Thursday, May 6, 2010

On "The Rise of Silas Lapham" by William Dean Howells *****

I'd only read one thing by Howells before, a short story in an American literature survey class. He seems one of those minor folks touched on in literature courses and then shunted off to the side (unless one decides to specialize in his period). Important in his time as a critic, the editor of the Atlantic, Howells was no slouch of a writer, and I'm so glad to have picked up this, his most famous novel.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is at once a comedy of errors, a comedy of manners, and a tragedy created by pride as much as by right action and by the dark forces over which humans have no control. The tale is primarily that of Silas Lapham, one of the new rich of the Industrial Revolution, a man with an inferiority complex he hides in bragging and in good deeds, a man with an overactive conscience. He is the father of two daughters, one pretty, the other intelligent. Of these, high society takes note in the form of a gentleman who comes acalling. Rich meet formerly poor; a love triangle of sorts comes into being; and there is much misunderstanding. This is the source of the comedy, toward the end a bit overwrought but mostly well done. The tragedy comes from Lapham's own braggadocio, his feeling of invincibility, which allows him to be careless, as well as through his generosity and guilt for his riches. Placed finally in a situation that asks Lapham to stick to his ideals or to compromise in an attempt to save himself, Lapham has to make a choice that will affect his whole family.

I felt incredibly close to Lapham in many places, not because I'm rich, but because like Silas, I can be made to feel guilty for doing what is right because of the wrongs it will do to others--not that doing wrong would solve things other than to wrong a different set of others. And Lapham's own daughters have similar crises of conscience--having to choose what's right for one's self even though it hurts another (even if no true wrong is involved). The moral struggles of these characters were very enjoyable to see worked out on the page, especially as Howells seems to have more trust in people's personal morality than I generally have been willing to harbor, at least in narrative, where more often my own characters give in to their base instincts, even if they force themselves to believe they do so for a higher cause. I suspect as much of myself, I guess. You can read Howell's novel here at Project Gutenberg.

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