John P. Marquand Essay - John P. Marquand Long Fiction Analysis

John P. Marquand Long Fiction Analysis

Although debate continues over the merits of John P. Marquand’s writing, there is little question that collectively, his novels provide a comprehensive and accurate picture of changes in American society from the end of World War I to the beginnings of the 1960’s, a comédie humaine of modern American life. Marquand was a realist and was largely conservative in style; his accuracy of detail gives his best work an uncanny sense of reality. He was a transitional figure in postwar American letters, and his adherence to the novel of manners, never very central to the American literary experience, dates his fiction. Since his death, his type of realism, with its emphasis on the public scene, has been relegated to the writers of popular fiction.

The world depicted by Marquand’s novels seems irretrievably gone. His characters’ need for loyalty and decency and courage in everyday life, out of which they constructed standards capable of withstanding the flux of their lives, seems antiquated now. Perhaps even his accurate sense of the havoc wreaked by the rapid social change of his time will eventually lose its impact as the generations for which he wrote pass on. His novels will remain valuable, however, for the understanding with which Marquand portrayed the American male, with “accuracy, compassion, incisive perception, and wry love.” As a recent critic of Marquand’s work has written, Marquand’s American male is “obsessed with the material trivia of his daily needs and confused personal diplomacy that his marriage demands, trying frantically to find something meaningful somewhere to fill the hollowness at the core of his life.”

The Late George Apley

The Late George Apley was the first of Marquand’s major novels, has remained his most famous, and is considered by many to be his finest. In it, he set the pattern for the major novels that followed over the next twenty years. Briefly, the point of the book is to show how even though the community of Boston dominates George Apley, it nevertheless provides a comfortable social code within which he finds a measure of security.

The novel itself begins with a “Foreword and Apology” by Horatio Willing, who has been chosen by Apley’s son to write a “Life in Letters” study of his father. Marquand’s pen was never sharper than in this novel, which parodies the honorific biography. The novel traces Apley’s life from youth to old age and death, and is concerned with the individual’s place within a society and the possibility of remaining organically connected to a community but not smothered by social conformity. Marquand described the novel as “a savage attack on the old water side of Beacon Street.” In spite of the satire, the reader’s attitude toward Apley is one of affection. Willing appears smug and the society itself is stifling, but Apley remains a deeply human figure wrestling with himself to accommodate his own desires and dreams with the values of the community to which he feels such loyalty. Although Apley’s values are for the most part admirable (for example, the Puritan attitude of responsible stewardship with which he distributes the family money), it becomes increasingly clear that he is a man out of touch with the changing society around him. It is his simple adherence to his values that renders him both a commendable product of his community and heritage and an increasingly embarrassing anachronism within that community.

Wickford Point and H. M. Pulham, Esquire

The tenacity of the past, which molds and influences the current generation, provides one of the central themes for Marquand’s next two Boston novels as well. If The Late George Apley deals with the Boston of the past, Wickford Point is concerned with a contemporary, decaying New England family once dimly connected with the tradition of transcendentalism through a minor nature poet. The traditions and values that often rendered Apley merely silly are carried in this novel to grotesqueness. The story, filtered through the consciousness of a popular magazine writer, describes the Brills, an old family once of some prominence, who now are reduced to a quirky eccentricity, and it deals in particular with the narrator’s relationship, both past and present, with Bella Brill, Marquand’s study of the consummate “bitch.” In her, Marquand introduces the first of many “old-money” women who are denied to his middle-class protagonists.

The third of the Boston novels, H. M. Pulham, Esquire, records the ineffectual efforts of Pulham, a businessman of post-World War I Boston, to rebel against the customs and background of his youth. This is a novel, as one critic described it, of “inexorable time, of mutability, of the flood of the largely wasted years” that make up the lives of so many of Marquand’s central characters. In spite of Pulham’s insistence that he did the right thing by not marrying the “wrong” girl or digging up his cultural roots and moving to New York, the reader understands, as is so often true in Marquand’s books, the depth of the emptiness of Pulham’s life. It is a portrait done with understanding, however, for in spite of his social obtuseness, Pulham remains a sympathetic character, one who retains a sense of decency and tenacity in the face of a shifting social order.

These three books, later issued in a single volume titled North of Grand Central, were a critical as well as popular success; two of the novels were made into movies and one became a long-running play, and they did much to dispel Marquand’s standing as a writer of slick magazine fiction. The trilogy also did much to label Marquand as a New England writer, a tag that annoyed him almost as much as the earlier designation as simply a writer of popular fiction. His next series of novels was set in a variety of American locations, in part in an attempt to dislodge the notion that he had become “merely” a writer of satiric regional books.

So Little Time, Repent in Haste, and B. F.’s Daughter

The three Marquand novels to come out of World War II exhibit the variety of activities that occupied him during these years. So Little Time is set in the worlds of the theater and of Hollywood and focuses on a playwright, Jeff...

(The entire section is 2597 words.)