William Dean Howells began working on The Rise of Silas Lapham in the summer of 1884. Its serialization in Century Magazine begun in November, and ended in August of 1885. Century Magazine was the continuation of Scribner's beginning in 1881, the change of name bringing no remarkable changes to the magazine's interests or scope. The Century was backed by wealthy contributors and published works of a high literary standards. Nevertheless, the magazine was yet known to be far more "journalistic" than Harper's, generally devoting more space to timely interests and issues.
Documents from Howell's own life attest to the personal importance of characters in Silas Lapham. Silas is modeled both after Howells's father and Howells's close personal friend, Mark Twain. Silas resembles Twain in his "backcountry origins."The famous dinner at the Corey's refers to the Twain's embarrassment while telling a story at the Whittier Birthday Dinner, and event conducted by Howells marking the twentieth anniversary of the Atlantic Monthly. As the editor at the Atlantic, Howells felt the need to mediate between his sympathy for his friend and for the wealthy contributors to the magazine. (Source: Kermit Vanderbilt, Penguin introduction)
The Rise of Silas Lapham follows two major plot lines, one which ends in Silas's bankruptcy, and the other in Penelope Lapham's marriage to Tom Corey. The Laphams made their fortune from mineral paint on the Silas's father's land ("new money") and the Coreys are an old Bostonian family with so much inherited wealth that Bromfield Corey, Tom's father, spends his time painting pictures ("old money").
The novel opens with an unscrupulous journalist Bartley Hubbard arriving at Silas Lapham's office to interview him for a series called the "Solid Men of Boston" for his newspaper. It becomes clear during this opening scene that Bartley has gotten the better of Lapham, churning out a stereotyped portrait of the uncultured and naive "new money" man who is "simple, clear, bold, and straightforward in mind and action."
The "bankruptcy plot" follows Silas Lapham's fall in economic terms, and rise in moral terms (though, the novel seems ultimately ambivalent about the value of these moral terms). Several factors conspire to bring about Silas's eventual bankruptcy. First, the Laphams decide to build a house on the water side of Beacon Street in order to better integrate themselves and their daughters into Boston society. Lapham is portrayed as an easy target for architect Seymour, who has no trouble persuading Lapham to pay for all the things that would be fashionable for his new house. Second, a man by the name of Milton K. Rogers from Lapham's past returns to make demands upon him. Apparently, Rogers was once a partner in Lapham's paint business, but Lapham pushes Rogers out in an ethically murky move. Mrs. Lapham has always felt badly about this, and when Rogers returns to borrow money from Lapham, Lapham feels compelled to respond kindly. Things take a turn for the worse when Rogers unloads some worthless mills along the G.L. and P. railroad on Lapham. At the same time, Lapham makes some poor decisions gambling in stock, and must also continue to make payments to one Mrs. Dewey (a beautiful typist who works in Lapham's office) and her mother, who turn out to be the widow and daughter of John Millon, the man who saved Lapham's life by taking a bullet for him in war. As Lapham considers his fate one day, he accidentally burns down the new home which he has been building, finding out afterwards that the insurance has just expired a week before.
Eventually, pushed to the wall, Lapham must consider an offer for the mills from some wealthy Englishmen which Rogers seeks out for him. Lapham feels that it is unconscionable to not let the Englishmen know that the mills' values will be controlled by the railroad. When Lapham informs the Englishmen of the situation, they still wish to buy the mills, but Lapham still feels like it is immoral to sell to them and refuses. Rogers accuses Lapham of ruining his family once again. The upshot is that Lapham has supposedly become a more moral man, albeit bankrupt.
