“The US fiction of the 19th century is defined by its twin obsessions with the small scale and the national scale.”

It is telling that William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham begins with an interview. As the titular character sits down to be questioned by journalist Bartley Hubbard, we are privy to one of the central themes of the novel – the small scale transcending to a larger, national scale. Silas Lapham is but one man, but through the process of the interview, Howells shows he is acutely aware of his audience and the need to succinctly inform them of the details of Lapham’s life. Just as Hubbard’s interview is to broadcast the means of Lapham’s life to a wider readership, we too engage with the details of the man as his personality and traits radiate outwards. The individual man becomes larger-than-life character.

In a book centred on material wealth, the priorities are set out within the first page as Lapham informs Hubbard ‘I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money’. Even here, Lapham is identifying the fascination with money that transcends across the country – America is the great democratic nation, the land of opportunity – here, with the right determination and business acumen, anyone can move upwards from an individual to national level. This is the world Lapham operates in – to quote the famous speech by Calvin Coolidge, ‘The Press Under a Free Government’: ‘the chief business of the American people is business’.

In titling the book The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells specifically draws attention to the individual man, Silas Lapham himself. But equally, by positioning him in such an elevated, central position, his rise – and fall – becomes an example of social experience; a model by which he acts as a substitute for the American people as a whole. As Lapham explains to Hubbard: ‘The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country.’ Here Lapham clearly identifies the new means of the world, how the operation of ‘small things’ is a thing of the past, that the methods of modern America will now operate on a far larger scale, and by engaging in this interview, Lapham seeks to place himself within this new scale.

The contrast of small and large scales is not merely confined to the language of business and money though – both The Rise of Silas Lapham and Henry James’ The Bostonians feature love triangles, tackling the themes of romance on a conflicted level. Where traditionally love might be thought of as a private affair, in both novels romance is now a thing that cannot be contained between just two people, extending out to three. In the instance of The Bostonians the triangle consisting of Verena, Olive and Basil is further complicated by the domineering natures of the two individuals fighting for Verena’s affections. In one of her speeches, Verena presents the point ‘do you think that women are meant to be slaves?’ – the irony being that to a degree, this is exactly what she becomes. In the confused struggle for allegiance that the love triangle presents, the small scale matters of the heart are extrapolated out to a grander scale where this struggle must be fought amongst the midst of a national feminist movement.

And even within this ‘love’ triangle, there remains financial focus – such is Olive’s desire for Verena that she pays Mr. Tarrant – Verena’s father – a large sum of money to allow Verena to live with her. Here, intimate personal relationships become entangled with the wider scale notions of finance – while seeking to break out from the pre-established role of women in society, Olive inadvertently enters into the machinations of business. This also shows the lengths to which one person will go to gain the upper hand in winning the affections of a person – for Olive, Verena becomes her entire world – but in the grand scheme of the feminist movement across America, the triviality of the interplay between the three sides of the love triangle pales into insignificance.

In terms of feminism as a theme within The Bostonians – Olive’s use of Verena is primarily to extend the scale of her own personal movement, Verena acting as a mouthpiece to carry Olive’s views. But just as Olive’s ‘purchasing’ of Verena places her within the bounds of a national system of finance, her use of Verena as an oratory instrument to a degree works against her feminist principles. Much of the fascination and allure of Verena is not to do with the feminist speeches she is presenting, but instead with her sheer beauty and eloquence. She is in essence playing on her femininity for effect, and when Olive considers speaking herself at the end of the novel, the distaste from others is clear: ‘‘Oh, are you going to speak?’ the lady from New York inquired, with her cursory laugh.’ While Olive and Verena’s double act has had success on a small, local scale, now presented to the mass audience of the Boston Music Hall, attended by individuals from further afield, its limitations are made clear. In doing so though, James also aids in the creation of the sense of a national scale, full of a broad cross section of American society.

