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The Individual and the City in W. D. Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham

Catherine PERSYN

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Every Christian hath a general calling; which is, to Serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and save his own Soul. (…) But then, every Christian hath also a personal calling; or a certain Particular Employment, by which his Usefulness, in his Neighbourhood, is distinguished. God hath made man a Sociable Creature.

  • 1  A Christian at His Calling quoted in Making America, The Society and Culture of the U.S., 301.

1Thus wrote Cotton Mather1 in 1701 and although he had fellow-christians in mind, his words hold true for all men regardless of religion: from the cradle to the grave we are an individual isolated in the little island of the self but we are at the same time one of the human family—a double status which must be taken account of.

2When cities developed after the industrial revolution this kind of questions were aired anew: is there an ideal setting for the course of man’s life? Do cities make for happier persons and better human beings?

3The problem has been addressed by many writers and Howells is one of them. The theme of the individual and the city is particularly relevant to The Rise of Silas Lapham. That Howells is interested in the individual is suggested by the very title of the novel which paradoxically calls to mind other works the subject of which is not the individual, such as, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which, significantly enough, is alluded to when Irene discusses books with Corey (112). It is an oblique manner for Howells to tell us what he is interested in: not empires or institutions but the individual, the commoner Silas Lapham, his trials and tribulations.

  • 2  “Rosamund, the daughter of a Middlemarch manufacturer who has the typically provincial ambition to (...)

4Intertextuality, with the allusion to Middlemarch (111) suggests the importance of the city theme, for the opposition between the provincial and metropolitan spheres is central to George Eliot’s novel.2

5Concerning Howells’s stance on the questions above, a first element of answer is provided by a few tell-tale passages—e.g. when Penelope voices her preference for the autumnal display of the trees in Nankeen Square to an opening at Jordan and Marsh’s (218), or when the snow is described as “growing foul under the city feet and hoofs, and renewing its purity from the skies with repeated falls, which in turn lost their whiteness, beaten down, and beaten black and hard into a solid bed like iron” (286).

6If we go by the transparent symbolism of these lines, or by the plot, and follow the characters’ itinerary, there seems to be a strong case for pastoralism as the term is loosely used to mean the superiority of country values over city values. For Nature is the refuge to which Irene flies on learning that she has deceived herself and that she is not loved by Corey (246).

7More importantly, if the socially improved Lapham lives in Boston, his redeemed moral self chooses to return to his “native fastnesses” in Vermont (360). The city corresponds to his financial and social rise and his moral fall. Conversely, there is something of the idyll in the evocation of the character’s country childhood, in the evocation of the hard-working, God-fearing, tightly-knit family, in the evocation of the self-denying mother on her knees washing Christ-like the feet of her six boys (6). And if Bartley mentions “the simple virtues of the Old Testament and Poor Richard’s Almanac” in a disparaging spirit, it is more a reflexion on his own cynicism than on anything negative in the characters’ lifestyle.

8It is “deep in the heart of the virgin forests of Vermont” (20) that Lapham’s wonderful paint is discovered, a rather obvious hint at the potency of Nature—Nature as a repository of hidden treasures.

9When his ruin is completed and Lapham leaves Boston, his return is presented in very positive terms as a rebirth, a rediscovery of true values: a concern for genuine feelings rather than social advancement (they no longer think “their daughter [is] marrying a Corey, they [think] only that she [is] giving herself to the man who love[s] her” 359); a concern for essence rather than appearances; a concern for others. The Laphams return to “something like their old united life” and adversity has restored to Lapham “the manhood which his prosperity had so nearly stolen from him” (359).

10What emerges from this rapid sketch is the following. First of all the novel in its entirety is set in the city, the country being evoked only in the introductory flashback on Lapham’s childhood and in the final pages with their quaint epilogue quality: the country therefore provides a kind of frame to this city fable; it is a counterpoint, a completely different world from which the city can be seen in perspective, and city values assessed. Secondly, this structural importance of the country which is made to appear both as a Paradise Lost and as a Promised Land corroborates the positive values associated with it.

11Before this pastoral reading can be considered valid, however, other elements must be examined. There is a wealth of material in the novel which can be distributed under three general headings. Under the title of An Inconsistent Old Lady (for Boston emerges as a place of paradoxes and contradictions) we focus first on the urban landscape and social relationships—i.e. not only the lay-out of the city but its moral portrait. City Doings are scrutinized in a second development, while a final part is devoted to Silas in Cityland or: The Rustic and the Urbanites.

1. An Inconsistent Old Lady

12Boston was known as “the Athens of America,” an interesting phrase if we remember that Athenians looked on the rest of the world as barbarians. There is indeed some evidence of Bostonian smugness in the novel (127). Bostonians thought of their city as the hub of the universe. But if every delight is to be found in it, one may wonder why they keep leaving it, for Europe as they do (66; 195), or for numerous holiday resorts (like Nahan, Nantasket, Bar Harbour on Mount Desert Island). Social status is a possible answer; it might also be that they feel the need for more civilization in one case, and more wilderness in the other.

