Thursday, July 8, 2010

Canvased Hams: William Dean Howells and Sartorial Realism



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.
ADG

23 comments:

JMW said...

Ah, don't cast aside the English major - we are a fun lot indeed! And, I'm proof that English majors can make a decent living after college (of course this involves going into the corporate world, but it's a living nonetheless). Great observation on Howells.

Preppy 101 said...

You do have the gift for writing. I would imagine that your English teacher looked forward to your papers, albeit what you called BS.

Watching that desperation to "fit it" always elicits such sympathy and even embarrassment for those characters - from me anyway. I cannot remember one time that Old Money unconditionally accepted New Money.
Even today . . . Can you?

Hope you're having a great day! xoxo

LPC said...

Canvassed hams and silk purses from sow's ears. I think many people feel they're faking it. Whatever "it" may be. Even those with Old Money. Because the real is so hard to capture and express. Especially since Freud. Damn him. Damn him to eternity.

ADG said...

JMW...I wouldn't cast aside English majors...ever. I wish that I'd been trained formally to be a better writer. I read an article years ago about the percentage of C-level corporate officers who had, in my opinion at least, the perfect educational background for business...an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in a more precise business discipline...ie MBA etc.

Preppy 101...I don't have to worry about either version of "money". We are woefully short of both over here.

LPC...Indeed Prunella,and who said being born into old money was easy? The real is indeed-so hard to capture. The Buddhists have helped me with this more than any source. And yes, damn Freud but please, let's not let Jackie Gleason off the hook either.

James said...

Oh Lord do I knew that feeling.

Lisa said...

Re: the part of your blog that read: “realizing that they are not-a part of a group.” This in a nutshell has so summarized my whole existence! Last Friday during ‘happy hour’ with my husband, I commiserated over the lack of self-esteem/self-confidence of myself amongst my contemporaries during those daunting high-school years and the years since - (read: I’ve never given a rat’s ass, what others thought of me) and just exactly where I fell short of the mark. My very astute husband made the comment that he thought the exact opposite was true, that in my very obstinate way, I was being VERY true to my inner core/belief and had a lot of self-esteem/self-confidence. Well, after two gin and tonics, it sounded good and his ‘theory’ might just be the reason I’ve stayed with him for 34 years.

I’d married a man who became a doctor, not after he had the alphabet soup after his name. The doctor’s wife scene is so daunting and after several years trying to ‘belong’, realized that I don’t and thought: screw ‘em. I married the man, not the “degree”. Little did I know all those years ago what his mother’s words actually meant when he got accepted to med school and she said to me “I’m so sorry”. She rose above it all and I have too.

As or Lapham, I would have said ‘screw the gloves – not worth it’. Now go write a paper on that!.

Laguna Beach Trad said...

Who gives a f*#! what Society thinks. Then and now. It's not worth it.

Well done, ADG. More, please.

ADG said...

LagunaTradMon...I've always operated from that code/mode. Thanks.

James...it's ok. We like you.

Anonymous English Female said...

Poor, poor Lapham. Just those words 'canvassed hams' makes me want to cry. You can't fake being an outsider; only when you accept it can you can capture and express the real and then, maybe, find a little inner peace - or at least perspire a little less.

ADG said...

Lisa...I ain't writin' nuthin. Good on you for realizing that you've been ok all along. Not to be chauvinistic but I've always thought that women have a tougher go with all the belonging shit anyway. Just read Cosmopolitan cover to cover one month and you'll be suicidal.

Anonymous said...

I happened to walk into a Banks today and noticed that the Madras sport coat is on sale for a mere $99! I am undecided between a two or three button. Do you have a preference? Sorry, if I have already asked you this question.

I'm trying to talk the nurse into a road trip to Charleston. Naturally, she would rather fly in. Is a road trip feasible for a weekend? I would like to case out Ben Silver. Are their shirts worth the extra quid? How do they compare to Brooks & Co? The customer service at the Brooks on Conn. sucks!

We had a better experience at Union Street in Old Town on the Fourth.
Thanks.

~Hilton

ADG said...

Hilton...Yes, I bought mine last summer for the same price. I prefer the classic three button...but at 99 bucks...I'd take either.

Charleston is too far to drive for the weekend. You'd be spending 16 hours in a car. On the other hand, if you want to test the durability and future promise of your connection with "the nurse", perhaps 16 hours in the car is just the thing.

Everything in Ben Silver is top notch-quality and style wise. If you are going to pay more than a ninety five bucks for a shirt though, just go to JPress downtown and have some shirts made from their custom collection.

Patsy said...

I can sympathize with poor Col. Lapham, no one wants to feel horribly uncomfortable or out of place, no matter the setting.

I guess I care what other people think of me, otherwise I expect I wouldn't have too many friends.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

What a fabulous blog...so much style and panache (and from the blurry glimpse of you in the lobby of the Copley Hotel, you possess these attributes in abundance as well!) I love Nonsuch Press, and am currently on Book 4 of Trollope's "Barsetshire" chronicles -- their lovely gray blue covers, compact size and elegant typefonts make reading almost sensual -- and after your description of "The Rise of Silas Lapham", I am going to order it IMMEDIATELY from Amazon. It sounds as though it hews to the same kinds of themes as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis -- rise of the industrial class, the outsider, the "haves and the have nots" ....thank you for this post!

SouthernProletariat said...

The best antidote I have found for that awkwardness (which I have felt numerous times myself) is focus on others that are being excluded. Generally at any social gathering, even the most pleasant, there is some quiet soul that is on the fringe, that would love to be drawn in.

And it definitely makes for a more interesting and varied life

ADG said...

SouthernProle...I just drink liquor...works every time.

LisaBloomsbury...yep, it's all in there and to that end...Silas Lapham will not disappoint you. By the way, you owe me seventeen dollars and sixty three cents...the amount that you MADE me spend at Dadaelius or whatever that book giveaway outfit's name is that you forced me to visit.

SouthernProletariat said...

Yes, my dear...and it does make the stories more entertaining as well. ;)

Anonymous Texan said...

Believe you have to be a bit of a misanthrope & don't drink the kool aid. Enuff said.

Lisa said...

Re: Cosmo mag and all the others - I 'read' them but just for the pictures. I did read one article long ago and for all the 'non-fiction' that it was throwing at me could only think: fiction at its worst. Trust me, I don't believe the fashion rag's articles, but I do love a good photo. My mind is just twisted enough to get some really good style stuff going - 'cuz I'm not getting it here :). After reading the fashion mags, this small-town doesn't know what's hit them when I walk out the door! (It's not Kansas, and I'm definitely NOT in Houston anymore!)

ADG said...

Lisa...yes, the pictures. I used to refer to my wife's Shape Magazine as soft porn. I miss the pictures.

AnonTexan...well said...as always.

SouthernProle...indeed.

NCJack said...

As an old ABLitt. I know that theft, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery, and I WILL use "canvassed hams" soonest...dunno how, but I will.

Washington Cube said...

Amazing. I just said to someone the other day, after I wrote a piece on Mark Twain, "...and who thinks of William Dean Howells anymore?" Apparently someone does. The cover of that book is a painting I've loved for years...at the Boston MFA. Boston Common at twilight in the winter by Childe Hassam.

ADG said...

NCJack...It's all yourn bossman. After all, I stolt it from WDH...or at least borrowed it.

WashingtonIceCube...I'd forgotten Howells too...except for the canvased hams scene...which is for some reason, inextricably embedded in my noggin.

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