Louis Auchincloss Essay - Auchincloss, Louis

Auchincloss, Louis


Auchincloss, Louis 1917-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, literary critic and lawyer.

Closely associated with the literary and social traditions of old New York, Auchincloss is widely regarded as the heir to novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton. His short stories and novels depict in ironic detail the moral and ethical implications of the actions of Wall Street lawyers and executives at work and at play; as a lawyer and member of a prominent family himself, he knows his subject intimately. Credited with furthering the tradition of the novel of manners in contemporary American fiction, Auchincloss is also the author of respected literary criticism both on American writers and William Shakespeare.

Biographical Information

Auchincloss was born in Lawrence, New York, and raised in Manhattan and on Long Island. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, whose literary tendencies he inherited, were of upper crust New York society, which allowed him to observe firsthand the people whose ways would find their way into his fiction. He attended prep school at Groton, a world that provided the basis for his novel The Rector of Justin, published many years later in 1964, and Yale University, where he wrote his first novel. Failing to interest a publisher in his book, he left Yale abruptly and enrolled at the University of Virginia Law School, where he wrote for the law review. In 1941, he joined Sullivan and Cromwell, a well-connected Wall Street firm that he left twice, once to serve in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence and gunnery officer during World War II, and once to devote several years, from 1951 to 1954, to his writing, during which time he also underwent psychoanalysis. Satisfied that he could both practice law and write fiction, he returned to his trusts and estates practice, this time at Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, and there remained until his retirement in 1986. Auchincloss serves as president of the Museum of New York and is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the New York Bar Association. He was awarded honorary degrees by New York University in 1974, Pace University in 1979, and the University of the South in 1986; he currently teaches at New York University.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Auchincloss's short story collections depict New York blue-blood society during its heyday and twilight. Often focusing on high-powered lawyers and their families and firms, he relates tales about social status, ambition, codes of behavior, and office politics. His first collection, The injustice Collectors, is unified by themes, containing stories of wronged and wrongheadcd individuals. In The Romantic Egoists, a collection containing "The Great World and Timothy Colt," the stories are narrated by one character, Peter Westcott. Powers of Attorney evinces Auchincloss's use of the law firm as a framing device, an approach he employed again ten years later in The Partners, a collection of stories linked by the recurring character Beeky Ehninger, a law firm partner from the old school. Spanning lives of two generations of characters, Second Chance is an experiment with a shortened form of the novel of manners. The Winthrop Covenant and The Book Class are both family sagas, the first depicting the historic Puritan John Winthrop and his descendants (of whom Auchincloss is one), and the latter portraying the strong, literary-minded women of Auchincloss's mother's generation. The Book Class, too, is narrated by a single character, likely modeled on Auchincloss. The novels he wrote during the late 1950s and 1960s, The Rector of Justin, The House of Five Talents, and Portrait in Brownstone, remain, however, some of his most famous and well-regarded works, chronicling, as do the stories, the general decline of the ruling WASP class from their glory days at the turn of the century.

Critical Reception

Auchincloss's critics fall mainly into two camps: those who regard the world he describes as too narrow in scope for substantive fiction and those who, like novelist Gore Vidal, believe that much can be learned from an insightful rendering of the elite of Wall Street. Defenders argue that his characters achieve psychological complexity despite the similarity of their problems, and his plot-driven writing is significantly enhanced by his experimentation with a variety of narrative forms. One area of agreement among commentators is that he is a true novelist of manners and may, in fact, have taken this particular literary form to new heights. Auchincloss's career spans five decades, and his staying power is an indication of his popularity.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Injustice Collectors 1950

The Romantic Egoists 1954

Powers of Attorney 1963

Tales of Manhattan 1967

Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations 1970

The Partners 1974

The Winthrop Covenant 1976

Narcissa and Other Fables 1983

The Book Class 1984

Skinny Island 1987

False Gods 1992

Three Lives (novellas) 1993

The Collected Stories 1994

Other Major Works

*The Great World and Timothy Colt (novel) 1956

The House of Five Talents (novel) 1960

Reflections of a Jacobite (criticism) 1961

Edith Wharton (criticism) 1962

Portrait in Brownstone (novel) 1962

The Rector of Justin (novel) 1964

The Embezzler (novel) 1966

Motiveless Malignity (criticism) 1969

A Writer's Capital (autobiography) 1974

Reading Henry James (essay) 1975

Diary of a Yuppie (novel) 1986

*Based on a short story of the same name published in The Romantic Egoists.


