his romanticized life. Further, the title character is excessively class-conscious and worries about being humiliated for not fitting in with the culture of wealthy Boston, as exemplified in a scene where he struggles to determine if it is appropriate to wear gloves to a particular event, but refuses to ask for help.
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