13There seems to be a curious blend of Europeanism and of parochialism in Bostonians which is underlined by Bromfield Corey’s tongue-in-cheek declaration (“The Bostonian ought never to leave Boston…” 66). A certain clannishness of Bostonians is also mentioned several times (127; 201).

14Boston is the most European of American cities, but as a conquest over Nature, it is equally an embodiment of the Yankee spirit: its three hills were levelled down and the Back Bay was reclaimed from the sea; for thirty years, a truckful of stones was dumped into the sea every forty-five minutes and twenty-four hours a day—a Titan-like task indeed. And while such a harsh treatment of the site, such ruthless male dominion over nature may be disapproved of, the feat nevertheless commands admiration. One can understand that the virile, energetic, “Frontier” Lapham should be impressed and even fascinated by the process of pile-driving (44), because unlike the environment­conscious Corey, Lapham has a no-nonsense attitude towards nature, i.e., he has no qualms about “using” it (15).

15Now for other contradictions: reminders of Boston’s past and identity can be found throughout the novel but most of the time the role of such reminders is an ironical one, underlining the discrepancy between generous aspirations and a reality that falls short of them.

  • 3  In The Bostonians of course.

16There are allusions to Boston’s cultural life with the Laphams going to the theatre (88; 118) or to stereopticon sessions (88) or to the Spanish Students’ Concert (216). We hear of Penelope borrowing books from a circulating library (117) and attending church lectures on “a vast variety of secular subjects” (26)—We might surmise one of them to be Feminism, and the lectures those given by James’s heroines, Olive Chancellor and her protégée Verena Tarrant.3Notwithstanding all this “enlightenment” which, if it is to be any good, ought to break down barriers between men, the vision we get is one of mutually exclusive social groups that had rather ignore their inter-relatedness. And yet Howells insists on this inter-relatedness: were it not for Rogers, Lapham’s business might never have developed as it did; were it not for Zerilla’s father, he would be a dead man; at some point he will need Bellingham’s advice; Lapham’s business provides Tom Corey with the job he was looking for; Mrs. Corey may look down on Mrs. Lapham and yet, but for her, she might have died.

17The characters are presented as if they belonged to different species, each class having its own habitat, its own mores and lifestyle, these differences remaining at the end “uneffaced if not uneffaceable” (359). People like the Coreys, i.e. the upper crust, or the Brahmins as they were called—and the phrase speaks for itself—live in “aristocratic seclusion” (187) on Beacon Hill, in beautiful old-fashioned houses that look bare inside to uneducated eyes. The Laphams live in Nankeen Square at the South End, an area that stopped being fashionable when Jews settled there, thus causing the price of property to go down (367). Lapham, we read, “had not built but bought cheap of a terrified gentleman of good extraction who discovered too late that the South End was not the thing, and who, in the eagerness of his flight to the Back Bay, threw in his carpets and shades for almost nothing” (24).

  • 4  The Coreys will read The Transcript, The Daily Advertiser, The Revue des Deux Mondes while Lapham (...)

18The classes the Coreys and the Laphams are representative of do not keep the same company, do not attend the same schools nor the same dancing classes (26); neither do they read the same newspapers;4 the former drink wine with their meals, the latter don’t. To make a long story short, they might belong to different planets altogether.

  • 5  When Lapham watches the pile-driving process prior to the building of his house, we hear of “the l (...)

19At the bottom of the pyramid are the poor, deserving or not, living in the North End; among them, people like Zerilla and her unworthy mother, and Irish and Italian immigrants.5 So Boston may have played a key-role in the opposition to the British rule and King, but its social structure is not so different from that of Old Europe. America, the land of social experiments has failed in this respect, and it may be in search of another New World that Tom Corey and Penelope leave for Mexico and Central America (361).

  • 6  He is all for inviting Lapham and tells Mrs. Corey: “You know I go in for this sort of things, Ann (...)

20There is a group of figures in Lapham’s drawing-room well worth admiring for its significance, if not for its dubious taste, and that is “an Italian conception of Lincoln Freeing the Slaves— a Latin negro and his wife—with our Eagle flapping his wings in approval” (215), which does not prevent Lapham from swearing that “[he]’ll be the death of that darkey yet” (37). Boston was also the capital of egalitarian enlightenment, and we do get a glimpse of it in Bromfield Corey’s sympathy (“I would probably like the Laphams better if I knew them better”) in Charles Bellingham’s open-mindedness6, and indeed in Tom Corey’s decision to work for Lapham. Nonetheless, we cannot but notice that Bromfield Corey uses the conditional, and that Bellingham’s homage is somewhat ambiguous (“we’re bound to do it”). What they do in fact is put a brave face on things when they are thrown together by circumstances, but it is obviously something of an earthquake when one of them marries out of their class as Leslie Bellingham and Tom Corey do. They push this exclusiveness to an extreme limit and theirs is an almost endogamous society as Howells suggests in Chapter XIII. Despite Bromfield Corey’s broadminded attitude (“Why didn’t you mention this encounter at dinner? You weren’t asked to plead to an accusation of witchcraft” 65) it is not done for them to mix with anyone outside their set, and after Tom has entered Lapham’s business, it is suggested he may find it a relief that none of their acquaintances are in Boston “to wonder or pity” (126).

