The Rise of Silas Lapham
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The Rise of Silas Lapham

William Dean Howells

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Rise of Silas Lapham

William Dean Howells

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William Dean Howell's richly humerous characterization of a self-made millionaire in Boston society provides a paradigm of American culture in the Gilded Age. 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.

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COREY put off his set smile with the help of a frown, of which he first became aware after reaching home, when his father asked–
“Anything gone wrong with your department of the fine arts to-day, Tom?”
“Oh no–no, sir,” said the son, instantly relieving his brows from the strain upon them, and beaming again. “But I was thinking whether you were not perhaps right in your impression that it might be well for you to make Colonel Lapham’s acquaintance before a great while.”
“Has he been suggesting it in any way?” asked Bromfield Corey, laying aside his book and taking his lean knee between his clasped hands.
“Oh, not at all!” the young man hastened to reply. “I was merely thinking whether it might not begin to seem intentional, your not doing it.”
“Well, Tom, you know I have been leaving it altogether to you–”
“Oh, I understand, of course, and I didn’t mean to urge anything of the kind–”
“You are so very much more of a Bostonian than I am, you know, that I’ve been waiting your motion in entire confidence that you would know just what to do, and when to do it. If I had been left quite to my own lawless impulses, I think I should have called upon your padrone at once. It seems to me that my father would have found some way of showing that he expected as much as that from people placed in the relation to him that we hold to Colonel Lapham.”
“Do you think so?” asked the young man.
“Yes. But you know I don’t pretend to be an authority in such matters. As far as they go, I am always in the hands of your mother and you children.”
“I’m very sorry, sir. I had no idea I was over-ruling your judgment. I only wanted to spare you a formality that didn’t seem quite a necessity yet. I’m very sorry,” he said again, and this time with more comprehensive regret. “I shouldn’t like to have seemed remiss with a man who has been so considerate of me. They are all very good-natured.”
“I dare say,” said Bromfield Corey, with the satisfaction which no elder can help feeling in disabling the judgment of a younger man, “that it won’t be too late if I go down to your office with you to-morrow.”
“No, no. I didn’t imagine your doing it at once, sir.”
“Ah, but nothing can prevent me from doing a thing when once I take the bit in my teeth,” said the father, with the pleasure which men of weak will sometimes take in recognising their weakness. “How does their new house get on?”
“I believe they expect to be in it before New Year.”
“Will they be a great addition to society?” asked Bromfield Corey, with unimpeachable seriousness.
“I don’t quite know what you mean,” returned the son, a little uneasily.
“Ah, I see that you do, Tom.”
“No one can help feeling that they are all people of good sense and–right ideas.”
“Oh, that won’t do. If society took in all the people of right ideas and good sense, it would expand beyond the calling capacity of its most active members. Even your mother’s social conscientiousness could not compass it. Society is a very different sort of thing from good sense and right ideas. It is based upon them, of course, but the airy, graceful, winning superstructure which we all know demands different qualities. Have your friends got these qualities,–which may be felt, but not defined?”
The son laughed. “To tell you the truth, sir, I don’t think they have the most elemental ideas of society, as we understand it. I don’t believe Mrs. Lapham ever gave a dinner.”
“And with all that money!” sighed the father.
“I don’t believe they have the habit of wine at table. I suspect that when they don’t drink tea and coffee with their dinner, they drink ice-water.”
“Horrible!” said Bromfield Corey.
“It appears to me that this defines them.”
“Oh yes. There are people who give dinners, and who are not cognoscible. But people who have never yet given a dinner, how is society to assimilate them?”
“It digests a great many people,” suggested the young man.
“Yes; but they have always brought some sort of sauce piquante with them. Now, as I understand you, these friends of yours have no such sauce.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that!” cried the son.
“Oh, rude, native flavours, I dare say. But that isn’t what I mean. Well, then, they must spend. There is no other way for them to win their way to general regard. We must have the Colonel elected to the Ten O’clock Club, and he must put himself down in the list of those willing to entertain. Any one can manage a large supper. Yes, I see a gleam of hope for him in that direction.”
