William Dean Howells (1837-1920)
Perhaps one of Howells most widely recognized novels, The Rise of Silas Lapham takes place after the Civil War when great fortunes were being made and lost in a blink of an eye. Our protagonists must face the quandary of business and moral ethics as they try to maneuver themselves into the insular moneyed class of Beacon Hill.
The Rise of Silas Lapham, published in 1885, predates Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Lewis' Arrowsmith by 40 years and retains the hope that the American dream, while being elusive does not have to result in dissolution. As an early example of American Realism, Howells is concerned with the grit and reality of everyday life. The nooks and crannies of the self made man and the tangibility of the pain and heartache that comes with living.
Like many of his counter parts in the American Dream genre, Silas Lapham is a self made man. Through a lot of hard work, perseverance and a little luck, Lapham has created a veritable empire for his family with so much wealth they don't know what to do with it, assured that it would take multiple lifetimes to spend it all and though they spend freely, they still manage to live unpretentiously.
We meet Lapham sitting behind his desk being interviewed about his successful paint business, which he is not afraid or too modest to boast about whenever the opportunity presents itself. Through a quick narrative of his early life, we learn that although being somewhat uncouth and unable to drop the backwoods vernacular, Lapham is an honorable man, one that pursues family, honor and virtue above the importance of wealth.
He has two daughters, Irene and Penelope, both of which although raised accustomed to a certain level of luxury are dramatically removed from the nomenclature of old wealth and the customs of the wealthy. While Irene is the insipid beauty of the family, Penelope is the one with a certain level of wit and charm, always joking and more well read then the average non-cultivated person.
Being well read is obviously very important to Howells and literary jokes and references pepper the novel throughout. At one point Howells inserts what I presume to be his own opinion: "I don't suppose we who have the habit of reading, and at least a nodding acquaintance with literature, can imagine the bestial darkness of the great mass of people - even people whose hours are rich and whose linen is purple and fine." Howells asserts that "we must read or we must be barbarians." And I completely agree with him.
As the Laphams are slowly allowed to trespass into society, I found my heart in my throat, agonizing over whether they would emerge victorious or as complete and utter fools. With no other family from the American Dream genre have I found myself so attached, hoping for their success. And because they are an uncouth, backwoods family with values beyond a pecuniary measure, their wealth does not have the ability to corrupt them. They ultimately emerge the victors and in a way the spoils they win are a continued solidarity and the ability to stand firm in their moral fortitude.
The Rise of Silas Lapham has a bittersweet ending. The characters are all admirable and the reader is left with the hope that despite circumstances one can be happy when surrounded by family and given the ability to work.
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