  • 7  He has thought, he says, of applying dynamite to the “close-shuttered…brutally insensible houses” (...)
  • 8  As Kermit Vanderbilt writes in his introduction to the novel, Howells in the summer of 1884 “was w (...)

21However, there is evidence in the book of a concern for greater social justice. Both aristocrats and nouveaux-riches, the Coreys and the Laphams, make generous contributions to charities. Bromfield Corey denounces society’s inequities (194)7 —in all likelihood an echo of Howells’s own compunction.8 And Miss Kingsbury is very active in the cause of immigrants and the underprivileged in general—although she stops short at opening her house to them. She herself sadly admits: “How cruelly selfish we are!” (194).

  • 9  This is all the more likely as the statues are referred to as “these phantasms” a few lines furthe (...)

22There is another interesting piece of symbolism at Lapham’s, those two statues in his parlour which are made to turn “their backs on the company within doors” and represent “allegories of Faith and Prayer to people without” (215), as if what one is were less important than the image one gives of oneself. The hint might well be9 that these people only pay lip-service to an ideal of brotherhood, and that their commitment to causes is not so whole-hearted that they are prepared to sacrifice their personal comfort to it. No doubt there is again some contradiction to be found there.

23But the city’s contradictions simply reflect those of the individual, his inner struggle—the demand in him of the self that clamours to be given priority over civic, altruistic ideals. It is the self which is the impediment in the building of that ideal city so many dreamers had in mind when they came to America. It is one thing to have generous ideas, Howells suggests, or to know right from wrong theoretically, or again to be clear-sighted where others are concerned, and altogether another thing to practise what one preaches—a point repeatedly emphasized in the novel: Penelope finds the characters in Tears, Idle Tears ridiculous in their self-sacrifice but when she finds herself in the same predicament, for a while she has no more sense than they have (257; “It is easy enough to be sensible for other people. But when it comes to myself, there I am!” 304). Another example is provided by what can be considered a prolepsis of the catastrophe: Lapham is justly critical of the way passengers rush onto the Nantasket boat, but he is unaware that his own egotism where his paint is concerned—“That paint was like my own blood to me” (16); “Silas Lapham . . . I do believe you’ve got mineral paint on the brain” (71)—, his dismissal of Rogers, his excessive dedication to his work, all partake of the same individualism, the same selfishness, the same lack of moderation, and is therefore just as portentous:

“Overload ‘em every time,” he continued, with a sort of dry, impersonal concern at the impending calamity, as if it could not possibly include him. “They take about twice as many as they ought to carry, and about ten times as many as they could save if anything happened. Yes, sir, it’s bound to come.” (81)

24Selfishness, a lack of civic sense, a lack of awareness of others are the evils denounced by Howells. It takes ideal individuals to make an ideal city, and not until Old Adams have been changed into Christ-like figures will the “City upon a hill” be built, if ever. Until then, it will remain a beautiful picture to dream about, or admire as we do the one painted by Piero della Francesca or other Renaissance painters.

2. City Doings

25At first sight, cities do not make for happier people and better human beings; for the city as presented in the novel offers an illustration of Darwin’s concept of the survival of the fittest, and the fittest, as we shall see later, are often those with the lowest moral fibre. The Coreys set aside, the only decent people that Lapham has to deal with are the West Virginians but they, like Lapham himself, are ‘country people’; another decent person is the paint-specialist, the chemist whose opinion Lapham asks, but he is a young fellow, so that he may not have had the time yet to be corrupted by the city. Apart from these characters, the city business world appears as a jungle in which moral scruples are an Achilles’ heel that eventually sends an honest man to the ground.

26Rogers stands for all the fishy doings going on in the city in the hunt for money, “wild-cat stocks, patent-rights, land speculations, oil claims” (261) and Howells’s downright denunciation of such activities and their de-humanizing effect is obvious from the way he characterizes Rogers, presenting him not only as the arch-fiend, but also as a soulless robot, again and again emphasizing his dryness (45; 273; 321).

27Not God but Mammon is worshipped in the city—“they must spend” (139); “Money brings position at once” (64)—and in making his paint his god (“you had got greedy, Silas. You had made your paint your god” 47 III), Lapham repeats the error of another Silas, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, but for both eventually the punishment will turn into a blessing.

  • 10  The description of the mare—“the muscles of her back and thighs worked more and more swiftly, like (...)

28The passage where we are shown Bostonians (and Lapham for one) speeding their horse in “a carnival of fashion and gayety on the Brighton Road” (35) is obviously symbolic (the word ‘carnival’ is tell-tale enough) of the city as encouraging vanity, competition, snobbery, the place where those impulses are given free rein to.10

29City-dwellers in the novel are people who were born in affluence like the Coreys, or people like Lapham who have recently made a fortune (plus another category of people to be dealt with later on). The antithetic lifestyles they represent—idle-ness and busy-ness—are shown by Howells to be both equally detrimental for the individual in the long run.

