The Late George Apley, considered by many to be the best of John P. Marquand’s novels, was a turning point in its author’s career. For fifteen years prior to its publication, Marquand had, as a “slick” popular writer, enjoyed considerable commercial success but no critical recognition. The Late George Apley, however, was immediately recognized as an important book, and its author was promoted by the critics from “popular” to “serious” writer. This elevation was certified when the novel earned for Marquand the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Throughout the remaining years of his writing career, Marquand confirmed and further consolidated his reputation, although he never completely abandoned the commercial marketplace.
The Late George Apley is the first of a trilogy of novels in which Marquand minutely describes and analyzes the social patterns, behaviors, mores, and conflicts in upper-class Boston society during the rapidly changing period from 1880 to 1920. This novel depicts that part of old Boston society with Puritanical antecedents and commercial traditions; the second of the books, Wickford Point (1939), shows the decline of Bostonians with Transcendentalist ancestors and artistic pretensions; and the last, H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), examines the Boston businessman as he tries to accommodate his geographical and class inheritances to the pressures of the contemporary world.
In each of these books, Marquand explores the ways in which social forms and cultural assumptions left over from the past bind those in the present and how, in short, those environments that have evolved to ensure familial and social protection, identity, and continuity become prisons for the individuals who inherit them. This is most obvious in The Late George Apley. George’s father, Thomas, represents the old nineteenth century individualistic businessman. He is highly intelligent, austere, rigid, hardworking, and uncompromising. His relationship with his son is reserved and formal, almost institutionalized, although he shows concern and, on occasion, affection for the boy. The doubts that are to plague his son are foreign to Thomas. He knows who he is and what his roles are as father, as businessman, as member of the community, and as an Apley. When he and George have their only real public disagreement, the older man emphatically quashes George’s fuzzy democratic ideas: “You and I do not stand for the common good. We stand for a small class; but you don’t see it. . . . Nobody sees it but me and my contemporaries.” Thomas, however, is saved from robber baron status by his sincere Puritan “stewardship” ethic; he truly believes that the Apley position and fortune are signs of Godly favor and that the family’s money must be conserved and shared...
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