Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Rise of Silas Lapham - colors, pencils, and plots

When Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for…

Hey, Bartley Hubbard, I know that guy.  He’s the no-good journalist husband in A Modern Instance (1882), and here he is, the first thing I see in the first line of The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).  Why waste time coming up with a second Boston journalist when you have spent so much energy on this one.  William Dean Howells had been reading Balzac and Zola.  He was a great champion of international fiction.

What else do I learn in this first chapter.  The journalist interviews the title character for a newspaper profile, a handy device for a novelist that would grow old fast.  Silas Lapham is a paint manufacturer.  He inherited a Vermont paint mine – who knew there were such things – and developed it into a successful company.  Whatever else Howells does, he creates a convincing entrepreneurial type, a rare feat.

Silas Lapham already seems to have risen quite a lot.  A few chapters later, he begins building a million dollar mansion, for example.  Maybe the title is ironic.  Maybe Howells will describe his fall.

Oh no, Lapham has two daughters of marriageable age!  Why, this novel isn’t going to be about paint manufacturing after all – it’s a dang marriage plot, isn’t it?    It is.  Can vulgar, energetic new money find love and happiness with Boston’s listless but sophisticated old money?

Anthony Trollope – the novel resembles Trollope far more than anything French I have ever read – would alternate and parallel the two strands, the business plot and the marriage plot.  Howells, strangely, works on the marriage story for a couple hundred pages, brings it to a crisis, and suspends it, then he launches the business plot.  I began to wonder if Howells had forgotten about the marriage plot.  He returns to it with 22 pages to go, which turned out to be sufficient, but still.  Kinda off-kilter.  But what’s so special about working up parallel plots that have little to do with each other, the A-plot / B-plot of the well-made sitcom?  Howells’s structure is fine, just unusual.

The business plot is a good portrait of the entrepreneurial character, or the interaction between ethics and risk.  The marriage plot is more deeply ironic.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.

The prose of Silas Lapham can be dully plain: “He took a note-book from his pocket, laid it on his knee, and began to sharpen a pencil” (first page).  Or alternatively:

… at the end of one [street] the spars of a vessel penciled themselves delicately against the cool blue of the afternoon sky.  The air was full of a smell pleasantly compounded of oakum, of leather, and of oil.  It was not the busy season, and they met only two or three trucks heavily straggling toward the wharf with their long string teams; but the cobble-stones of the pavement were worn with the dint of ponderous wheels, and discolored with iron-rust from them; here and there, in wandering streaks over its surface, was the gray stain of the salt water with which the street had been sprinkled.  (Ch. 1)

The smells remind me that the context is commercial paint, for buildings, ships and machinery.  That the ship’s masts are “penciled” or that the street’s colors are “iron-rust” and “gray” are the narrator’s subtle counterpoint to his hero Silas Lapham, who would like to paint that ship, that street, everything, in bolder, long-lasting colors.  Maybe a little jab at the corroded journalist, too, who uses his pencil for less elegant purposes.

Tomorrow, Middlemarch.


  1. interesting that Howells and Twain were so different, writing wise... i've got a couple of Howells novels, "The Landlord at Lion's Head" and "A Hazard of New Fortunes"; i'll have to give one a try...

  2. Lapham has got some of the worst first pages I've read; truly clunky stuff, and dead flat despite the terse hyperactive style. Howells makes Lapham sound like a gorilla with his giant head and massive hands, his knees almost touching Hubbard's. The sense of Lapham physically dominating the scene is surely there, but it's just so clumsily written, those sentences torturing themselves around the significant details. Hard to believe he's the same guy who wrote the street scene with the penciled masts.

    For no reason I add that WDH's A Sleep and a Forgetting is a fine novella. A psychiatrist on holiday treats a pretty American tourist.

  3. Twain and James, to pick two poles, have distinctive voices, among the strongest stylistic signatures. Howells is an Americanized amalgam of many other good (better) writers and does not have a distinctive voice.

    The beginning of Silas Lapham made me nervous, but that descriptive passage is not just by the same guy, it is just a few pages into the novel.

    I can imagine reading more Howells; I can imagine not.

    1. "that descriptive passage is not just by the same guy"...perhaps Howells borrowed from another writer there.

  4. Even if the novel is a collage, it is Howells who chose to include the passage.

  5. Middlemarch is next? Harold Bloom -- reviled by many, admired by many -- argues in _The Western Canon_ that Middlemarch and Bleak House are the two canonical English-language novels of the 19th century; his is an interesting if not necessarily persuasive argument. So, I look forward to your assessment of GE's novel. Perhaps I need to dig out my dusty copy. I would be especially interested in looking again at GE's approaches to religion within the novel. Perhaps you will touch upon that issue in your comments.

    Postscript: Now I'm also impulsively driven to locate my copy of _Bleak House_. What an interesting duo: Dickens and Eliot.

  6. Middlemarch as used in The Rise of Silas Lapham is next! Howells seems to agree with Bloom about Eliot, and without the benefit of hindsight. Howells was a great reader.

  7. I read this in an undergrad English lit class long ago and didn't care for it them. I have always wondered if I should read it again but I think I might just be satisfied reading your posts about it instead :)

  8. I did hope you would discuss the origin of Lapham's fortune--the paint--in greater depth, because it struck me as so American a detail for Howells to include. He's like Wharton without sophistication. I never understood why this, and not "A Hazard of New Fortunes" became the top-of-mind title of Howells's (for it it a better book in every way), unless it be for the unintentionally schoolboyish salacious title...

  9. Tried reading this once, but don't remember getting far. What's with all the silver age Russian poetry?

  10. I could re-read Silas Lapham someday. To the extent that writing about it substitutes for re-reading, it is clear that the novel is complex enough to revisit.

    You may want to save it for a vacation in Boston, though. It is a terrific Boston novel.

    How is the paint mine especially American? Mineral extraction was popular in Europe, too, among the newly-monied. Lapham, now he's more of an American type. The Schlumbergers were not so much like him.

    The title of Silas Lapham does not seem at all salacious to me. Really? No, I'd rather not know.

    Is A Hazard of New Fortunes better written? William Pritchard thinks it rather worse - well, I should double-check that - although interesting in some unique ways.

    Silver Age Russian poetry is awesome, that's what's with it!

  11. To me it's "American" because he digs it up in his back the Beverly Hillbillies. I haven't re-read either novel in years, but I remember liking "New Fortunes" better but I couldn't articulate why without giving them both a second read-through, and I'm not sure Howells is canonical enough (oh, that sounds snobbish, doesn't it?) to justify that for me, when I've got so much else (Wharton, minor James and Wilkie Collins, Hawthorne's stories, re-reading Hardy and Eliot, plus War and Peace) on my shelves.

  12. "snobbish," oh, no, it is true, what you say is true.