The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XI. The Later Novel: Howells
§ 17. The Rise of Silas Lapham
Between 1881, when Howells resigned from the Atlantic, and 1886, when he began to write for Harper’s, he had some years of leisure, particularly signalized by the publication in 1884 of the novel which brought him to the height of his reputation as well as of his art. The theme of The Rise of Silas Lapham is the universal one, very dear in a republic, of the rising fortunes of a man who has no aid but virtue and capacity. Lapham, a country-bred, “self-made” Vermonter, appears when he has already achieved wealth, and finds himself drawn, involuntarily enough, into the more difficult task of adjusting himself and his family to the manners of fastidious Boston. A writer primarily satirical might have been contented to make game of the situation. Howells, keenly as he sets forth the conflict of standards, goes beyond satire to a depth of meaning which comes only from a profound understanding of the part which artificial distinctions play in human life and a mellow pity that such little things can have such large consequences of pain and error. The conflict, however, while constantly pervasive in the book, does not usurp the action; the Lapham family has serious concerns that might arise in any social stratum. Most intense and dramatic of these is the fact that the suitor of one daughter is believed by the whole family to be in love with the other until the very moment of his declaration. The distress into which they are thrown is presented with a degree of comprehension rare in any novel, and here matched with a common sense which rises to something half-inspired in Lapham’s perception—reduced to words, however, by a friendly clergyman—that in such a case superfluous self-sacrifice would be morbid and that, since none is guilty, one had better suffer than three. A certain rightness and soundness of feeling, indeed, govern the entire narrative. As it proceeds, as Lapham falls into heavy business vicissitudes and finally to comparative poverty again, and yet all the time rises in spiritual worth, the record steadily grows in that dignity and significance which, according to Howells’s creed, is founded only on absolute truth.