Gilded Age Book Discussion - The Rise of Silas Lapham



The Gilded Age distinguished between two wealthy classes, the Antiques and the Parvenus.  Appearing a dozen years later in 1885, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells examines the career of one of the nouveau riches, a member of the rising commercial middle class that challenged the social elite of Wharton’s New York and Howells’s Boston.  Set in the hub of New England commerce and culture during the 1870s, the novel exemplifies a realism Howells hoped to bring to the study of urban life.  It charts the fortunes of a Vermont farm boy, who comes to prominence in the city as a successful paint manufacturer, until he gets caught up in the competitive struggles, speculative fevers, and rollercoaster business cycles of a laissez-faire economy.  During his rise, Silas Lapham sets about becoming a solid and accepted member of the urban upper middle class, learning the social customs of Boston Brahmin aristocracy, building a new home in the Back Bay, and attending to the affairs of his two marriageable daughters.  In his leisure time, Lapham and his family vacation at mountain and seaside resorts.  In a twist on the prevailing Horatio Alger self-made-man myth, Lapham eventually falls, in part, ironically, because he cannot betray an old-fashioned morality for the prospect of modern-day riches.  In the end, he finds a measure of social, if not economic, redemption back home on a farm in his native Vermont countryside.