30Lapham is the quintessential business-man for whom time is money and who cannot stand being aboard the steamboat to Nantasket “much more than one minute before she shoves out.” Although he knows the necessity for a little rest now and then if he is to keep his nervous balance (79), at some point he forgets about it all, carried away as he is by his ambition; in his wife’s own words: “The man slaves harder every year. It used to be so that he’d take a little time off now and then; but I declare, he hardly seems to breathe now away from his office. (…) Seems as if the more money he got, the more he wanted to get” (149).

  • 11  The original sentence is the following: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes (...)

31Lapham indeed comes close to that ideal citizen that Babbitt imagines “busier than a bird­dog”—rather a dubious compliment! In no way can such feverish activity contribute to a man’s happiness or wisdom, as Thoreau suggests in Walden when he laments that “The labouring man has not leisure for a true integrity... He has no time to be anything but a machine...” (9), or when he urges his reader not to be “the slave-driver of [him]self” (10). Paraphrasing another well-known apostrophe, one might be tempted to warn Lapham: “Beware of all enterprises that require [a new house] and not rather a new [inhabitant of the house].”11

32If work is in itself laudable, there is such a thing as too much work then. However, Bromfield Corey’s lifestyle may not be any better. Idleness is associated with the Coreys from the first. When Mrs. Lapham mentions how nice they were, Lapham sarcastically replies: “Well, they’d ought to be... Never done anything else” (28) and when he is told about Tom Corey being in Texas, Lapham agrees that he has to do something for a living: “Yes; gentlemaning as a profession has got to play out in a generation or two” (34).

33Not only hasn’t Bromfield Corey got a proper occupation, but he has not developed his potentialities as he might have done, for he had the makings of an artist in him: “He continued a dilettante, never quite abandoning his art, but working at it fitfully, and talking more about it than working at it” (70). His wife reflects how he has “kept on saying the charming things and… not done much else” (96).

  • 12  Wagenknecht

34Idleness had positive connotations for the Ancients and it might be argued that Corey’s achievement is his own person. But to be sure a man has a duty to his fellow-men and must contribute his stone to the building of the human city, otherwise, to quote Cotton Maher again, he will “make but a poor dispatch to the Shoar of Eternal Blessedness.” When Miss Kingsbury needs an interpreter to speak to her indigent Italians she says: “We did think of Mr. Corey… but we reflected that he probably wouldn’t talk with them at all; he would make them keep still to be sketched, and forget all about their wants” (193). Moreover, Corey’s idleness wouldn’t have been possible at all but for his own father’s dedication to work. So in spite of his admiration for people like Corey, Howells had no doubt some reservations in that respect as equally suggested by his applauding President Wilson for declaring that “the world could dispense with high society and never miss it. High society is for those who have stopped working and no longer have anything important to do.”12 Neither of these “city” lifestyles therefore seems to be very satisfactory and a balance has certainly to be struck between the two.

3. Silas in Cityland or: The Rustic and the Urbanites

  • 13  We were tempted to say, ‘the individuals that it produces’; but whether we are the product of our (...)
  • 14  “‘All right,’ said Lapham, impersonally assenting to Bartley’s use of him as material” (19).

35The role of the city can best be assessed by devoting some attention to the individuals that represent it.13 Before focusing on the almost archetypal Corey/Lapham opposition, it may prove instructive to stand the country-bred Lapham against a series of lesser city dwellers, or to speak less guardedly, to a gallery of city rogues, namely Bartley, Seymour, Rogers, Zerilla and her mother. Lumping the four or five of them together may sound unfair as there are obviously degrees in their duplicity, but duplicity, underhand dealing, and deceit there certainly is in each case. In essence, the relationship of each to Lapham is identical, and based on self-interest, not to say greed: a booby like Lapham is a godsend for them, not so much a fellow-creature as “material”14 —and a very malleable one at that—wherewith to make money. As for Lapham, there was only one occasion when he treated a person on a purely business basis, and we know what gnawing remorse it has left him; actually, but for that remorse, all his trials might have been spared him.

  • 15  His gibes and Lapham’s reaction to them (the way he winces under the blows and yet, forgetting and (...)

36Bartley the journalist stands revealed by his would-be joke to Lapham: “That’s what I am after… Your money or your life” (3). In essence he is that highwayman ready to take a life for a few golden nuggets. With his cynical wit, duplicity and ruthlessness, he might be said to combine in his person the worst of the wilderness and the worst of civilization.15

  • 16  Cf. Corey’s question concerning him: “Does he bleed your husband, Mrs. Lapham? He’s a terrible fel (...)

37Seymour is obviously a less disreputable character, and he no doubt contributes some beautiful buildings to the city. An urbanite, his long-standing social intercourse has conferred upon him a great ability to manipulate people. He is the real homo politicus in the Machiavellian sense of the term and the scene in which he turns Lapham round his little finger calls to mind that in which Mark Anthony turns the Roman mob against Brutus. There is always some degree of deceit in his relationship to Lapham (43; 129) and while Mrs. Lapham feels some “motherly affection” for him, and Lapham himself is “perfectly bewitched with th[e] fellow” (129), he for his part, like Bartley, Rogers and Zerilla’s mother only sees in Lapham the goose that lays the golden eggs. Were it not for Mrs. Lapham’s moderating influence, he would bleed Lapham completely. Like the others he is a blood­sucker16 only with a façade of respectability.

