The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

For a young and energetic nation, American novels really do tend to be pretty serious and dire. I mean, it might not seem that way. There are funny novels here and there. But compare that to Britain or Spain, where it feels like all the novels have a touch of humor. Actually, Germany is also a young and energetic nation, and their novels also tend to be dreadfully serious, so maybe there is a correlation there. On the other hand, France and Japan are pretty old (as unified nations), and they also write fairly serious novels, so, you know, who can tell. These are all broad generalizations.

381362All of which is to say that whenever I read a classic American novel that has any sense of lightness to it, I get pretty excited. And The Rise of Silas Lapham has so much lightness. It’s really impossible to describe. It’s got about seven characters: this late 19th century mineral-paint tycoon Silas Lapham and his wife and two daughters, and this other family, the old-money Mr. Corey and his wife and son. And the plot revolves around Silas’ befuddled attempts to break into high society and pair up his daughter with Mr. Corey’s son.

But each character is so crisply drawn and so distinct. And the voices are so clear on the page. It’s one of those rare novels where you’d know who was talking even when there were no dialogue tags. I love it. What a great book!

Two characters stand out in particular. Silas Lapham is so blustery and confused. He’s obviously a fantastic businessman, but he’s very simple, and doesn’t have much self-knowledge. I love how he keeps trying to break into society, but keeps projecting that desire onto his wife and daughters (who don’t care nearly as much as he does). And I love Bromfield Corey, the patriarch of the Corey family, who’s spent his whole life living off family money and dabbling at painting and saying clever things. You want to hate him, but he has a solid streak of good sense in him. For instance, he’s both repelled and fascinated by Lapham. On a personal level, there’s some element of Lapham’s style that doesn’t work for Corey. But Corey also accepts that Lapham is a good man, and an energetic man, and he’s glad that his son’s been taken under Lapham’s wing.

Great, great book. The first chapter is a bit weak (it’s a newspaperman interviewing Silas Lapham–a pretty clumsy expositional device). But after that, it flows very well.