The Rise Of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells
“The Rise of Silas Lapham” is a Bostonian novel. A Boston family of the strict Brahminical type, the Coreys, finds itself under obligations for help in a painful emergency to the Laphams, a family of crude manners, mushroom wealth, and sterling virtue. The Laphams, pricked to social ambition by the new acquaintance, build a house on the Back Bay. The contrast of the two social worlds is amusingly depicted in the chapters that record their intercourse; and the elder Lapham allows himself to become intoxicated at a dinner to which he and his family have been self-sacrificingly invited by the Coreys. Meanwhile, Tom Corey, only son of the distinguished family, has obtained a place in the mineral-paint establishment of Silas Lapham, and has seen something informally of the two Lapham girls, the elder of whom, Penelope, is interesting, while her younger sister Irene is dazzlingly beautiful. The young man makes love to the elder girl, but so unobtrusively that he is supposed by both families and both girls to be making love to the other. He proposes to Penelope; she refuses in remorse and dismay; Irene is momentarily furious; the Lapham family is thrown into consternation, and the Corey family, recoiling from any bond with the Laphams, is still further distressed by the discovery that the choice has fallen on the plainer and less valued girl. The question whether a girl may decently marry the man she loves if the joint anticipations of two families have previously bestowed him on a consenting sister seems to be too easy to be worth putting or answering when you have removed it from the texture of the novel; but it is argued extendedly and gravely and dejectedly by the lover and the girl and the girl’s parents and the Unitarian minister and the Unitarian minister’s wife. This is by far the best novel by Mr. Howells and should not be missed from any bookshelf.
The Rise Of Silas Lapham.
Excerpt from the text:
WHEN Bartley Hubbard went to interview Silas Lapham for the “Solid Men of Boston” series, which he undertook to finish up in The Events, after he replaced their original projector on that newspaper, Lapham received him in his private office by previous appointment.
“Walk right in!” he called out to the journalist, whom he caught sight of through the door of the counting-room.
He did not rise from the desk at which he was writing, but he gave Bartley his left hand for welcome, and he rolled his large head in the direction of a vacant chair. “Sit down! I’ll be with you in just half a minute.”
“Take your time,” said Bartley, with the ease he instantly felt. “I’m in no hurry.” He took a note-book from his pocket, laid it on his knee, and began to sharpen a pencil.
“There!” Lapham pounded with his great hairy fist on the envelope he had been addressing.
“William!” he called out, and he handed the letter to a boy who came to get it. “I want that to go right away. Well, sir,” he continued, wheeling round in his leather-cushioned swivel-chair, and facing Bartley, seated so near that their knees almost touched, “so you want my life, death, and Christian sufferings, do you, young man?”
“That’s what I’m after,” said Bartley. “Your money or your life.”
“I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money,” said Lapham, as if he were willing to prolong these moments of preparation.
“Take ’em both,” Bartley suggested. “Don’t want your money without your life, if you come to that. But you’re just one million times more interesting to the public than if you hadn’t a dollar; and you know that as well as I do, Mr. Lapham. There’s no use beating about the bush.”
“No,” said Lapham, somewhat absently. He put out his huge foot and pushed the ground-glass door shut between his little den and the book-keepers, in their larger den outside.
“In personal appearance,” wrote Bartley in the sketch for which he now studied his subject, while he waited patiently for him to continue, “Silas Lapham is a fine type of the successful American. He has a square, bold chin, only partially concealed by the short reddish-grey beard, growing to the edges of his firmly closing lips. His nose is short and straight; his forehead good, but broad rather than high; his eyes blue, and with a light in them that is kindly or sharp according to his mood. He is of medium height, and fills an average arm-chair with a solid bulk, which on the day of our interview was unpretentiously clad in a business suit of blue serge. His head droops somewhat from a short neck, which does not trouble itself to rise far from a pair of massive shoulders.”
“I don’t know as I know just where you want me to begin,” said Lapham.
“Might begin with your birth; that’s where most of us begin,” replied Bartley.
A gleam of humorous appreciation shot into Lapham’s blue eyes.
