Louis Auchincloss Essay - Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 9)

Auchincloss, Louis (Vol. 9)

Auchincloss, Louis 1917–

Auchincloss is an American novelist, dramatist, critic, and short story writer. His background as a lawyer and as a member of one of New York's wealthy families provides material for many of his novels of manners. Often compared to Edith Wharton, he is also considered an important critic of her work. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

In the twelve stories that make up Powers of Attorney, Auchincloss has drawn directly on his legal experience. At least one character in every story is connected with the firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. (p. 192)

Auchincloss entitled a collection of his essays Reflections of a Jacobite, and it is true that he is something of a conservative, in the sense that he accepts the world as he finds it, believing that, though it has its evils, any change would probably be for the worse. He has the kind of irony that often accompanies a mild conservatism. In the last story, for instance, Tilney is naively pleased by the offer of the college presidency until he learns why the offer was made. In "Deductible Yacht," the young income tax lawyer who makes a gallant gesture accomplishes absolutely nothing by it. In "The 'True Story' of Lavinia Todd," Chambers Todd decides that he does not want a divorce after his wife's account of the failure of their marriage has made her famous.

Always one has the feeling that Auchincloss knows what he is talking about. He is careful not to bury his readers under heaps of legal terminology; he never shows off; but he does use his knowledge of the law to good effect. The little world of Tower, Tilney & Webb seems real and alive, and full of what Hardy called "life's little ironies." Auchincloss is perhaps not so good a short story writer as he is a novelist, but he can tell an effective and engaging tale. (pp. 194-95)

Granville Hicks, "'Powers of Attorney'," in Saturday Review (© 1963 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 17, 1963 (and reprinted in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, by Granville Hicks with Jack Alan Robbins, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 192-95).

In The Rector of Justin, [Auchincloss] portrays a peculiarly upperclass institution, an Episcopal school for boys—such a school as Groton, which [he] himself attended. The center of attention, however, is not an institution but a man, Francis Prescott, founder and headmaster of Justin Martyr….

To present this complex character Auchincloss has devised a complicated form. He lays down the foundation of the novel with extracts from the journal of Brian Aspinwall, who, at the age of twenty-seven, has become a teacher of English at Justin. (p. 195)

Although Brian's journal is an excellent device for introducing the rector, Brian's knowledge is limited. Auchincloss has therefore made use of other documents. One of Prescott's oldest friends, Horace Havistock, comes to visit, and Brian persuades the man to let him see something he has written about Prescott. This shows Prescott as a boy and young man, and tells how he lost his faith, found it again, and brought the school into existence….

Since Brian has now made up his mind to write a biography of the rector, he goes to see his youngest daughter, Cordelia Turnbull. Having been psychoanalyzed, she talks to Brian with a frankness that shocks him. (p. 196)

Two more witnesses, both dead, are called on for testimony. It appears that Charley Strong left a brief account of his impressions of the rector at Justin and later in Paris. More important is the statement of Jules Griscam, who was one of Prescott's failures….

For the conclusion Auchincloss relies on Brian's journal. In the six years that have elapsed since the beginning of the story, Brian has left Justin, studied in a divinity school, and returned to Justin. Although he has retired, the rector lives near the school and takes a lively interest in it, putting the new headmaster in an unpleasant position. There seems a possibility that Prescott may assert his power in dangerous ways, but at last he learns humility.

Auchincloss has been remarkably successful in making us feel that Prescott is, in many ways, a great man. I don't know whether Auchincloss had some real headmaster in mind, and it doesn't matter whether he did or not, for the rector of the novel is a creation of the imagination, no matter whom he may resemble. Repeatedly Auchincloss introduces allusions to King Lear, and, though resemblances are not close, both Prescott and Lear are old men bereft of the power that was theirs for years. (p. 197)

I have always admired Auchincloss's craftsmanship and his prose, but most of his novels, though interesting enough, have failed to excite me. The subject of The Rector of Justin does not seem to promise excitement—the octogenarian headmaster of a small private school—and yet I was swept along by it, for the revelation of Prescott's character is fascinating. Auchincloss admires Henry James greatly—which is nothing to be held against him—and he has learned much from his work. I am not sure that James would have approved of the way the book is put together, with the none too plausible introduction of various documents; but he could not have said, as he did say about many writers, that the author had failed to make the most of his donnée. For the method does work, and, we do come to feel the reality, the complicated reality, of Francis Prescott. As the rector himself comes to realize, his kind of headmaster could not exist in the modern world, but it is good for us to meet an heroic character from the not too distant past. (pp. 197-98)

Granville Hicks, "'The Rector of Justin'," in Saturday Review (© 1964 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 11, 1964 (and reprinted in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, by Granville Hicks with Jack Alan Robbins, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 195-98).