Sara Henderson Hay (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Seekers of Hurt," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 41, October 14, 1950, pp. 37-8.

[Hay was an American poet and critic. In the following review, she discusses characterization in The Injustice Collectors and praises Auchincloss for his "excellent portrait studies. "]

The title of The Injustice Collectors derives from Dr. Edmund Bergler's "The Battle of the Conscience," where the phrase is used to describe neurotics who continually and unconsciously construct situations in which they are disappointed or mistreated. In his foreword Mr. Auchincloss says:

I do not purport to use the term in Dr. Bergler's exact medical sense, but in a wider sense to describe people who are looking for injustice, even in a friendly world, because they suffer from a hidden need to feel that this world has wronged them. Turning the idea over, one begins to speculate if punishment and injustice are not always more sought after than seeking, not only for such a reason as self pity, but for other reasons. . . . Is not the neurotic or the maladjusted or the unconventional or even the saint in some fashion the magnet which attracts the very disaster that he may appear to be seeking to avoid?

This is the theme which Mr. Auchincloss engages in his collection of short stories. The injustice collectors who move through these pages are not the underprivileged, the social outcasts, or those loosely termed unfortunates; the milieu of which he writes is that of wealth and leisure and caste; these are nice people, often charming people, stuffy people, expensively provincial people of Anchor Harbor, Maine; of Park Avenue and Long Island and Florida and the Riviera in winter. His stories are the more subtly penetrating because they are not...

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James Stern (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: A review of The Romantic Egoists, in The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1954, p. 4.

[Stern was an Irish short story writer and critic. Here, he discusses The Romantic Egoists, admiring the book's innovative design and skilled characterization.]

[The Romantic Egoists] reveals Louis Auchincloss as a writer of unusual brilliance. In it he combines a Henry Jamesian knowledge of upper-class New York society with an economy of style, an alertness of eye, an artful disarming modesty reminiscent of the stories of Christopher Isherwood. Mr. Auchincloss, however, does not carry a camera; he sees, or rather sees through people, with the piercing lens of...

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Granville Hicks (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Fiction Brief of a Law Factory," in Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 33, August 17, 1963, pp. 15-16.

[Hicks was an American literary critic whose famous study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933) established him as the foremost advocate of Marxist critical thought in Depression-era America. Throughout the 1930s, he argued for a more socially engaged brand of literature and severely criticized such writers as Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton, whom he believed failed to confront the realities of their society and, instead, took refuge in their own work. After 1939, Hicks sharply denounced communist...

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Maxwell Geismar (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Life at 65 Wall Street," in The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1963, p. 4.

[Geismar was one of America's most prominent historical and social critics and the author of a multi-volume history of the American novel from 1860 to 1940. Though he often openly confessed that literature is more than historical documentation, Geismar's own critical method suggests that social patterns and the weight of history, more than any other phenomenon, affect the shape and content of all art. In the following review of Powers of Attorney, Geismar describes Auchincloss as a technician in the style of J. D. Marquand and John O'Hara. The critic also finds that the stories are a "very...

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Patricia Kane (essay date 1964-1965)

SOURCE: "Lawyers at the Top: The Fiction of Louis Auchincloss," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 36-46.

[In this excerpt, Kane compares Auchincloss's treatment of lawyers with those of other American writers. ]

A pat declaration of faith in mankind and the bar is among the inevitable platitudes of lawyers' public speeches, according to a Louis Auchincloss lawyer. Just as the character only amuses himself with wistful and whimsical thoughts about delivering any but the expected oration, Louis Auchincloss' fiction only hints a doubt about the Tightness of the world created and maintained by Wall Street law firms.


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Leon Edel (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "High Polish," in The Washington Post Book Week April 9, 1967, p. 14.

[An American critic and biographer, Edel is a highly acclaimed authority on the life and work of Henry James. His five-volume biography Henry James (1953-73) is considered the definitive life and brought Edel critical praise for his research and interpretive skill. In the following review of Tales of Manhattan, Edel praises the skill, the "insights" and "delicate subtleties** of Auchincloss's stories, yet the reviewer also complains of a "certain thinness" in the author's work.]