In the morning Bromfield Corey asked his son whether he should find Lapham at his place as early as eleven.
“I think you might find him even earlier. I’ve never been there before him. I doubt if the porter is there much sooner.”
“Well, suppose I go with you, then?”
“Why, if you like, sir,” said the son, with some deprecation.
“Oh, the question is, will HE like?”
“I think he will, sir;” and the father could see that his son was very much pleased.
Lapham was rending an impatient course through the morning’s news when they appeared at the door of his inner room. He looked up from the newspaper spread on the desk before him, and then he stood up, making an indifferent feint of not knowing that he knew Bromfield Corey by sight.
“Good morning, Colonel Lapham,” said the son, and Lapham waited for him to say further, “I wish to introduce my father.” Then he answered, “Good morning,” and added rather sternly for the elder Corey, “How do you do, sir? Will you take a chair?” and he pushed him one.
They shook hands and sat down, and Lapham said to his subordinate, “Have a seat;” but young Corey remained standing, watching them in their observance of each other with an amusement which was a little uneasy. Lapham made his visitor speak first by waiting for him to do so.
“I’m glad to make your acquaintance, Colonel Lapham, and I ought to have come sooner to do so. My father in your place would have expected it of a man in my place at once, I believe. But I can’t feel myself altogether a stranger as it is. I hope Mrs. Lapham is well? And your daughter?”
“Thank you,” said Lapham, “they’re quite well.”
“They were very kind to my wife–”
“Oh, that was nothing!” cried Lapham. “There’s nothing Mrs. Lapham likes better than a chance of that sort. Mrs. Corey and the young ladies well?”
“Very well, when I heard from them. They’re out of town.”
“Yes, so I understood,” said Lapham, with a nod toward the son. “I believe Mr. Corey, here, told Mrs. Lapham.” He leaned back in his chair, stiffly resolute to show that he was not incommoded by the exchange of these civilities.
“Yes,” said Bromfield Corey. “Tom has had the pleasure which I hope for of seeing you all. I hope you’re able to make him useful to you here?” Corey looked round Lapham’s room vaguely, and then out at the clerks in their railed enclosure, where his eye finally rested on an extremely pretty girl, who was operating a type-writer.
“Well, sir,” replied Lapham, softening for the first time with this approach to business, “I guess it will be our own fault if we don’t. By the way, Corey,” he added, to the younger man, as he gathered up some letters from his desk, “here’s something in your line. Spanish or French, I guess.”
“I’ll run them over,” said Corey, taking them to his desk.
His father made an offer to rise.
“Don’t go,” said Lapham, gesturing him down again. “I just wanted to get him away a minute. I don’t care to say it to his face,–I don’t like the principle,–but since you ask me about it, I’d just as lief say that I’ve never had any young man take hold here equal to your son. I don’t know as you care.”
“You make me very happy,” said Bromfield Corey. “Very happy indeed. I’ve always had the idea that there was something in my son, if he could only find the way to work it out. And he seems to have gone into your business for the love of it.”
“He went to work in the right way, sir! He told me about it. He looked into it. And that paint is a thing that will bear looking into.”
“Oh yes. You might think he had invented it, if you heard him celebrating it.”
“Is that so?” demanded Lapham, pleased through and through. “Well, there ain’t any other way. You’ve got to believe in a thing before you can put any heart in it. Why, I had a partner in this thing once, along back just after the war, and he used to be always wanting to tinker with something else. ‘Why,’ says I, ‘you’ve got the best thing in God’s universe now. Why ain’t you satisfied?’ I had to get rid of him at last. I stuck to my paint, and that fellow’s drifted round pretty much all over the whole country, whittling his capital down all the while, till here the other day I had to lend him some money to start him new. No, sir, you’ve got to believe in a thing. And I believe in your son. And I don’t mind telling you that, so far as he’s gone, he’s a success.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“No kindness about it. As I was saying the other day to a friend of mine, I’ve had many a fellow right out of the street that had to work hard all his life, and didn’t begin to take hold like this son of yours.”
Lapham expanded with profound self-satisfaction. As he probably conceived it, he had succeeded in praising, in a perfectly casual way, the supreme excellence of his paint, and his own sagacity and benevolence; and here he was sitting face to face with Bromfield Corey, praising his son to him, and receiving his grateful acknowledgments as if he were the father of some office-boy whom Lapham had given a place half but of charity.
