From the start of the novel, we are drawn into the world of late 19th century Boston, post-Reconstruction America, where newly rich industrialists attempt to enter the society life of old money. Howells crafts an extraordinarily realistic look at the American Dream gone awry.
"The Rise of Silas Lapham" begins with an interview that a local newspaperman is doing of Colonel Silas Lapham, a mineral paint tycoon. Lapham's account of his rise from the backwoods of Vermont to his marriage, to service in the Civil War, to his propagation of a successful mineral paint business is chronicled and gives us a taste of the effort and perseverance necessary for his rise, as well indicating the possibility of some potential failings, especially with regard to his one-time partner, Milton Rogers. We soon learn that Mrs. Persis Lapham aided a society woman in distress the year before, and the return of her son, Tom Corey, from Texas, signals another sort of ambition on the part of the Lapham daughters, Irene and her older sister Penelope. The rest of the novel plays out the ways in which the Laphams try to parley their financial success into social status - and how the Laphams are affected by the gambit.
Howells explores a number of significant cultural issues in "Silas Lapham": isolationism, social adaptability, economic solvency among all classes, personal integrity and familial ties, and the relationship between literature and life. The fact that the story is set about 20 or so years after the end of the American Civil War sets an important and subtle context that runs throughout the novel and inflects all of the thematic elements. Howells' treatment of the social interactions between the industrially rich Laphams and the old moneyed
"The Rise of Silas Lapham" questions the nature of relationships, how they begin, how they endure - the contrast between the married lives of the Coreys and the Laphams is worth noting, as is the family dynamic in both instances.