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November 27 , 2009

The Rise of Silas Lapham


The Rise of Silas Lapham was the first important novel to center on the American businessman and the first to treat its theme with a realism that foreshadowed the work of modern writers. From the first, Howells' richly humorous characterization of a self-made millionaire in Boston society provides a model of American culture in the Gilded Age.

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William Dean Howells (1837-1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. He wrote his first novel, Their Wedding Journey, in 1871, but his literary reputation really took off with the realist novel A Modern Instance, published in 1882, which describes the decay of a marriage. His 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham is…

After establishing a fortune in the paint business, Silas Lapham moves his family from their Vermont farm to the city of Boston, where they awkwardly attempt to break into Brahmin society.

Greedy for wealth as well as prestige, Silas brings his company to the brink of bankruptcy, and the family is forced to return to Vermont, financially ruined but morally rehabilitated.

Howells focuses on important themes in the American literary tradition: the efficacy of self-help and determination, the ambiguous benefits of social and economic progress, and the continual conflict between urban and pastoral values.

Howells crafts an extraordinarily realistic look at the American Dream gone awry as he probes the moral and social conflicts that confront a self-made man trying to crash a Boston old-guard aristocracy that will never truly accept him.


WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS (1837–1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. Nicknamed "The Dean of American Letters", he was particularly known for his tenure as editor of the Atlantic Monthly as well as his own prolific writings, including the Christmas story "Christmas Every Day" and the novels A Modern Instance, and The Rise of Silas Lapham.

“His perceptions were sure, his integrity was absolute, Howells was responsible for giving the American novel its form.”

- Henry Canby

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