William Dean Howells - The Rise of Silas Lapham, My Mark Twain, &c.


Luddite Curmudgeon
Jul 26, 2012
Auckland, NZ
Anyone read any William Dean Howells? He was the 'father' of American realist literature by all accounts, notable for The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and was nicknamed the "Dean of American Letters". I came across his name in a Somerset Maugham short story, and I wonder if he's one of those great 'lost' authors no-one now reads, but perhaps should? I looked him up on a book sellers website and found very few current publications of note. Anyone read him and have any thoughts?

He has volumes in the Library of America, such as the volume below. He was good mates with Mark Twain by all accounts, and wrote a biography on Twain.
How come I've barely heard of him? Does that reflect a glaring ignorance on my part, or has his name sunk in the collective consciousness?

Ive heard of him , but have never read him.:unsure::(
Never heard of him, and I am curious.

There is a reasonable Wkipedia page, and a slightly decayed and uninspiring William Howells Society website.

It sounds as though he was well-connected to the contemporary US literary establishment, and worthy but possibly not a lot of fun as a novelist, unlike his chum Mark Twain.

Interested to know if he is any good.
Last edited:
I never read or heard of him. I remember from my youth way back that someone wrote a biography of Mark Twain, didn't know or forgot it was W,D Howells. An author for me to investigate.
I ordered an old copy of The Rise of Silas Lapham from an online trader. I’ll report back in due course!

If anyone here has read him, I thought Extollager might be a contender…
I ordered an old copy of The Rise of Silas Lapham from an online trader. I’ll report back in due course!

I found an old paperback Signet classic of this book in a used bookstore
I finished The Rise of Silas Lapham. It’s a great book. The title might lead one to think it will chart the rise of the protagonist as he gains his huge wealth and position, but it’s more subtle than that. As we join the story, he is already a rich industry mogul. Throughout the course of the book he actually has significant reverses and the novel is tragic in many ways. His rise therefore seems to refer to his moral rise, as he navigates his way through his troubles. Howells obviously has much to say about capitalism. As wealth increases, he suggests ethics usually declines. It takes a man of considerable moral strength to rise to the occasion when capitalism butts heads with ethics. Howells suggests the choice need not be foregone. The nature of the man’s business is nicely chosen too. Lapham owns and runs a mineral paint mine and paint business. Paint covers over cracks and blemishes, of course, mirroring the fact that his wealth covers up his essentially common, uneducated nature. It can get him a ticket into Boston high society, but it cannot give him the sophistication, conversation or outlook of that society. Characterisation throughout is excellent (one wants to give his eldest daughter a shake and tell her to pull herself together, but at least we care), and the writing is bright (occasionally wryly comic) and highly involving. The book was considered to usher in the US realist novel, and it certainly presents things in quite a realistic way, but I wouldn’t focus on that too much - this is a great novel whether one considers it ‘realist’ or not, and I’d recommend it to those who love Victorian literature.
The only book by Howells that seems to be in my collection is a library discard of a 1910 Harper edition of My Mark Twain. It would look like this...

if it were in much better condition, didn't have black library tape on the spine, etc.

Apparently Howells is an author I haven't gotten to yet unless I read something brief about 50 years ago as an undergrad. The Rise of Silas Lapham probably was on a list of recommended reading in my college days, but It's not something I took up. Thanks for the recommendation, Bick. I think I had a copy of The Rise for a while but didn't keep it; now I wish I had.

Similar threads