I borrowed the title of this post from a short story I wrote several years ago. In my story, I attempted to convey the awkwardness, tension, and even suppressed heartbreak of a gathering where the participants are trying very hard to act as expected of them according to their positions in society. (In the original version of the story, the characters didn’t have names; they were called “the banker,” “the student,” “the epicure,” etc.) I’m proud of that story–maybe I’ll share it here sometime–but if you really want to get a sense of the pressure of playing to type, you can either go back to high school, or you can read a novel from the 19th century. I recommend the latter.
Before this past weekend, I would have recommended reading a Victorian novel, specifically. I probably would have made some generalization about how the English have always been so much more hung up on class than the Americans. While this may be broadly true, William Dean Howells’s 1885 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, which I haven’t quite finished yet, provides a poignant and funny (and poignantly funny) illustration of a particular type of social conflict that is uniquely American: the brash yet self-conscious invasion of Boston’s artistic and intellectual aristocracy by a self-made industry hero and his well-meaning but culturally backward family. The eponymous mineral paint millionaire finds himself in a disorienting position: The popular newspapers valorize him for exemplifying the American spirit of independence and bootstrap-pulling-up (huh?), but the cultural elite smirk at him even as they find themselves obligated to pay homage to his money by socializing wih his family. It’s a very 19th-century story, but then again, it’s also depressingly familiar to 21st-century readers. Heads of corporations are still alternately fawned over, sneered at, praised and blamed for events they probably didn’t bring about. And America certainly still has an intellectual aristocracy–read The New Yorker.
The narrative voice of Howells’ novel reminds me of George Eliot’s, but without a lot of the philosophical interruptions that can make it hard to slog through parts of Middlemarch. The main similarity is that both narrators demand our sympathy for all of the characters, no matter how distasteful they’re acting. At first I was undecided as to whether I was supposed to sympathize with the Laphams, who sometimes come across as vulgar but have an endearing family relationship, or the Coreys, who are often snobbish but take a refreshingly clear and witty view of what’s going on. Then I came to the conclusion (which I realize could be altered by the ending) that I’m supposed to sympathize with everyone. This is all the more striking considering the fact that Howells, from what I gather from the editorial notes, hung out with people like the Coreys. He could have written a completely satirical portrayal of Silas Lapham, even a farce, but instead he wrote a novel of great sensitivity.
Lapham’s oldest daughter is named Penelope, so of course I have a special bond with her. She’s a particularly interesting character because she is, in a sense, caught between the two worlds. She reads more than anyone else in her family, and she has a sharp wit that almost, but not quite, would enable her to hold her own in the Coreys’ drawing rooms. Also, I think Tom Corey is in love with her, even though he’s supposed to be in love with the pretty younger sister, Irene. I fear no good can come of this, but I can’t wait to find out.