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Every nation has its master theme, Bronson Howard observed around 1886. In France, this perennial topic is marital infelicity; in England it is caste; in the United States, it is business. " The remark may seem trite today, when business ideals have permeated all corners of American society, when businessmen-novelists are celebrating the virtues of the "great American game" and when business-oriented historians are demanding that we scrap the term "robber barons" in referring to the founders of our industrial fortunes. The businessman has become the dominant symbol of our age, but in 1886 his status and popular appeal remained uncertain. While success literature of all kinds flooded the markets of the day, the emphasis was on character training and morality; next to nothing was said about actual conditions in the business world. William Dean Howells is generally regarded as the first great American writer to deal with the businessman as a human being. His fine case study of a self-made man, The Rise of Silas Lapham, appeared in 1885. Seven years earlier, Bronson Howard had produced the first of four successful melodramas in which he explored the business theme. By 1886 he was polishing up the last, and greatest, of them all.

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