Letting each of several participants in an action give his account of what happened is not a new device. Joyce Cary used it in the Chester Nimmo trilogy, and Lawrence Durrell successfully carried through a tricky variation of it in The Alexandria Quartet. Auchincloss, working on a smaller scale, handles the device adroitly, [in The Embezzler]. The ways in which the three interpretations vary are entertaining, and the reader is left to determine for himself where the truth—if, indeed, it is possible to speak of the truth—lies.

It has often enough been pointed out that Auchincloss knows more about "good" society than most contemporary novelists. (pp. 202-03)

It is also important to observe that … Auchincloss [is] in the tradition of nineteenth-century fiction…. [Auchincloss is a fine craftsman. He writes], however, as if Proust and Joyce and Kafka had never lived….

I have no quarrel with what has been called social realism, and I appreciate the contribution that … Auchincloss [has] made to American literature. For me, however, as for many others, [his] limitations are serious. Who are the chief characters in The Embezzler? A man whose great pride is in the way he runs a country club, a woman who is interested only in her horses and dogs, and a man whose sole ambition is to make money. Try as he may, Auchincloss cannot persuade the reader to take these people at their own valuation. One has to be wary in stating this kind of judgment; certainly the plots of many of Henry James's novels can be described in such a way as to make them sound ridiculously trivial. But James had resources, both of insight and of stylistic subtlety, that Auchincloss cannot draw on. (p. 204)

Granville Hicks, "'The Embezzler'," in Saturday Review (© 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 5, 1966 (and reprinted in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, by Granville Hicks with Jack Alan Robbins, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 201-04).

Concerning Louis Auchincloss's critical appreciation of Henry James: James himself would have enjoyed reading Reading Henry James, would have recognized something of his own critical familiarity and discrimination…. Reading Henry James is less persuasive introduction than illuminating commentary, the illumination assuming common familiarity and interest.

I found the commentary refreshing, intriguing, and challenging. Henry James emerges as clearly and easily from Auchincloss's few pages as he almost is submerged by Leon Edel's massively detailed volumes of biography. Auchincloss's critical discriminations are intriguing enough to initiate reevaluations of one's own. Finally, Auchincloss is forthright in his prejudices. The result is the sense of being party to a lively but mannerly debate between two masters of the art of conversation.

Alas, it is the fact that Auchincloss is a writer in his own right, one who has been linked with Jamesean traditions, that suggests the book's major fault. One misses the writer's crafty response to another writer. The all too few times that Auchincloss expresses himself as a writer merely whet our appetite.

The book is a treasure nevertheless. It recalls a time when criticism could be an intelligent, sensitive reading without the strain of proof, the tension of thesis. (p. 123)

James Hughes, in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1975 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. 33, No. 2, 1975.

Louis Auchincloss's idea of a Bicentennial celebration is to write a series of stories ["The Winthrop Covenant"] tracing, as he puts it, "the rise and fall of the puritan ethic in New York and New England." One can think of no more suitable project for a writer whose career demonstrates the continuing ability of that ethic to animate human activity….

As in his previous fictions, Auchincloss … addresses himself to the basic issue that recurs again and again in "The Winthrop Covenant": the anguish that accrues to individuals who break faith with a code of conduct that surely began as part of a basic bargain with the Almighty, but has become in recent times merely a binding tradition. His novels are littered with men and women who broke with their code—whether through peculation or adultery or simply by marrying beneath their stations—and paid the price.

Except for "The Rector of Justin" I know of no place in Mr. Auchincloss's fiction where he has directly confronted the religious basis of the beliefs that so frequently govern his characters, and I suppose that his exploration of colonial religious puritanism in the first few stories of this volume represents an artistic necessity for him. Yet less than inspired are the stories dealing with the Winthrop family's involvement in the Salem witch trials and of the developing guilt that later descendants felt over that shameful incident. (p. 10)

With a couple of exceptions, most of the issues that create such a lot of moral pother among his characters will seem to most readers too slight for the inner agitation they give the Winthrop clan. Mr. Auchincloss himself seems often aware of this. After he gets a crisis of conscience rolling he often lets it just peter out rather than bringing it to the sort of rolling boil that would provide a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion.

