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The Rise of Silas Lapham,
This review is from: The Rise of Silas Lapham (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I've had William Dean Howells' "A Modern Instance" and "The Rise of Silas Lapham," like many, many other books on my bookshelf for a long time. A recent meeting of a reading group of mine finally allowed me to make the time to read Howells' 1885 work, "Silas Lapham". I am extraordinarily glad I did. From the start of the novel, we are drawn into the world of late 19th century Boston, post-Reconstruction America, where newly rich industrialists attempt to enter the society life of old money. Howells crafts an extraordinarily realistic look at the American Dream gone awry.
"The Rise of Silas Lapham" begins with an interview that a local newspaperman is doing of Colonel Silas Lapham, a mineral paint tycoon. Lapham's account of his rise from the backwoods of Vermont to his marriage, to service in the Civil War, to his propagation of a successful mineral paint business is chronicled and gives us a taste of the effort and perseverance necessary for his rise, as well indicating the possibility of some potential failings, especially with regard to his one-time partner, Milton Rogers. We soon learn that Mrs. Persis Lapham aided a society woman in distress the year before, and the return of her son, Tom Corey, from Texas, signals another sort of ambition on the part of the Lapham daughters, Irene and her older sister Penelope. The rest of the novel plays out the ways in which the Laphams try to parley their financial success into social status - and how the Laphams are affected by the gambit.
Howells explores a number of significant cultural issues in "Silas Lapham": isolationism, social adaptability, economic solvency among all classes, personal integrity and familial ties, and the relationship between literature and life. The fact that the story is set about 20 or so years after the end of the American Civil War sets an important and subtle context that runs throughout the novel and inflects all of the thematic elements. The ways that the characters interact, the way that the society functions, even though the majority of the novel takes place in Boston, is importantly affected by the fact that Reconstruction is drawing to a close, Manifest Destiny is in full swing, and ultimately, America was at a point of still putting itself together and trying to view itself as the "United" States.
Howells' treatment of the social interactions between the industrially rich Laphams and the old moneyed Coreys underscores the difficulty in creating and maintaining a national identity, especially when the people even in one northern city seem so essentially different. The romance story involving the Laphams and Tom Corey is obviously an important element of the story, and Howells does an amazing job of not allowing the romance plot to become as overblown and ludicrously sentimental as the works of fiction he critiques in discussions of novels throughout his own work. "The Rise of Silas Lapham" questions the nature of relationships, how they begin, how they endure - the contrast between the married lives of the Coreys and the Laphams is worth noting, as is the family dynamic in both instances.
I'm very pleased to have gotten a chance to read this novel. Generally when I say an author or a work has been neglected, I mean that it's been neglected primarily by me. Having turned an eye now to Howells, I am very impressed with the depth of his characterization, the ways he puts scenery and backdrop to work for him, the scope of his literary allusions, and his historical consciousness. This is certainly a great American novel that more people should read. It may not be exciting, but it is involving, and that is always an excellent recommendation.
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Initial post: Dec 27, 2012 9:19:47 PM PST
Hank and Patsy says:
As one who has read this novel with great pleasure at least five times, I must say that I completely agree with this reviewer. It's always interesting to see in older novels how like ourselves 100 + year-old characters often are. The social insecurities and all-too-human relationships portrayed here will be very familiar to many readers of this novel. I suspect Howells has been unjustly neglected by a whole lot more people than the reviewer admits had been the case with himself.
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