38Someone like Rogers is no credit either to the city. When Lapham, the vital, energetic, once red-haired Lapham, rages against him, all he finds in front of him is a dead-and-alive puppet, a soulless automaton (322). But not only is Rogers wooden, dry and sere, he is downright evil: when he sheds his crocodile tears (“dry tears they seemed”) they leave “a sort of sandy, glistening trace on his cheeks” (327) reminiscent of the slimy tracks of the Serpent.

39Belonging with Rogers are the two English rascals (arrived, by the way, on a ship called “The Circassian”) whom Lapham “smel[ls]…out in half a minute” (330) for the rats they are; here again we get a glimpse of the cloven-hoofed one: “Something in the eyes of these men, something that lurked at an infinite depth below their speech, and was not really in their eyes when Lapham looked again, had flashed through him a sense of treachery in them. (…) It was a deeper game than Lapham was used to” (324).

40What causes Lapham’s downfall is the remorse he feels for his past treatment of Rogers; as he tells his wife (“I guess Rogers saw that he had a soft thing in me, and he’s worked it for all it was worth” 260), his moral scruples made him an easy prey for Rogers. So in a way, Rogers behaves like Seymour as appears from Lapham’s reproaches to him: “You’ve let me in for this thing, and that thing, and you’ve bled me every time” (274).

41If long ago Lapham unfairly (by moral and Christian, if not by legal, standards) dismissed Rogers, he is no longer the same man at the end, so that, like Christ in the Wilderness, he can successfully repel the Tempter’s repeated onslaughts (279; 285).

42Lapham’s relationship to Zerilla and her relatives (Hen her drunkard of a husband and her unworthy mother) again follows the same pattern. Once again Lapham behaves with humane consideration for the daughter of the man who saved his life during the war and to whom he rightly considers he owes a sacred debt; while on their side, we have once again so many leeches living off him (“it’s my business who lives off me” 296). Trying to help them is a Sisyphean task. “I suppose they’ve cleaned everything out again?” (294) Lapham asks of Zerilla, alluding to her husband and mother. For Zerilla and her relatives, sponging on people is a way of life. It is significant that Zerilla married Hen because “he had a little property then” (339) and that, being none the wiser for that failed marriage, she is prepared to repeat the same error (this time with a Mr. Wemmel) if only she can get a divorce from Hen. Seen in such a light, matrimony is hardly better than prostitution, and Zerilla’s mother a shameless pimp (297)—and represented by such characters, the city indeed calls to mind the great Babylon. Hopefully we will find a redeeming feature if we turn to Bromfield Corey.

  • 17  As in The Merchant of Venice and Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

43The elder Corey, the polished, polite, urbane Bromfield Corey might be said to stand for some quintessential city-ness, if we may coin the word: after all, he’s spent years in Rome, the city, and dreams of going back there. He’s rubbed shoulders with the best society in Europe and “been presented at several courts” (70)—and a royal court may be seen as an image of the city where the worst (intrigues, corruption) and the best (civilization, refinement) co-exist side by side, in other words, a place that generates both the courtisan and the courtier. If he were put to the test, Bromfield Corey might not fall that short of Baldassare Castiglione’s ideal of Il Cortegiano, the perfect gentleman. In spite of a “slight stoop,” he is still a fine figure of a man: age hasn’t otherwise impaired his good looks, which seems to be a reflection on his character. So the city in so far as it is repre­sented by the well-read, well-travelled, and kind-hearted Corey certainly has positive sides. An artist and an aesthete, he has an interest in Titian, the great Venitian master. Venice of course stands for color, beauty, a brilliant and refined civilization, but also usury, greed,17 and ultimately decadence, the end of an era, death. Those negative sides of Venice are called to mind by Howells’s mention of the stench (43), “the Venitian odor” (51) accompanying the filling operations in the New Land. While there is nothing greedy about Corey, the lack of stamina that comes with the end of a cycle is very much present in him. “We represent a faded tradition” (102) he tells his wife. This may account for his blasé fatalistic attitude; or it may well be that he sees life sub specie æternitatis and that from such a standpoint very few things are worth taking seriously (161).

44Pitted against such a refined and winning personality as Bromfield Corey’s, Lapham, poor Lapham, is bound to appear rather uncouth. No doubt he is parochial and ungrammatical; no doubt he is an awful braggadocio who sometimes “swells” to the point of bursting; no doubt his would-be finesses stick out a mile (89), but he is no fool, and putting aside the more serious sin of idolizing his paint and his social ambition he is on the whole a rather decent fellow.

  • 18  “Howells was aware of the uselessness of a Bromfield Corey, the limitations imposed by mere propri (...)
  • 19  The following lines from Howells’s book Criticism and Fiction (1891)—drawn from his magazine essay (...)

