Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2070
Louis Auchincloss is one of those authors who exemplify the wisdom of writing about what one knows—in his case, the upper-class society that many believe still constitutes America’s ruling class. Born into privilege, educated at Groton and Yale along with the offspring of East Coast bankers and stockbrokers, as well as successful lawyers like his own father, Auchincloss proceeded quite predictably to a career as an attorney on Wall Street, where he remained for four decades. His profession gave Auchincloss an opportunity to observe the power struggles within wealthy families, which often became the subject of his many novels and of short stories such as those in his most recent collections, Tales of Yesteryear (1994), The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (1994), and The Atonement and Other Short Stories (1997). In his fiction, Auchincloss dissects this society he knows so well—sometimes satirically, often ironically, but always with the intellectual subtlety and the profound insight that have led many critics to refer to him as a latter-day Henry James or Edith Wharton.
Even though the nine works that appear in The Anniversary and Other Stories cover more than a hundred years of American history, ranging in their settings from the Civil War era to the late 1970’s, there is no indication that the values held by the class about which Auchincloss writes have changed markedly over time. Wealth and social status are of primary importance. If an aristocratic family finds itself impoverished, as do the Peytons in “The Virginia Redbird,” which is set shortly after the Civil War, their young will be sent in search of wealthy mates. No one could hate the Yankees more than Zelina Peyton’s mother does; however, she convinces herself that Zelina’s marriage to Yankee money is a real victory for the South. If a family is prosperous but has not yet moved into the top rank of society, like the Schweizers in “DeCicco v. Schweizer,” which begins early in the twentieth century, the obvious answer is to acquire a nobleman. It does not matter to the parents of Blanche Schweizer that Count Gulinelli, whom they intend for Blanche to marry, has neither money nor ambition, that he is reputed to have a singularly unpleasant mother, or even that, as he candidly admits to Blanche, he is in love with another woman. Blanche is to become his wife not because of who he is or of how she feels about him but simply because of what he has that the Schweizers need, a pedigree.
The importance of wealth and social status to America’s upper classes is perhaps best summed up in “The Last of the Great Courtesans.” The narrator begins his story by expressing his delight at having been selected to paint the portrait of a woman who is not only wealthy and powerful, heading the board of a huge media corporation, but also still a great beauty, though perhaps not quite as lovely as she was when he first knew her. As Millicent Iglehart, the daughter of a Yale professor who prided himself on his heritage but who was always short of money, she had practiced the art of enchanting men. Although she could have had almost any of the students she knew, including the narrator, she decided to marry Paul Kelly, the captain of the football team, who had an impeccable social background, some money, and the brains to make a great deal more. However, Milly needed a challenge of her own. She broke free, took a lover, let her husband divorce her, and then, using one man after another, moved upward in the publishing field toward her final goal, marriage to Randolph Marion, a man she admired for his obsession with power. It was the daughter she abandoned as a child who called Millicent Marion the last of the “great courtesans,” the last of the women who, as Milly explains it, “were forced to use their sexual allure, or what they managed to make seem that, as the only tool available to wrest from males some fraction of the worldly loot they had grabbed for themselves.” The inherent irony in Milly’s life story is not lost upon the narrator. As he points out, she was not like real courtesans, for even though she used their methods to attain her goals, she was set upon marriage. It was not that she cared about respectability, for she had long since been branded a scarlet woman by her family and described by her daughter as a whore. Milly had her mind set upon marriage to her elderly lover in order that eventually, as his widow, she “could rank, with her plunder, among the mightiest of males.” In other words, Millicent shared the materialistic values of the society against which she had appeared to rebel, as the artist suggested in her portrait by touching it here and there with “gleaming gold.”
However, one of the dominant themes in Auchincloss’s fiction is that wealth and social status cannot ensure happiness. Women, in particular, are likely to suffer when marriages are primarily contractual in nature. Zelina Peyton, for example, finds that her rich, sophisticated Yankee thinks of her as an art object he has purchased. After Adrian Doremus proceeds from mere unkindness to insane jealousy and destroys her portrait as he would like to destroy his wife, Zelina leaves him, his wealth, and her place in high society for her decaying Virginia home, where with the artist who had painted her portrait she is far happier than she had been as Doremus’s wife.
Unlike Zelina, Blanche Schweizer did not launch into marriage expecting happiness. One of her classmates had enlightened her about the Count, and the Count himself had taken Blanche into his confidence about his love for a girl in Ferrara who, unfortunately, was as impoverished as he. After pleas to her parents fell on deaf ears, Blanche resolved to speak up during the ceremony, but at the last minute, she did not do so, for she had suddenly realized that she did indeed have some power over her future. Blanche now took charge of her life. She took over the Gulinelli estates in Italy, became a heroine during World War II by helping Allied prisoners of war escape, and died satisfied with her achievements.
