The Rise of Silas Lapham & the Stuff of Social Mobility

by Aaron Burstein

Part of the series: “New Directions for Thing Theory in Literary Studies: A Forum.”

In his seminal essay “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin asks, “How do books cross the threshold of a collection and become the property of a collector?” [1] For Benjamin, collecting is not a mere material practice; collecting involves a particular relationship with one’s things, a sense of appreciation and responsibility toward the collection: “for a collector—and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be—ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” [2] Benjamin speaks from the position of an aesthete, but what of the other position—the collector as he ought not to be? The collection always exists in tension with its potential for social instrumentalization. Yet in this act of instrumentalization, the collector nevertheless transposes some piece of their self onto their artifacts, perhaps to an even greater intensity.

Following the economic growth of the late 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age became a primal moment for collecting in America, notably among the newly minted tycoons like J.P Morgan and William Randolph Hearst who commanded this economy. [3] Here, collecting could not help but appear as a bid for social and cultural legitimacy—an ex post facto justification of extravagant wealth. One of the most compelling literary portraits of this scene is The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells. The novel tells the story of a new money paint magnate, Silas Lapham, who attempts to ingratiate himself into Boston’s community of old-money elites. These elites are primarily represented through the characters Bromfield and Anna Corey, who, quite interestingly, are shown to be downwardly mobile; their son Tom has to take to a job clerking at Lapham’s company, in contrast to his father’s more leisurely existence. This deconstruction of the new- and old-money divide is further evident in the novel’s romantic subplot, which revolves around the possibility that Tom will marry one of Lapham’s daughters. Still, despite his immense economic success, Lapham feels apprehensive about his social position, which seems to predict his later economic precarity. By the close of the novel, Lapham loses his fortune and returns to his old family home in the country.

The novel seizes upon Benjamin’s question of the property of a collector as the Lapham family plans a fashionable library that is doomed to remain unrealized. Allan Hepburn observes that, “caught up in the drama of representation, contemporary novels put objects on display in order to revive and broaden aesthetic inquiry.” [4] In the case of The Rise of Silas Lapham, this readerly experience loops in on itself as Howells recreates this aesthetic inquiry. Because this would-be book collection is an unambiguous failure, The Rise of Silas Lapham is a somewhat underexamined work among scholars of collecting and thing theory. The story’s aspirational emphasis, however, makes for a highly effective exploration of material subjectivity and class politics. Moreover, the things in Lapham’s life, whether owned outright or merely yearned for, reveal an emerging consumer economy within the Gilded Age. These textual elements signify the cultural labor of constructing an upper-class affect, and the novel likewise invites readers to consider their own curatorial habits.

Proponents of thing theory and speculative realism note the slippery status that things seem to occupy. We cannot regard a thing unto itself; a thing will always be mediated by its use, symbolism, value, history, and so forth. Things are continually reshaped by human consciousness. In the case of the novel, Lapham mainly views things through the lens of social utility, but this view seems to backfire, further mystifying both the upper-class milieu and its corresponding system of things. Echoing Benjamin, Peter Schwenger locates a version of this drama within the thing itself: “it is generated by the act of perception, perception of the object by the subject. This perception, always falling short of full possession, gives rise to a melancholy that is by the subject and is ultimately for the subject.” [5] Things are indeed the site of Lapham’s melancholic class anxiety and inform the novel’s pathos. Books are especially meaningful to this thematic consideration within the novel, for books represent both the material divisions of class as expensive luxury items and the social signifiers of class as central props in the performance of cultural capital. The generalized longing over things sharpens into class longing over social legitimacy.

At the start of the novel, Lapham is too ignorant to recognize that his wealth does not in itself afford social clout. The novel introduces its main character through a newspaper interview, one which situates him in a particular phase of being rich that lacks signifiers beyond the source and existence of his money. Writing and print, by contrast, figure into a system of objects that demarcate the family’s social cachet. Coming as he does from humble beginnings, Lapham’s money is the primary source of interest that the public can take in him, and, seemingly knowing this, he approaches the interview more like a salesman than a celebrity. He repeatedly praises the quality and usefulness of his paint, explains all the material details, and even presents the reporter with a small jar of his best brand. The aleatory quality of the paint mine is hereby converted into social utility, or so Lapham thinks. The gift fails to soften the newspaper’s patronizing treatment of Lapham, which previews the esoteric decorum of the Bostonian elite. The novel demonstrates the limitation of the thing in this respect; the paint is a commodity that fails to translate from the economic field into the social, despite paint’s general role in art and decoration. For Lapham, paint is the source of his income and remains raw material, not yet put to appropriate use within the upper-class system of taste. After the profile is published, the paper refers to Lapham as “one of nature’s noblemen,” an aristocratic referent that only foregrounds Lapham’s outsider status. [6] Lapham is a successful businessman, but, as the interview portrays him, he’s crude and untutored. By using this interview as exposition, the novel locates Lapham’s identity through print, both literally and figuratively. And yet, just as Lapham’s character is irreducible to his newspaper profile, Lapham cannot adequately manage his own print representation.

The second chapter explains the Laphams’ ascendancy in more detail, as well as the ways in which material abundance defies appropriation, at least at first: “they had not had a social life. Their first years there were given to careful getting on Lapham’s part, and careful saving on his wife’s. Suddenly the money began to come so abundantly that she need not save; and then they did not know what to do with it.” [7] Speculation resumes, however, through their confrontation with social barriers. Their initial poverty and their subsequent wealth both function as insulation, even as the idea that they do not know how to spend their money indicates a deficiency in their newly upper-class identity. This issue of taste, and even paint itself, figures prominently: “[Lapham’s] wife spent on rich and rather ugly clothes and a luxury of household appointments. Lapham had not yet reached the picture-buying stage of the rich man’s development, but they decorated their house with the costliest and most abominable frescoes.” [8] The passage closely links taste, décor, and sociality, suggesting that the Laphams’ outsider status is a material symptom. Their taste isn’t just bad; it’s expensive, and it re-establishes Lapham’s faulty assumption that quality and price share a one-to-one relation. Money is the defining characteristic of a new class identity, and the ambiguous qualities of modern capital supplant the nuances of taste—the homologous field of cultural capital, as Pierre Bourdieu famously framed it. Yet for Bourdieu (and the Coreys likewise), social and cultural capital are the hidden class, irreducible to money, by which the Boston elite operate. Taste and decorum serve to delimit the all-consuming commodification the new tycoons seem to bring forth. Indeed, the Laphams’ apparent lack of genteel taste forecloses any rise in their social life, despite their monetary resources.

No one thing embodies Lapham’s ambition and eventual ruin more effectively than the house he is building in the Back Bay. The Laphams live in unfashionable Nankeen Square, but resolve to raise their social status with this new house. The new house, in its design and construction, not only advertises Lapham’s success and proclaims his wealth, but, even more importantly, stages the classing of taste. A key feature of the new house is the projected library, since books of various kinds are a crucial marker of class distinction during this period and factor heavily in the family’s social aspirations. So assembling a library is, of course, an essential step in the family’s social and cultural development. Irene Lapham and Tom discuss its contents at length during his visit to the new construction site. That visit is largely premised on a differentiation between their personal taste, cultural capital, and material designs. Irene mentions Middlemarch, which Tom had recommended to her and her sister Penelope. Irene has not finished the novel and primarily parrots Tom’s and Penelope’s opinions on the text. Indeed, Irene’s treatment of culture seems actuated by duty, and her inquisitiveness expresses self-consciousness regarding her apparent lack of familiarity with literature. Her conversation with Tom breaks away from any discussion of ideas and repeatedly retreats to material surfaces. Following a lull in the conversation about Penelope and Middlemarch, Irene “abruptly” comments, “we are going to have the back room upstairs for a music-room and library.” [9] Thus, the physical features of Lapham’s house closely link to displays of cultural capital, and for Irene, the subject of architecture is but an analogue of dress and fashion. Although she may lack the education and sense of ease that Tom exhibits, she attempts to explore these surface displays of cultural capital by breaking them down into constituent parts—the size and layout of bookshelves, individual authors to select, book bindings, and so forth. This exchange predicts a later (and more iconic) nouveau-riche literary figure: Jay Gatsby and his library of books with uncut pages. A party guest even compares the books to producer, director, and playwright David Belasco, calling attention to the theatrical appreciation of literature within the field of cultural capital. [10] “Realism” emphasizes class and commodities as a generic consideration, indicating the role certain aesthetic projects play in social identity formation, while again referencing Belasco’s highly detailed and authentic mis-en-scène.

Irene’s attention to surfaces demonstrates a theatrical inclination, but, like Gatsby’s library, there is a certain content that is yet to be accessed. The collecting aesthetic thereby revolves around an accumulation, management, and withholding of knowledge. Collecting and its study traditionally concentrates on high culture, so it takes on a hegemonic quality, in which would-be collectors defer to the norms of an upper-class vanguard. [11] Miles Orvell characterizes taste itself as an economy of imitation, claiming that “underlying middle-class Victorian taste lay an imitation of American upper-class taste; and underlying American upper-class taste lay an imitation of European traditions.” [12] Realism itself falls into this system of imitation, given its self-consciously mimetic project. [13] This is especially the case during Howells’s time, when definitions of high culture are heavily classed as both consumption and subject matter. Irene at first seems an ideal subject for this project, given her proclivity for study and imitation:

[T]ill [Irene] met this young man who was so nice to her at Baie St. Paul, she had scarcely lived a detached, individual life, so wholly had she depended on her mother and her sister for her opinions, almost her sensations. She took account of everything he did and said, pondering it, and trying to make out exactly what he meant to the inflection of a syllable, the slightest movement or gesture. [14]

In keeping with her character, she begins making declarations regarding the design plans, outwardly projecting knowledge while implicitly soliciting feedback from Tom. Here, the novel’s gender dynamics echo its class politics through the patriarchal management of cultural capital. Their conversation implies that the library is as much a validation of Lapham’s masculinity as it is of his class position. Tom and Irene transition to a discussion of more specific authors, a topic that might signify a more in-depth engagement with literature, but for Irene it’s more like checking a shopping list that Tom supplies. And apart from Shakespeare, Tom’s praise of these authors is relatively muted. When Tom remarks that “nothing furnishes a room like books,” he seems to demystify cultural capital by reducing it, for her sake, to decoration. [15] He even situates the shelves within the context of another potential collection when he mentions hanging pictures. But the decorative and cultural value of books is not explained or rationalized. It seems that the book list he prepares is primarily motivated by its own power of display.

These performative, surface-level conceptions of books gesture back to their content, however. Character becomes a form of ownership (and vice versa), and the characters themselves are at least partially conscious of this phenomenon. Susan Stewart articulates a similar point when she claims that “the function of belongings within the economy of the bourgeois subject is one of supplementarity, a supplementarity that in consumer culture replaces its generating subject as the interior milieu substitutes for, and takes the place of, an interior self.” [16] Although Benjamin, Hepburn, and others acknowledge how collecting can represent an appreciation of art objects unto themselves, Lapham’s attitude seems more in line with Stewart’s diagnosis. The interior qualities of acculturation can be replaced by exterior signifiers—collections and décor.

The characters’ somewhat superficial treatment of culture and taste suggests that Lapham might not be as different from the upper crust as he initially seems. It is unclear whether the social elites’ affinity for fashion and aesthetics stems from an authentic higher appreciation or from a passive reproduction of class—simple matters of upbringing and inheritance. Tom admits that he dislikes poetry while still naming essential poets whose collections are obligatory for an upper-class home library. When Irene offers Tom a card on which to write, she happens to mention the carpenter’s habit of writing on three-cornered blocks, inadvertently suggesting that, for her, these titles are an extension of the woodwork, not a literary curriculum; the canon is flattened into a shopping list, which coincides with the emerging consumer economy during this period. The card, moreover, foregrounds the speculative nature of the Laphams’ collection; it is a plan signified by a representative list, and will ultimately remain only that, given that the house is never completed. Despite its spontaneous and ephemeral qualities, the card quite elegantly represents a convergence of consumer longing, class longing, and cultural capital.

Still beyond the library as a marker of taste (and beyond the newspaper profile as a marker of accomplishment), the authoritative transmission of information via print, which is to say, the mastery of social nuance, is troubled from a third angle. Throughout the novel, the Laphams seek guidance from authorities like Seymour, the architect they hire to design their grand new edifice; they also discreetly observe the Corey family, imitating them to the best of their ability. But they also consult an etiquette book for social instruction about how to act and dress for dinner parties. Like literary study, the Laphams research and interpret in order to demonstrate proficiency in the field of cultural capital. Nowhere is this more painfully and comically evident than when Lapham agonizes over his attire in anticipation of the Coreys’ dinner party. Lapham even attempts to translate fashion to print. He seeks clarity in the etiquette book his family buys as a source of reference on upper-class decorum, but when the question of whether to wear gloves is introduced, it becomes a peculiar source of apprehension for Lapham. Here print replaces direct social encounter, albeit inadequately. Lapham recognizes the Coreys’ ease in their social position, and he feels he needs to project a sense of ease in turn, which this seemingly “careless question” would immediately puncture. [17] Although the novel reveals the democratizing potential of print in arbitrating issues of taste and performativity, the etiquette book proves inaccurate. On arriving at the Coreys, he sees that the men are not wearing gloves and “he [begins], with as much indifference as he could assume, to pull them both off.” [18] Reliance on the etiquette book alone thereby signifies a failure of discernment. The Laphams lack the critical awareness to effectively interpret and sort through ambiguous or faulty information; moreover, they lack insight on how to best locate useful or authoritative information in the first place. The etiquette book itself becomes an extension of bad or misinformed taste. For all of the Lapham’s grand designs regarding the library, the only book he actually uses is this etiquette guide, and it turns out to be a bad purchase.

The gloves provide a miniature dramatization of his entrance into the material and affective performances that mark the Boston upper class, as well as the relative triviality of such performances. Lapham’s indecision again mimics the reader’s experience, in which one must determine the practical and thematic role of things. As Elaine Freedgood suggests, realist fiction can present a unique challenge when distinguishing symbolic objects from objects that simply provide verisimilitude—the reality effect. [19] This challenge has been exacerbated by more modern reading practices, which call attention to the symbolic potential in all things. For Lapham, gloves should ideally signify ease, demonstrating his familiarity with fashion norms, thereby building a sense of social belonging. Yet the question of whether to wear them occasions a foray into the unknown and therefore carries greater symbolic weight. Plus, the guidance of the etiquette book makes the gloves as much a literary object for the Laphams as they are perhaps for the novel’s reader. For Boston’s old-money class, on the other hand, fashion is a part of the reality effect, a basic lived experience. The ironically informal ease by which they understand class formalities forecloses a consciously symbolic relationship with these kinds of performances, as they do not for Lapham the outsider.

Between these many direct and indirect conversations about upper-class performativity, materially aesthetic relationships re-emerge when Lapham tells Bromfield and the other guests about his plans for the library. Here, Lapham consciously highlights his work within the field of cultural capital, but commits his worst social faux pas yet when he lets slip that his collection is a conscious intervention into cultural capital:

He said he had not much time for anything but papers; but he was going to have a complete library at his new place. He made an elaborate acknowledgment to Bromfield Corey of his son’s kindness in suggesting books for his library; he said that he had ordered them all, and that he meant to have pictures. He asked Mr. Corey who was about the best American painter going now. “I don’t set up to be a judge of pictures, but I know what I like,” he said. He lost the reserve which he had maintained earlier, and began to boast. [20]

Although display tends to drive cultural capital within the novel, cultural capital must also remain invisible to some extent, concealing its very existence. Lapham works to mimic both their taste and self-confidence, but instead creates a paradoxical juxtaposition, claiming he knows what he likes while nevertheless soliciting painters from the Coreys because he doesn’t know what he genuinely likes, at least within the scope of genteel taste. Lapham’s estrangement from even his own taste again leads him to reduce aesthetics to money, since his business is his main source of pride and confidence. In facing failure, however, Lapham declares at the novel’s close that he would not have done anything differently; the narrative arc concludes with a renunciation of self-doubt and regret. Money provides the condition of possibility for Lapham’s collection, but it forecloses a productive consideration of Lapham’s value system within the field of cultural capital.

Lapham ultimately runs up against the philosophical problem that things are not things. Despite whatever construction and purpose these things are organized around, the biggest, and perhaps only, impact these things make are upon Lapham’s consciousness: “the things that are felt are only aspects of our own subjectivity.” [21] Lapham, to some extent, serves as a surrogate for Howells as an author, given Howells’s own humble beginnings relative to his later literary prestige. More importantly, Howells’s project of literary realism mirrors the claims of speculative realism: the authentic imitation of life through fiction is nevertheless mediated through authorial and readerly subjectivity. Howells places the tension between the instrumentality and aesthetics in sharp relief, and the speculative role of things sharpens it still. The Rise of Silas Lapham, as a primal scene for this collecting aesthetic and framework, derives special significance from a sense of class precarity. The material signifiers of cultural capital act as an esoteric language system. These objects necessarily signal one’s social position but are at constant risk of being misread. The interpretive content of books is reproduced on their collective surfaces. The self-referential quality of this collecting aesthetic, moreover, reverses the question of how things construct identities, to how identity constructs things.

Next in this series: “An Object for Future Study” by Michael Doss.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1987), 61.

[2] Benjamin, 67.

[3] Abraham Rosman and Paula Rubel, “The Collecting Passion in America,” Zeitschrift Fur Ethnologie 126, no. 2 (2001): 315, 316.

[4] Allan Hepburn, Enchanted Objects (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010), 3.

[5] Peter Schwenger, The Tears of Things (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006), 2.

[6] William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (New York: Norton, 2018), 20.

[7] Howells, 25.

[8] Howells, 25.

[9] Howells, 119.

[10] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1953), 46.

[11] [Pearce endnote], 6.

[12] Miles Orvell, The Real Thing (New York: UNC P, 1989), 59.

[13] Orvell, 39.

[14] Howells, Silas Lapham, 27-28.

[15] Howells, 120.

[16] Susan Stewart, On Longing (Durham: Duke UP, 1993), xi.

[17] Howells, Silas Lapham, 196.

[18] Howells, 201.

[19] [Freedgood endnote].

[20] Howells, Silas Lapham, 220.

[21] Schwenger, The Tears of Things, 24.

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