“Yes, sir, when your son proposed to take hold here, I didn’t have much faith in his ideas, that’s the truth. But I had faith in him, and I saw that he meant business from the start. I could see it was born in him. Any one could.”
“I’m afraid he didn’t inherit it directly from me,” said Bromfield Corey; “but it’s in the blood, on both sides.” “Well, sir, we can’t help those things,” said Lapham compassionately. “Some of us have got it, and some of us haven’t. The idea is to make the most of what we HAVE got.”
“Oh yes; that is the idea. By all means.”
“And you can’t ever tell what’s in you till you try. Why, when I started this thing, I didn’t more than half understand my own strength. I wouldn’t have said, looking back, that I could have stood the wear and tear of what I’ve been through. But I developed as I went along. It’s just like exercising your muscles in a gymnasium. You can lift twice or three times as much after you’ve been in training a month as you could before. And I can see that it’s going to be just so with your son. His going through college won’t hurt him,–he’ll soon slough all that off,–and his bringing up won’t; don’t be anxious about it. I noticed in the army that some of the fellows that had the most go-ahead were fellows that hadn’t ever had much more to do than girls before the war broke out. Your son will get along.”
“Thank you,” said Bromfield Corey, and smiled–whether because his spirit was safe in the humility he sometimes boasted, or because it was triply armed in pride against anything the Colonel’s kindness could do.
“He’ll get along. He’s a good business man, and he’s a fine fellow. MUST you go?” asked Lapham, as Bromfield Corey now rose more resolutely. “Well, glad to see you. It was natural you should want to come and see what he was about, and I’m glad you did. I should have felt just so about it. Here is some of our stuff,” he said, pointing out the various packages in his office, including the Persis Brand.
“Ah, that’s very nice, very nice indeed,” said his visitor. “That colour through the jar–very rich–delicious. Is Persis Brand a name?”
Lapham blushed.
“Well, Persis is. I don’t know as you saw an interview that fellow published in the Events a while back?”
“What is the Events?”
“Well, it’s that new paper Witherby’s started.”
“No,” said Bromfield Corey, “I haven’t seen it. I read The Daily,” he explained; by which he meant The Daily Advertiser, the only daily there is in the old-fashioned Bostonian sense.
“He put a lot of stuff in my mouth that I never said,” resumed Lapham; “but that’s neither here nor there, so long as you haven’t seen it. Here’s the department your son’s in,” and he showed him the foreign labels. Then he took him out into the warehouse to see the large packages. At the head of the stairs, where his guest stopped to nod to his son and say “Good-bye, Tom,” Lapham insisted upon going down to the lower door with him “Well, call again,” he said in hospitable dismissal. “I shall always be glad to see you. There ain’t a great deal doing at this season.” Bromfield Corey thanked him, and let his hand remain perforce in Lapham’s lingering grasp. “If you ever like to ride after a good horse–” the Colonel began.
“Oh, no, no, no; thank you! The better the horse, the more I should be scared. Tom has told me of your driving!”
“Ha, ha, ha!” laughed the Colonel. “Well! every one to his taste. Well, good morning, sir!” and he suffered him to go.
“Who is the old man blowing to this morning?” asked Walker, the book-keeper, making an errand to Corey’s desk.
“My father.”
“Oh! That your father? I thought he must be one of your Italian correspondents that you’d been showing round, or Spanish.”
In fact, as Bromfield Corey found his way at his leisurely pace up through the streets on which the prosperity of his native city was founded, hardly any figure could have looked more alien to its life. He glanced up and down the facades and through the crooked vistas like a stranger, and the swarthy fruiterer of whom he bought an apple, apparently for the pleasure of holding it in his hand, was not surprised that the purchase should be transac...

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APA 6 Citation
Howells, W. D. (2012). The Rise of Silas Lapham ([edition unavailable]). Start Publishing LLC. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Howells, William Dean. (2012) 2012. The Rise of Silas Lapham. [Edition unavailable]. Start Publishing LLC.
Harvard Citation
Howells, W. D. (2012) The Rise of Silas Lapham. [edition unavailable]. Start Publishing LLC. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. [edition unavailable]. Start Publishing LLC, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.