Posted by: zhiv | October 6, 2008

The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells

I gobbled up this 2nd tier American classic of “tea cup realism” in something like my old manner over the weekend.  It was a pleasant, engaging, and at times compelling read.  Howells seems to be growing at me, and I’m intrigued by his role at the center of American literature in the 70s and 80s in the 19th century.  I had read “Indian Summer” about ten years ago, although I’m not sure I quite finished it.  And that’s when I first became interested in Howells–before that I had probably heard about Lapham, his best-known book, and not much else.  My mid-life reading and interest seems to be a bit like water flowing down into open spaces, and this has made me much more of an Americanist.  I guess it’s just that I never took courses in AmLit and the American Novel, although I did study the American Renaissance in some depth, so I must have taken at least one.  And I certainly did my time on Henry James too.  But as I keep discovering, you can read Cooper, Irving, & Poe, Hawthorne and Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and James and Twain, and easily skip over Stowe and Jewett and a number of others.  And Howells is probably the most significant member of the secondary group, always seeming to settle just below the first tier.  At any rate, my focus was British Literature, not American, so I don’t know what I’m complaining about.

TRoSL is very much a “Core Philosophy” novel, which is why I want to write about it in some depth:  strikingly, it’s all about the finer points of “doing nothing.”  Silas Lapham, with his abundant native New England energy and his passion for paint, has done too much, and we meet him as a vulgar, bragging, hard-driving and well-meaning post-Civil War man of business adrift on a sea of money.  His success has taken him away from his natural environment, and he and his family are anxious, isolated, and clueless about how to find friends and an appropriate social station in post-war Boston.  Howells’ first point, then, is that American industry and capital is bound to create a certain confusion about social identity and behavior.  All of this industrial, capitalized “doing” will be unnatural, and chances are that it will find a way to unwind itself.

Lapham’s success has also isolated him, subtly at first, from his “good woman” wife, his full partner in his early days, but she has become unmoored by the process of raising their two daugters and trying to learn how to spend their money.  Every step of style she makes is the wrong one, but it isn’t her fault.  The daughters, Penelope and Irene, are well-divided on simple lines, dark and fair, smart and simple, and the love story that serves as the engine of the novel comes when the Lapham women become acquainted with Tom Corey (played by Paul Newman in the 1953 TV adaptation), a young Boston brahmin, who takes a fancy to one of them.  In my younger days–my own Tom Corey days, not to say Paul Newman–I would have had a field day with my old hobby horse of self-deception in this novel, the sisters of sense and sensibility acting out a disruptive psychic split, Irene’s self-deception about Tom Corey prefiguring the self-deception of Lapham that leads to his financial ruin… but I digress.

The great, classic “core philosophy” character in TRoSL is Tom’s father, Bromfield Corey.  He is a charming, sophisticated Boston gentleman, and in describing him Howells’ makes a close examination of the ways in which doing nothing is simply the practice of being a gentleman.  I seem to have forgotten all of this somehow, but Howells brings it home forcefully by embedding the gentrified Bromfield Corey in a novel that foregrounds economics.  The rise of the classical novel–perhaps very much to be confused with Lapham’s rise–consisted greatly of examination of the morals and manners of the gentry, the bourgeois stratum of society dedicated to doing nothing.  Somehow, in ceasing to read much 19th century fiction after overdosing on it in college and grad school, and being affected by zen, yoga, and general job disdain and laziness in developing the Core Philosophy, I managed to lose track of the fact that doing nothing was such an important and even central preoccupation of bourgeois life and fiction.   It makes a lot of sense, of course, but I never thought that it was simply a matter of attempting to be a gentleman.

I’m pretty excited about this.  It reminds me of hearing a talk by psychologist/brain scientist Dan Siegel (“The Mindful Brain”) who was studying attachment and neuroplasticity, and how he said he was talking for about three years about “mindfulness,” and all of these people he would meet would nod their heads and mention meditation, and he couldn’t figure out why they were agreeing so strongly with what he thought was his cutting edge research.  It was as if they knew exactly what he was saying, when he was just figuring it out himself.  Finally he started asking questions and discovered that for over 2500 years Buddhist meditation practice had been doing exactly what he was trying to describe.  Lapham has made me realize and think about what I suppose I always suspected:  the zen of the bourgeois gentleman as he appears in 19th century novels.  Let’s use Jane Austen as a quick example:  what does Knightley do?  Darcy?  Clarissa Harlowe, for that matter?  Nothing, nothing, and more nothing.

Bromfield Corey had a Salem-based ship captain father, the type of figure who represents the bedrock of American polite society. Bromfield went to Italy, became sophisticated, and learned to draw and paint well enough to know he would never attain mastery, and so his art is to live well and do nothing, rather than to do art itself rather poorly.  Howells is extremely specific about this.  He puts Bromfield and his circumstances in the quiet, polite background of the novel, but they provide its spinal strength.  His son Tom Corey is a modern young man, compelled by his energy and inclination to fine something to do, or “go into,” as it is commonly phrased in the novel.  Thus he is attracted to Lapham and his business, and another part of Tom’s “doing” is of course to form a socially questionable attachment to one of Lapham’s daughters.  Only we’re not meant to know which one.

