Silas Lapham and self-interest

by Rob Horning

3 November 2006


I finished reading The Rise of Silas Lapham, which didn’t quite deliver on the exploration of “the capitalist ethos of the American Gilded Age” as promised on the back of the Oxford World Classics paperback. The analysis amounted to titular character, a mineral paint magnate, confronting ruinous competition cheerfully, without holding anything against his rivals—West Virginian brothers—who through sheer good fortune will be able to under sell him and reduce him to a niche producer: “A strange, not ignoble friendliness existed between Lapham and the three brothers; they had used him fairly; it was their facilities that had conquered him, not their ill-will;a nd he recognized in them without emnity the necessity to which he had yielded.” It was nothing personal, just capitalism, which is here presented as an indifferent force of nature that uses mere mortals as its playthings. Lapham had also been victimized by a series of poor investments in “wild-cat stocks” and an unfortunate case of eminent domain in which the railroad seizes his property for a pittance. The justice of this is much questioned; they are just introduced as the workings of malevolent fate, and possibly the nefarious meddling of Rogers, Lapham’s onetime financier. Howells wants to stress Lapham’s able business capabilities and differentiate them from the issues of finance, which he associates with the scheming Rogers, who is ever on the watch for people to dupe (yet strangely never manages to accumulate anything for his wiles). The inexplicable perplexity of finance does Lapham in, for it’s a realm in which his virtues—diligence, hard work, honesty, genuine enthusiasm for his product—do him no good.

Much of that story is told belatedly and quickly, in the last few chapters, after Howells apparently grew bored of the romance he meticulously set up between Corey, the wealthy heir, and Lapham’s two daughters, one pretty and simple (Irene), the other smart and “dark” (Penelope). Howells invents a book within a book suddenly—the sentimental “Tears, Idle Tears”—as the romantic plot comes to a head seemingly in order to mock his own plot line. We are brought to invest ourselves in the outcome of this misbegotten love triangle only to be encouraged to see it as so much foolishness. The Laphams believe Corey wants to marry Irene, and they all encourage her to love him, but then he goes and proposes to Penelope, who has been far more interesting all along. Penelope feels obliged to reject him, for her sister’s sake. Silas tells his daughters’ trouble to a minister, who then fulminates against the “false ideal of self-sacrifice” and “the novels that befool and debauch almost every intelligence in some degree”—see, I knew there was a reason I stopped reading them. But though this rejection of self-sacrifice has to do with the love story, it seems like its really about the economics story, as enlightened self-interest, the opposite of frivolous self-sacrifice and a hallmark capitalist ethic, is presumably the engine that has fueled Lapham’s rise, along with the rest of the wealthy Boston society we are shown, and the whole of American industry in general. And yet Lapham himself turns his back on self-interest and refuses to knowingly and legally defraud others to save himself. Presumably he is a model of how capitalists are supposed to behave, even absent any checks to their self-interest. Perhaps Howells lampoons the sentimental novels because he believes more novels should be written like his own, which hurriedly models appropriate ethical behavior for fat cats.

The other aspect of the novel is the conflict between the old money Coreys and the nouveau riche Laphams—this feels anticlimactic, in that the Coreys simply decide to hold their nose and tolerate the Laphams, not out of economic dependency but out of their pretentions of gentility. So their ability to rise above what might be construed as self-interest (preventing a son from marrying beneath him) seems to be depicted not as noble sacrifice but a warped pride. So I’m tempted to conclude that the novel wants to advocate self-interested behavior across the board and sees Lapham as a hero only ironically—he’s a relic, and in the end Howells devotes a lot of space to describing him as moribund.

The novel ends with the minister saying it’s too complicated to figure out what’s responsible for “evil” in the moral world, even in that diabolical case of failed businesses. “Its course is often so very obscure; and often it seems to involve, so far as we can see, no penalty whatsoever.” Translation: when people get cheated out of money or economic disadvantages are leveraged against the less fortunate, no one is at fault, really. Certainly it’s not capitalism’s fault anymore than it’s nature’s fault if your house gets struck by lightning and catches on fire. “Your fear of having possibly bhaved selfishly ... kept you on your guard and strengthened you when you were brought face to face with a greater…emergency,” the minister suggests to Lapham, in consolation for having lost his riches. Lapham reiterates his inability to be anything but a straight dealer and declares he has no regrets.  I can’t be the only one to regard this as stubborn pride. We have to wonder, as he struggles in his rural shack with no heat, just how much Howells is endorsing his choices. So either I’m far too cynical (likely) or Howells is being a tad more ironic than you’d think in his title.

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