Louis Auchincloss Essay - Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 4)

Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 4)

Auchincloss, Louis 1917–

American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and critic, Auchincloss is also a practicing attorney. He is a member of a large, wealthy, and important New York family. Considered one of America's only true novelists of manners, Auchincloss writes skillful and authoritative fictional chronicles of New York aristocracy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Venus in Sparta is, as it turns out, only incidentally a novel about business, but Auchincloss's knowledge proves useful as he introduces us to his leading character, Michael Farish, at forty-five vice president and senior trust officer of the Hudson River Trust Company, with good reason to expect to occupy the presidency, as his grandfather had done in his time. Most businessmen in fiction are annoyingly nebulous or else their functions are described in massive and confusing detail. Auchincloss does not tell us much about Michael's duties, but what he does tell defines exactly the nature of his success and the reasons for it….

Auchincloss is a deft prober, and he shows us how a sense of inadequacy and guilt can be created and how it can shape a life. To me the psychological problem to which he addresses himself in Venus in Sparta is less interesting than the ethical problem with which he was concerned in his preceding novel, The Great World and Timothy Colt. In its portrayal of a particular milieu, however, of a world in which there not only is money but has been money for several generations, the novel demonstrates that Auchincloss knows his stuff and knows how to use it to literary advantage.

Granville Hicks, with Jack Alan Robbins, "'Venus in Sparta'" (originally published in Saturday Review, September 20, 1958), in their Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1970 by New York University), New York University Press, 1970, pp. 187-88.

After the violence of James Baldwin's Another Country, the turgidity of Philip Roth's Letting Go, and the complexity and intensity of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Louis Auchincloss's Portrait in Brownstone is a pleasant change. Auchincloss knows so well what he can do and goes about his job with such quiet competence that his novels are always satisfying, and Portrait in Brownstone is Auchincloss at his best.

Auchincloss, as has often been said, is a novelist of manners, one of the few extant. Like Edith Wharton, for whom he has strong but not uncritical admiration, he writes about people of wealth and position, about what is sometimes called "good society." No part of American society is or ever has been stable, but in good society there is at least an air of stability. Certain assumptions are shared, for a time at any rate, and there is some agreement as to what constitutes proper behavior. Against such a background the subtler human relationships can be studied with a precision that is quite impossible in more turbulent situations, and this is the great virtue of the novel of manners as written by Jane Austen and Henry James and all the rest of Auchincloss's predecessors.

Granville Hicks, with Jack Alan Robbins, "'Portrait in Brownstone'" (originally published in Saturday Review, July 14, 1962), in their Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1970 by New York University), New York University Press, 1970, pp. 188-89.

Were there a literary prize for the anti-anti-novel, how could it be withheld from Louis Auchincloss? But since craftsmanship, good storytelling, tepid and unpornographic sex, social criticism that is subtle rather than screaming no longer attract the critics, [A World of Profit] (like his others—The Rector of Justin, The Embezzler, Tales of Manhattan) will have to suffer in the best-seller lists and at the hands of book clubs. However, for all its style and its fascinating treatment of unfamiliar undercurrents of New York life, A World of Profit is not quite in the brittle sophisticated class of the earlier works. Its controlled and understated yet savage criticism of contemporary business activity is finally vitiated by a pervasive sense of placidity.

The Antioch Review (© 1969 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1969, p. 261.

Louis Auchincloss most nearly resembles Henry James in the emphasis he gives to the moral issues that grow out of the social lives of the very rich in New York City. And because he has described himself as a "Jacobite," many reviewers have concluded that it is therefore enough to describe him as merely an imitator of the Master. Auchincloss most differs from James, though, in the informed analysis he is able to give to the nice problems of ethics in the legal profession—a command of the world of Wall Street brokers and bankers which James himself sorely regretted not having. Auchincloss calls himself a Jacobite because so much of his lifetime's reading has been "over the shoulder of Henry James"…. But Auchincloss has always, once started, gone his own way—often qualifying and contesting, as well as enlarging, the social insights of the nineteenth-century novelist of manners.

The world brought to life in his novels is the nineteenth- and twentieth-century life of the metropolitan rich in New York City—particularly the lives of the lawyers, bankers, trust officers, corporation executives, and their wives and daughters. As a lawyer, Auchincloss knows them in their Park Avenue apartments and in their Wall Street offices. He sees the glitter and glamour of their world, its arrogant materialism and its unexpected generosities. He knows the rigidity of its conventions—just how far they can be bent, at what point they break, just when convention may break a character. He understands what happens to the idealistic men and the unfulfilled women of this world. And he is able to tell their stories with unusual sympathy. Rarely has Auchincloss ventured from this small but exclusive world, because it is the world he knows best. For this "narrowness," I suppose, it is possible to criticize him…. The New York haut monde is Louis Auchincloss's backyard. His ten novels are his Austenean two inches of carefully carved ivory.

