Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825
Although perhaps better known for his novels, especially The Rector of Justin (1964) and The Embezzler (1966), Louis Auchincloss has also worked long and hard at the art and craft of shorter fiction, often questioning and testing the boundaries separating the short story from the novel. Several of his many novels, including The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) and A World of Profit (1968), were in fact expanded from shorter pieces already in print; conversely, some earlier collections of his short fiction, most notably The Partners (1974), have been published and marketed as novels. In preparing the current, somewhat misnamed volume (“selected” might well have been a better choice of adjective), Auchincloss has included one tale from The Partners, as well as “seed stories” for A World of Profit and also for Watchfires (1982). Explaining his choices in a brief, generally straightforward introduction, Auchincloss claims that the tales “simply jumped out at me from the ranks of their paler brethren.” Unlike certain earlier anthologies, such asThe Stories of John Cheever (1978), Auchincloss’ volume makes no claim to completeness; on the other hand, it clearly sets forth a coherent “defense and illustration” of the shorter fictional form, directed toward the potential pleasure of reading. As essayist and critic, particularly in the volumes Reflections of a Jacobite (1961) and Life, Law, and Letters (1979), Auchincloss has long steered clear of the academic critical establishment, insisting that literature exists in order to be read and enjoyed rather than to be studied. His own work, as presented in the current volume, may thus also be seen as a companion to his resolutely extramural criticism, an illustrated lecture on the art and craft of short fiction.
To those who have followed his literary career over time, Auchincloss’ selection of tales to be retold, or republished, appears generally sound, generally (but not always) observing chronological order of composition or publication. From the start, with The Injustice Collectors (1950), the tales included in each of Auchincloss’ collections have tended to share a common theme or thread, or perhaps recurring characters or a single, unifying narrator; not surprisingly, they have tended also to reflect the concerns expressed in Auchincloss novels written around the same time. The earliest story, “Maud,” dating from 1949 and included in The Injustice Collectors, clearly adumbrates the author’s growing concern with the developing feminine consciousness, a concern further developed in his novels Sybil (1951) and A Law for the Lion (1953). The title character, Maud Spreddon, is in many ways a prototype for Sybil Hilliard and Eloise Dilworth, a thoughtful, restless young woman born around the time of World War I. Her expectations of life are quite at odds with those of her parents. Unlike her novelistic successors, however, Maud never quite musters the courage of her convictions, for she chooses self-sacrifice over the healthy self-assertion that is easily within her grasp. Other featured characters in the earlier tales belong to vanishing, now long-gone subspecies of the self-proclaimed New York aristocracy, into which the author himself was born in 1917.
As a practicing attorney on New York’s Wall Street for more than forty years, balancing dual careers as lawyer and as writer, Auchincloss managed also, from the 1950’s well into the 1970’s, to afford his readers many enviable glimpses behind the scenes of power, where history is made or broken by the privileged few, often for the most trivial of reasons. Apprenticed by inclination and choice to the novel of manners tradition perfected by Henry James and Edith Wharton, Auchincloss in his middle years took double advantage of his professional activity and insider status to chronicle the initially gradual, eventually precipitate decline of the self-styled American aristocracy, itself a contradiction in terms. In The Rector of Justin, perhaps the most read and best remembered of his novels, Auchincloss addressed himself both ironically and empathically to the institution of the American prep school, an anomaly in that, modeled upon the misnamed British “public” school, it professes to promote democratic values despite high tuition and selective admissions policies. Still, it was just such institutions that provided the United States with most of its top and midlevel leadership well past the midpoint of the twentieth century.
In the present volume, “The Prince and the Pauper” best represents Auchincloss’ sustained fascination with and analysis of the inevitable self-destruction of aristocracy in the “land of the free.” Brooks Clarkson, a well-derived and well-placed attorney on the cusp of middle age, excuses his slide into alcoholism in part through his recognition of the vitality that he perceives in Benny Galenti, an office boy who dropped out of law school in order to support his growing family. Promoting Benny to office manager, lending him money to invest in hot prospects on the stock market, Brooks slides almost happily downhill. One of his cousins feels compelled to deny Benny’s claimed debt to Brooks, who might well have taken for himself the stock tips that he passed to Benny. As it happens, Benny and his family will soon replace the Clarksons in an exclusive Long Island country club; these Italian Americans will be as easily assimilated as the Protestant ministers’ sons who “infiltrated” the supposed aristocracy a generation earlier.