Howells is also keen to create an America of varied people – he specifically writes Lapham’s speech as accented, drawing attention to his regionalism and distinct background: ‘’pass you over the road,’ he called it rud, – ‘and it sha’n’t cost you a cent.’’ By giving his characters regional traits and contrasting them to the more refined speech of characters like Corey, Howells portrays a more realistic national landscape. Lapham’s accented speech sets him apart from the cultured individuals he wishes to engage with socially: ‘He accented it as if it were purr-ox-EYED; and Bartley had to get him to spell it’. In this scene, Lapham is clearly at one level of remove from Bartley, Lapham becoming an object of ridicule with the confusions of his accent literally spelt out on the page.

As much as Lapham’s desire for status can be seen as a striving towards a grander, more recognised scale, it is during his financial troubles that we see him engaged in the opposite. It is here that he becomes isolated, operating on an individual basis; his business, schemes and morals reduced to a single human being. ‘Lapham was gone a fortnight. He was in a sullen humour when he came back, and kept himself shut close within his own den at the office the first day’. The image here is of a man afraid of being seen as a fool, scarred by his failure and the implications this has on his business acumen. Lapham uses the nationally accepted means of hard currency to get what he wants, rather than the nature of his own individual character – Thus, when his financial credentials are implicated, he truly falters.

It is important to note Howells influence as author in the creation of the world that Lapham inhabits, as ultimately, the fate of the characters lies in his hands. Largely accepted as the first American author to bring a realist aesthetic to the United States, the fall of Lapham’s financial powers in conjunction with his ‘rise’ in morals marks out the priorities in Howells writing. In his depiction of the cut and thrust world of shares and stock prices, Howells is keen to present an un-romanticised version of the world where the ‘hero’ doesn’t always succeed. Instead, his ‘realistic’ world contains individuals who over-reach themselves, that succumb to greed; and in the process, a morally charged story is presented to the readership.

Also of note are the many occasions in The Bostonians where James specifically draws attention to himself as author, stepping back and clearly identifying himself as the ‘I’:

‘If we were at this moment to take, in a single glance, an inside view of Mrs Burrage (a liberty we have not yet ventured on), I suspect we should find that she was considerably exasperated by her visitor’s superior tone, at seeing herself regarded by this dry, shy, obstinate, provincial young woman as superficial.’

Here we see James offering his opinions on Mrs Burrage in the first person; these are James’ personal views, ‘I suspect’, he informs us, but follows this up with ‘we should find’. Here, James is using the novel itself as the means of connecting the small and national scale. Just as the opening interview of The Rise of Silas Lapham shows Howell’s awareness of an audience, so too does this passage show James engaging with the readership at large with the inclusive use of ‘we’.

In terms of form, it is important to consider both novels themselves as an example of the obsession with both the small and national scale. On their own, the novels are arguably small, a world to be enjoyed by a reader in their private company – on another level, they deal with big, over-arching themes like economics, morality, manners and strife, presenting these to a potential audience located across the country. This theme is even backed up within The Rise of Silas Lapham when Bromfield states: ‘All civilization comes through literature’ – here, the link between reading and overall betterment of oneself is dealt with, Bromfield expressing his frustration at individuals who do not read literature, like Lapham.

This plays in to the hierarchy of men displayed in the novel. While Lapham has money, what he really yearns for is social acceptance and class, which he seeks to gain by marrying one of his daughters into the well-to-do Corey family. Here, Bromfield is positioned as the paragon of class that Lapham yearns for, with Tom Corey as the means by which the union of their families may be bridged. To this degree, Lapham engages again in the means by which he knows best, commerce – effectively trading his daughter for increased social status. Here, the small scale bonds of romance and family ties are increased in size to a broader scale of hierarchy and levels of ‘acceptance’ laid down by society as a whole. Lapham’s use of his daughters to ‘buy into status’ highlights the way his mind operates on its own level of ‘twin obsession’: he deals with business and his daughters in the same way, interacting with and positioning them as if they held mutual ‘value’ which can be exchanged and implemented for status.

