(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Building upon the strengths implicit in The Rector of Justin, Auchincloss in The Embezzler uses conflicting narrative voices and viewpoints to illuminate the mythical dimensions of recent American economic history. Departing from the recorded facts of the Wall Street fraud case that led directly to federal control of the American stock market, Auchincloss reinvents the case and its principal characters with credibility and skill, adding human dimension to an otherwise dry, if significant, historical event.

The Embezzler opens with the memoirs of Guy Prime, the title character, writing during 1960 to “set the record straight.” Well into his seventies and living in self-imposed exile in Panama, Guy concedes the facts of his misdeeds but remains quite unrepentant, having paid his debt to society with a prison term; indeed, he reasons, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration could hardly wait for an excuse to enact laws already written, and Guy Prime just happened to provide that excuse.

Presumably discovered among Guy’s effects after his death in 1962, his memoirs are subsequently read and commented upon by his former wife and her current husband in the two sections that complete the novel. As in The Rector of Justin, the confrontation of conflicting testimony concerning the same events and people casts considerable doubt upon the possibility of “truth” with regard to human nature; at the end it is doubtful indeed whether any of the characters involved could ever have understood the words or motivations of the others.

Recalling his youth in New York and later at Harvard University, Guy Prime evokes a setting and atmosphere similar to those of Portrait in Brownstone. At Harvard, Guy first meets Reginald “Rex” Geer, the industrious, ambitious son of an austere New Hampshire parson. Initially drawn to each other by the proverbial attraction of opposites, the sybaritic, gregarious New Yorker and the studious, reserved New England Yankee soon become close friends. When Rex is about to drop out of Harvard for financial reasons, Guy intervenes, unseen and unsuspected, to ensure for Rex the scholarship aid that he needs. Indeed, it is Guy’s persistent meddlesome streak (reminiscent of Gussie Millinder and Ida Hartley) that will in time cause most of his problems with Rex, as with other people as well. Easygoing and affable, Guy often tries too hard to keep other people happy, little mindful that they might be happier, or better off, without his “help.”

After Harvard, both Guy Prime and Rex Geer are hired by Marcellus de Grasse, a prosperous private banker and Prime family friend to whom Guy has introduced Rex. Rex rises quickly through the firm; Guy, although moderately successful, finds the work a bit too confining for his expansive temperament and draws on family connections to found his own brokerage house, inviting Rex to join him as full partner. When Rex, true to...

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The Embezzler Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Embezzler centers on one of the most significant, if least understood, episodes in recent American history, the consequence of which was federal control of the stock market. Perhaps fittingly, the title character Guy Prime is the first to tell his side of the story, followed in turn by his former friend Reginald (Rex) Geer and finally by Angelica, Guy’s ex-wife, currently married to Rex. Guy’s memoir, purportedly written in 1960 for circulation among his relatives after his death, credibly evokes the atmosphere of the Depression and the New Deal, double occasions of his crime and subsequent imprisonment. Now living in self-imposed exile in Panama, Guy seeks to explain, and in part, to justify, his own highly visible role in the scandals that led to federal control of the American stock market. By way of background, he evokes his childhood and adolescence, culminating in his decisive friendship with Rex Geer at Harvard. Indeed, until the crisis provoked during the 1930’s by Guy’s ruthless speculations, the two men have usefully complemented each other, each supplying what the other lacked. Rex, the son of a New England parson, supplies the sybaritic Guy with much-needed stability; Guy, meanwhile, provides his straitlaced friend with the rudimentary social graces needed for success in his chosen field of banking. It is Guy, moreover, who generously uses his own connections to provide Rex with a scholarship and later with a job. Guy, temperamentally unsuited to banking, accepts his father’s help in starting a brokerage house; Rex, meanwhile, remains with the bank, setting the stage for the confrontations that eventually follow.

Even with the help of multiple viewpoints, it is difficult to ascertain precisely to what extent Guy Prime’s defalcations were motivated by his knowledge of Rex Geer’s romantic involvement, starting in 1933, with Guy’s wife, Angelica. In any event, Guy had...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

The Embezzler Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Auchincloss, Louis. Interview by George Plimpton. The Paris Review 35 (Fall, 1994): 73-94. A fascinating interview in which 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.

Gelderman, Carol W. Louis Auchincloss: A Writer’s Life. New York: Crown, 1993. A compelling look at not only Auchincloss’s life but also 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 Auchincloss’s short stories, he does discuss themes that are common to all of Auchincloss’s novels. A good source of background information.