« The (Belated) AALS Report | Main | History for Bankruptcy Scholars »

The Great American Bankruptcy Novel, Maybe

posted by Buce

I guess you would have to say there is one great American bankruptcy novel. That would be William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885). I’m hesitant because I find it unreadable: it’s too much high-minded Victorian social critic for me. Worse, perhaps, with Howells as with Dickens, I think he doesn’t understand the capitalist economy he is trying to criticize. Dickens saved himself with cyclonic energy and inventiveness. With Howells, a more telling comparison is Trollope—perhaps no more inventive or energetic a writer than Howells, but far better attuned to his subject matter. Howells’ Indian Summer (lately resuscitated in the New York Review of Books Classics (link)) is a gentle romantic comedy that shows his skills to better advantage.

The “Rise” of the title is, of course, a heavy-handed irony: Lapham falls when he rises and rises as he falls, just as Oedipus can see only when he is blind--perhaps this is the case also with Balzac’s grandeur et de la décadence de César Birotteau,, although the point is less stressed there. About the best Howells can do with it is the conventional good-man-in-a-bad-business model (the script cries out for Jimmy Stewart):

Perhaps because the process of his ruin had been so gradual, perhaps because the excitement of preceding events had exhausted their capacity for emotion, the actual consummation of his bankruptcy brought a relief, a repose to Lapham and his family, rather than a fresh sensation of calamity. In the shadow of his disaster they returned to something like their old, united life; they were at least all together again; and it will be intelligible to those whom life has blessed with vicissitude, that Lapham should come home the evening after he had given up everything, to his creditors, and should sit down to his supper so cheerful that Penelope could joke him in the old way, and tell him that she thought from his looks they had concluded to pay him a hundred cents on every dollar he owed them. . . . 

All those who were concerned in his affairs said he behaved well, and even more than well, when it came to the worst. The prudence, the good sense, which he had shown in the first years of his success, and of which his great prosperity seemed to have bereft him, came back, and these qualities, used in his own behalf, commended him as much to his creditors as the anxiety he showed that no one should suffer by him; this even made some of them doubtful of his sincerity. They gave him time, and there would have been no trouble in his resuming on the old basis, if the ground had not been cut from under him by the competition of the West Virginia company. He saw himself that it was useless to try to go on in the old way, and he preferred to go back and begin the world anew where he had first begun it, in the hills at Lapham.


--W. D. Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham 351-2 (Penguin Paperback ed. Reprinted 1985)


The comments to this entry are closed.


Current Guests

Follow Us On Twitter

Like Us on Facebook

  • Like Us on Facebook

    By "Liking" us on Facebook, you will receive excerpts of our posts in your Facebook news feed. (If you change your mind, you can undo it later.) Note that this is different than "Liking" our Facebook page, although a "Like" in either place will get you Credit Slips post on your Facebook news feed.



  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless ([email protected]) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.