Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Why Howells earned a spot in Library of America
I'll give William Dean Howells props for this - he's a serious writer interested in ideas and, in particular, with characters who face moral or ethical dilemmas that they must resolve. The Rise of Silas Lapham, while stylistically a mess, is still in print (though seldom read) because it's not just a "story," a lot of gossip about a lot of rich characters who are quirky or cynical or naive, to varying degrees, in other words, a typical popular novel of its time (and ours, to a degree). It's about characters in crisis: two crises, in fact. First, the personal-romantic story line: daughter Penelope is in love with Tom Corey, whom the whole family believed to be in love w/ P's sister, Irene. What should she do? Should she give up her love to preserve her relationship w/ Irene? This dilemma consumes many chapters and involves all of the member of the Lapham family. Second crisis, the social-economic: Lapham desperately needs $ and has an opportunity to sell some property to a group of English businessmen who are clearly acting as a front for a group of investors back in England - they will pay a ridiculously high price for the property (taking a percentage as their earnings), and then the property will prove to be almost worthless, bilking the investors. Lapham realizes that there are many in the consortium, so the loss will be spread out, and that all of the members are wealthy and can afford to take the loss - and he needs the $. But should he get the $ through trickery and deceipt? The laws of capitalism would say: of course. But what should be his course? It's issues like these, which Howells grapples with, via his characters, that raise this novel up a notch and earned it a spot in the Library of America.