Louis Auchincloss continues to tell his tales of Manhattan as an endless Arabian Nights...

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Martin Tucker (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: A review of Tales of Manhattan, in Commonweal Vol. LXXXVI, No. 13, June 16, 1967, pp. 372-73.

[Tucker is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he discusses Auchincloss 's narrative technique in Tales of Manhattan and finds that the author's frequent use of passive observers to relate stories robs the works of passion.]

The dominant impression a reader is likely to get from Louis Auchincloss' Tales of Manhattan is that the rich worry more about money than the poor. When threatened, they scratch and claw—some like tigers, some like kittens—but very few question the struggle in any terms but moneyed triumphs. Most of...

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Nora Sayre (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Lampshades," in The Reporter, Vol. 37, No. 1, July 13, 1967, pp. 60-1.

[Sayre is a Bermudan-born writer and critic. Here, she uses a review of Tales of Manhattan to address two "perplexities" that appear in much of Auchincloss's work: the "drab and stunted" nature of his narrators and the "double views" that he provides of his main characters. The critic concludes that these elements ultimately hurt Auchincloss's fiction and result in a lack of variety.]

In a period which savages the tangible past, landmark preservation becomes an emotional necessity. It is not surprising that even a defective lampshade should be cherished. Louis Auchincloss's...

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Carolyn F. Ruffin (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations, in The Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 1970, p. 13.

[In the following review, Ruffin discusses the puritanical nature of the characters in Second Chance.]

The Puritans are always with us.

They are particularly with American literary men, even today. It's as though they didn't get in enough licks against the irreverent scribes of this world during the last century, haunting Hawthorne and shooting up out of the deep to disturb Melville.

Now they are after Louis Auchincloss.

Apparently in this collection of some new, some previously published,...

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Brom Weber (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: A review of Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LIII, No. 35, August 29, 1970, pp. 24-25.

[Weber is an American educator and critic, who has published extensively on the poet Hart Crane. In the following review, he discusses psychological and sociological identity as it is explored by Auchincloss in Second Chance.]

Louis Auchincloss is an urbane, ironic, and experienced chronicler of the doings of our Anglo-Saxon, genteel wealthy in New York, familiar with their values, their modes of behavior and organization, and the extent to which they encounter and react to phenomena from the world outside their offices,...

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James Tuttleton (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Louis Auchincloss: The Image of Lost Elegance and Virtue," in American Literature, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, January, 1972, pp. 616-32.

[Tuttleton is an American educator and critic whose books include The Novel of Manners in America (1972). In the following excerpt, he compares Auchincloss's fiction to that of Henry James and maintains that Auchincloss's writing is as much a departure from James's work as it is influenced by it. The critic also comments on the subject matter of Auchincloss's fiction and its relationship to issues of class. Tuttleton argues that Auchincloss effectively depicts affluent New York society and that critics shouldn't dismiss his work merely because of...

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G. Edward White (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Human Dimensions of Wall Street Fiction," in American Bar Association, Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1972, pp. 175-80.

[White is an author and legal scholar. In the following article, he discusses the themes of bureaucratization, class consciousness, ethics, and contemporary Wall Street legal practices as they are treated in Auchincloss's fiction.]

During the past four decades much has been written on the public image of large New York City law firms. The "Wall Street" firms, as they have come to be called, have been denounced as capitalist predators, hailed as responsible intermediaries between corporations and the public, seen as bureaucratic structures in an...

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Gore Vidal (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Real Class," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 12, July 18, 1974, pp. 10-15.

[The author of such works as Visit to a Small Planet ( 1956), Myra Breckenridge (1968), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984), Vidal is an American author particularly noted for his historical novels and iconoclastic essays. In his work he examines the plight of modern humanity as it exists in a valueless world and amid the world's corrupt institutions. Vidal's work in all genres is marked by urbane wit and brilliant technique. Here, he takes issue with other critics, especially Granville Hicks, who complain that Auchincloss's subject matter is too limited. Vidal counters...

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Richard Todd (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Winthrop Covenant, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 237, No. 4, April, 1976, p. 112.

[In the following review of The Winthrop Covenant, Todd comments on the moral situations Auchincloss presents and the author's focus on Puritan values and behavior.]

Wonderful money. It is such interesting stuff, and yet current fiction pays so little attention to it. American novelists love to talk about money, as everyone who has seen two of them together has noticed. But these days they don't write about it very often or very well. I can think of just one contemporary American writer who has made a career of observing wealth: Louis...

