Louis Auchincloss Essay - Critical Essays

Louis Auchincloss American Literature Analysis

In 1960, the year that he broke new literary ground with The House of Five Talents, Auchincloss published an article in The Nation titled “Marquand and O’Hara: The Novel of Manners,” subsequently included in Reflections of a Jacobite (1961). Examining the work of both authors in considerable detail, Auchincloss concluded that the novel of manners, as developed by Henry James and Edith Wharton and refined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1925), had all but died at the hands of John P. Marquand and John O’Hara, whose works were then held in fairly high esteem. Both men, he argued, tended to invent social stratifications instead of merely observing them. More often than not, class distinctions exist only in the minds of individual characters, a tendency that caused Auchincloss to describe both authors as “psychological” as opposed to “social” novelists. Quite probably, he concluded, the social upheavals of the Depression and two world wars had rendered the convention more or less obsolete. Notwithstanding, Auchincloss was working even then to disprove his own suspicions, reaching back toward James and Wharton and even French novelist Marcel Proust for guidance as he sought to record and make sense of his own keen observations.

Although it was not until 1960 that Auchincloss reached full maturity as a novelist, he had spent most of the previous decade mapping out the fictional universe that his later characters would inhabit. Unlike O’Hara and Marquand, Auchincloss felt no need to invent social stratifications, finding them already in place. Of particular interest to Auchincloss, from his earliest novels onward, is the problematical question, or “myth,” of an American “aristocracy”—an apparent contradiction in terms which has nevertheless been perpetuated in American society ever since the earliest settlers or their descendants began looking down their noses at other settlers more recently arrived in the New World. During the twentieth century, as Auchincloss observes in his fiction, the notion of an American aristocracy has tended to persist, yet not without challenge and change. Increasingly, those born to what Thorstein Veblen described in 1899 as the leisure class have found themselves entering the workforce, often in direct competition with those born to “humbler” origins.

A persistent Auchincloss “myth” is that of the Protestant minister’s son, most commonly a native of New England, whose work ethic combines with ambition to drive him ever upward in the business or professional world. By the time he reaches the top, such a man is virtually indistinguishable, except perhaps for his continued commitment to the work ethic, from the hereditary “aristocrats” against whom he has successfully competed. His Harvard or Yale education, although acquired with scholarship aid supplemented by odd jobs, has been much the same as that of his richer peers. If anything, the minister’s son has earned higher grades and learned more, the better to realize his own American Dream. Meanwhile, his white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant status and name have provided the clergyman’s son with the perfect “cover,” allowing him to blend in as he moves from the meritocracy into the perceived aristocracy, joining country clubs and sending his children to private schools as he wisely invests the residue of a steadily increasing salary.

From the 1930’s onward, both Marquand and O’Hara had focused much of their attention on the business world, purporting to show how careers are made and broken. During the 1950’s, Auchincloss covered much the same territory, inevitably inviting comparison with the two older, already established novelists. On close examination, however, Auchincloss’s novels of the period seem rather more authentic and credible than those of O’Hara and Marquand, and with good reason. Unlike the two older authors, Auchincloss lived and worked in the world that formed the subject of his novels; what is more, he was well versed in the “novel of manners” tradition, which Marquand and O’Hara were not.

Beginning with The House of Five Talents, Auchincloss broadened and deepened his portrait of society, having laid the foundation of his fictional universe with the “Wall Street” novels of the late 1950’s. The Wall Street setting is still very much in evidence, often at the center of the action, but is complemented by historical and social background. Auchincloss began to experiment with viewpoint and narrative voice, producing convincing “eyewitness” accounts: The main narrators of The House of Five Talents and Portrait in Brownstone are elderly women, born during the nineteenth century; in The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler, the elusive nature of human “truth” is underscored by Auchincloss’s skillful use of multiple narrators, both male and female, no two of whom recall what they have witnessed in quite the same way. Each narrator is fully delineated as a character in his or her own right, self-revealing by choice of words and turns of phrase as well as by selective recollection.

