Saturday, July 23, 2016
The dinner party in fiction and why Howells is no Proust
A good illustration of the good and the bad in William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham involves the preparation for and staging of the dinner party, in which the old-money Corey family invites the nouveau riches Laphams to dinner: much discussion about all the proprieties on the part of the Coreys and much anxiety about what to wear on the part of the Laphams - all building up to the big event and the crisis: older sister, Penelope, refuses to attend and it's obvious to all readers by now, even tho the family members don't see this, that the Corey son, Tom, is in love w/ P not w. her younger and more beautiful sister, Irene. In any event, Howells is good at noting all the class distinctions and the whole scene is unusual in that the Coreys seem truly to want to invite the Laphams into their social set, recognizing that their families may be united by marriage soon The mood and milieu is far different from the Wharton-James style and even more so from the rigid class structure of the British and French novelists - Howells seems truly to be trying to delineate not a classless society but a class structure that is more open and fluid, more American, in which one can ascend - based of course on how much $ one has earned (need not have been inherited). There's the sense that the Laphams, though socially ill instructed and ill at east (Silas, anyway) are as good as anyone else especially the daughters. And yet for all that - I keep wishing and hoping for more sharpness, for some kind or eruption or outbreak that threatens the stability of this social set and of this novel, Howells is good on detail but he gorges on it - his account of the set up and then of the party moves so slowly, so tediously. Many balk at the long party scenes in Proust, and they are indeed much longer and perhaps less consequential than the Corey dinner party, but Proust keeps moving the conversation along - with new nuances and insights at every moment, whereas Howells hits the same note repeatedly. We get it!