Not all of his novels are novels of manners—he is fascinated by the unexhausted possibilities of the novel of character—but most of them hinge upon the imperatives of private morality in a world where social morality no longer, apparently, exists. In many of these books Auchincloss explores the ambiguities of selfhood, affirming, finally, the freedom and autonomy of the human personality….

The House of Five Talents (1960) and Portrait in Brownstone (1962), Auchincloss's best novels of manners, are set in New York City. Both deal with rich and "aristocratic" families during a period of several generations. Both portray the emergence of a woman as matriarch of the tribe (although one is an old maid). And both offer a bittersweet portrait of "the image of lost elegance and virtue."…

In semipolitical literary criticism there are sometimes objections to the kind of people Auchincloss writes about. It is sometimes said, for example, that the world of New York society people is somehow not as interesting as that of share-croppers, boxers, or big-game hunters…. But there is no necessary reason why this claim should be true. The Assistant and Herzog may be better novels than The Embezzler and The Rector of Justin. But their superiority has nothing to do with the subject matter or the "relevance" of these books—it has only to do with the greater artistry by which the novels of Malamud and Bellow are brought to life….

I submit that Auchincloss … sees that the differences between classes are superficial and that there is therefore no adequate reason why one should not deal with headmasters and lawyers, bankers and brokers, if they permit the kind of social analysis that illuminates our essential human predicament. The problem implicit in his choice is that of making us believe that this universe is—if not the universe—at least a believable universe, and describing his characters so fully and convincingly that we do not care about the class they belong to. It is Auchincloss's difficulty that, as good as some of his novels are, he does not always so convince us. But the limitation is one of his talent, not of his material.

James W. Tuttleton, "Louis Auchincloss: The Image of Lost Elegance and Virtue," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1972 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), January, 1972, pp. 616-32.

This staggeringly silly novel [I Come as a Thief] is Louis Auchincloss's twenty-first published book and ought to put a stop, once and for all, to those rumors that surface periodically about his being hearth keeper of the manners-and-morals tradition. He has merely appropriated its drawing rooms….

Does it matter … that the book is relentlessly superficial or that the characters have no more life than a connect-the-dots puzzle or that the language has the elegance of an over-reaching governess?… Probably not, for Mr. Auchincloss is no longer even writing the fantasies of the upper-middle class—he has taken on their soap operas, and such stuff works on a level beyond argument. At least he makes no demands, his story is sprinkled with interior-decorating touches, and his publisher doesn't embarrass his readers with a lurid jacket. But it is a sobering thought that our melodrama has come to this. By comparison, old Joan Crawford movies are epics. Epics.

Joseph Kanon, in Saturday Review of the Society (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 26, 1972, pp. 60-1.

Louis Auchincloss is the only writer of our time who has done something interesting with something like the novel of manners. An admirer of Henry James and a discriminating critic of James's principal American disciple, Edith Wharton, Auchincloss has deliberately limited his scope. He has set aside as his particular province—his Yokapatawpha County, so to speak—a small part of the population of New York City, made up of people of some means but not rich in the Hollywood sense of the term and usually but not always belonging to old families. They constitute, in short, what is still called in some quarters "good society."

Here Auchincloss has found what James might have described as a "sufficient field" for the exercise of his particular talents. His is a small world and perhaps not an important one; indeed, it isn't a world at all when compared with the compact, well-ordered and self-sufficient world of the great novelist of manners, Jane Austen; but it does present moral problems of a sort Miss Austen would have understood. In a society in which there is little agreement as to what is valuable and what isn't, moral problems of the subtler and therefore more interesting kind tend to vanish, but they may persist in certain segments of that society, what Arnold Toynbee called "fossils in fastnesses."

In his many novels and stories Auchincloss has circumnavigated his little world, gone back and forth across it, explored above and below it. Sometimes he has concentrated on people who belong to good society and are for the most part satisfied with their lives, but more often he has been concerned with rebellion, usually unsuccessful. The rebels are sometimes thrown off the track by sexual passion, their own or their wives', or they may be derailed by external forces….