45If we consider the first set of characters (the rogues) and Lapham, the scales are obviously tipped in favour of pastoral values. If we consider Corey and Lapham the answer is not so clear-cut for, antithetic though they are, both of them are likeable characters. Howells has a tentative approach: there is in him a healthy, revolutionary spirit that causes him to question (with Lapham for his spokeman) Corey’s superiority.18 When Lapham is reminded by his wife of Corey’s social accomplishments, he snorts “And does that make him any better?” (120); he also remarks disgruntedly that Mrs. Corey would have been “in a pretty fix” if Mrs. Lapham had stuck to decorum. When stripped of all the trappings of etiquette a king may not be so very different from a villain; and for the God that probes into the heart and loins of men, a Silas Lapham may be worth just as much as a Bromfield Corey. Howells was a man of egalitarian convictions, someone interested in the common man and in Tolstoy’s Christian socialism, and this is traceable throughout the book, but if Lapham’s resentment of his social betters (at the beginning) is Howells’s, so is probably Lapham’s subsequent fascination,19 for Howells is said to have been like Mark Twain “a theoretical socialist and a practical aristocrat” (Carter).

46In view of all this, it seems legitimate to assert that not only the plot, but all the other elements of the novel indeed point to a pastoral reading of it. Bromfield Corey excepted, there aren’t many redeeming features about the city as evoked by Howells: a place that falls short of its generous aspirations, a place of either compulsive activity, or on the contrary sterile idleness; most of all, a market-place where deceit, greed, snobbery and ruthless individualism are the staple goods. Such a picture enables us to understand what Mark Twain meant when he coined the phrase The Gilded Age.

  • 20  That the phrase is used by the disreputable Rogers makes no difference.

47However, Howells’s indictment is accompanied by some suggestions of how to remedy such evils: in the form of episodes, imagery, characters, quite a few hints are dropped throughout the book as to a code of behaviour that might profitably be adopted in our relationship to others. And by whatever name we may choose to call it—“the Golden Rule”20 (327) or simply fellow-feeling—what it amounts to is an awareness of others, a recognition by the individual that, although he is necessarily to himself the centre of the world, he must to a degree grow out of this natural self-centredness.

  • 21  This is another example of intertextuality since the play is actually mentioned in the novel (113)

48In this respect, Mrs. Lapham is the person to emulate: in her upbraiding of her husband for his treatment of Rogers, in her concern, in the midst of their misfortune for “the hands” (228) who are going to be unemployed, in her impatience with Penelope when the latter in her grief grows oblivious of other people’s burden (“I want you should get up and show you’ve got some feeling for somebody in the world besides yourself” 282), she evinces from the first this awareness of others. For it is selfishness, an “innocent selfishness” (232)—to borrow Howells’s phrase concerning Irene—which is the root of all evils; not only does it cause a few tell-tale quidproquos (286) but it is at the origin of the Comedy of Errors21 of which the two sisters and Corey are the actors. More generally, it is the motivating force behind the plot. But Lapham’s trials have taught him a lesson; as he himself said to Bartley in his interview, “we’ve got to live and learn” (10). He who had “a close strip about him,” he who was such an egotist about his paint, is now able to step back gracefully and feel “an interest in the vaster enterprise of the younger men, which he had once vainly hoped to grasp all in his own hand” (361).

49Another element of answer if not the answer given by Howells might lie in that “middle landscape” evoked by Sacvan Bercovitch and which is very much present, symbolically, if not literally, in the novel. An interesting passage in this respect is the evocation by Lapham of his taste where nature is concerned:

There aint any man enjoys a sightly bit of nature—a smooth piece of interval, with half a dozen good-sized wine-glass elms in it—more than I do. But I aint a-going to stand up for every big ugly rock I come across, as if we were all a set of dumn Druids. (15)

50Obviously Lapham is no Romantic, and such an outburst may strike readers rather unfavourably as bourgeois imperviousness to the beauty of wild nature and the divine inherent in it, but it is also an allusion to the middle landscape, not only the literal one, but the one we should strive to establish within ourselves; but however much Lapham may praise that middle landscape, he is in his excessive ambition and individualism a man of the Frontier. If he draws nearer to this ideal of the golden mean at the end, his wife has certainly got something to do with it, for although not unfallible herself, Persis Lapham, with her moderating influence is indeed a civilizing force.

  • 22  “In a Tom Corey, [Howells] suggests the hope if not for a radical reconstruction of society, at le (...)
  • 23  Quoted in W.D. Howells The Friendly Eye.

