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, a middle-aged native of rural New England, being interviewed for a newspaper story about his rise to wealth in the mineral paint business. Despite his limited education, Lapham is a shrewd and hardworking man, an American success story. But he, his wife and two daughters feel socially awkward compared to other wealthy Bostonians. They decide to build a new home in the fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, and Lapham spares no expense in making it impressive.

Tom Corey, a young man from an "old money" Boston family, shows an interest in the Lapham girls, and Mr. and Mrs. Lapham assume he is attracted to Irene, their beautiful younger daughter. Corey joins the Lapham paint business in an attempt to find his place in the world, rather than rely on his wealthy father. Tom introduces Lapham to the cream of Boston society at a dinner party, and they remain on good terms even though the occasion turns out to be embarrassingly awkward.

As Tom continues calling on the Laphams regularly, it's assumed that he wants to marry Irene, and she hopes for just such a result. Tom, however, later shocks both families by revealing that he loves Penelope, the older, less glamorous but more intelligent and thoughtful Lapham sister. Though Penelope has feelings for Tom, she is held back by the romantic conventions of the era, not wanting to act on her love for fear of betraying her sister.

Meanwhile, Lapham and his wife, Persis, sometimes clash over people from their past. For instance, he is very generous to the family of his fallen Civil War comrade Jim Millon, feeling that he owes the man his life. He quietly sends money to Millon's widow and gives the couple's daughter a job. Persis Lapham considers the two women irresponsible characters who are taking advantage of her husband and potentially damaging his reputation, but he insists he is paying a debt of honor. Also, Mrs. Lapham often complains to her husband that he dealt shabbily with his former business partner Milton K. Rogers, who has come down in the world since their association ended. Silas Lapham insists he was fair to Rogers.

Amid the uproar over the Corey courtship, Rogers quietly reappears in the Laphams' life, asking for money for a series of schemes. Persis Lapham convinces her husband to provide the help. Unfortunately, Rogers proves to be a very poor businessman, and the Laphams' new dealings with him cause them to lose a considerable amount of money. On top of that, Lapham's major asset, the new home on Beacon Street, burns down before its completion due to his own carelessness.

Mr. and Mrs. Lapham are forced to move to their humble rural home, where the mineral paint was first developed, and while they are not destitute, they are no longer wealthy. Tom and Penelope are finally able to marry after Irene accepts their romance. The elder Laphams, living in the countryside by themselves, are left to reflect on their extraordinary rise and decline.

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]