My recurrent quarrel with Auchincloss is that the little world in his novels usually seems to me to be detached from the real world, the world to which this newspaper devotes thousands and thousands of words every morning. Even ["The Rector of Justin"], his best novel in my opinion, presents a model of the little world, an exclusive school for boys. ["I Come As a Thief"] has a different quality because it portrays a man who escapes from his little world not by changing his social class but by moving into a realm of absolutes. In literature, one does not have to believe in the validity of a vision but merely that the visionary believes in it. The quality of a religious experience cannot be communicated; one of its distinguishing marks, the authorities agree, is its ineffability. But its effect may be great, not only on the man who has it but on those whose lives are touched by his.

Granville Hicks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 3, 1972, p. 6.

The Embezzler and other novels by Auchincloss, such as Venus in Sparta, Portrait in Brownstone, and A World of Profit, reflect a concern for the breakdown of the old values of genteel New York. The author's criticism of old values held together by a kind of outmoded innocence, as well as of the new principles and methods used to exalt a new class into place, is reminiscent of Edith Wharton, who was so averse to the barbarians and Invaders who began infiltrating New York in the 1880's and severe with the decadent aristocracy which hid behind closed blinds hoping that the newcomers would soon go away. As the Invaders settled on Fifth Avenue, speculated with their newly-made fortunes on the Stock Exchange and hunted for titles on the Washington Square reservation in Wharton's fiction, so do the outsiders in Auchincloss' novels poach on the preserves of old New York society and rise in social significance by their exploits on Wall Street. Both novelists portray the slow and natural process of extinction of the aristocratic species.

Wayne W. Westbrook, "Louis Auchincloss' Vision of Wall Street," in Critique: Studies in Modern fiction, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 57-66.

Auchincloss … writes mainly about the declines and cushioned falls of good-family New Yorkers. He is a lucid, confident and tidy observer of this small community; yet many critics (expecting, maybe, Henry James) refuse to accept Auchincloss as the teller of well-tailored stories that he is.

In The Partners, Louis Auchincloss could not be plainer about how he operates within his chosen limits. His 20th work of fiction, the book is not truly a novel but a set of stories loosely linked by principal characters who happen to be members of the same Wall Street law firm. Each incidental anecdote and character sketch is arranged to show how time and change have affected the values and manners of Auchincloss's narrowing circle.

This casual form fits the author like an old sports coat. Indeed, he used it ten years ago in Powers of Attorney….

Despite his rather reserved, fiduciary tone, Auchincloss generates some psychological subtlety and emotional range.

R. Z. Sheppard, "Fiduciary Matters," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 4, 1974, p. 76.

[Although] it is called a novel, The Partners is actually an assemblage of autonomous sketches or episodes, tenuously related and sometimes not related at all save by the fact that there's a lawyer lurking about somewhere, most often the lawyer who may be called the principal character by virtue of the persistence of his lurking. In several instances the episodes have been included, one feels, as an after-thought, so inconsequential are they. They contain a lawyer or lawyers, who appear once, and never again. The overall effect is that of a maze of offices, occupying the premises of a firm, each enclosing its little tale. Nothing in the narrative gathers up its energies toward a destined end; instead the scale of the book seems determined by something so arbitrary as the cubic feet of office space, the number of inhabited cubicles and offices.

Such unity as the book possesses is conferred by a tone of voice—and therein lies the problem. For what are we to make of a tone uneasily situated somewhere between solemnity and irony, respect and ridicule, as its objects seem ready to collapse beneath satire into slapstick? How can we possibly take seriously, much less regard sympathetically, men who are at best pompous bores or sanctimonious buffoons? The problem is an interesting one of perspective: instead of fixing our attention on the characters, we are compelled to watch the author constantly shifting and adjusting to find the appropriate angle from which to regard them. Better: to listen to the voice as it seeks the right pitch. That voice: orotund, grave, stately, scoffing; faintly archaic, Augustan, ambassadorial, more royalist than the king. Call it Tory.

Now, making much of a name is a dirty business; but in a fiction where a word, a nuance, the arch of an eyebrow can decisively tip the balance of our attitudes, the difference between Beekman Ehninger and "Beeky," as any farceur knows, is the difference between Old New York and snickering….

