Saving The Businessman’s Soul

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Reading on, still not certain how strong a case I could make for the book’s relevance today, I came upon a passage in which Howells fixes for his readers the exact position of the Laphams in Boston society: “In Boston, with all her husband’s prosperity, they had not had a social life. Their first years there were given to careful getting on Lapham’s part, and careful saving on his wife’s. Suddenly the money began to come so abundantly that she need not save; and then they did not know what to do with it. A certain amount could be spent on horses, and Lapham spent it; his wife spent on rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments. Lapham had not yet reached the picture-buying stage of the rich man’s development, but they decorated their house with the costliest and most abominable frescoes;… they gave with both hands to their church and to all the charities it brought them acquainted with; but they did not know how to spend on society.… Lapham’s idea of hospitality was still to bring a heavy-buying customer home to potluck; neither of them imagined dinners.”

Competition for social position, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous display, abominable taste, the clash of the old and the new rich, social envy and insecurity, snobbery, class consciousness, the struggle for status—would any of my contemporaries see anything recognizable in the remote world that Howells holds up for inspection in The Rise of Silas Lapham ? You bet they would.

A feeling of uneasy familiarity came over me as I read the chapter that focuses upon Lapham’s relationship with the architect he hires to design a new house for his family. I consider myself an expert on the subject of businessmen and architects, for less than a year has passed since I completed a dazzling renovation of my apartment at a cost only a few dollars more than nine times the amount I had intended to spend. Howells is cruel: “Lapham promptly developed his ideas of black walnut finish, high studding, and cornices.… ‘I presume,’ he said, ‘you’ll have the drawing-room finished in black walnut?’

“‘Well, yes,’ replied the architect, ‘if you like. But some less expensive wood can be made just as effective with paint. Of course you can paint black walnut too.’

“‘Paint it?’ gasped the Colonel.

“‘Yes,’ said the architect quietly. ‘White.…’”

This passage may not seem earthshaking, but the famous American architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), designer of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, credited it with launching a revolution. “A single sentence in Silas Lapham about black walnut,” Gilbert wrote in 1917, “changed the entire trend of thought and made it possible for the architects of the time to stem the turbid tide of brownstone and black walnut then so dear to the heart of the American millionaire.” My own architect was not required to coax me out of an attachment to anything as shameful as black walnut, but he did persuade me that two or three of my favorite conceptions had fallen from favor sometime late in the Presidency of Franklin Pierce.

Just as Iacocca was the best salesman for Chrysler’s cars, so Silas Lapham was the best salesman for his mineral paint.

Now, to fully make my case of relevance, I needed a couple of quotes to show I was not the only person loony enough to think Silas Lapham was important. Here Van Wyck Brooks came to my aid with a statement that the book “transcended the local and the period interest … because the principal character was not merely a Boston or an American type but a type of the whole Western world.” And here was the French critic Hippolyte Taine, calling Silas Lapham “the best novel written by an American, the most like Balzac’s, the most profound … the most comprehensive.” Preposterous, but not too preposterous to quote in support of my cause.

Was there any way to counter H. L. Mencken’s condemnation of Howells as a “placid conformist” or Leslie Fiedler’s dismissal of him as “resolutely cheerful, progressive, and sane.” Perhaps not, but at least I could show that Howells had not seemed so harmless to his contemporaries. An anonymous reviewer of Silas Lapham condemned the author as a man who “despises art” and his fiction as “a degradation.” For “hopeless depravity both in author and subject,” the reviewer said, Silas Lapham “out-Zolas Zola.” Howells’s realism served no purpose except to demonstrate the “progress from man to the apes, from the apes to the worms, from the worms to bacteria, from bacteria to mud. It is the descent to dirt.”

Now all but certain that I could make a case for the novel as something more than an artifact, I came to the final chapters. Lapham’s fortune is threatened, but he can save it if he connives in a scheme concocted by his old partner, Rogers. But here Howells ruins everything. At the climactic moment the novel turns into a morality play, with Lapham presented as Faust, confronting nothing less than a chance to sell his soul to the devil: