Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pivots, Reversals, and Things in the Aesthetic Economy of Howells's the Rise of Silas Lapham

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pivots, Reversals, and Things in the Aesthetic Economy of Howells's the Rise of Silas Lapham

Article excerpt

And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way. (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)

Some 30 years after Melville's meditation on meaning and Boston landfills, the matter of moving dirt around Boston is taken up by William Dean Howells. The building of a mansion in the newly reclaimed land of the Back Bay is, as generations of critics have noted, a central metaphor in Howells's 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham. The house itself is a material thing around which Silas's fortunes pivot and reverse themselves. Howells's close focus on ordinary material things in this novel can be seen as moving beyond an effort to faithfully represent the everyday life of his characters. Although that effort is clearly central to Howells's understanding of realism, by marking reversals in the text-indeed participating in these reversals in a manner that contributes to their perceptibility-these ordinary things become infused with meaning.1 This novel is full of pivots and reversals, and in the context of this essay, I would like to think in terms of how these pivot points-marked by ordinary things-allow readers to better perceive the links between aesthetics and the material environment. The aesthetic economy of The Rise of Silas Lapham proposes an aesthetics and ethics of connection and interrelation.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, the title character is a newly wealthy paint manufacturer from the hinterlands of Vermont trying to break into Boston society. In its broadest strokes, the novel is about the shift in post-Civil War United States culture from an agricultural society to an industrialized nation, in Donald Pease's words, from "the restraint of self-made men to the unrestrained self-interest of laissez-faire individualists." "Restraint" is reversed; it becomes "unrestraint." Lockstep with this post-Emersonian shift, the market has begun to replace nature as the theater of self-reliance,2 and as Silas, a Civil War veteran, mentions, "But I found that I had got back to another world. The day of small things was past, and I don't suppose it will ever come again in this country."3 Howells imbeds Silas Lapham in this profoundly uncomfortable transitional moment. The novel is, appropriately, composed of a pattern of reversals, some surprising some not, and even though Silas claims that the day of small things is gone, the structural pattern of the novel is stitched together by these ordinary things.

The major narrative pattern unfolds Silas's rise to wealth, his subsequent fall, and his ethical rise enabled by that fall. There is a pivot: reversal becomes gain. In short, Silas sacrifices his self-interest for the greater good. His reversal is paralleled by a subplot-the love triangle involving Silas's two daughters, Pen and Irene, and Tom Corey, the scion of an old, wealthy Boston family. Irene loves Tom to the extent that her identity is staked on that love, and both families assume her feelings reciprocated. It comes as a surprise when, following a crucial turning point in the narrative at a dinner party, Tom proposes not to the lovely Irene, who "With all her wonderful beauty, [...] had an innocence almost vegetable" (27), but to the less attractive, rather droll, intelligent daughter Pen. But the surprise is doubled. At the dinner party at the Coreys' house, Silas, unaccustomed to wine, becomes drunk and even more boastful than usual, embarrassing himself in his first foray into polite culture. Tom has come to work for Silas against his family's wishes, and the morning after the party, Silas calls him into his office and abases himself before the young man through an extravagant apology. Tom, at first disgusted, realizes that his revulsion grows from a sense of self-preservation, dependent upon his "asserting the superiority of his sort, and not recognizing that Lapham's humiliation came from the sense of wrong, which he had helped to accumulate upon him by superfinely standing aloof and refusing to touch him" (212). …

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