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Saving The Businessman’s Soul

May 2024
6min read

Being a millionaire no longer counts for much if you’re consumed by the desire to be rich, and it counts for even less if you’re consumed by the desire to be famous. In the most recent figures I can find—from 1976—the Internal Revenue Service estimated that a quarter of a million Americans had amassed gross estates worth one million dollars or more. To get on Forbes magazine’s 1984 list of the four hundred wealthiest people in the United States, you needed a minimum net worth of $150 million. That seems like a significant sum, yet it would be absurd to argue that a significant percentage of the people on the list are famous.

Lee lacocca’s first real taste of fame came when Henry Ford II fired him. The negotiations that saved Chrysler brought him additional recognition and, eventually, wealth, but Iacocca never would have become a celebrity if he had not chosen the best salesman he had—himself—to plug Chrysler’s cars on television.

Another businessman who has gained something close to national renown is Felix Rohatyn, a partner in the investment banking firm Lazard Frères & Company and the chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which rescued New York City from the fiscal woes that threatened it in the middle 1970s. In a feat rarely achieved by a businessman, Rohatyn, like Iacocca, has become a darling of the press—the subject of adoring profiles in both The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine . I cannot deny that Rohatyn has made a name for himself, but it seems obvious to me that if he had stuck strictly to business, he might be even richer than he is, but he never would have become a star.

I thought of Rohatyn recently when I reread William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham , which celebrates this year the one hundredth anniversary of its publication. I did not think that the occasion should go unnoticed, but as soon as I proposed to myself the task of noticing it, I saw that I faced a problem. Was there any way to convince my readers that this hopelessly old-fashioned book was not, in fact, hopelessly old-fashioned?

The answer leaped at me before I had gotten halfway through the first chapter. Here Howells introduces Hartley Hubbard, a smart-alecky young journalist whose newspaper has given him the assignment of interviewing a prominent local businessman, Silas Lapham, for its “Solid Men of Boston” series.

What were those profiles of Felix Rohatyn, I thought, but contemporary versions of articles in a “Solid Men of New York” series? Sophisticated versions, to be sure, but not so sophisticated as to stop me from thinking that a novelist of our time might do worse than to take as a starting point the imagined encounter of an esteemed executive and a cynical young journalist like Hubbard.

Whereas Rohatyn is said to be a man of much polish and charm, Lapham is a crude, semiliterate, self-made man who has earned a fortune as a paint manufacturer in the boom years after the Civil War. In the scene that opens the novel, Howells squeezes every drop of comic potential out of the encounter between Hubbard’s irreverence and Lapham’s complacent pride in his business success:

“‘Parents poor, of course,’ suggested the journalist. ‘Any barefoot business? Early deprivations of any kind, that would encourage the youthful reader to go and do likewise?’”

Lapham is not amused, and when Hubbard writes his article, he takes a different tone: “Simple, clear, bold … Colonel Silas Lapham … is, in the best sense of that much-abused term, one of nature’s noblemen.… There is nothing showy or meretricious about the man. He believes in mineral paint, and he puts his heart and soul into it.”

So far, so good, I thought as I pondered my chances of showing that the book deserved attention after one hundred years. Just as Iacocca was the best salesman for Chrysler’s cars, so Lapham was the best salesman for his mineral paint. Beyond that, I could find portraits of Iacocca by contemporary journalists whose rhetoric would rival the rhetoric that Howells parodies in Hubbard’s portrait of Lapham. And beyond that, I could discuss in relation to Silas Lapham the remarkable phenomenon of lacocca’s emergence as a national hero. How could anyone explain it except as a contemporary instance of the honorable American impulse to admire any man or woman who may reasonably claim to be self-made? On this subject, I could point out, Howells himself once made as astute a comment as I’ve ever heard: “There are some self-made men in this country who would have done well to spend the time making almost anything else; but on the whole the men made by others are worse.”

Reading on, still not certain how strong a case I could make for the book’s relevance today, I came upon a passage in which Howells fixes for his readers the exact position of the Laphams in Boston society: “In Boston, with all her husband’s prosperity, 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. A certain amount could be spent on horses, and Lapham spent it; his 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;… they gave with both hands to their church and to all the charities it brought them acquainted with; but they did not know how to spend on society.… Lapham’s idea of hospitality was still to bring a heavy-buying customer home to potluck; neither of them imagined dinners.”

