The Rise of Silas Lapham
, by William Dean Howells
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After the Civil War, rapid industrialization created a new crop of American multimillionaires. Although as wealthy as the aristocrats of Boston and New York, the nouveaux riches were rejected by those arrogant guardians of traditional society because of their uneducated tastes and uncouth styles. This class conflict is at the core of The Rise of Silas Lapham, one of the first American novels of manners, one of the first to look at the American businessman and self made millionaire, and one of the first to employ realism a style that would come to dominate twentieth century American fiction.
A devoted husband and father, fairly decent employer, and mostly honest businessman, Silas Lapham has used his father s small paint company to amass a large fortune. But he yearns to enter society and for his two daughters, Penelope and Irene, to marry well. However, blue blooded Tom Corey s love for one of the Lapham daughters is thwarted by his mother, who believes Penelope is an overly independent social climber. Meanwhile, Silas s efforts to be accepted by the Boston Brahmins lead him into dangerous financial waters that threaten to drown his business and swallow his family.
Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a senior fellow of the Center for the Humanities, which he founded. His latest book is a collection of essays, A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World. He is completing a cultural history of the United States in the 1930s.