Society in The Rise of Silas Lapham
The problem of a sudden material rise placing a man in a responsible position socially is considered by Howells in The Rise of Silas Lapham. What can Silas Lapham do for civilization besides cover its countryside with advertisements for his paint? Obviously nothing. When Bromfield Corey points out that civilization is really an affair of individuals rather than epochs and nations; he is pointing a finger at Lapham. He clarifies himself further by saying, "One brother will be civilized and the other barbarian."
Silas, whose main pursuits outside of business are the newspaper, theater, and lectures, does not fulfill Bromfield's description of a civilized man. "All civilization comes through literature," Bromfield states, and Lapham is not a reading man. Commenting on drama in his time, Corey says, "Theater is intellectually degrading," and newspapers and lectures are not to him complete sources of civilized thought.
The Laphams seldom buy books and believe too much reading is harmful to health. Most of the books brought into the house are borrowed from the library. When Irene discusses with Tom Corey stocking the library of their new home with books, she finds herself on unsure ground; she suggests buying Gibbon's works.
"If you want to read him," Corey replies. "You'll want Green, of course, and Motley and Parkman."
"Yes," she answers. "What kind of writers are they?"
"They're historians too."
"Oh yes; I remember now. That's what Gibbon was. Is it Gibbon or Gibbons?"
What is society doing to help the newly rich become well-read, civilized people? The answer is again, nothing. The conventional, closed, Bostonian society finds it impossible to entertain people like the Laphams just as they cannot let the poor use their homes while they are gone in the summer for fear that they will break the furniture. The Laphams might well break some of the out-dated ideas of this obsolete culture which suffers from romantic pride.
Silas and other businessmen like him demand a creative solution to a problem the Bostonian elite were unable to face. Only Tom attempts to help the Laphams choose the best authors for their library and, by marrying Penelope, takes the responsibility of raising her to his level. "The children can learn their ways," Mrs. Lapham says.
Society, however, cannot accept Silas or find a way to make him acceptable. An airy, graceful, winning superstructure is something Silas cannot buy. He has right ideas and good sense; but these are only fundamentals, and society demands additional superficialities. The social dilemma caused by the rise of uncouth men of wealth also involves the artist, such as Bromfield Corey. Therefore, art is the next topic that will be briefly considered.