John P. Marquand Marquand, John P(hillips) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marquand, John P(hillips) 1893–1960

An American novelist, Marquand primarily dealt with the upper and upper middle classes of Boston and New England. Essentially a novelist of manners in the tradition of Ellen Glasgow, Marquand was an adept satirist with a gift for capturing the details and atmosphere of life in a vanishing American aristocracy. (See also CLC, Vol. 2.)

C. Hugh Holman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Marquand was not an extensive or dedicated experimenter with the art of fiction, but a practitioner of the novel of social realism as it had been developed in the nineteenth century. He tried to represent man in his social milieu and to reveal man's character through his conduct and the choices he made in his society, rather than through the exploration of the inner self….

What he knew best when he began his career as a serious novelist was the Boston of the patrician classes, the New England of the upper middle classes, and the New York of commercial fiction and advertising. (p. 6)

The impact which democracy makes on manners converts the novelist from being a tester of character by established standards to a portrayer of character under the persistent impact of change. The social novelist's subject becomes mutability rather than order, and his testing cruxes occur when change rather than stasis puts stress on the moral values of his characters. "Social mobility," a term which he borrowed from the social anthropologists, thus becomes a recurrent condition, even in Boston, in Marquand's novels. (p. 7)

In his serious novels, Marquand drew extensive, accurate, convincing, and often uncomplimentary pictures of the world he knew best, writing of it with an ease that masked the penetration of the study which he was making. In his polished and patrician way, he defined the ambitions, the intentions, and above all the frustrations of the average moderately successful middle-aged citizen with an acuteness that made many of his readers meet his characters with a shock of self-recognition.

Although he was probably as impatient with the young existentialists as he clearly was with those who prate in Freudian terms of "free social guilt," his major novels define a moral and spiritual emptiness, a sense of loneliness and quiet despair, that is not far removed from Kafka and Sartre…. Yet this pessimism is usually masked behind a gently ironic tone, and these characters are handled with the wry detachment of the novelist of manners and not, except in a few cases, in tragic terms or with bitterness. (pp. 7-8)

In Mr. Moto [Marquand's Japanese intelligence agent and main character in six novels] Marquand had found a fictional character that seemed to lend himself to extensive and highly remunerative elaboration, and a plot situation that utilized his knowledge of far places…. It is a mistake to call Mr. Moto a detective or to call Marquand a writer of detective stories or even of mysteries in the traditional sense. These books are spy thrillers of a very high order, but they lack the tight construction of the detective story. (pp. 18-19)

[The Late George Apley, Wickford Point, and H. M. Pulham, Esquire] form a kind of triptych, defining in three sharply contrasting panels Marquand's view of Boston. The Late George Apley is a portrait of old Boston and its tradition, which had flowered in Concord in the mid-nineteenth century. In Wickford Point Marquand turned his satiric attention to a decaying family loosely bound to the Transcendentalists and themselves the possessors of a very minor nature poet in the family tree. H. M. Pulham, Esquire is a self-portrait of a contemporary Bostonian, a post-World War I businessman, whose ineffectual revolt against his class fails and who now believes himself to have a happier and better life than, as the reader knows, he actually does have. Taken together these three panels constitute a complex and varied definition of an attitude which dominates one segment of America and which probably is, as Mr. Marquand insisted, not unique to Boston but is to be found wherever society begins to allow the past to establish firm controls over the present. (pp. 20-1)

Neither of Marquand's two novels dealing with wartime America, So Little Time and B. F.'s Daughter, is completely successful, perhaps because Marquand was writing of experiences too recent for him to have achieved the necessary detachment and perhaps, also, because he was attempting some very limited experiments with new fictional techniques. But both books are serious attempts to deal with the frighteningly fast changes that war makes. In the New England satires, the enemy appeared to be a caste-conscious society failing to respond to change. In So Little Time and B. F.'s Daughter not society but time itself is the great villain, social change is time's inevitable manifestation, and war is an accelerating device which destroys too rapidly the structure and tradition of society. (pp. 22-3)

[Point of No Return] is unique in the thoroughness with which Marquand functions as a sociological analyst. For his interest is now centered not so much in Charles' personal dilemma as in the world that has made him, in the pattern of social gradation and of change in Newburyport and in New York. In his analysis of the social forces of Clyde, Massachusetts, Marquand produces a significant commentary on one segment of American society. (pp. 23-4)

Probably no other American novelist since Sinclair Lewis has examined the class structure of a small American city with the accuracy and illuminating insight that Marquand employed in this novel.

After Point of No Return, he was to produce three major novels. Although his earlier work clearly adumbrates these books, each of them represented a significant variation from its predecessors. Each was a study of success—its costs, its joys, and its deprivations—whereas the earlier novels had been essentially portraits of defeat. And each of the last three novels varied significantly from its predecessor in technique.

Melville Goodwin, USA (1951) is an ironic picture of the professional soldier and of the quality of the "opinion molders" who make him a kind of demigod. The professional soldier, his courage, and his code were persistent themes throughout Marquand's whole career…. The novel is told by Sidney Skelton, a nationally famous radio commentator, who represents unconsciously much that is sentimentally mindless in contemporary American life…. Melville Goodwin, USA has the most skillfully ironic use of an unreliable narrator that Marquand ever attempted. (pp. 24-5)

In 1955 he published Sincerely, Willis Wayde, a devastating picture of the big business promoter and the Marquand book that is most nearly in the mode of Sinclair Lewis. In Willis Wayde Marquand for the only time in a serious novel avoids extensive use of the flashback, and centers his attention directly on his satiric butt, Willis Wayde. The result is a harsh and unsympathetic picture of a lower-middle-class boy who succeeds, through unremitting effort, in becoming what his father calls "a son of a bitch." This most pitiless of Marquand's books echoes situations which he had earlier treated with sympathy. For Wayde alone of his protagonists Marquand has contempt. (p. 26)

[Women and Thomas Harrow (1958), a] story about the three unsuccessful marriages of a very talented and successful playwright, is a kind of ironic The Tempest to his career. Upon its publication [Marquand] declared it to be his last novel, and the book has a twilight sense of putting away the players and closing...

(The entire section is 3022 words.)

Leo Gurko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I confess to being an uncompromising admirer of John P. Marquand's novels. The Late George Apley, Wickford Point, and H. M. Pulham, Esquire are splendid books. The later works, from So Little Time on, contain many remarkable passages, and even the last novel, Of Women and Timothy Harrow, holds up well. I herewith make the following extravagant claims for Marquand; as a recorder of the upper-middle-class scene he is the equal of Edith Wharton; as an explorer of nostalgia, he can stand comparison with F. Scott Fitzgerald; as an ironist, he ranks with Thackeray, to whom, for plain reasons, he has been frequently linked. (p. 696)

Leo Gurko, in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1973 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), January, 1973.