In both novels, Boston is presented as place of opportunity, casting the city as firmly possessed of a local identity; the ‘happening’ place of the day. In contrast, in the depictions of Basil Ransom’s flat in New York, we are given a window into a place of rough squalor, a ‘somewhat decayed mansion… the house had a red, rusty face, and faded green shutters, of which the slats were limp and at variance with each other’. In these descriptions James focuses on the miniature aspects of the location, but as Ransom’s living place, they can be taken to apply to him too. ‘Faded’ and ‘limp’, in the New York scenes we see Ransom frustrated at his lack of literary success and stumped in his attempts to woo Verena. By presenting New York as a place ‘other’ than Boston, James paints more colour into an American national portrait of many cities and locations, each with their own individual character. For Ransom, Boston is where he must turn to progress further in his life.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, Bromfield Corey identifies the new motivators in the age, pairing the language of romance and money: ‘There’s no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It’s the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination’. Lapham is representative of the new breed of moneyed people moving to the city, clashing with the older, established values Corey represents. By contrasting the old and new ways, Howells combines the small scale notions of the individual castes, combining them into a fuller, more conflicted whole; an America of social reformation.

Social reform appears also in reference to the lives of women in the novel. Lapham’s wife Persis is portrayed as a domestic housewife, content with her station and place in society whereas Lapham is not. Persis, while portrayed as relatively happy, is trapped within her situation, unwilling to do anything that might unbalance the status quo, as illustrated by the scenes where she finds a piece of paper suggesting Lapham may have been having an affair; she hides the paper and swiftly forgets about. Howell’s focus on these trivial aspects of daily household life are part of his many efforts at depicting social realism and in doing so, Persis becomes less a character, more an archetype for housewives across America. Despite Lapham’s stress on her importance, ‘If it hadn’t been for her, the paint wouldn’t have come to anything’, his praise of her rings hollow – just like his daughters, Persis is a woman Lapham feels he holds as a possession, part of his portfolio as much as his business is.

Wrapped up in the central discourse of The Rise of Silas Lapham is the way the language of business even finds its way into the love triangle – in this instance, Reverend Sewell urges that the lovers should operate on an ‘economy of pain’, limiting the upset to as few people as possible. While this theory may initially seem focused on feelings, it is again operating on mathematical, business-like principles. This theory shows, like Lapham’s treatment of his daughters and business with the same brisk manner, that the people of America seek to rationalise every form of their lives with hard and fast rules that apply to every situation, unwilling to leave anything to the chance. The irony and faults in this methodology are swiftly evident as the economy begins to slump and ‘pain’ becomes commonplace within the novel.

Both novels showcase characters attempting to over-reach their station, and in both instances being held back by the intervention and complications of romance. Seeking to rise out of anonymity and become players on a national scale, the likes of Silas Lapham and Olive Chancellor enlist the services of those they care most about, only to find their affections divided, their true cause confused. With their ‘I want’ attitudes, Silas and Olive become victims of their own ambition, entering into a treacherous economy of desire that will not gel with their search for respectively, social status and feminist principles – the route to the national scale impeded by the obstacles of the small scale.


Bertonneau, Thomas, ‘Desire, Resentment, and Sacrifice in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1998)

Bittinger, Cyndy, ‘The Business of America is Business?’, Calvin Coolidge [http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/html/the_business_of_america_is_bus.html]

Davis, Sara, ‘Feminist Sources in The Bostonians’, American Literature , Vol. 50, No. 4 (1979)

Fried, Michael, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Howells, William Dean, The Rise Of Silas Lapham (London: Prentice Hall, 2002)


James, Henry, The Bostonians (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2009)

McMurray, William, ‘Pragmatic Realism in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 4 (1962)

Pease, Donald, New Essays on the Rise of Silas Lapham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)


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