A frequent reader of Proust, Auchincloss in his strongest novels approaches the French author’s remarkable blend of chronicle and art. In preparing The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler, for example, Auchincloss began with lawyerly research, reading thousands of pages of nonfiction dealing, respectively, with the history of prep schools and with the notorious Richard Whitney fraud case of the 1930’s; he then proceeded to transform history into art, discarding or changing the “facts” as he sought to tease out the archetypal meaning behind them. Of The Embezzler, he recalls, “When I was sure I had my crime exactly right, I invented an entirely new criminal and gave him an entirely new family, plus an entirely new motivation.”

A similar approach would characterize most of Auchincloss’s mature fiction; unlike the historian, Auchincloss is concerned less with what happened than with why and how it might have happened. A case in point is The House of the Prophet (1980), Auchincloss’s first and only true roman à clef, loosely but frankly based on the life and career of the columnist and pundit Walter Lippmann; upon learning that a Lippmann biography was in progress, Auchincloss resolved to tell the story in his “own” way, through art, altering certain facts and dates for dramatic effect, speculating upon the thoughts and motivations of “Felix Leitner.”

Among the more remarkable features of Auchincloss’s fictional universe, from the early 1950’s onward, has been his thoughtful, credible portrayal of the changing role of women in American society during the twentieth century. His second and third novels, Sybil and A Law for the Lion, deal with the emergent female consciousness as lawyers’ wives begin to question the inequities of marriage and of the divorce laws then on the books in the state of New York. In some novels, Auchincloss goes back in time to trace the emergence of the feminine consciousness among the economically privileged, showing how certain women deliberately refused to be liberated. However, in others, he reveals his sympathy with women who refuse to adopt stereotypical behavior. The heroines of The Lady of Situations (1990) and Her Infinite Variety (2001) remain very much their own persons, and in the end, both of them attain success in a male-dominated world, though in the process they have to become as ruthless as the men whose power they challenge.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism leveled against Auchincloss is that he writes exclusively about New York, and about New Yorkers of a certain social class. On reflection, however, such criticism tends to be shortsighted: For good or for ill, New York, even more than Washington, D.C., is where major decisions are made, often by people very like those of whom Auchincloss writes. Moreover, relatively few of his main characters are “natives.” Most commonly, the Auchincloss protagonist has migrated to New York from New England or the Middle Atlantic region in search of fame and fortune, much as a provincial European would settle in Paris or London. Auchincloss’s New York is, in fact, a microcosm of American civilization, at once rebellious against and nostalgic for its perceived European origins. Auchincloss’s greatest achievement as a novelist would seem to be his credible, literate, and resonant portrayal of life behind the scenes of political and economic power.

The House of Five Talents

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

Writing in 1948, a rich, aging spinster recalls her life and times.

The House of Five Talents, announcing the full range of Auchincloss’s skill as novelist and chronicler, is narrated in the first-person voice by Miss Augusta Millinder, known familiarly as Gussie, a seventy-five-year-old heiress who, after the social upheavals of two world wars and a depression, sees fit to record her memoirs for posterity. Ostensibly penned during 1948, Gussie’s testimony ranges from the gaslight era of her adolescence to the narrative present, providing an insider’s view of society against the backdrop of history.

Unmarried by choice, having broken her engagement to a promising young architect for reasons best known to herself, Gussie Millinder emerges early in life as a keen observer and occasional meddler, using her spinsterhood as a vantage point from which to analyze and criticize the marital and parental misadventures of her relatives and friends. Gussie’s meddling, however well-intentioned, fails more often than it succeeds, allowing the unseen Auchincloss to inject elements of plot into an otherwise linear narrative.

In her twenties, for example, Gussie tries, unsuccessfully, to thwart her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent remarriage to an actress. Later, in an incident presaging the plot of The Embezzler, she will offer to save a cousin’s husband from bankruptcy and prison by covering his embezzlement with her own funds, on condition that the man retire permanently from business. Unhappy in retirement, the man pleads with Gussie to release him from his vow and soon reverts to his old ways, eventually disappearing abroad as a fugitive from justice. With the approach of old age, Gussie again intervenes to force a marriage between her scapegrace nephew Oswald, a Communist sympathizer, and the showgirl who is carrying his unborn child; the marriage predictably fails, leaving Gussie with little choice but to adopt the child herself.

