The Rise of Silas Lapham

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The Rise of Silas Lapham
First edition
AuthorWilliam Dean Howells
CountryUnited States
GenreLiterary realism
PublisherTicknor and Company
Publication date

The Rise of Silas Lapham is a realist novel by William Dean Howells published in 1885. The story follows 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 into the aristocratic Corey family. Silas' 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 resolution of the love triangle of Irene Lapham, Tom Corey, and Penelope Lapham highlights Howells' rejection of the conventions of sentimental romantic novels as unrealistic and deceitful. An excerpt of the text was used in the 2019 AP English Literature and Composition Exam as a short answer question.

List of characters[edit]

  • Silas Lapham
  • Penelope Lapham
  • Persis Lapham
  • Irene Lapham
  • Tom Corey
  • Bromfield Corey
  • Anna Corey
  • Milton K. Rogers

Plot summary[edit]

The novel begins with Silas Lapham being interviewed for a newspaper profile, during which he explains his financial success in the mineral paint business. The Lapham family is somewhat self-conscious in their sudden rise on the social ladder and often fumble in their attempts at following etiquette norms. They decide to build a new home in the fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, and Lapham spares no expense ensuring it is at the height of fashion.

Tom Corey, a young man from a well-respected high-class family, shows an interest in the Lapham girls; Mr. and Mrs. Lapham assume he is attracted to Irene, the beautiful younger daughter. Corey joins the Lapham's paint business in an attempt to find his place in the world, rather than rely on the savings of his father, Bromfield Corey. When Tom Corey begins calling on the Laphams regularly, everyone assumes his interest in Irene has grown, and Irene takes a fancy to him. Corey, however, astounds both families by revealing his love for Penelope, the elder, more plain-looking, but more intelligent daughter who possesses an unusual sense of humor, a sophisticated literary passion, and a sensible but inquiring mind. Though Penelope has feelings for Tom Corey, she is held back by the romantic conventions of the era, not wanting to act on her love for fear of betraying her sister.

Silas Lapham's former business partner Milton K. Rogers reappears in his life, asking for money for a series of schemes. Mrs. Lapham urges her husband to support the man, whom he had pushed out of the paint company in what was deemed an inappropriate manner. Lapham's dealings with Rogers, however, result in a substantial financial loss. His major asset, the new home on Beacon Street, burns down before its completion. The Laphams are humbly forced to move to their ancestral home in the countryside, where the mineral paint was first developed.

Composition and publication history[edit]

Howells had moved to Massachusetts in the 1860s and became influential as the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a role he held until 1881. The 1880s proved to be an extremely prolific period for him; in that decade, Howells published nine novels, a novella, several magazine articles, and a few plays.[1] He completed The Rise of Silas Lapham while living at 302 Beacon Street in Boston.[2]

Historian Francis Parkman had difficulty understanding the realism of the book and judged it by his more romantic standards and sought a didactic purpose for the story. As he wrote, "It is an admirable portraiture, realistic in the best sense of the word. It must touch the consciousness of a great many people; and as we descendants of the Puritans are said to be always on the lookout for a moral — it will teach the much needed lesson that money cannot do everything."[3]


Historian Scott E. Casper suggested that The Rise of Silas Lapham was partly a satire on contemporary biography conventions. Howells, who had written a campaign biography of Abraham Lincoln, attacked the formulaic style of biographies of the day, including the "rise" from early adversity to later success. Howells emphasized this early in the book where Lapham is interviewed by Bartley Hubbard (a character revived from his 1882 novel A Modern Instance) who interjects while his subject tells his life story with assumptions of his romanticized life.[4] Further, the title character is excessively class-conscious and worries about being humiliated for not fitting in with the culture of wealthy Boston, as exemplified in a scene where he struggles to determine if it is appropriate to wear gloves to a particular event, but refuses to ask for help.[5]


  1. ^ Goodman, Susan and Carl Dawson. William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005: 253. ISBN 0-520-23896-6
  2. ^ Levine, Meriam. A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Applewood Books, 1989: 178. ISBN 0918222516
  3. ^ Jacobs, Wilbur R. Francis Parkman, Historian as Hero: The Formative Years. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1991: 117. ISBN 0-292-72467-5
  4. ^ Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999: 316–317. ISBN 0-8078-4765-8
  5. ^ Bentley, Nancy. Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870-1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009: 96. ISBN 978-0-8122-4174-7

External links[edit]