Auchincloss' intention is obviously satiric, indeed heavy-handedly satiric, and there's an end of it. One either finds this sort of thing amusing or one does not. How can anyone respond save with distaste to a world in which Beeky is not only not the least of persons but by far the least appalling; one need only glimpse the others to recoil. Yet it is by no means certain that the intention is, as bottom, satiric. However absurd at times, these are honorable men, good at their vocation, the best of them formidable; they are bulwarks of the societal order. God help us…. [For] all their foibles, the value of their enterprise is never in question nor, in essence, are the men who staff it. Where, after all, would we be without them? A satirist might have suggested, if ever so lightly, the nature of that far better place.

Playfully scoffing, yes; satiric, no: the authorial voice (which is not necessarily the author's) resembles too closely those it mocks. There is no distancing; indeed there is no distance.

Saul Maloff, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 23, 1974, pp. 29-30.

[Auchincloss] writes about realities you can verify, an orderly society with values your dad understands, and he believes in telling stories. If Auchincloss himself is to be found in his fiction, it's through his perceptions rather than his visions. Far more important to a reading of Auchincloss is his profession as a Wall Street lawyer than any possible artistic rearrangement he has in mind concerning the nonart of living. Auchincloss is a poured-in-concrete realist, although the concrete is always the best that money can buy. He stands for class and tough-mindedness, as the reader may remember from such previous works as "The Injustice Collectors," "Portrait in Brownstone" and "The Rector of Justin."…

Auchincloss observes like a cat. He makes judgments with subtlety and sophistication, usually about human character under the strain of slowly compressing environment. In Auchincloss's fiction there is no escape from the self because the enveloping environment also consists of the personality operating within it. Outsidedness is a cop-out….

Auchincloss defines his people by what they want. He examines and reveals them in what they do and say. And all are caught up in struggles with a world they cannot alter. They must change themselves since they can control little else. Conflict stretches them. They are in struggles with forces so deep in the structure of society that they cannot win except at the expense of the ego they would preserve….

He is the gentlest of moralists. He takes us inside human beings. He makes us believe they are worthy of our interest and concern. For a while we are caught up in the narrowness of other lives and are reminded that we may expand our own.

Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 24, 1974, p. 2.

Throughout his long writing career …, Auchincloss has been thought of, correctly, as a novelist of manners, a chronicler of life among the well-born Waspy wealthy, the professional upper class. His fiction is "old-fashioned" in the sense that it brings, conveys, "the news." It is not personal or soul-searching or chest-beating—no instant catharsis of the writer visible—but is, rather, made up of reports on how rich Eastern Establishment types (mostly New Yorkers, mostly Episcopalian) try to live their lives and do their jobs appropriately. They think of themselves not as prime movers of society but as guardians of society, the people who, just below or discreetly behind the top levels of power, are responsible for keeping things going. Their occupations reflect this: many of Auchincloss's characters are in—or, rather, they serve in—the legal profession….

Auchincloss deals not with classes, plural, but essentially with one class—a class that is assumed (its money is assumed, too) and that is defined not by its relationship to other classes but primarily by its sense of duty, its self-assumed role of guardianship, its commitment to what it sees as a proper way of doing things. The "way" is what is all-important. Unlike his made-up novelist [in The Partners], who is really a fading fashion-monger, Auchincloss is a novelist of manners in the most literal sense….

As the profile of a type, The Partners is vintage Auchincloss—sensitive, ironic, sympathetic, affecting. Auchincloss is particularly good with the interior reality of seemingly minor conflicts; he also shows, over and over again, that seemingly large and dramatic conflicts are often not the important ones. He is marvelous about money—the attitudes of old-monied very rich about their wealth…. He is observant, too, of the behavior, cooperative and abrasive, of the women and wives though the world of The Partners is very much a man's world. He is less acute with peripheral characters—the overbearing lawyer of the first episode, the novelist, the forger-for-art—who border on caricature….

Auchincloss is a deliberately distanced writer—he keeps himself at arm's length, and then some, from the reader—and is therefore, I suppose, vulnerable to the charge of being clunkishly traditional. (Clunkish because he is an able writer, not an elegant one.)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), February 25, 1974, pp. 62-3.

[In Literary Horizons, Granville Hicks states that Auchincloss] "has written for the most part about 'good' society, the well-to-do and the well-bred. And he has written about them with authority. What bothers me is not that he writes about this little world but that he seems to be aware of no other. Although he is conscious of its faults, he never questions its values in any serious way." This is fascinating. I have read all of Auchincloss's novels and I cannot recall one that did not in a most serious way question the values of his "little world." Little world!

