Study Guide

The Rector of Justin

by Louis Auchincloss

The Rector of Justin Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Rector of Justin continues Auchincloss’s analytical portrayal of American society and its institutions, here focusing upon the type of boys’ boarding school that he himself attended and that has furnished the United States with much of its business and political leadership since the end of the nineteenth century. Told from a number of viewpoints, the tale of Justin Martyr Academy and its founder, the title character Francis Prescott, remains tantalizingly incomplete even at the end, showing the basic anomaly of an institution that seeks to foster “democratic” ideals while charging high fees and adhering to a selective admissions policy.

The unifying narrator of The Rector of Justin is one Brian Aspinwall; too frail of health to join his fellow Americans in preparing to fight the Nazis, he arrives to teach at Justin Martyr Academy during the eightieth year of the legendary founder’s life. At first merely keeping a diary of his impressions and encounters, as of his own possible vocation to the Episcopal priesthood, Brian finds himself drawn to the old man by what he perceives as the latter’s unwavering moral courage. In time he goes on to project a full-scale biography of Prescott, assembling spoken and written testimony from a variety of witnesses. Proceeding with his chosen task, Brian discovers that others before him have tried, and failed, to produce a Prescott biography. Brian too will fail, for want of life experience and objectivity.

The book, as it stands, intersperses Brian’s reflections with his steadily increasing, yet maddeningly inconclusive, documentation. Notably absent from the growing pile of written testimony is any word from Prescott himself; throughout his long life and career the old man has written little or nothing, preferring instead to be remembered by his actions. Yet it is precisely those actions, variously remembered and interpreted, that somehow fail to “add up,” leaving even the elderly Prescott himself with the impression that he has somehow failed in his self-appointed mission.

Born during 1860 in New England, Prescott lost his father to the...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

The Rector of Justin Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Outwardly traditional in form, consisting of an assemblage of journal entries, letters, and memoirs, The Rector of Justin goes beyond tradition in the skillful characterization afforded each of the several narrators whose testimony combines to produce the novel. The principal narrator of The Rector of Justin is Brian Aspinwall, a somewhat old-maidish graduate student who has joined the faculty of Justin Martyr Academy during the eightieth year of the fabled old headmaster’s life. From keeping a journal about his life at the school, including his encounters with Dr. Frank Prescott and his ailing wife who soon dies, Aspinwall goes on to project a Prescott biography, interviewing many of the old gentleman’s family and friends; in several cases, the interviewees have already written memoirs of their own, which are incorporated within the body of the novel.

Born in 1860 and orphaned at an early age, the Boston-bred Prescott is himself the product of a New England private-school education. From his earliest youth onward, however, he has cherished a dream of the perfect boarding school—unlike the school he himself attended and more on the order of such “competition” as Groton and St. Mark’s. With his friend Horace Havistock, with whom he seeks to share the dream, Prescott spends three years at Oxford University, ostensibly to study the British public school model. Upon his return to the United States, he briefly forsakes his dream for a promising career with the New York Central railroad and is...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

The Rector of Justin Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Brian Aspinwall, a graduate of Columbia and Oxford (Christ Church), accepts a position in 1939 to teach English at Justin Martyr, a residential school for boys located in rural Massachusetts. The school is still under the tutelage of its founder and headmaster, the Reverend Francis Prescott, who is, at the age of eighty, still a force to be reckoned with. Aspinwall is torn between returning to England to be part of the war raging in Europe and staying in the United States to study for the clergy, a calling he expresses some doubts about.

Although Aspinwall starts off rocky at Justin Martyr by not adequately disciplining his charges, the Reverend Prescott helps him out by demonstrating the proper way to dispense demerits and otherwise intimidate the boys in his house. He soon becomes a favorite of Mrs. Prescott—Harriet Winslow—the head’s aristocratic wife, who is dying; she requests that Aspinwall read to her Henry James, an author not appreciated by her husband. Harriet, a grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England Transcendental philosopher, apparently was of great help to her husband during the school’s early years. After her death, Aspinwall is made assistant to the headmaster to lessen his administrative duties as he enters the final year of his headmastership. It is in this capacity that Aspinwall decides to construct a biographical portrait of Prescott by collecting impressions of him from those who have known him through the years.

The first set of impressions comes from Horace Havistock’s manuscript for his unfinished work “The Art of Friendship,” and it provides the earliest memories of Prescott, who was Havistock’s boyhood friend. Havistock and Prescott met at the residential boy’s school St. Andrews in Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1876, and Prescott provided the less athletic and more effete Havistock with not only friendship but also protection from the bullying of the other boys. Later, Prescott founded his own school and...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

The Rector of Justin Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Auchincloss, Louis. Interview by George Plimpton. The Paris Review 35 (Fall, 1994): 73-94. A fascinating interview. Auchincloss talks about the writing process. He reveals that his work as a lawyer has helped him to develop his characters and that his characters are not wholly fictional. He also speaks about his early works, which were rejected, as well as his ideas about the teaching of writing.

Depietro, Thomas. “A Republican Soul.” World and I 10 (March, 1995): 304-311. Chronicles Auchincloss’s life and work. Discusses his thoughts on the social and moral decline of his own class, as well as the factors that influenced Auchincloss’s popularity. Briefly reviews Gelderman’s biography and offers a brief analysis of The Rector of Justin.

Gelderman, Carol W. Louis Auchincloss: A Writer’s Life. New York: Crown, 1993. A compelling look at not only Auchincloss’s life but the elite society that fostered him and was the subject of his novels. Includes a discussion of both The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler.

Parsell, David B. Louis Auchincloss. Boston: Twayne, 1988. An excellent critical overview of Auchincloss’s works. Themes are clearly delineated from novel to novel, which helps the reader to grasp the unity of Auchincloss’s work. Helpful bibliographies and an index are also included.

Tuttleton, James W. “Louis Auchincloss at Eighty.” New Criterion 16 (October, 1997): 32-36. Although Tuttleton focuses mainly on The Atonement and Other Short Stories, he does discuss themes that are common to all of Auchincloss’s novels, including the death of WASP society and how the prep-school Christian moral vision shapes the young for life. A good source of background information.