Meanwhile, the "love plot" consists of the Laphams and the Coreys both mistakenly identifying Tom as interested in Irene, the more beautiful of the Lapham daughters. The Lapham's lives become entangled with the Corey's when Mrs. Lapham nurses Mrs. Corey back to health during an encounter abroad along the St. Lawrence river in Canada. Mrs. Corey and her son Tom continue to call on the Laphams even though the Laphams live in an "unfashionable" part of town (Nankeen Square). Irene, however, is as childish as she is beautiful, and it turns out that Tom is actually in love with Penelope, who is described as "small" and "dark" yet who is clever, who reads, and who has a rather irreverent sense of humor. Interested in Penelope, Tom goes into business with Lapham, and the Corey family feel obligated to invite the Laphams to dinner, which turns out to be an embarrassing affair to Lapham after he gets drunk. By the time the two families discover that it is Penelope and not Irene that Tom loves, Penelope feels that she cannot accept him: first, because of her part in egging on Irene, and second, because of her family's fall from fortune. Penelope, like her father, would like to take the more "moral" path, but as the minister Sewell famously advises, "It is better for one to suffer than for three," citing an "economy of pain" as justification.
In the end, Penelope marries Tom despite these moral qualms, and Lapham returns to his father's land, selling their house in Nankeen square and giving up his control of his paint business to a younger generation (including Tom who expands the business abroad in Mexico and a West Virginia Company which with Lapham merges).
Howells's "realism," thrown into relief by the novel's many references to the inefficacy of other kinds of novels at showing real life (being generally too romantic, melodramatic, and full of unnecessary suffering) nevertheless sits uneasily alongside its somewhat surprisingly allegorical ending. Although the novel seems to end neatly with Lapham's "moral rise" and Penelope's "happy ending," the ending feels hardly satisfying: it's unclear as to whether Lapham's actions have truly constituted heroism, although those like Bromfield Corey would like to view Lapham's story as one of "delicate, aesthetic...heroism."And yet, such a neatly manufactured story would mean, problematically, that "new money" can't rise to the ranks of "old money" no matter how hard it tries, and the only way in which it can be absorbed into the culture of "old money" is to become its aestheticized object (much like the pictures that Bromfield collects).
This ambiguity seems to be accentuated by how the novel begins with a predatory interviewer, and kind of ends with one too: Sewell asks Lapham, "And do you ever have any regrets?" To which Silas answers, confusedly, "About what I done? Well, it don't always seem as if I done it..."Seems sometimes as if it was a hole opened for me, and I crept out of it. I don't know...I don't know as I should always say it paid; but if I done it, and the thing was to do over again, right in the same way, I guess I should have to do it." Though Sewell is ostensibly Lapham's friend, the juxtaposition of his rather straightforward, confidently journalistic question and his Lapham's convoluted, uncertain answer seems to place the two men in an uncomfortable power differential.
Lapham's moral rise thus feels oddly unsatisfying at the same time it is satisfying. Howells's realism, perhaps, is then the tension which results from his characters' internal moral compasses not matching up with the logic of the various external worlds. Penelope feels that her choice to marry Tom is immoral, and yet according to Sewell's "economy of pain," it is the best choice. Lapham's choice to lose his wealth feels moral to him and Mrs. Lapham, but for Rogers, he's just being "particular" and worse, for Bromfield, "picturesque."
I want to suggest, finally, in thinking about the "interviews" that frame the text, that journalistic media seem to gain an amount of omniscience in Howells's text. Both Sewell and Bartley are able to translate dialogic experiences, in other words, they are able to account for multiple "worlds." Bartley can tell the picturesque story of Lapham's economic rise and identify his qualities as the typical "self-made man" while also maintaining his tongue in his cheek, thus making fun of the narrowness and limits of believing this kind of simple narrative. Sewell can refer the Laphams, in his advice, to an abstracted world which makes utilitarian decisions based on the least amount of pain for the least amount of people, and also appreciate the difficulty of what seems "moral"internally, in the end saying: "We can trace the operation of evil in the physical world...but I'm more and more puzzled about it in the moral world." Of course, it might be a bit of a stretch to cast Sewell as a "journalistic" character, but at the very least, he seems someone as involved as Bartley in providing ways to "account" for the various worlds which characterize late-nineteenth century life.