51Another character to look up to in this respect is Tom Corey, for the possibility of establishing a society of the middle landscape apparently rests with him.22 By choosing to work for Lapham, he acts as a go-between and becomes a link between two antithetic and incomplete worlds that he alone can make whole; for he is likely to bring to ‘the Lapham world’ the sophistication it badly needs, and at the same time something of Lapham’s élan vital into ‘the Corey world.’ Not only has Tom, by some happy fluke, avoided the flaws of either, but he actually combines in his person the best of both worlds—Lapham’s energy without his crudeness, the elder Corey’s refinement without his listlessness; as Bromfield Corey reflects: “there was nothing predatory in his son… though the aquiline beak had come down to him in such force. Bromfield Corey liked his son Tom for the gentleness which tempered his energy” (70). Thus Tom Corey is that “liminal figure” evoked by Bercovitch in his study of American pastoralism, someone who “moves back and forth across the borderland between civilization and nature.” If Tom Corey is able to make his Howells’s dictum “The kindlier view of any man is apt to be the truer view,”23 it is because as “shepherd” he has an understanding of both worlds. Interestingly enough, it is to his stay in Texas that he is beholden for his truer and kindlier view of Lapham: “I dare say that if I hadn’t passed a winter in Texas I might have found Colonel Lapham rather too much (…) I saw it wouldn’t be quite fair to test him by our standards” (65). This endearing faculty he has of assessing people by standards different from his own is a rare quality. Like Howells himself, he is one that “set[s] all things in another and fairer light” (212) and often sees into people’s hearts where others will stop at the misleading appearance (66; 67; 293).

52Penelope also has a tolerant approach, as appears from her remark to Irene: “[if Corey] can’t make allowance for father’s bragging, he’ll be a little too good. I enjoyed hearing the Colonel go on” (59). In fact, she is something of a “middle” woman herself, in that her voracious reading, her thirst for knowledge, her gift for observation have broadened her horizon. Where Irene after a good night’s sleep is still dead with sleep, Penelope is éveillée in more senses than one.

53Tom and Penelope are representative of that middle landscape not only in their own persons but through their marriage which is emblematic of the merging of the two worlds. In sixteenth century England, this necessity of steering clear of extremes was voiced in the Comedy of Humours. And if we consider the importance of the imagery of surfeit and shrinkage in Howells’s novel,

“There’s going to be an awful shrinkage on [the stock]” (272 emphasis mine)

 “I don’t like to see a man of his build look yellow” (273)

 “… squeeze me… as dry as it pleases” (274)

Lapham grew thin (284)

“the market’s overstocked. It’s glutted” (288)

The process of Lapham’s financial disintegration was like the course of some chronic disorder, which has fastened itself on the constitution… (306)

… the market, which he had glutted with his paint… (308)

54together with the symbolic purport of apparently trivial episodes (the overloaded boat 81; the drunken sailor 107; the policeman mistaking Lapham for a tramp), we may see Lapham’s error as a crime of overreach, and the “middle landscape” as the American version of the mediocritas aurea. Penelope’s confidence to her mother

 “I’ve tried to write to him about it—two letters: one so humble and grateful that it couldn’t stand up on its edge, and the other so pert and flippant (…) I wish I had kept them to look at. (…) They would take the conceit out of me” (303)

55is another hint at that ageless and universal concept. The name of the brokers’ firm alluded to in Chapter XXI, “Gallop & Paddock’s” (275) also corroborates such a reading: between galloping away on the high road and idling about in the paddock, there is such a thing as a gentle trot: In medio stat virtus.

56When seen in the light of the roman d’apprentissage which it no doubt is in some respects, The Rise of Silas Lapham may be said to offer an ambiguous portrait of the city, as something of a necessary evil; for the city gives the individual a chance to come into contact with others, and this, most of the time, entails friction, not to say conflicts; but these conflicts enable him to become a more conscious being, to develop a greater moral awareness. The city is the place of Lapham’s tribulations, his crossing of the desert, but if he hadn’t had the chance of doing wrong, he might never have lost his prejudices (92), never have woken up to an appreciation of true values; like his daughter Irene who “bloom[s] and glow[s] with the unconsciousness of a flower” (27), he might have gone through life with “an innocence almost vegetable” (27), without having an inkling of what it is all about.

57The theme of the Prodigal which is twice alluded to—“Fatted calf business” (9); “the returning prodigal” (63)—is no doubt significant; as Sewell the minister says, “nothing can be thrown quite away” (364): Lapham’s fall has not been to no avail, and in so far as the city provides the setting for his Fortunate Fall, it is the best and the worst of things. The city thus appears as a metaphor for our life on earth, which (like Lapham hailing from Vermont and going back to Vermont) we shall be glad to leave behind us eventually, as Howells suggests: “the world, life itself, is embittered to most of us, so that we are glad to have done with them at last” (352).

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Bercovitch, Sacvan. Ideology and Classic American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Carter, Everett. Howells and the Age of Realism. Hamden, Conn.: Arcton Books, 1966.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. 1885. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988 (with an introduction by Kermit Vanderbilt).

Inge, Thomas M. (ed.). A Nineteenth American Reader. Washington D.C.: Publication of the U.S. Information Agency, 1989.

Longman Companion to English Literature. Aylesbury: Longman, 1978.

Luedtke, Luther S. (ed.). Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States. Washington D.C.: Publication of the U.S. Information Agency, 1988.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1968.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. 1854. New York: Signet Classic, 1980.

Van Wyck, Brooks. Howells His Life and World. Dutton, 1959.

Wagenknecht, Edward. W.D. Howells The Friendly Eye. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

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1  A Christian at His Calling quoted in Making America, The Society and Culture of the U.S., 301.

