Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1349
Louis Auchincloss was born on September 27, 1917, at Lawrence, Long Island (later a suburb of New York City), the third among four children and the second of three sons. The Auchincloss family, Scottish in origin, had grown both numerous and prosperous in and around New York City, initially engaging...
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- Critical Essays
Louis Auchincloss was born on September 27, 1917, at Lawrence, Long Island (later a suburb of New York City), the third among four children and the second of three sons. The Auchincloss family, Scottish in origin, had grown both numerous and prosperous in and around New York City, initially engaging in the wool trade but later branching out into the professions. Louis’s father, Howland, a 1908 graduate of Yale University, practiced law on Wall Street. Howland and his wife, the former Priscilla Stanton, saw to it that their children were raised “comfortably” but without ostentation, in relative ignorance of how well-off their family might possibly be.
Howland Auchincloss, although highly successful in a rather arcane field of legal practice, appears to have been what later generations would describe as a “workaholic” and suffered frequent nervous breakdowns in his fifties. Well before that time, young Louis would seriously question the hold of Wall Street on his father’s life and time. Priscilla Stanton Auchincloss was a strong, perceptive wife and mother despite numbing, often inexplicable inhibitions and “taboos,” possibly deriving from guilt feelings over the death of a younger brother when Priscilla was no older than six. It is from his mother that Auchincloss claimed to have derived his keen powers of observation and recall.
Beginning his education at the private Boyce School in Manhattan, Auchincloss enjoyed the companionship of such classmates as the future actors Mel Ferrer and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., before Boyce closed its doors permanently just before the Wall Street crash of 1929. By then, Louis was old enough to follow in the footsteps of his father and elder brother by enrolling at the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts, a training ground for diplomats and statesmen. Feeling ostracized by his classmates in the aftermath of a schoolboy prank early in his Groton career, young Louis worked hard to distinguish himself academically, earning the high grades he sought but, as he later recalled, almost missing the real point of education. Auchincloss credits Malcolm Strachan, hired to teach at Groton toward the end of his own stay there, with reorienting his reading habits toward enjoyment and away from simple achievement.
Enrolling at Yale in 1935, again following the pattern established by his father, Auchincloss read widely for pleasure both inside and outside class, in time attempting a novel of his own based upon his social observations. When the manuscript was rejected by Scribner’s, not without some words of encouragement for the aspiring author, Auchincloss saw fit to read the rejection as an omen of sorts and to follow his father into the practice of law without wasting any time. Skipping his senior year at Yale, he actively sought the best law school that would accept him without benefit of a bachelor’s degree, enrolling at the University of Virginia as he turned twenty-one in the fall of 1938.
Avoiding the “temptations” of literature, either as reader or as writer, with all the resolve of a recovering addict, Auchincloss studied hard at Virginia, as he had done at Groton, soon discovering in legal prose and logic some of the same delights that he had found in literature. Determined to succeed both as student and as lawyer, he steered clear of the thriving “country-club” social scene but remained quite as observant of his surroundings as he had been during his “literary” days. In any case, his devotion to his studies soon paid off in high grades and honors; upon graduation in June, 1941, he was hired by the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, where he had worked as a student clerk during the summer of 1940.
Auchincloss’s seemingly impulsive decision to skip his senior year at Yale soon turned out to have been a wise one indeed: He was able to complete his studies and actually practice law for several months before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, with a secure job awaiting his return from military service during World War II.
Commissioned an officer in the Navy, Auchincloss was initially posted to an office job in the Canal Zone, a billet far removed from the war itself and, as he would demonstrate in both The Indifferent Children (1947) and some of his early short stories, an atmosphere conducive to petty politics and backbiting. Auchincloss later did see action in both the European and Pacific war theaters, eventually assuming command of an amphibious vessel. While at sea, he made good use of his enforced leisure by reading widely from volumes purchased while on shore leave or from books left to gather dust in the ship’s library.