In just a brief glance at the apparatus of my Norton Critical edition, I discover some interesting items to serve my quaint biographical approach to literature, to which I can also attach some of the rest of my vague impression of Howells.  The story, it seems to me, is very much about his own “rise.”  I should first mention that the “rise” itself is a nice ironic notion of the growth of moral consciousness of which Howells seems to have been quite proud.  And I’m proud that it fits so neatly into the Core Philosophy.  The novel begins with a journalist character from one of Howells’ previous novels interviewing Lapham in order to write the Horatio Alger-version of his gathering of wealth.  Neither the writer nor his subject seems to have any faith in this form of narrative, but it does call to mind Howells’ extensive experience as a journalist, which began when he was young adolescent, working for his father.  Immediately after the opening chapter we come very close to Lapham and his concerns, and it seems as if the central question will be whether he will be able to find the means to enter society, even with all of his wealth.  It’s an intriguing proposition, but as the story goes along and he and his family gain hard-won knowledge of the manners of society, the question of whether Lapham will be able to hold onto his wealth comes to the fore.  We guess that he will be ruined.  The “rise” is his ability to turn down a shady business deal that might have forestalled his collapse.  He and his wife return to their Northern New England (Vermont) roots and farmstead, but he has found a moral consciousness that constitutes his “rise.”  The development of the shady deal and the characters behind it aren’t put forth as clearly and coherently as they might be, perhaps because they’re shady, but the fact that Lapham turns down the deal is meant to be the overarching point of the entire novel.  Lapham has learned to do nothing, even under extreme need and circumstances.  It’s really quite an extraordinary statement.

But I was trying to get to some intriguing biographical details.  The journalism in the opening of the novel harkens back, as mentioned, to Howells’ early days as a professional writer, and it seems to serve as both a general and personal critique of Ben Franklin’s industriousness and its 19th century Horatio Alger explosion.  Howells makes it fairly clear that he’s as guilty as anyone of the sins he is determined to preach against, and the device of introducing the flawed alter ego of the journalist tells us that Howells isn’t claiming to be Lapham, at least not in any direct manner.

The novel comes close to Howells himself in the important subplot in which Lapham is building a house in the Back Bay, which Howells was doing at the time he wrote it.  Howells’ professional anxiety is very much on the surface in all of the details of building the house that Lapham initially claims he neither needs nor wants, but he becomes deeply attached to it.  In a perhaps overly pregnant scene, as his fortunes reverse, Lapham knows he has to sell the house, and he goes the empty, nearly finished building, smokes a cigar and resolves to fight on.  The small fire he has made in the upstairs fireplace burns the house to the ground, turning his biggest asset to ash.  Howells is telling us in no uncertain terms that he knows his worldly success as a writer is transient, pure vanity, and meaningless.  In his fiction he burns down an elaborate Back Bay house, just as he is in the process of building one in real life.

The building of the house and its destruction allows us to step back and look at the parallels between Lapham and Howells.  Howells was an outsider, from Ohio, and his industry led him to early and continued succes in literature and publishing.  He must have been insecure about his own social standing, and if I recall correctly, his wife was his partner for his early days, and she never quite fit very neatly into his literary success.  Howells scourges himself in creating Lapham.  We meet Lapham at the height of hs success, a wealthy braggart who is passionate about his industrial-strength paint, all of it very handy metaphor for Howells’ technical facility and accomplishments.  He shows Lapham’s dizzy absorption in complicated, private deals, which distance him from his wife.  He only gets her back and finds himself by losing everything and returning to the simple terms where they shared their lives, back on the farm.  It’s the same as his autobiographical move with the house:  he ruins his fictional business in order to return to the simple life with his wife, while he was in the midst of generating monthly installments and creating his greatest real-life success.  Ellen Ballow, in “Gentleman Publishers,” says that TRoSL “embodies his recollections of things past; it also renders concrete his experience of things present. ‘An author,’ he once said, is merely one who has the fortune to remember more than other men.  A good many wise critics will tell you that writing is inventing; but I know better than that; it is only remembering… the history of your own life.'”

The Norton apparatus tells me that Howells based a number of the characters in the story on figures he knew from the Boston publishing business.  I find this especially interesting, partly because of my interest in Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett, who were very close with Howells.  Howells took over the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly from James T. Fields, and in this role he discovered, published and supported Jewett.  Howelss was much younger than J.T. Fields, the same age as Annie.  So it can be said that they were all in this together.  If you want to tell the story of Annie Fields and SO Jewett, Howells is going to be a significant character.  So when I see that the business of the novel relates to publishing, the business that Howells actually knew so well, it’s quite intriguing.  Ballow tells us that Tom Corey is modeled after George Harrison Mifflin, the junior partner of Henry Oscar Houghton.  Lapham’s office is Houghton’s office at the Riverside Press, and Houghton’s background, physical characteristics, and marriage contain the outlines of Lapham’s character.  Ballow adds that:  “Lapham’s character is an amalgam.  His stock deals, his love of round figures, his perennial optimism, his loose way of overstating his resources appear in James R. Osgood.”  An editor’s note says that Osgood, “a close personal friend of Howells, served him as both publisher and literary agent.  His publishing firm went bankrupt more than once because of his optimistic overexperience.”  I suppose that it shouldn’t be a surprise that Howell’s best-known book goes to the heart of his experience in the world of Boston publishing.


  1. Lots of interesting stuff here! It’s fascinating that the 18C and 19C novel is so preoccupied with doing nothing. I’ve always thought that if I were a gentlewoman and had little to do that I would go crazy with the nothingness, although of course it’s a different matter if that’s what you’re born to. If I could live a life of doing nothing right now, I would have an extremely hard time adjusting — and I know this has partly to do with a need for distraction from myself, which isn’t healthy. It’s odd to think of a connection between the overly-privileged gentleman kind of doing nothing, and a mindful, zen kind of doing nothing. What a difference in the social/political/spiritual status of these types of people!

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