Although perhaps better known for his novels, especially The Rector of Justin (1964) and The Embezzler (1966), Louis Auchincloss has also worked long and hard at the art and craft of shorter fiction, often questioning and testing the boundaries separating the short story from the novel. Several of his many novels, including The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) and A World of Profit (1968), were in fact expanded from shorter pieces already in print; conversely, some earlier collections of his short fiction, most notably The Partners (1974), have been published and marketed as novels. In preparing the current, somewhat misnamed volume (“selected” might well have been a better choice of adjective), Auchincloss has included one tale from The Partners, as well as “seed stories” for A World of Profit and also for Watchfires (1982). Explaining his choices in a brief, generally straightforward introduction, Auchincloss claims that the tales “simply jumped out at me from the ranks of their paler brethren.” Unlike certain earlier anthologies, such asThe Stories of John Cheever (1978), Auchincloss’ volume makes no claim to completeness; on the other hand, it clearly sets forth a coherent “defense and illustration” of the shorter fictional form, directed toward the potential pleasure of reading. As essayist and critic, particularly in the volumes Reflections of a Jacobite (1961) and Life, Law, and Letters (1979), Auchincloss has long steered clear of the academic critical establishment, insisting that literature exists in order to be read and enjoyed rather than to be studied. His own work, as presented in the current volume, may thus also be seen as a companion to his resolutely extramural criticism, an illustrated lecture on the art and craft of short fiction.
To those who have followed his literary career over time, Auchincloss’ selection of tales to be retold, or republished, appears generally sound, generally (but not always) observing chronological order of composition or publication. From the start, with The Injustice Collectors (1950), the tales included in each of Auchincloss’ collections have tended to share a common theme or thread, or perhaps recurring characters or a single, unifying narrator; not surprisingly, they have tended also to reflect the concerns expressed in Auchincloss novels written around the same time. The earliest story, “Maud,” dating from 1949 and included in The Injustice Collectors, clearly adumbrates the author’s growing concern with the developing feminine consciousness, a concern further developed in his novels Sybil (1951) and A Law for the Lion (1953). The title character, Maud Spreddon, is in many ways a prototype for Sybil Hilliard and Eloise Dilworth, a thoughtful, restless young woman born around the time of World War I. Her expectations of life are quite at odds with those of her parents. Unlike her novelistic successors, however, Maud never quite musters the courage of her convictions, for she chooses self-sacrifice over the healthy self-assertion that is easily within her grasp. Other featured characters in the earlier tales belong to vanishing, now long-gone subspecies of the self-proclaimed New York aristocracy, into which the author himself was born in 1917.
As a practicing attorney on New York’s Wall Street for more than forty years, balancing dual careers as lawyer and as writer, Auchincloss managed also, from the 1950’s well into the 1970’s, to afford his readers many enviable glimpses behind the scenes of power, where history is made or broken by the privileged few, often for the most trivial of reasons. Apprenticed by inclination and choice to the novel of manners tradition perfected by Henry James and Edith Wharton, Auchincloss in his middle years took double advantage of his professional activity and insider status to chronicle the initially gradual, eventually precipitate decline of the self-styled American aristocracy, itself a contradiction in terms. In The Rector of Justin, perhaps the most read and best remembered of his novels, Auchincloss addressed himself both ironically and empathically to the institution of the American prep school, an anomaly in that, modeled upon the misnamed British “public” school, it professes to promote democratic values despite high tuition and selective admissions policies. Still, it was just such...
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