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Louis Auchincloss with Vincent Piket (interview date 1985-1987)

SOURCE: An interview with Louis Auchincloss, in The Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1988, pp. 20-37.

[In this excerpt from an interview conducted between October 1985 and July 1987, Auchincloss discusses various subjects related to his work, including characterization and the evolution of his career. The author also comments on his relationship with other writers and his opinion of contemporary society and the world of letters.]

[Piket]: You have written that most of a writer's characters are just himself "wearing different funny hats".

[Auchincloss]: That seems true to me. Basically you have no one else to...

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Christopher C. Dahl (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Stories," in Louis Auchincloss, The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 137-69.

[In the following chapter from his book-length study of Auchincloss's work, Dahl provides an overview of the author's short fiction. The critic summarizes the short story collections, then analyzes several stories that he feels are representative of Auchincloss's most accomplished work in the short fiction genre.]

Auchincloss's productivity as a writer of short stories rivals his output as a novelist. . . . Although his literary reputation will no doubt ultimately rest on his novels, he is an able practitioner of short fiction. Gore Vidal has called him "a superb short-story...

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Peter Cameron (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan, in The New York Times Book Review, May 24, 1987, p. 5.

[Cameron is an American short story writer and critic whose short fiction collection One Way or Another (1986) earned him recognition as a skilled and highly promising young author. In the following review, he argues that some of Auchincloss's stories in Skinny Island are less successful than others, but asserts that the collection is "first and foremost elegant fiction. "]

Louis Auchincloss's 30th book of fiction, Skinny Island, is a collection of stories about man versus high society. The center of this world is Fifth Avenue...

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M. O'Sullivan (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Postlapsarians: Louis Auchincloss's The Winthrop Covenant," in The Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1988, pp. 38-45.

[In the following essay, O'Sullivan analyzes biblical allusions in The Winthrop Covenant. The critic notes that the collection initially compares America to an idyllic Garden of Eden, but eventually develops a more complex view wherein characters must deal with an imperfect land and their own sense of mission.]

In The Winthrop Covenant, his collection of stories examining the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic in New York and New England, Louis Auchincloss examines the movement from public to...

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David Parseli (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Novel as Omnibus: Auchincloss's Collected Short Fiction," in Louis Auchincloss, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 84-95.

[In this chapter from his book on Auchincloss's work, Parseli discusses the author's short story collections, commenting on the manner in which they experiment with long and short forms.]

Although deservedly best known for his novels, Auchincloss since the later 1940s has earned acclaim also as a writer of incisive, memorable short stories. In his first two published collections, The Injustice Collectors (1950) and The Romantic Egoists (1954), the stories are thematically linked; in certain subsequent collections, such as...

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Anne Bernays (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Downtown Deities," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 2, 1992, p. 2.

[Bernays is an American author and educator. In the following review of False Gods, she declares that Auchincloss's "language, world view and subject matter seem to be in a time warp," and that the author's dated style results in unrealistic characters.]

Reading Louis Auchincloss is a little like watching one of those engaging Victorian scenes in the window of a pricey department store at Christmastime, with elegantly dressed, animated doll figures executing a domestic choreography. In False Gods, Auchincloss's 32nd book of fiction, the author once again proves that...

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Bruce Bawer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss, in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1994, p. 62.

[Bawer is an American author who has served as literary critic for The New Criterion and whose published works include Diminishing Fictions: Essays on the Modern American Novel (1988). In the following excerpt, Bawer praises Auchincloss's Collected Stories, Asserting that the book's depiction of "upper-crust New York WASPs" chronicles one of "the most significant social changes of recent decades." Bawer also argues that Auchincloss's fiction will outlast that of many of his contemporaries.]

Forty-seven years and 50...

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Further Reading


Gelderman, Carol. Louis Auchincloss: A Writer's Life. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993, 287 p.

A good introduction to the man and his works. Gelderman offers a highly detailed chronological and anecdotal account of Auchincloss's life, and refers to his literary output without extensive literary analysis.

Piket, Vincent. Louis Auchincloss: The Growth of a Novelist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991, 258 p.

Chronological view of Auchincloss's works, with reference to biographical details that shed light on his literary career.


Dahl, Christopher C. Louis...

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