In a society which consistently emphasizes appearance rather than reality and which, moreover, is dominated by males, it is not surprising that there are a number of discontented women. Not many of them will be as resourceful as Blanche; most will vent their feelings in the old-fashioned way, by committing adultery. That is what happened in the title story, narrated by an Episcopalian clergyman. He could never understand what motivated his wife to leave him and their children for a man that even then she knew was unworthy of her. The explanation she gave him after she returned, that she was driven to this desperate act by her growing isolation—indeed, that it was almost a form of suicide—has never made any sense to him, and as a result he has never been able to forgive her. In “The Interlude,” Angelica Brooks drifts into the bed of an acquaintance and then, although neither of the two has any wish to proceed from this pleasant but meaningless “interlude” into a full- fledged affair, she feels impelled to reveal what she has done not only to her father but also to her husband. Her father is not particularly troubled about her action, but he finds it appalling that she confessed it to him, and he is even more horrified when he learns that she wants her husband to be aware of what she did. To Angelica’s father, talking about something unpleasant is just bad manners; moreover, he suggests, if a sin remains a secret, it will soon cease to be a reality. To Angelica, however, it is important that the two men she loves best should know her fully; by keeping secrets from them, she feels that she would diminish the strength of her relationships with them. As it turns out, Angelica’s decision was a wise one. After his initial fury, her husband sets himself to identify the reason for her action, which he realizes was not a rejection of him but simply an expression of discontent on his wife’s part. He can understand how disappointed she was when she learned that she would never become a partner in her father’s law firm and how frustrated she has been since she left her profession to remain at home. As her husband outlines his ideas about a new career for her, a new outlet for her energies, the interlude becomes less and less distinct in her memory, and there is every indication that it will soon disappear, not by being concealed, as her father had advised, but by being revealed and then placed in proper perspective.
“The Interlude” exemplifies one of Auchincloss’s great strengths, his power to capture not just the subtle alterations in his characters’ emotions but the intricacies of their thought processes as well. He accomplishes this in various ways. In “The Virginia Redbird,” he allows his thoughtful, perceptive protagonist to tell her own story. At other times, as in “The Last of the Great Courtesans,” the narrator later assesses and interprets what the protagonist told him about herself. In “The Anniversary,” the narrator quotes his wife’s comments, which explained him to himself, and similarly, in “The Devil and Guy Lansing,” though Lansing finds his opponent’s criticisms unfair, the reader can see that they are honest statements of the truth.
Though Auchincloss has sometimes been charged with cynicism, it is clear from stories like “The Devil and Guy Lansing” that he would be better described as a moralist. When Guy Lansing agrees to pretend to a faith he does not have in order to become headmaster of his old boarding school, he does not at first realize that he is selling his soul to the devil. Lansing’s sponsor, the influential Robert Chapin, does not see why Lansing’s unbelief should bar the way to his becoming an Episcopal priest, like all the headmasters before him. With his ambitious wife Anna urging him on, Lansing does enter seminary, is ordained, and takes up his duties as headmaster. However, he cannot forget that night while he was in seminary when he became aware of an evil presence in his room. Although he attributes the experience to an overactive imagination, in his heart Lansing is certain that the devil had approached him, and he keeps wondering, “For what purpose? Was he with me or against me?”
After Lansing begins implementing Chapin’s plan for modernizing the school, he sometimes suspects that the devil is indeed in control. The opposition gains strength, and the opposition leader, Stuyvesant Mount, functioning as Lansing’s conscience, lays the responsibility for every scandal at the headmaster’s door. Finally, Lansing becomes so desperate that he deliberately attempts to get himself fired. Charging her husband with self-destruction, Anna walks out. Lansing’s letter to Chapin ends with a peculiar admission: Although he still professes to believe neither in God nor in the devil, he says that he is living “in constant fear of both.” If the story ended with these words, it would be a masterpiece of ironic writing. However, Auchincloss is still not done. In a note scribbled on the letter, Chapin indicates his own answer to demonic presences: He will send Lansing off for a vacation in some place not overburdened with religious associations; Chapin himself will meet with the ever-practical Anna, and then he will send Lansing back to the school. When Lansing speculated that Mount might be the evil presence he so feared, he was almost certainly looking in the wrong direction.
In The Anniversary and Other Stories, Louis Auchincloss again demonstrates his deft touch with language, his insight into character, and his grasp of what motivates a small but still significant segment of American society. Above all, he is a man who is well aware of human frailty and yet has some hopes of transcendence. One suspects that his fiction will still be read long after some of the more fashionable writers have been forgotten.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (May 15, 1999): 1666.
Library Journal 124 (June 1, 1999): 180.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (August 1, 1999): 19.
Publishers Weekly 246 (May 17, 1999): 54.
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