Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A Novel of Business & Morality

The Rise of Silas LaphamThe Rise of Silas Lapham 
by William Dean Howells

“If he was not commonplace, it was through nothing remarkable in his mind, which was simply clear and practical, but through some combination of qualities of the heart that made men trust him, and women call him sweet--a word of theirs which conveys otherwise indefinable excellences.”   ― William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham

The realism of Howell's novel centers on a "self-made man" who confronts the old-guard aristocratic society of Boston in the nineteenth century. The author uses a balanced structure in the classical manner, with a lucid prose and fine attention to detail that almost caress the reader. The deftly woven plot and sub-plots highlight the "rise" of Lapham in a moral sense even while his material fortunes deteriorate. Silas earns a fortune in the paint business, but he lacks traditional social standards, which he tries to attain through his daughter's marriage into the aristocratic Corey family.

Silas's morality does not fail him. He loses his money but makes the right moral decision when his partner proposes the unethical selling of the mills to English settlers. He is a sympathetic character even as he unwisely engages in an endeavor that is doomed by a society that would never accept him. The female characters, especially Lapham's daughter Penelope, are well written and rival portrayals of women by such novelists as Eliot and Wharton. Howells is known to be the father of American realism, and a denouncer of the sentimental novel. The love triangle of Irene Lapham, Tom Corey, and Penelope Lapham highlights Howells' views of sentimental novels as unrealistic and deceitful.

This is the first of major American novels of business, to be followed by those of Norris (The Octopus), Dreiser (The Financier) and Lewis (Babbit) among others. Howells sets his novel apart with his positive view of New England ideals and business itself. It is no wonder that this book has continuously been in print and is considered one the great works of American literature. Reading William Dean Howells' fine novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is an enjoyable experience.

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