The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)

by William Dean Howells

In the post–Civil War North, there were two classes of the wealthy, the new rich and the old rich. The former was self-made, and the latter had inherited wealth. A newly rich person might have more money than the old rich but still not have gotten to the upper rung. That’s because the older rich had social position and the customs and manners to go with it.

Silas Lapham is a newly wealthy man. He made a fortune in the paint business. However, he is simple, unpolished, and doesn’t understand the rules of upper-crust society.

Silas, his wife, and their two daughter of marrying age live in a nondescript section of Boston where they are content until Silas aspires to the society of old money. He sets out to build a mansion in the fashionable Back Bay. The Laphams come into contact with an old-money family, the Coreys. Silas is far wealthier than the Coreys, whose fortune is declining, but they look down on his manners. Tom Corey’s parents are displeased when he wants to work for Silas, and their displeasure increases when he falls in love with a Lapham daughter. Further complications arise when a former business partner asks for and receives Silas’s help, and an economic downtown affects the paint market.

The novel might have been titled “The Rise and Fall of Silas Lapham,” but it’s refreshing that it isn’t a villainous nature that does Silas in. He refuses to be dishonest even to save his company. As the book concludes, old money isn’t a winner either. The Coreys have to accept that Tom will follow his own dictates.

The Rise of Silas Lapham was one of the first novels to focus on the American businessman and the best-known novel of William Dean Howells, who was the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


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