Competition for social position, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous display, abominable taste, the clash of the old and the new rich, social envy and insecurity, snobbery, class consciousness, the struggle for status—would any of my contemporaries see anything recognizable in the remote world that Howells holds up for inspection in The Rise of Silas Lapham ? You bet they would.

A feeling of uneasy familiarity came over me as I read the chapter that focuses upon Lapham’s relationship with the architect he hires to design a new house for his family. I consider myself an expert on the subject of businessmen and architects, for less than a year has passed since I completed a dazzling renovation of my apartment at a cost only a few dollars more than nine times the amount I had intended to spend. Howells is cruel: “Lapham promptly developed his ideas of black walnut finish, high studding, and cornices.… ‘I presume,’ he said, ‘you’ll have the drawing-room finished in black walnut?’

“‘Well, yes,’ replied the architect, ‘if you like. But some less expensive wood can be made just as effective with paint. Of course you can paint black walnut too.’

“‘Paint it?’ gasped the Colonel.

“‘Yes,’ said the architect quietly. ‘White.…’”

This passage may not seem earthshaking, but the famous American architect Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), designer of the Woolworth Building in New York City and the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, credited it with launching a revolution. “A single sentence in Silas Lapham about black walnut,” Gilbert wrote in 1917, “changed the entire trend of thought and made it possible for the architects of the time to stem the turbid tide of brownstone and black walnut then so dear to the heart of the American millionaire.” My own architect was not required to coax me out of an attachment to anything as shameful as black walnut, but he did persuade me that two or three of my favorite conceptions had fallen from favor sometime late in the Presidency of Franklin Pierce.

Just as Iacocca was the best salesman for Chrysler’s cars, so Silas Lapham was the best salesman for his mineral paint.

Now, to fully make my case of relevance, I needed a couple of quotes to show I was not the only person loony enough to think Silas Lapham was important. Here Van Wyck Brooks came to my aid with a statement that the book “transcended the local and the period interest … because the principal character was not merely a Boston or an American type but a type of the whole Western world.” And here was the French critic Hippolyte Taine, calling Silas Lapham “the best novel written by an American, the most like Balzac’s, the most profound … the most comprehensive.” Preposterous, but not too preposterous to quote in support of my cause.

Was there any way to counter H. L. Mencken’s condemnation of Howells as a “placid conformist” or Leslie Fiedler’s dismissal of him as “resolutely cheerful, progressive, and sane.” Perhaps not, but at least I could show that Howells had not seemed so harmless to his contemporaries. An anonymous reviewer of Silas Lapham condemned the author as a man who “despises art” and his fiction as “a degradation.” For “hopeless depravity both in author and subject,” the reviewer said, Silas Lapham “out-Zolas Zola.” Howells’s realism served no purpose except to demonstrate the “progress from man to the apes, from the apes to the worms, from the worms to bacteria, from bacteria to mud. It is the descent to dirt.”

Now all but certain that I could make a case for the novel as something more than an artifact, I came to the final chapters. Lapham’s fortune is threatened, but he can save it if he connives in a scheme concocted by his old partner, Rogers. But here Howells ruins everything. At the climactic moment the novel turns into a morality play, with Lapham presented as Faust, confronting nothing less than a chance to sell his soul to the devil:

“It appeared to him as if the very devil was in it.… [Lapham’s wife] went out of the door, and left him with his tempter … by and by [she] heard him begin walking up and down; and then the rest of the night she lay awake and listened to him walking up and down. But when the first light whitened the window, the words of the Scripture came into her mind: ‘And there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.… And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’”

Lapham loses his fortune, but he saves his soul. Reading the last chapter, I saw that my case had been smashed beyond repair. For contemporary readers to take Silas Lapham seriously, they would have to take seriously notions such as sin, temptation, penance, and redemption—not to mention the fundamental notion that people have souls that may be lost or saved through their actions in business situations. No, no, I thought, you’ve got to face facts. The book is hopelessly old-fashioned, no point in pretending otherwise. Sorry, Silas.

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