The Education of Oscar Fairfax

In dozens of novels, short stories, and nonfiction works, Louis Auchincloss has chronicled the American elite, primarily of New York, in the manner of Henry James and Edith Wharton. THE EDUCATION OF OSCAR FAIRFAX, a novel in the form of a memoir, also recalls another earlier chronicler of American aristocrats: Henry Adams.

A New York attorney like Auchincloss, Oscar Fairfax is a self-effacing man who strives to influence the lives of others, from family members to a Supreme Court justice. Seemingly a consummate busybody, he has an insatiable desire to do good deeds.

The first vignette engages teenage Oscar in a debate with his father and grandfather (an Episcopal bishop) over whether a planned new cathedral would be an expensive anachronism. Later, at Saint Augustine’s school, while learning to be a member of the establishment, he affects the course of a co-founder’s life; at Yale, he becomes mentor to a public school boy who is a budding writer on the make. After marrying and inadvertently becoming a World War I hero, Oscar joins his father’s law firm and opens a branch office in Paris. There he also starts his writing career, meets Edith Wharton, and has an affair, which his marriage survives.

He turns his attention to other people’s marriages: his sister’s, a godchild’s, and that of a Maine hairdresser’s son, whose Pygmalion he becomes. His greatest triumph is convincing his son not to resign from the family firm over an ethical matter; this achievement is marred, however, by Fairfax’s belated concern and rare soul searching about having persuaded the young man to compromise his standards.

This, then, is the story of a shallow person who, having been born to wealth and position, achieves a modicum of professional success, but is happy only when orchestrating people’s lives. Unresolved at the end of the novel is whether ego or something less profound motivates his consuming desire to be at the center of things and to mold personalities.