Bartley Hubbard has come to Silas Lapham's office to interview him for the "Solid Men of Boston" series in the Boston Events newspaper. Hubbard tells Silas, a nineteenth-century millionaire, that he wants his money or his life. "I guess you wouldn't want my life without the money," Lapham replies.
"Take 'em both," Bartley suggests.
Born on a northern Vermont farm near the Canadian border in 1820, Lapham was the son of poor and unpretentious, religious parents possessing sterling morality. Lapham, however, admired his mother more when she knelt before him at night washing his feet than when she knelt at prayer.
In 1835, his father discovered mineral paint on their farm in a pit left by an uprooted tree. Because of poverty, buildings were not being painted at that time. It was not until 1855, after his brothers had left the farm and Silas had returned from a three-month stay in Texas to operate a nearby tavern-stand, that he decided to mine and sell the paint. He married a schoolteacher, Persis, and together they built a fortune in paint that withstood sun and rain, not fading, chipping, or scaling.
Lapham shows his storeroom of paint, which is stocked in many sizes and colors. He shows Hubbard his first-rate paint, the Persis Brand. He continues to tell him of the advertisement for his paint on board fences, barns, and even large rocks, arguing that he does not understand why people object to this altering of the landscape. "I say the landscape was made for the man, and not the man for the landscape."
Lapham tells Hubbard that he did not have any influence in the government during the Civil War so he could not speculate by selling his paint for war supplies. Instead, at the insistence of his wife, he fought and returned a colonel. When he returned, he rushed the paint during the postwar boom with the help of a partner, who had the capital to back him. "He didn't know anything about paint," Lapham says. Silas bought his partner out in two years.
Leaving Lapham's office, Hubbard notices his attractive typist. "What an uncommonly pretty girl!" Hubbard comments.
"She does her work," Lapham replies.
Hubbard is given a ride back to the Events office in Lapham's buggy and learns of Silas' love for a fast horse. Writing a subtly cutting account of Lapham, Hubbard uses a tone that Silas will never detect.
The length of the first chapter is significant because the great number of events, facts, and concepts that it contains prepare the reader for most of what is to follow. The Hubbard interview is the most objective, yet clever, way to present Silas' background. Howells has discovered a workable technique by which a great deal of data can be presented without being heavy like Balzac's narration. Hubbard's humor lightens the interview, and again this is a credit to Howells' style of writing.
Lapham's money is immediately stressed as his sole claim to fame. This is important later when the Coreys are presented with not only money but also education and social elegance as reasons for their prominence.
The sterling morality of Lapham's parents is pointed out, for it is significant that Silas Lapham, greedy capitalist, has come from moral origins. Later he can return to these origins when he refuses to cheat the English settlers in a business deal.
The fact that he admires his mother's working instead of praying points out Silas' philosophy of "Work and it shall be opened to you. Toil and you shall receive." He has discovered that he is much surer to get the things he wants by working for them, rather than by waiting for God to interfere in the course of daily events and give them to him.
His return from Texas to begin the mining and selling of paint is later paralleled by Tom Corey's return from the same state to work in the business with Silas.
Silas' defense of man using the landscape is a prediction of the artistic blunders he will make when planning the house he builds. It also forecasts why the artist Bromfield Corey is repelled by Lapham, who covers nature with a coat of paint.
The material downfall of Lapham is prepared for by the mention of the partner Lapham used for his capital. Howells later reveals that Mrs. Lapham plagues Silas with remembrance of his sin, and he seizes the opportunity to repay his partner by lending him money that he cannot return. The rise of an underselling paint company and a loss in the stock market force Lapham to demand repayment. His old partner proposes the unethical selling of the mills he has put up for collateral to English settlers. Lapham refuses and loses his business, but his concern for the good of the settlers redeems him morally.
Lapham's display of his stock also predicts his downfall, which is additionally due to his overstocking the market. Only the Persis Brand that he shows to Hubbard saves him as a businessman; the underselling paint company cannot produce such high quality, and Silas is able to maintain his family on his profits from it.
Hubbard's notice of Lapham's typist is significant, because she is later revealed to be Jim Millon's daughter. Millon is the man who took a bullet meant for Silas during the Civil War. Because his wife would object to his generosity, it is later revealed that he is secretly supporting the typist and her mother.
The first chapter not only prepares for the plot to follow but, also, for the themes as well. Silas' sterling moral parents give him a peaceful state of mind to which he returns; this brings the book to a happy ending, thus satisfying one requirement of comedy. His material fall owing to his moral flaw of greed in his dealings with Rogers is predicted to introduce an element of tragedy. Interweaving these two elements into one chapter displays Howells' ability to subtly present tragicomedy.
Silas' material rise is a romantic story, but it also sets the framework for a more realistic one dealing with his moral rise as a humanitarian who refuses to cheat the English settlers.
The Rise of Silas Lapham opens at the end of the protagonist's material rise and at the beginning of a moral one. It shows him to be a non-artistic man whose only claim to social position is money. These aspects are later discussed in these notes under the headings of morality, society, and art. The moral predicament that Silas is in is common to all Americans who can live profitably by exploiting others. These facets are considered under the heading Americanism and Universality.