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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...

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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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3022

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 box in the mood of an embittered Prospero. When Tom Harrow looks back over the skillful and successful use he has made of his great dramatic powers, it is with a sense of nothingness that makes the book finally very dark indeed. (pp. 26-7)

In dealing with experience, Marquand was anxious to record what he called "the extraordinary panorama of society, the changes in life since the horse and wagon days." Yet in portraying that panorama, he turned, as many writers of the social novel have, to the novel of character…. [It] is the man, revealed through the impact of [the] environment upon him, that is the central interest of Marquand's serious novels.

One of the obvious clues to the centrality of character in his work is the looseness and, it sometimes seems, the nonexistence of plot. Even his early adventure stories and his Mr. Moto tales have relaxed construction, and his major novels so far concentrate on character rather than event that they may seem to the casual reader to be formless, flowing with the narrator's whim. (p. 28)

[Seven] of his nine novels of manners deal not with plots in any conventional sense but with crucial situations—what Marquand calls taking "a man facing the crisis of his life" and "show[ing] how he got there"—with the protagonist looking backward in memory to his formative years. The exceptions to this backward movement as the controlling structural pattern are in The Late George Apley, where an "official" biographer is writing about a deceased friend, and Sincerely, Willis Wayde, where the sequence of events is presented in a straightforward fashion, from childhood onward. In Willis Wayde, despite this chronological sequence of events, the actions are viewed from an undefined vantage point in the present. This vantage point that establishes a relationship between past and present for the chief actions through their presentation by backward looks was a hallmark of Marquand's fiction from The Unspeakable Gentleman onward. It is very effective in pointing up the contrast between past and present, whether it is used to create the romantic nostalgia of his historical fiction, best seen in Haven's End, or to explore the methods by which the actions and the environments of the past make and control the present…. These nine novels attempt not to recreate that past but to picture that part of it which survives in the memories and impression of the present. (p. 29)

The basic method of The Late George Apley is that of parody, an aping of the diction and attitudes of editors of what Marquand called the "collected letters of V.I.P.'s in Boston (and elsewhere)…". Willing, vain, pedantic, and smug Boston "man of letters," is editing the correspondence of George Apley, a very proper Boston Brahmin…. Style, it has been said, is the man; but in The Late George Apley it becomes a device for social criticism. The use of Willing to tell the story of Apley results in a double view of the Brahmin type and in a double portraiture that gives depth to the study…. (pp. 30-1)

Although the time sequences had been handled loosely in Apley, Marquand's next novel, Wickford Point, represented an apparently even looser use of time, but one which, on closer examination, is very artful. The story is presented through the reminiscences of Jim Calder, a writer of popular magazine fiction, as a series of events in the brief forward motion of the story trigger his recollections of the past, within which most of the significant action is to be found. (p. 32)

Jim's diction and sentence structure are those of the professional writer, and, although ostensibly relaxed, they have a directness, a clarity, and an accuracy that Willing's had lacked…. Each book is, in a sense, a stylistic tour de force. But the publication of H. M. Pulham, Esquire revealed what many had not fully understood—that Marquand had a finely discriminating ear for American speech, a sensitivity to the significance of word choice and sentence structure that probably has not been surpassed in American writing since Mark Twain. Willing's narrative might have been a parody of a literary form, requiring sensitivity to the printed page; Calder's might have been Marquand's own voice. But Pulham's first-person narrative is a triumph of stylistic exactness. The language and attitudes of a Boston investment counsel are perfectly caught and are used successfully to portray Harry Pulham, as he reveals himself through contemplation about the writing of his "class life" for the twenty-fifth reunion of his Harvard class.

This ability to capture the very accent of American upper-middle-class and upper-class speech, to employ its jargon with authenticity, and to know the precise degree of exaggeration to use in order to point out its absurdity and pretension, Marquand was to use with increasing ineffectiveness. (pp. 33-4)

There is basically little that is new in Marquand's fictional methods. They are those of the realist, employing an unreliable narrator who tells the story through retrospection and in the language and attitudes of the profession, class, and locale from which he comes. But the skill with which Marquand employed this method is quite unusual, and the subtlety with which he uses it for satiric portraits should never be underestimated. Command of the tools of the trade does not make a novelist great—that is a function of many factors, including the things upon which the tools are used—but such command does make a novelist a fine craftsman, and that Marquand certainly was. His clarity, sureness of touch, firmness of structure, and wit are all of a high order.

