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.