Set mainly in New York City, with occasional excursions to such fashionable turn-of-the-century “watering places” as Newport and Bar Harbor, The House of Five Talents credibly evokes both tradition and transition as Gussie meets the twentieth century, already “liberated” by her spinster status from constraints that still bind her married female relatives. As she approaches forty, for example, Gussie supplements her self-education with college courses and teaches in a girls’ school, although she does not need the money. With the approach of World War I, she volunteers for auxiliary service in Europe, proceeding upon her return to develop a career of active, if selective, community service, giving as freely of her time as of her money.

Notable for Auchincloss’s effective exploitation of first-person narration, The House of Five Talents also presents his first full-scale portrait of American society, showing how the would-be aristocracy defines itself, whether in its choice of sports and resorts or in the marriage of such rich Americans as Gussie’s sister Cora to impoverished but titled Europeans. Gussie Millinder herself, meanwhile, remains among Auehincloss’s most memorable and entertaining characters.

Portrait in Brownstone

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

A broker’s wife discovers her true strengths as she transforms herself from matron into matriarch.

Combining the narrative approach of The House of Five Talents with the general subject matter of his earlier Wall Street novels, Auchincloss in Portrait in Brownstone explores both office politics and the emergent female consciousness through the eyes of one Ida Trask Hartley, who, around the age of sixty, begins at last to perceive the full extent of her experience and talents. Bookish and somewhat retiring, Ida has spent most of her life in the shadow of her hard-driving husband, Derrick, a minister’s son from New England, and her glamorous cousin Geraldine Denison, Derrick’s sometime mistress. Indeed, it is Geraldine’s suicide, following a long slide into alcoholism and depression, that begins the process of Ida’s awakening and liberation, a process that forms the true plot of the novel.

Like Gussie Millinder in The House of Five Talents, Ida Hartley is a keen observer and gifted storyteller. In search of self-discovery, she revisits her past, recalling her mother’s close-knit extended family, the Denisons, and her uncle Linnaeus Tremain, a brilliant, perceptive financier. Although all the male Denisons are gainfully employed and most have been to college, it is Tremain’s sustained generosity that enables them all to live in relative comfort and that allows Ida to attend college, the first woman in her family to do so.

Enrolled at Barnard College and interested in liberal politics, Ida soon finds herself debating political issues with Derrick Hartley, a Harvard graduate who, having made a small fortune with a Boston brokerage firm, has moved to New York with hopes of working for Linnaeus Tremain. Little deterred by Tremain’s insistence that no vacancy exists in his firm, Derrick quite literally “dines out” on his accumulated savings while waiting for the older man to change his mind. It is at those dinners that Derrick makes the acquaintance both of Ida Trask, who will fall in love with him, and of Ida’s mother, who will persuade her brother-in-law to give Derrick a job. As Tremain in time learns, much to his dismay, he has at last met his match.

Ida asks her cousin and perpetual rival Geraldine to entertain Derrick during a weekend in 1912 when she needs to be out of town. Derrick, studious and reserved, soon loses his heart and head to the flirtatious, fickle Geraldine, who does not return his love. In time, Ida wins Derrick back and marries him. A daughter and then a son are soon born to the Hartleys, whose marriage proceeds smoothly and without major incident until 1935, when Geraldine, recently widowed, entices Derrick into an affair with divorce and remarriage in mind. Derrick, meanwhile, has prospered in his work, somewhat at the expense of his chosen mentor Tremain. Having in effect forced Tremain’s retirement, he goes so far as to have the older man’s name removed from the firm’s corporate name after his death, a gesture which deeply offends Ida.

Following Geraldine’s death early in 1950, Ida at last takes stock of her life, noticing that her daughter Dorcas and Dorcas’s second husband are about to do to Derrick what Derrick once did to “Uncle Linn.” At the same time, she perceives that her son Hugo, still unmarried as he approaches forty, has embarked on a potentially dangerous affair with a divorce-bound married woman. Mustering all the accumulated resources of her intelligence, education, and experience, Ida moves quickly to intervene in both cases, assuming control of Derrick’s firm after he suffers a sudden, provoked heart attack and buying for Hugo a sufficient share of stock in the company for which he works that he will be able to name himself president, thus ensuring his eligibility for marriage to a much younger distant cousin and removing the married woman from...

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