Places: The Rise of Silas Lapham

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1885

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Boston

*Boston. Rise of Silas Lapham, TheMassachusetts city in which the action of the novel unfolds. Having lived in Boston, Howells was familiar with the city and deftly portrays the social divide that existed there in the late eighteenth century between America’s aristocratic patricians, represented by the Coreys, who inherited their wealth and do not have to work for a living, and the rising tide of the newly rich, represented by the Laphams, particularly Silas, the self-made man. In the post-Civil War America Howells portrays, as industrialization increases and people like the Laphams move from farms to cities, the patrician class of Boston is being physically displaced. Along with this physical displacement comes the possibility of the displacement of spiritual and moral values brought about by excessive materialism. With its Puritan background and position as America’s cultural center, Boston is the perfect setting for this clash of values.

South End house

South End house. Home in which the Laphams have lived in an unfashionable South End neighborhood for twelve years. The furnishings of the house reflect the garish taste of the uncultured Laphams, and this bad taste signifies the possibility of a deficiency of character because it reveals values generated by excessive materialism. Silas is particularly materialistic. Ambitious to move up in society, Silas wants to live in the Beacon Hill neighborhood to display his monetary worth. While he is not a bad person, moral questions are raised about his earlier treatment of Rogers. His quest for wealth and position leads him to seriously consider saving himself financially by engaging in the shady land deal Rogers suggests later in the novel.

Corey house

Corey house. Home of the Corey family in Bellingham Place. Reflecting the Coreys as members of a dying class, the house is elegantly and tastefully furnished, in contrast with the Laphams’, and it is one of several “stately” dwellings of classical simplicity on the street where the upper classes of Boston once lived. However, the houses on the street are gradually being converted into boardinghouses as the working classes displace the patrician families. In contrast to the Laphams (Silas especially), the Coreys are not materialistic but instead value their leisure to invest in cultural affairs. Bromfield Corey and his wife Anna do not need to work for a living, but they must increasingly live frugally as their inheritance is dwindling. It is clear that Tom Corey will have to work and will thus be forced to bridge the social gap.

*Beacon Street

*Beacon Street. Street in a prosperous Boston neighborhood on which Silas builds a house to show his social equality with, if not superiority to, the Bostonian patricians. It represents Silas’s ambition and materialism and thus his misplaced values. The burning of this house represents the reversal of Silas’s material ambitions and of his moral values as he comes to recognize at the end of the novel what is truly important in life.

Lapham farm

Lapham farm. Farm in Vermont on which Silas grew up–the place where his commercial and materialistic aspirations began and to which he returns at the end of the novel. As people left farms to seek their fortunes in big cities at the end of the eighteenth century, they also left behind so-called rural values. Silas returns to those values in what is the true “rise of Silas Lapham.”

BibliographyCarrington, George C. The Immense Complex Drama: The World and Art of the Howells Novel. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1966. A classic study that remains influential in the field. Analyzes The Rise of Silas Lapham in relation to Howells’ other novels. Considers theme, subject, technique, and form.Eby, Clare Virginia. “Compromise and Complicity in The Rise of Silas Lapham.” American Literary Realism 1870-1910 24, no. 1 (Fall, 1991): 39-53. Analyzes the use of class, privilege, and the businessman in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Argues that in his depiction of the conflict between the Coreys and the Laphams, Howells advocates greater flexibility and compromise between class groups.Pease, Donald E., ed. New Essays on “The Rise of Silas Lapham.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A stimulating collection of essays on the novel. Includes topics ranging from Howells’ treatment of the middle class and suffering under capitalism to a reexamination of realism and Howells’ relationship with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).Tanselle, G. Thomas. “The Architecture of The Rise of Silas Lapham.” American Literature 37, no. 4 (January, 1966): 430-457. A structural analysis of the novel that notes two separate plots (the bankruptcy plot and the love plot) and diagrams their intersections and parallels to argue for the overall unity of the novel.Vanderbilt, Kermit. The Achievement of William Dean Howells: A Reinterpretation. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. The chapter on The Rise of Silas Lapham examines revisions of the novel and personal letters to show Howells’ concern with social eruption, class, and ethnicity in Boston during the Gilded Age.
Categories: Places