“I didn’t know whether you wanted me to go quite so far back as that,” he said. “But there’s no disgrace in having been born, and I was born in the State of Vermont, pretty well up under the Canada line–so well up, in fact, that I came very near being an adoptive citizen; for I was bound to be an American of SOME sort, from the word Go! That was about–well, let me see!–pretty near sixty years ago: this is ’75, and that was ’20. Well, say I’m fifty-five years old; and I’ve LIVED ’em, too; not an hour of waste time about ME, anywheres! I was born on a farm, and—-“
“Worked in the fields summers and went to school winters: regulation thing?” Bartley cut in.
“Regulation thing,” said Lapham, accepting this irreverent version of his history somewhat dryly.
“Parents poor, of course,” suggested the journalist. “Any barefoot business? Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise? Orphan myself, you know,” said Bartley, with a smile of cynical good-comradery.
Lapham looked at him silently, and then said with quiet self-respect, “I guess if you see these things as a joke, my life won’t interest you.”
“Oh yes, it will,” returned Bartley, unabashed. “You’ll see; it’ll come out all right.” And in fact it did so, in the interview which Bartley printed.
“Mr. Lapham,” he wrote, “passed rapidly over the story of his early life, its poverty and its hardships, sweetened, however, by the recollections of a devoted mother, and a father who, if somewhat her inferior in education, was no less ambitious for the advancement of his children. They were quiet, unpretentious people, religious, after the fashion of that time, and of sterling morality, and they taught their children the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Bartley could not deny himself this gibe; but he trusted to Lapham’s unliterary habit of mind for his security in making it, and most other people would consider it sincere reporter’s rhetoric.
“You know,” he explained to Lapham, “that we have to look at all these facts as material, and we get the habit of classifying them. Sometimes a leading question will draw out a whole line of facts that a man himself would never think of.” He went on to put several queries, and it was from Lapham’s answers that he generalised the history of his childhood. “Mr. Lapham, although he did not dwell on his boyish trials and struggles, spoke of them with deep feeling and an abiding sense of their reality.” This was what he added in the interview, and by the time he had got Lapham past the period where risen Americans are all pathetically alike in their narrow circumstances, their sufferings, and their aspirations, he had beguiled him into forgetfulness of the check he had received, and had him talking again in perfect enjoyment of his autobiography.
“Yes, sir,” said Lapham, in a strain which Bartley was careful not to interrupt again, “a man never sees all that his mother has been to him till it’s too late to let her know that he sees it. Why, my mother–” he stopped. “It gives me a lump in the throat,” he said apologetically, with an attempt at a laugh. Then he went on: “She was a little frail thing, not bigger than a good-sized intermediate school-girl; but she did the whole work of a family of boys, and boarded the hired men besides. She cooked, swept, washed, ironed, made and mended from daylight till dark–and from dark till daylight, I was going to say; for I don’t know how she got any time for sleep. But I suppose she did. She got time to go to church, and to teach us to read the Bible, and to misunderstand it in the old way. She was GOOD. But it ain’t her on her knees in church that comes back to me so much like the sight of an angel as her on her knees before me at night, washing my poor, dirty little feet, that I’d run bare in all day, and making me decent for bed. There were six of us boys; it seems to me we were all of a size; and she was just so careful with all of us. I can feel her hands on my feet yet!” Bartley looked at Lapham’s No. 10 boots, and softly whistled through his teeth. “We were patched all over; but we wa’n’t ragged. I don’t know how she got through it. She didn’t seem to think it was anything; and I guess it was no more than my father expected of her. HE worked like a horse in doors and out–up at daylight, feeding the stock, and groaning round all day with his rheumatism, but not stopping.”
Bartley hid a yawn over his note-book, and probably, if he could have spoken his mind, he would have suggested to Lapham that he was not there for the purpose of interviewing his ancestry. But Bartley had learned to practise a patience with his victims which he did not always feel, and to feign an interest in their digressions till he could bring them up with a round turn.
“I tell you,” said Lapham, jabbing the point of his penknife into the writing-pad on the desk before him, “when I hear women complaining nowadays that their lives are stunted and empty, I want to tell ’em about my MOTHER’S life. I could paint it out for ’em.”