Since he centered his attention in these books on character shaped by environment and on the tension between self and society which defines the value systems of people and the context of social structures, the test of Marquand's ultimate importance in the American novel must rest with the people he created and the problems he gave them. No other American novelist since Sinclair Lewis has had a sense of the significant social detail that is as great as Marquand's. (pp. 35-6)

Marquand's major theme is the defeat of the self by society, and he intends this theme to have a broader basis than might appear if we think of it as the defeat of the self by a special society at a special time. One of the illuminating things about his Boston trilogy is that he covers a very broad span of years. The powerful thing that is Boston society slowly embraces the young whenever you find them, and its iron claw may express itself in various ways at different times but never painlessly.

When we look beyond the remarkable virtuosity of Marquand's narrative point of view to the central characters whose portraits he draws, we find him less a satirist than we had expected. The world he describes with all its foibles and fools is one in which he is finally comfortable if not contented. His protagonists are pleasant to meet, with few exceptions admirable to do business with, and delightful golfing companions. If they are surrounded in large measure by fools and pour out their efforts fruitlessly on unfertile soil, their lot seems to him little different from that of most "American males." If they seek but never find "the ideal woman" they partake, he feels, of the common experiences of our world.

The crucial event in most of these novels occurs at a point where the opportunity for personal choice has already passed. It does not change the character's position in the world, but rather confirms it. Titles like So Little Time and Point of No Return underscore this position. The standard Marquand hero in the past once faced the forks in Frost's yellow wood and took the road most traveled by. At that moment of choice each of them had tried to rebel without success. And now in his backward searchings each is seeking to understand the point in time when his choice of roads became irrevocable. (pp. 36-7)

But if Marquand's protagonists ultimately find themselves strangers and afraid in a world of vast change, they still lack tragic proportions, because they are too easily betrayed. (p. 40)

Marquand seems to be saying that a staid and backward looking society can best be portrayed by what it stifles in able, good, but weak men. Thus these various protagonists become finally, not tragic figures, but standards for measuring their society. This is comedy rather than tragedy because the men and their goals lack tragic magnitude, because, deserving what they get, it becomes satirically appropriate that they should get it—and that their own recognition scenes should be wry rather than wrathful.

A great deal of the delight in reading Marquand comes from the many satiric pictures of the minor characters…. In these minor characters a world is created with great success, its very tone and quality caught in the amber of precise language. In portraits of these people Marquand's comic powers are shown and his novels become witty representations of ourselves, viewed in the steel glass of the satirist.

Furthermore, Marquand is a social historian of considerable magnitude. He has caught the language, the cadence, the attitudes, and the absurdities of upper-middle-class America. (p. 41)

He confessed once that he had never been able to write poetry or to keep rhythm in his head. And the element of poetry is missing in his work; never does he try to use this world to suggest a more ideal reality…. His work is not designed to lift the spirit or to translate the immediate into the eternal…. (p. 42)

The actual society which he knew was his subject, and he valued it for itself, not as symbol or metaphor for transcendent truths or abstract ideals. (p. 43)

Maxwell Geismar once said, "Mr. Marquand knows all the little answers. He avoids the larger questions." The statement, although true in a sense, is more witty than wise. Denied the soaring reaches of transcendental thought or poetic elevation, he dealt with the little answers in large part because the people of whom he wrote were people who asked little questions of life, except in those confused moments when they merely raised frightened cries…. (p. 44)

The life, world, and times of these people who are so obsessed with the material trivia of their daily deeds, the stifling formulas of their caste and class, the busyness of making money, and the confused personal diplomacy which their marriages demand are indeed unflattering but very amusing pictures of ourselves…. [Marquand] examined the social condition of our lives with irony and grace, and his "badgered American male" captures in his recurrent problems and poses, not only how we behave, but also how hollow our lives often are at the core. He speaks both to our social historical sense and to the unslacked spiritual thirst which our aridity creates. To our age, at least, he speaks with ease and skill, with irony and wit, but above all with the authority of unsentimental knowledge. (pp. 44-5)

C. Hugh Holman, in his John P. Marquand (American Writers Pamphlet No. 46; © 1965, University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1965.

Leo Gurko

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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.

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John P. Marquand Long Fiction Analysis


Marquand, John P(hillips) (Vol. 2)