Things do improve a bit in the book's later stories. He is on more familiar ground in "In the Beauty of the Lillies."… And he is at his best in the last story in the book, in which we see how the 20th century can distort and pervert a sense of dutiful mission, making a Winthrop (as it made so many Eastern establishmentarians) into a fanatically dedicated cold warrior (and C.I.A. executive).

Yet, finally, "The Winthrop Covenant" is a disappointing performance. It is a stiff, correct, rather constipated work. Mr. Auchincloss has often and unfairly been compared with Edith Wharton and Henry James. It seems more relevant to put him up against the likes of John O'Hara or, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh. If he had had the luck of the former and had been born outside rather than inside the class that fascinates him, envy might have forced him to develop the shrewdness of observation about the details of dress, decor and manner that gives O'Hara his entertaining bite. Not that Auchincloss is a match for that indecorous Irishman's fascination with upper-class sexual mores. Auchincloss habitually tiptoes discreetly up to the man-woman thing but then averts his eyes (which may be a good thing) and covers his ears (which is a disaster). As for Waugh—well, if there is anything our establishment has been in need of these many years it is satire of the sort he visited on his peers, the sort of thing only a wicked, partial turncoat can do. (pp. 10,12)

Richard Schickel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.

Auchincloss is a relentlessly old-fashioned novelist, as even many of his titles make plain (The Great World and Timothy Colt; Pursuit of the Prodigal). His novels suffer from artificiality of plot and manner. I suspect, though, that unlike most writers, he's probably more embarrassing at the moment than he will be in the future. He is, at a minimum, an entertaining correspondent from an under-reported country, the country of the rich.

His new book, The Winthrop Covenant …, aims higher. It's an effort to examine the philosophical underpinnings of the American upper class.

It consists of nine short stories, all related, as Auchincloss says in a preface, to "the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic."…

These stories are uneven; some of them suffer from being more nearly outlines for novels. And there is the difficulty of Auchincloss' rarefied diction. His seventeenth-century figures often sound more contemporary than his contemporaries….

But manners interest Auchincloss less than morals in this book. The Winthrop Covenant matters mostly as an extended act of brooding on a central strain in American character. Auchincloss' Puritans brood a great deal themselves. Although they are afflicted with a sense of mission, they are hardly altruistic; their greatest efforts go toward self-justification.

For Auchincloss, Puritanism is an exquisite mix of arrogance and guilt—arrogance breeding guilt, and guilt doting on its own niceties to the point of renewed arrogance. The contradictions were there from the start. The doctrine of grace, central to Puritan theology, might have been devised by R. D. Laing as a model for the creation of schizophrenics. Some are saved and there is nothing anyone can do about it: to be a member of the elect is to feel both helpless and omnipotent. The Winthrop Covenant implies that those Americans with the clearest claim to aristocracy have always been profoundly confused about the meaning of their presumed superiority. (p. 112)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by the Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), April, 1976.

Since [Louis Auchincloss] has … devoted volumes to Henry James and Edith Wharton, it would be pleasant to regard him as a New York novelist of society carrying on their valuable tradition more than three-quarters of a century after the publication of such masterpieces as "Washington Square" and "The House of Mirth." Unfortunately, Mr. Auchincloss isn't good enough to be placed in a line with James and Wharton. "The Dark Lady" is a trivial book about trivial people with clockwork insides or no insides at all….

The book is tricked out with numerous Shakespearean allusions, and allusions to painting and mythology. The Sonnets supply the dark lady theme in association with the theme of homosexuality, while Ivy's pimping is linked to the role of Pandarus in "Troilus and Cressida." David Stein, the stepson, has to lose his life on a beach because he is playing Hippolytus to Elesina's Phaedra. And so forth. These allusions work like fine paintings and morocco bindings in some executive suites. They are there to suggest that acquisitive, ambitious business people have a lot of taste and culture as well. Yet few will be fooled. We know that nowadays you get your secretary to order such stuff by the carload over the phone. By the same token, practically nobody in "The Dark Lady" uses contractions in speaking. If they did, the reader might miss the fact that they are top people and merely conclude that they are base, greedy and characterless in the conduct of their lives.

Could "The Dark Lady" possibly be a cool exercise in deadpan irony? That would save it. I fear it isn't.

Julian Moynahan, "No Society to Write About," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 14, 1977, p. 14.