Book Review: The Rise of Silas Lapham - #3 In My 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge

The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

"The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells is now generally recognized as perhaps the most representative of those novels which attempt to present realistically American life of their era. This book mirrors the rise of the newly rich and socially aspiring families in the years following the Civil War..." Professor Harry Hayden Clark in the Introduction to the Modern Library edition.

The Book Review

William Dean Howells was born in 1837, and wrote prolifically until his death in 1920. The Rise of Silas Lapham is likely the best remembered, and most often read, of his works. It is a humorous novel with twin, intertwined plots. The first of business and social success, and then failure, in Gilded Age Boston. The other a love farce, and a commentary on ideas of romance in then current novels.

The book starts out slowly with a magazine writer interviewing Silas Lapham about his rise to success. Silas has had the good fortune of having a “paint mine” on his farm in Vermont, from which he’s been able to produce paint of such high quality that it has made him a fortune. The interview gambit serves to introduce the main characters and set up some of the tension that will play out through the book. After that slow start the plots start boiling.

The nouveau riche Laphams have relocated to Boston, and, owing to their country ways, they’ve stayed to themselves and haven’t tried to climb the social ladder to Boston’s high society. That all changes when a young man from a well established family seems to take an interest in one of their two daughters, and then flatters Silas by asking to come to work for him. 

What follows is a series of misunderstandings, both in business and in love, between the honest country bred Laphams and the Boston Brahmins they find themselves mixing with. 

The book stands the test of time. The language is perhaps formal, but not too formal. The style is perhaps dated, but not too dated. The humor comes through clearly. I often had a smile on my face as I raced through the pages. There are things going on in this book that make it “important” enough that it is still taught in some classrooms. But it is very accessible and easy to read as entertainment.

Reading this today, in 2022, with its young lovers and its social climbing, the whole thing struck me as being kind of an American version of Bridgerton (the TV show - I’ve not read the book). Or perhaps Bridgerton, being the later creation, is a British version of Silas Lapham. I guess the comparison is inevitable for a male reader like me, as Howells is often seen as a “women’s writer”.

As is true today, the primary audience for fiction in the 1880s was women. Howells knew that, and that is likely why he's given a prominent role to Silas's wife Persis Lapham. She is both a moral guide in business to her husband (and an equal partner in the early years), and the one the family looks to for guidance through the thicket of etiquette and expectation in Boston society. She is a fully fledged, complex character with both strengths and flaws. 

Howells was also known as a “realist”. As to his place in American writing, he is sometimes said to fall between Mark Twain and Henry James. He was friends with both. James said of him that “[h]e adores the real, the natural, the colloquial, the moderate, the optimistic, the domestic, and the democratic...”  That sensibility is, I think, the main reason this book has held up so well. 

It doesn’t feel right to me to put Star ratings on classics like this.  I recommend this book. I found that I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. “Silas Lapham” sounds like such an old-fashioned name that it does the book it's attached to a disservice. The book holds up much better than that old-fashioned name.  

Classics Challenge

This is the third book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. As art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

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Borrow or Purchase The Rise of Silas Lapham here:

📙  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

📘 Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million* |AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

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NOTE: This  book is now in the public domain and many versions are available in print and audiobook. The version highlighted below (and, for the most part, highlighted in the bookseller links above) is printed by the successor* firm of the old Modern Library:

Title: The Rise of Silas Lapham
Author: William Dean Howells
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publish Date: April 28, 1983
ISBN-13: 9780140390308
Publisher’s List Price: $18.00 (Paperback as of 03/2022)

The Rise of Silas Lapham was originally serialized in the New York based Century Magazine starting in November, 1884. It was first published in book form by the Boston publishing house of Houghton, Mifflin, and Co. in 1885, though some accounts say it was Ticknor and Co., later acquired by Houghton, Mifflin, and Co. 

Houghton, Mifflin and Co. later changed their name to Houghton Mifflin Company. In 2007 Houghton Mifflin Company acquired Harcourt Publishing and changed its name to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH). There does not appear to be a current edition of The Rise of Silas Lapham in the HMH catalog.

My Modern Library edition appears to have been printed somewhere between 1951 and 1959. This estimate is based on the style of the “running man” logo, and according to the research on, as well as the markings on the book itself. The book is stamped as having belonged to the Davison Branch Library, in the Genesee County Library system in Michigan. It still has a library card holder (but no card). The holder was last stamped in 1959. The date “2-14-63” is written in red ink on the holder, leading me to believe that is the date the library discarded it.

*Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH).  The Penguin Classics edition is thus the successor to my Modern Library edition. As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann