I was assigned the immutable task of reading The Rise of Silas Lapham in college. And I wish that I’d kept the paper that I wrote on Howells and his denunciation of the Sentimental Novel. I mostly drank and bullshitted my way through undergrad and the paper I wrote on Howells was probably the only thing I turned out that might be remotely deemed as decent—maybe even vaguely scholastic. My mind was elsewhere at the time so when Professor Cole wrote a margin note to me, suggesting that I consider English as a major; I cast the suggestion and the paper aside.
I soon forgot about Howells, Lapham and pretty much everything that constitutes college learning but I never forgot the canvassed hams metaphor-ever. Lapham’s rags to riches rise challenges his moral constitution and his new money isn’t enough to assure access to Society. He made his money in the paint business…dirtied his hands in Trade…and hoped for access to Boston Society. Certainly not a complex or unique plot…but it’s Howells’ realism that etches in my mind the awkwardness of someone trying so hard to be; but simultaneously realizing that they are not-a part of a group. The canvased hams metaphor captures precisely Lapham’s obtuseness.
“….He had his charges from Irene not to enter the drawing-room without her mother, and he spent five minutes in getting on his gloves, for he had desperately resolved to wear them at last. When he had them on, and let his large fists hang down on either side, they looked, in the saffron tint which the shop-girl said his gloves should be of, like canvased hams. He perspired with doubt as he climbed the stairs, and while he waited on the landing for Mrs. Lapham and Irene to come down from above before going into the drawing-room, he stood staring at his hands, now open and now shut, and breathing hard. He heard quiet talking beyond the portikre within, and presently Tom Corey came out. "Ah, Colonel Lapham! Very glad to see you." Lapham shook hands with him and gasped, "Wait ing for Mis' Lapham," to account for his presence. He had not been able to button his right glove, and he now began, with as much indifference as he could assume, to pull them both off, for he saw that Corey wore none….”
Kind of like wearing a home jersey to an away game. But different.
Onward. In sweltering ennui.