Henry B. Wonham, “Realism and the Stock Market: The Rise of Silas Lapham” (pp. 473–495)

William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is usually approached as a representative text in the American realist mode and an unambiguous expression of Howells’s disdain for—in Walter Benn Michaels’s words—“the excesses of capitalism,” especially as embodied in the novel’s rendering of “the greedy and heartless stock market.” Like many commentators of the period, Howells promoted a traditional view of honest industry against the emerging phenomenon of speculative finance, and yet to read the novel as an allegory of opposition to Wall Street speculation is to oversimplify Howells’s complicated attitudes toward high finance and to make a caricature out of the novel’s treatment of complex economic developments. In this essay, I reassess Silas’s investment career and the novel’s surprisingly dense engagement with the dynamics of securities trading as a form of commerce. Critics such as Michaels and Neil Browne have contended that through Silas’s failed investment career, Howells “attempts to disarticulate…an emergent market ethos,” but as I read the novel this same “market ethos” is inseparable from Howells’s conception of realism and of the vocation of the literary realist.

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