Saving The Businessman’s Soul

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Being a millionaire no longer counts for much if you’re consumed by the desire to be rich, and it counts for even less if you’re consumed by the desire to be famous. In the most recent figures I can find—from 1976—the Internal Revenue Service estimated that a quarter of a million Americans had amassed gross estates worth one million dollars or more. To get on Forbes magazine’s 1984 list of the four hundred wealthiest people in the United States, you needed a minimum net worth of $150 million. That seems like a significant sum, yet it would be absurd to argue that a significant percentage of the people on the list are famous.

Lee lacocca’s first real taste of fame came when Henry Ford II fired him. The negotiations that saved Chrysler brought him additional recognition and, eventually, wealth, but Iacocca never would have become a celebrity if he had not chosen the best salesman he had—himself—to plug Chrysler’s cars on television.

Another businessman who has gained something close to national renown is Felix Rohatyn, a partner in the investment banking firm Lazard Frères & Company and the chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which rescued New York City from the fiscal woes that threatened it in the middle 1970s. In a feat rarely achieved by a businessman, Rohatyn, like Iacocca, has become a darling of the press—the subject of adoring profiles in both The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine . I cannot deny that Rohatyn has made a name for himself, but it seems obvious to me that if he had stuck strictly to business, he might be even richer than he is, but he never would have become a star.

I thought of Rohatyn recently when I reread William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham , which celebrates this year the one hundredth anniversary of its publication. I did not think that the occasion should go unnoticed, but as soon as I proposed to myself the task of noticing it, I saw that I faced a problem. Was there any way to convince my readers that this hopelessly old-fashioned book was not, in fact, hopelessly old-fashioned?

The answer leaped at me before I had gotten halfway through the first chapter. Here Howells introduces Hartley Hubbard, a smart-alecky young journalist whose newspaper has given him the assignment of interviewing a prominent local businessman, Silas Lapham, for its “Solid Men of Boston” series.

What were those profiles of Felix Rohatyn, I thought, but contemporary versions of articles in a “Solid Men of New York” series? Sophisticated versions, to be sure, but not so sophisticated as to stop me from thinking that a novelist of our time might do worse than to take as a starting point the imagined encounter of an esteemed executive and a cynical young journalist like Hubbard.

Whereas Rohatyn is said to be a man of much polish and charm, Lapham is a crude, semiliterate, self-made man who has earned a fortune as a paint manufacturer in the boom years after the Civil War. In the scene that opens the novel, Howells squeezes every drop of comic potential out of the encounter between Hubbard’s irreverence and Lapham’s complacent pride in his business success:

“‘Parents poor, of course,’ suggested the journalist. ‘Any barefoot business? Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise?’”

Lapham is not amused, and when Hubbard writes his article, he takes a different tone: “Simple, clear, bold … Colonel Silas Lapham … is, in the best sense of that much-abused term, one of nature’s noblemen.… There is nothing showy or meretricious about the man. He believes in mineral paint, and he puts his heart and soul into it.”

So far, so good, I thought as I pondered my chances of showing that the book deserved attention after one hundred years. Just as Iacocca was the best salesman for Chrysler’s cars, so Lapham was the best salesman for his mineral paint. Beyond that, I could find portraits of Iacocca by contemporary journalists whose rhetoric would rival the rhetoric that Howells parodies in Hubbard’s portrait of Lapham. And beyond that, I could discuss in relation to Silas Lapham the remarkable phenomenon of lacocca’s emergence as a national hero. How could anyone explain it except as a contemporary instance of the honorable American impulse to admire any man or woman who may reasonably claim to be self-made? On this subject, I could point out, Howells himself once made as astute a comment as I’ve ever heard: “There are some self-made men in this country who would have done well to spend the time making almost anything else; but on the whole the men made by others are worse.”