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This novel may well have been the first in American Literature to give serious consideration to the emerging class of self-made businessmen.  While they would later come to be targets of ridicule and hatred, Howells--writing in the flush of victory in the Civil War, which Northern industrialists had so much to do with--treats his subject, if not gently, then sympathetically.  Silas Lapham is a Vermonter who takes over a minor paint business from his father and turns it into a significant success.  He is the very symbol of the nouveau riche, post-War millionaire.  However, his attempts to penetrate Boston society prove futile, his speculations in other businesses and in stock ventures prove disastrous and a rival paint company brings him to the brink of financial ruin.  But Lapham, who had cut some corners and made some moral compromises on the road to success, proves unwilling to stoop to deceit in order to save his own skin.  He recognizes that his rivals have natural advantages that he can not compete with and is honest with bidders for his company about these facts.  Thus, though he is eventually driven out of business, Silas emerges as something of a hero.

If the novel's moral aesthetics seem somewhat dated, recall that it was written at the height of the Victorian era.  Meanwhile, the language has worn well; it does not seem as dated as some other novels of its time.  And I, for one, found the essentially positive treatment of Lapham to be a refreshing departure.  It stands in honorable opposition to the more negative, and somehow less human,  portrayals of Dreiser, Lewis, Sinclair and that ilk.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: of Tom Sawyer (Atlantic Monthly [unsigned; William Dean Howells] 1876: May)
    -ESSAY: Opinions on "The White Man's Burden" By William Dean Howells (Excerpt from "Opinions of W. D. Howells," New York Sun (April 30, 1899)
    -The William Dean Howells Society Site
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb William Dean Howells Page
    -PAL: William Dean Howells (1837-1920)(Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide)
    -AITLC Guide to William Dean Howells (ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center)
    -ETEXTS: William Dean Howells  (1837-1920)
    -ETEXT: Rise of Silas Lapham
    -ESSAY: William Dean Howells on the Philippine-American War (Jim Zwick, Anti-Imperialism in the US)
    -ESSAY: On Writing in America: The Politics, Criticism, and Fiction of  William Dean Howells (Alex Spare, U. of Colorado)
    -REVIEW: of OLD CLEMENS AND W.D.H. The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. By  Kenneth E. Eble (Carl Bode, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Gore Vidal: 'The Peculiar American Stamp', NY Review of Books
        Novels, 1875-1886 by William Dean Howells
    -REVIEW: Edmund Wilson: The Fruits of the MLA, NY Review of Books
        Their Wedding Journey by William Dean Howells
    -REVIEW: Denis Donoghue: The Return of the Native, NY Review of Books
        An American Procession by Alfred Kazin
    -REVIEW: of AN AMERICAN PROCESSION By Alfred Kazin ( Marcus Cunliffe, NY Times Book Review)

    -REVIEW: of THEODORE DREISER At the Gates of the City 1871-1907. By Richard Lingeman (Cynthia Ozick, NY Times Book Review)


Gentle sir:

Please re-consider this slightly flawed though Really Good Book. It's deserving of an A-, at least.

(For what's it's worth, Gore Vidal likes it too.)

- Brent Anderson

- May-22-2004, 06:06