It is a fascinating tribute to the cunning of our rulers and to the density of our intellectuals (bookchat division, anyway) that the world Auchincloss writes about, the domain of Wall Street bankers and lawyers and stockbrokers, is thought to be irrelevant, a faded and fading genteel-gentile enclave when, in actual fact, this little world comprises the altogether too vigorous and self-renewing ruling class of the United States—an oligarchy that is in firm control of the Chase Manhattan Bank, American foreign policy, and the decision-making processes of both divisions of the Property Party; also, most "relevantly," Auchincloss's characters set up and administer these various foundations that subsidize those universities where academics may serenely and dully dwell like so many frogs who think their pond the ocean….

Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and bookchatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer's debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, by betraying his class. But then how can the doings of a banker who is white and gentile and rich be relevant when everyone knows that the only meaningful American experience is to be Jewish, lower-middle-class, and academic? Or (in Mr. Hicks's words), "As I said a while ago and was scolded for saying, the characteristic hero of our time is a misfit." Call me Granville….

In a society where matters of importance are invariably euphemized (how can an antipersonnel weapon actually kill?) a writer like Louis Auchincloss who writes about the way money is made and spent is going to have a very hard time being taken seriously. For one thing, it is now generally believed in bookchat land that the old rich families haven't existed since the time of Edith Wharton while the new-rich are better suited for journalistic exposés than for a treatment in the serious … novel. It is true that an indiscriminate reading public enjoys reading Auchincloss because, unlike the well-educated, they suspect that the rich are always with us and probably up to no good. But since the much-heralded death of the Wasp establishment, the matter of Auchincloss's fiction simply cannot be considered important.

This is too bad. After all, he is a good novelist, and a superb short-story writer. More important, he has made a brave effort to create his own literary tradition—a private oasis in the cactus land of American letters. He has written about Shakespeare's penchant for motiveless malignity (a peculiarly American theme), about Henry James, about our women writers as the custodians and caretakers of the values of that dour European tribe which originally killed the Indians and settled the continent.

Mr. Hicks with his eerie gift for misunderstanding what a writer is writing about thinks that Auchincloss is proudly showing off his class while bemoaning its eclipse by later arrivals. Actually, the eye that Auchincloss casts on his own class is a cold one and he is more tortured than complacent when he records in book after book the collapse of the Puritan ethical system and its replacement by—as far as those of us now living can tell—nothing. As for the ruling class being replaced by later arrivals, he knows (though they, apparently, do not) that regardless of the considerable stir the newcomers have made in the peripheral worlds of the universities, showbiz, and bookchat, they have made almost no impact at all on the actual power structure of the country.

Auchincloss deals with the movers and shakers of the American empire partly because they are the people he knows best and partly, I suspect, because he cannot figure them out to his own satisfaction….

Finally, most unfashionably, Auchincloss writes best in the third person; his kind of revelation demands a certain obliqueness, a moral complexity which cannot be rendered in the confessional tone that marks so much of current American fiction good and bad. He plays God with his characters, and despite the old-fashionedness of his literary method he is an unusually compelling narrator, telling us things that we don't know about people we don't often meet in novels—what other novelist went to school with Bill and McGenghis Bundy?…

Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives. In fascinating detail, he shows how generations of lawyers have kept intact the great fortunes of the last century. With Pharaonic single-mindedness they have filled the American social landscape with pyramids of tax-exempt money, for the eternal glory of Rockefeller, Ford, et al. As a result, every American's life has been affected by the people Auchincloss writes so well about….

[In The Partners, the] author's virtues are well displayed: almost alone among our writers he is able to show in a convincing way men at work—men at work discreetly managing the nation's money, selecting its governors, creating the American empire. Present, too, are his vices. Narrative is sometimes forced too rapidly, causing characters to etiolate while the profound literariness of the author keeps leaking into the oddest characters. I am sure that not even the most civilized of these Wall Street types is given to quoting King Lear and Saint-Simon quite as often as their author has him do. Also, there are the stagy bits of writing that recurrom book to book—hands are always "flung up" by Auchincloss characters; something I have never seen done in real life west of Naples.

One small advance: in each of Auchincloss's previous books sooner or later the author's Jacobite fascination with the theater intrudes and, when it does, I know with terrible foreboding that I shall presently see upon the page that somber ugly word "scrim." I am happy to report that in The Partners there is no scrim, only the author's elegant proscenium arch framing our proud, savage rulers as they go singlemindedly about their principal task: the preserving of fortunes that ought to be broken up.

Gore Vidal, "Real Class," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), July 18, 1974, pp. 10-12, 14-15.