Included in Second Chance (1970), “The Prince and the Pauper” is described, in the author’s introduction to the current volume, as “an effort on my part to write a story in the manner of John O’Hara” (a frequent competitor for reviewers’ attention during Auchincloss’ early years). Those familiar with the work of both writers in fiction both long and short, however, might have difficulty tracing O’Hara’s possible influence; the piece could have been written only by Auchincloss. So too could “The Fabbri Tape,” prepared a full decade after “The Prince and the Pauper” yet set back in time to the 1930’s, at least in relation to the action described on tape years later by the narrator-protagonist, another American of Italian origin. Married early in his legal career to the daughter of a partner in his firm, Mario Fabbri (born around 1890) has spent the last years of his life disbarred but somewhat less than disgraced, having obligingly taken the fall for the misdeeds of his WASP “elders and betters.” In many ways, Mario Fabbri’s testimony recalls and even replicates the memoir of Guy Prime that opens and namesThe Embezzler, showing once again a master chronicler in well-modulated narrative voice, fully alert to all that he has witnessed both as lawyer and as writer.
Inexplicably omitted from The Collected Stories is “The Deductible Yacht,” included in Powers of Attorney, in which an aristocratic lawyer will end up owing his partnership to a shady Middle Eastern client. It is no exaggeration to note that on Auchincloss’ narrative watch (to borrow the terminology of his wartime naval service), the tenuous society into which he was born foundered onto shifting sands, ranging from Saudi Arabia to California, sands bearing with them the balance of power, occasionally whispering the news that New York was no longer the center of the Western world, or even of the New World. To his credit, Auchincloss has observed and recorded the gradual disappearance of his world with enviable detachment, keeping only the prose style, at once spare and somehow ornate, that he seems to have inherited quite willfully from James and Wharton, adding a few twists and touches uniquely his own that, in the more recent pieces, beg the question between parody and self-parody. Among the stuffier sentences to be found in the collection is “I should admit here that election to this club was the social triumph of my life. I could never see why Pussy and the children found it stuffy.” The speaker/narrator, perhaps not surprisingly, is Mario Fabbri, the naturalized Italian American whose sense of duty, combined with his loyalty and ethics, led inevitably to his downfall.
When Auchincloss was first read and published, in the years immediately following World War II, he appeared, not implausibly, to be the next competitor to O’Hara and also to John P. Marquand, the latter a poor relation to self-styled aristocrats who claimed descent from Transcendentalists and shipowners alike. Unlike the two older writers, however, Auchincloss was not only a true insider but had also done his homework in the convention already known as the novel of manners. Although perhaps less consistently skillful as a writer of short fiction than O’Hara, he is somewhat more reliable as observer and chronicler, proceeding beyond mere observation toward analysis and explanation.
Ironically titled, “The Novelist of Manners” remains one of Auchincloss’ most memorable and entertaining pieces, well worthy of its place in the current collection. Originally included in The Partners, where it could be seen as part of an episodic novel, “The Novelist of Manners” features Leslie Carter, a rising young lawyer with literary tastes and ambitions. Assigned to the Paris office of the firm featured in The Partners, Carter finds himself defending one Dana Clyde, the novelist of the title, against well-founded charges of libel. To be sure, Clyde is less a novelist of manners than a sensationalist and scandalmonger, the type of writer whose works are most often found in paperback at airport newsstands. As Carter gets to know his client while preparing his defense, he gradually persuades Clyde to take a furlough from the good life in France in order to write a work of true literary art.
When the book is at last ready to appear, with galley proofs mailed to Carter in his capacity as Clyde’s attorney, Carter notes with surprise that the novel is little different from, or better than, the usual Clyde standard. Although well aware of his client’s tendency to use real-life models, Carter is deeply stung to find himself cruelly caricatured as “Gregory Blake,” a young lawyer driven to suicide by impotence on his wedding night. As Clyde’s wife Xenia explains to Carter, “He can no longer kid himself that he could have written Madame Bovary. So he took his revenge.” Notable for its ruminations on literature and the law, as well as for its ironic overview of the author’s own characteristic subject matter, “The Novelist of Manners,” removed from the original context of The Partners, manages to stand quite well on its own merits, more than justifying its republication in the current volume.
Taken together, the twenty stories in this volume provide not only an impressive literary testament but also a valuable chronicle of American society and politics from the Civil War to the end of the twentieth century. It is to be hoped, incidentally, that readers of the volume will be inspired to rediscover the strongest of Louis Auchincloss’ novels, in particular The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCI, September 15, 1994, p. 110.
The Christian Science Monitor. December 30, 1994, p. 14.
Kirkus Reviews. LXII, September 15, 1994, p. 1218.
Library Journal. CXIX, October 15, 1994, p. 89.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, December 4, 1994, p. 62.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, October 10, 1994, p. 60.
Time. CXLIV, December 5, 1994, p. 96.