Bartley saw his opportunity at the word paint, and cut in. “And you say, Mr. Lapham, that you discovered this mineral paint on the old farm yourself?”
Lapham acquiesced in the return to business. “I didn’t discover it,” he said scrupulously. “My father found it one day, in a hole made by a tree blowing down. There it was, lying loose in the pit, and sticking to the roots that had pulled up a big, cake of dirt with ’em. I don’t know what give him the idea that there was money in it, but he did think so from the start. I guess, if they’d had the word in those days, they’d considered him pretty much of a crank about it. He was trying as long as he lived to get that paint introduced; but he couldn’t make it go. The country was so poor they couldn’t paint their houses with anything; and father hadn’t any facilities. It got to be a kind of joke with us; and I guess that paint-mine did as much as any one thing to make us boys clear out as soon as we got old enough. All my brothers went West, and took up land; but I hung on to New England and I hung on to the old farm, not because the paint-mine was on it, but because the old house was–and the graves. Well,” said Lapham, as if unwilling to give himself too much credit, “there wouldn’t been any market for it, anyway. You can go through that part of the State and buy more farms than you can shake a stick at for less money than it cost to build the barns on ’em. Of course, it’s turned out a good thing. I keep the old house up in good shape, and we spend a month or so there every summer. M’ wife kind of likes it, and the girls. Pretty place; sightly all round it. I’ve got a force of men at work there the whole time, and I’ve got a man and his wife in the house. Had a family meeting there last year; the whole connection from out West. There!” Lapham rose from his seat and took down a large warped, unframed photograph from the top of his desk, passing his hand over it, and then blowing vigorously upon it, to clear it of the dust. “There we are, ALL of us.”
“I don’t need to look twice at YOU,” said Bartley, putting his finger on one of the heads.
“Well, that’s Bill,” said Lapham, with a gratified laugh. “He’s about as brainy as any of us, I guess. He’s one of their leading lawyers, out Dubuque way; been judge of the Common Pleas once or twice. That’s his son–just graduated at Yale–alongside of my youngest girl. Good-looking chap, ain’t he?”
“SHE’S a good-looking chap,” said Bartley, with prompt irreverence. He hastened to add, at the frown which gathered between Lapham’s eyes, “What a beautiful creature she is! What a lovely, refined, sensitive face! And she looks GOOD, too.”
“She is good,” said the father, relenting.
“And, after all, that’s about the best thing in a woman,” said the potential reprobate. “If my wife wasn’t good enough to keep both of us straight, I don’t know what would become of me.” “My other daughter,” said Lapham, indicating a girl with eyes that showed large, and a face of singular gravity. “Mis’ Lapham,” he continued, touching his wife’s effigy with his little finger. “My brother Willard and his family–farm at Kankakee. Hazard Lapham and his wife–Baptist preacher in Kansas. Jim and his three girls–milling business at Minneapolis. Ben and his family–practising medicine in Fort Wayne.”
The figures were clustered in an irregular group in front of an old farm-house, whose original ugliness had been smartened up with a coat of Lapham’s own paint, and heightened with an incongruous piazza. The photographer had not been able to conceal the fact that they were all decent, honest-looking, sensible people, with a very fair share of beauty among the young girls; some of these were extremely pretty, in fact. He had put them into awkward and constrained attitudes, of course; and they all looked as if they had the instrument of torture which photographers call a head-rest under their occiputs. Here and there an elderly lady’s face was a mere blur; and some of the younger children had twitched themselves into wavering shadows, and might have passed for spirit-photographs of their own little ghosts. It was the standard family-group photograph, in which most Americans have figured at some time or other; and Lapham exhibited a just satisfaction in it. “I presume,” he mused aloud, as he put it back on top of his desk, “that we sha’n’t soon get together again, all of us.”
“And you say,” suggested Bartley, “that you stayed right along on the old place, when the rest cleared out West?”
“No o-o-o,” said Lapham, with a long, loud drawl; “I cleared out West too, first off. Went to Texas. Texas was all the cry in those days. But I got enough of the Lone Star in about three months, and I come back with the idea that Vermont was good enough for me.”
“Fatted calf business?” queried Bartley, with his pencil poised above his note-book.