Upon his return to civilian life, Auchincloss took a brief vacation to complete The Indifferent Children before returning to his job at Sullivan and Cromwell. Still unmarried, he remained close to his parents and felt the need to accommodate their wishes even as he opposed them; he agreed that his first novel, once accepted, be published under a pseudonym in order to spare the family name. In its first editions, therefore, The Indifferent Children appeared under the byline “Andrew Lee”—ironically named for an Auchincloss ancestor. The book’s reviews, although mixed, were generally favorable—enough so, at any rate, that Auchincloss would continue to turn out fiction after office hours at Sullivan and Cromwell: The Injustice Collectors, an anthology of short stories initially published in magazines, appeared in 1950, followed by the novel Sybil in 1951. Still somewhat uncomfortable with his dual careers, Auchincloss felt obliged to choose between them and decided, toward the end of 1951, to devote his full time to his writing, supported by an allowance from his father.
At the end of two years, however, having produced one novel (A Law for the Lion, 1953) and the short stories collected in The Romantic Egoists (1954), Auchincloss was ready to resume his career as an attorney, writing fiction during his spare time as before. Barred by company policy from returning to Sullivan and Cromwell once he had resigned, he eventually found a position with the firm of Hawkins, Delafield and Wood. Elevated to partnership in 1958, he would remain with the firm for more than thirty-two years, from the spring of 1954 until his retirement in 1986.
In 1957, just before turning forty, Auchincloss married Adele Lawrence, a Vanderbilt descendant then in her mid-twenties with whom in time he would have three sons, John, Blake, and Andrew. Comfortable at last with the pursuit of two careers, Auchincloss proceeded to flourish in both, his elevation to partnership coinciding roughly with the publication of his generally well-received Wall Street novels, The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956; expanded from one of the longer short stories in The Romantic Egoists), Venus in Sparta (1958), and Pursuit of the Prodigal (1959). It was not until 1960, however, that Auchincloss would truly hit his stride with the remarkable efforts The House of Five Talents (1960), Portrait in Brownstone (1962), The Rector of Justin (1964), and The Embezzler (1966).
Thereafter, Auchincloss continued to turn out novels, short fiction, and essays at the approximate rate of one volume per year. His finest works are often said to be the four novels published between 1960 and 1966, though I Come as a Thief (1972), The House of the Prophet (1980), and Watchfires (1982) are also much admired. In 1986, Auchincloss retired from his legal practice, but he remained in New York City, living on Park Avenue in New York City and spending summers at a second home in Bedford, New York. He stayed active as a writer, not only producing more novels, among them The Scarlet Letters (2003) and East Side Story (2004), but also publishing important nonfiction works, including three impressive biographies: J. P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector (1990), Woodrow Wilson (2000), and Theodore Roosevelt (2001). With the appearance of The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss in 1994, critics were prompted to reassess the writer’s short fiction, and they found it as finely crafted as his longer works. Although Auchincloss has long been considered the best novelist of manners of his time, because he excelled in so many genres he is now often referred to as one of America’s most distinguished men of letters. Auchincloss died in New York City on January 26, 2010 at age 92.
Last Updated on January 20, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194
Taken together, The House of Five Talents, Portrait in Brownstone, The Rector of Justin, and The Embezzler constitute the keystone of Auchincloss’s fictional universe, providing a credible, authoritative portrait of American society and politics from the late nineteenth century until well past the midpoint of the twentieth, a period encompassing two world wars and the Great Depression. In such later novels as The Country Cousin (1978) and The Book Class (1984), Auchincloss has often returned to the temporal setting of Portrait in Brownstone and The Embezzler, evoking the transitional period of the 1930’s with rare insight and skill. Throughout his fiction, Auchincloss is sensitive to the dilemmas of intelligent women in a society that expects them to be pretty, docile, and not particularly bright. The quest of women for independence and self-fulfillment is the subject of both The Lady of Situations (1990) and Her Infinite Variety (2001). Perhaps Auchincloss’s greatest achievement is that, although like Jane Austen, he limits his writing to his own experience, in the lives of his wealthy New Yorkers he find examples of every virtue and vice, every strength and frailty, every hypocrisy and self-delusion of which the human race is capable.