A good bit has been written about William Dean Howells’ most remembered novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham. Contrary to what the Wikipedia entry says about this book, I cannot agree that the “story follows the materialistic rise of Silas Lapham from rags to riches, and his ensuing moral susceptibility.” First of all, Howells’ novel provides a certain amount of backstory explaining how Lapham went from a relatively poor landowner to a wealthy mineral-paint mogul but it does not any more “follow” that rise than The Great Gatsby follows the rise of Jay Gatsby. In fact, there’s a good deal in common between these two books, explaining not so much how both Lapham and Gatsby reached their level of wealth but how they behaved once they got there. In both cases, significant itches remained to be scratched. My second complaint about the Wikipedia pronouncement lies in that idea of a “moral susceptibility.” In fact, two sentences later, the Wiki writer proclaims that Lapham’s morality did not fail him.
If Silas Lapham had a susceptibility, I cannot agree that it had anything to do with morality. Lapham’s morality is fairly typical of successful business types. These people have only limited patience for their time being wasted. They can see the value of what they do in tangible measures and they trust the instincts and abilities that have brought them to their current point along the road. Certainly these figures might be possessed of an over healthy self-image, but they are not typically egomaniacs. Their demeanors might be prickly, but they will not normally be abusive. They are, at their heart, decent people who have discovered a way to earn a great deal of money. Where they might be termed “susceptible” is in believing that their success can be translated readily into other pursuits and that other people will behave in an honorable and even-handed manner. I’m reminded here of the farmers who stand up to the railroad in Frank Norris’ The Octopus. These are capable men who work hard to produce well on their farms, yet they are completely blindsided by the railroad’s hardball valuation of their property. Even the supposedly evil railroad president, Shelgrim, turns out to be less a monster than Presley had expected, claiming that the “railroads build themselves.”
This brings me to the question from the title. Is Silas Lapham a farmer? Clearly Lapham is not a farmer, yet like Annixter and Derrick, the ranchers of Norris’ book, Lapham gets his start from the land. In his case, his wealth is literally extracted from the ground, a process that can continue for as long as the particular chunk of land he controls continues to hold accessible reserves of the mineral that makes possible his mineral paint. But can Lapham flourish as readily in other areas? Apparently not. Where he goes wrong is in attempting to succeed in those other areas. He invests far too much of his wealth in attempting to use a new house to gain access to a Boston society that has no use for him. He trusts Milton Rogers, who leads him into a series of ruinous undertakings.
To some degree, I would argue that Lapham is, at his best, the happy or blessed man who populates so many Psalms and Proverbs. He works hard within his own plot of land (or, in his case, plot of industry). He doesn’t extend himself foolishly, buying highly speculative derivatives or depending on dubious undertakings. He extends himself foolishly when he leaves that circumscribed but successful domain and winds up with a burned-down mansion and a virtual elimination of his net worth. And where does the Lapham family wind up as the book closes? Back on the land where they had begun. Silas Lapham, you see, was a farmer.