2  “Rosamund, the daughter of a Middlemarch manufacturer who has the typically provincial ambition to raise his family to the level of metropolitan fashion, has been attracted to Lydgate only because he has aristocratic relations.” Longman Companion to English Literature, Entry “Middlemarch.”

3  In The Bostonians of course.

4  The Coreys will read The Transcript, The Daily Advertiser, The Revue des Deux Mondes while Lapham will read the more popular Events.

5  When Lapham watches the pile-driving process prior to the building of his house, we hear of “the little loafing Irish boys who superintended it in force” (44). Bromfield Corey buys an apple from an Italian fruit vendor and Miss Kinsbury visits her “indigent Italians” (193) much as Victorian ladies visit “their” poor in England.

6  He is all for inviting Lapham and tells Mrs. Corey: “You know I go in for this sort of things, Anna. Since Leslie’s affair we’re rather bound to do it. And I think we meet these practical fellows too little. There’s always something original about them” (204).

7  He has thought, he says, of applying dynamite to the “close-shuttered…brutally insensible houses” of the rich; his lack of energy, however, his awareness of the complexity of things, and his fatalistic outlook all rule him out for a social reformer.

8  As Kermit Vanderbilt writes in his introduction to the novel, Howells in the summer of 1884 “was writing Silas Lapham in the comfort of his new home in the Back Bay, but meditating to his father on ‘how unequally things are divided in this world.’ Because his privileged neighbors (and his own family) had escaped Boston in August, spacious dwellings were standing empty all along Beacon Street. Howells was keenly aware that thousands of urban poor in other neighborhoods were stifling in their wretched quarters… ‘I wonder’ he continued, ‘that men are so patient with society as they are’.”

9  This is all the more likely as the statues are referred to as “these phantasms” a few lines further down.

10  The description of the mare—“the muscles of her back and thighs worked more and more swiftly, like some mechanism responding to an alien force” (35, emphasis mine)—might remind one of Aristotle’s third category of desires: the point Howells seems to be making is that social ambition, snobbery are “neither natural nor necessary.”

11  The original sentence is the following: “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes” (Walden 20).

12  Wagenknecht

13  We were tempted to say, ‘the individuals that it produces’; but whether we are the product of our environment remains to be proved. Howells contributes to the nature/nurture debate by dropping contradictory hints. Is Bromfield Corey what he is because he went to Rome etc., or did he choose such a lifestyle because of what was in him? (See 69) The same Corey seems to be on the side of nurture when he ponders whether the Laphams’ theater-going habits are likely to have a civilizing influence on them: “Perhaps they might get some sort of lift from it” (118). Just before however, he was reflecting that civilization is “really an affair of individuals. One brother will be civilized and the other a barbarian.” (117). Lapham, as for him, is decidedly on the side of nature, as shown by his emphasis that “a thing has got to be born in a man” (109). “You can’t make… Rogers rich, any more than you can fat a hide-bound colt. It ain’t in him.” (261). The point Howells seems to be making is that truth in such a complex matter lies as often somewhere between the two.

14  “‘All right,’ said Lapham, impersonally assenting to Bartley’s use of him as material” (19).

15  His gibes and Lapham’s reaction to them (the way he winces under the blows and yet, forgetting and forgiving, responds by so many kindnesses in the end) almost make of Lapham a Christ-like figure: cf. “so you want my life, death, and Christian sufferings, do you, young man?” (3).

16  Cf. Corey’s question concerning him: “Does he bleed your husband, Mrs. Lapham? He’s a terrible fellow for appropriations!” (191).

17  As in The Merchant of Venice and Ben Jonson’s Volpone.

18  “Howells was aware of the uselessness of a Bromfield Corey, the limitations imposed by mere propriety on a Mrs. Corey” (Wagenknecht).

19  The following lines from Howells’s book Criticism and Fiction (1891)—drawn from his magazine essays—clearly show both this fascination and the egalitarian convictions that were his: “We are all, or nearly all, struggling to be distinguished from the mass, and to be set apart in select circles and upper classes like the fine people we have read about. We are really a mixture of the plebeian ingredients of the whole world; but that is not bad; our vulgarity consists in trying to ignore ‘the worth of the vulgar,’ in believing that the superfine is better.” (Quoted in A Nineteenth-Century American Reader 515)

20  That the phrase is used by the disreputable Rogers makes no difference.

21  This is another example of intertextuality since the play is actually mentioned in the novel (113).

22  “In a Tom Corey, [Howells] suggests the hope if not for a radical reconstruction of society, at least for a revitalization of it through an honorable joining in commercial enterprise and an alliance with Penelope Lapham” (Wagenknecht).

23  Quoted in W.D. Howells The Friendly Eye.

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Catherine PERSYN, « The Individual and the City in W. D. Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham », E-rea [En ligne], 1.1 | 2003, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2003, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.151

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Catherine PERSYN

Catherine Persyn is professeur agrégée à l’université de Toulouse le Mirail. Elle a soutenu une thèse, en 2000, sur At the Back of the North Wind de George MacDonald et publié divers articles, principalement sur MacDonald et le peintre Pré-Raphaélite Arthur Hughes.

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