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Character over class: winning the class war in a classless society

  • Aug 14, 2012
Less well known than the classics of his contemporaries, Howells' Silas Lapham stands as strong,vital, and timeless as Twain's Gilded Age and Dickens' Our Mutual Friend   In fact, in comparison to those other novels, Silas Lapham may be the more powerfully American (even than the immortal Twain) and purely moral (even than the inimitable Dickens).

Silas Lapham is a wealthy self-made man, still rough around the edges even as he flaunts his million dollar wealth (in the Gilded Age when a million dollars still meant something) in his Boston circles and building his showpiece mansion on the Back Bay waterfront.  As the story opens, we meet him in his office being interviewed for a biographical piece for a local paper, boasting of both his rural Vermont upbringing and the purity and quality of the paint that provides his wealth.

But when his wife meets the independently wealthy Corey family, living on old Boston inherited money, whose son takes a liking to one of the Lapham daughters, the Lapham family is brought face to face with something money, no matter how much and how green, can't buy.  While Silas can't understand it, his wife can:

"Are they any better than we are?  My note of hand would be worth ten times what Bromfield Corey's is on the street to-day.  And I made my money.  I haven't loafed my life away."

"Oh, it isn't what you've got, and it isn't what you've done exactly.  It's what you are."

With that simple sentence, Mrs. Lapham has identified the winners and losers in a class war that Silas doesn't even know is being fought.  Howells doesn't shrink from showing his hero in sad humiliation, none more so than when Lapham attempts to boast of his newspaper story to the Corey family with full false modesty, a boast that falls flat when Mr. Corey doesn't even know the newspaper that Lapham feigns not to read to cover his pride.   When Mrs. Lapham recounts to her husband a social visit paid by Mrs. Corey one afternoon, she exclaims "I declare I never felt so put down in my life by anybody."  When Silas pressed her for an example, Howells writes "Mrs. Lapham tried to tell him, but there was really nothing tangible."   Such is the power of class in a so-called classless society like America, where class boundaries are no less double-underscored by their unwritten nature.  It is an underground war that surfaces every couple of years as politicians call to "tax the rich" or save the "middle class" - terms undefined but powerfully self-reported.

Howells never questions the character and strength of the Lapham family, even as they go through financial and family struggles (in fact intimately related to the relationship of young Tom Corey to the Lapham daughters).  When Lapham embarrasses himself at a dinner party given by the Coreys, he recognizes and apologizes for his actions, which Howells reports young Corey finds "even more offensive in his shame than his trespass."  The mantle of class in the form of the "Old boys club" would protect Lapham--if he just accepted himself as a member!

In Howells' hands, Lapham's moral strength and sincerity are so strong and consistent that even the most decadent wealthy member of the Corey family recognizes that his strength (even in adversity) is superior, even in a class above, their own:

"I must say he has behaved very well--like a gentleman"

"I'm not surprised."

"I am.  It's hard to behave like a gentleman where your interest is vitally concerned.  And Lapham doesn't strike me as a man who's in the habit of acting from the best in him always."

"Do any of us?", asked Corey.

"Not all of us, at any rate," said Bellingham.

In the end, when the Lapham's have lost their wealth but retained their character, the Coreys find their wealth waning but no character to serve as a foundation:

"We never cared for the money," said Mrs. Corey.  "You know that."

"No, and we can't seem to care for the loss of it.  That would be still worse.  Either horn of the dilemma gores us.  Well, we still have the comfort we had in the beginning; we can't help ourselves; and we should only make bad worse by trying."

Don't think for a moment based on my discussion of wealth and class that this is a dry statement of philosophy wrapped in a novel.  Howells is a surprisingly masterful writer (why is this his only read novel, and why is he less well known than his contemporaries?) , never flamboyant like Twain or maudlin like Dickens,   This is a powerful classic that will strike sparks of recognition no matter which class you claim.

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review by . June 17, 2010
Mineral Paint and the Self Made Man
The novel follows the life of self made man Silas lapham and his family.  Silas is a mineral paint man who constructed a paint industry for himself based on his unique paint type almost single handedly.  Silas and his wife Persis and their daughters must maneuver socially during the early nineteenth century, a time where manners and graces are observed very carefully and factor significantly into a persons social statues.  Silas has a hard time dealing with socialites as he …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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The Rise of Silas Lapham is a novel written by William Dean Howells in 1885 about the materialistic rise of Silas Lapham from rags to riches, and his ensuing moral susceptibility. Silas earns a fortune in the paint business, but he lacks social standards, which he tries to attain through his daughter's marriage to 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.

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. It is believed that Howells's own daughter suffered from anorexia and depression, ending in her death by heart attack in 1889. This was supposedly because of her interest in just such sentimental novels, which glorified unrealistic heroes and heroines.

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