Louis Auchincloss American Literature Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6539
In 1960, the year that he broke new literary ground with The House of Five Talents, Auchincloss published an article in The Nation titled “Marquand and O’Hara: The Novel of Manners,” subsequently included in Reflections of a Jacobite (1961). Examining the work of both authors in considerable detail, Auchincloss concluded that the novel of manners, as developed by Henry James and Edith Wharton and refined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby (1925), had all but died at the hands of John P. Marquand and John O’Hara, whose works were then held in fairly high esteem. Both men, he argued, tended to invent social stratifications instead of merely observing them. More often than not, class distinctions exist only in the minds of individual characters, a tendency that caused Auchincloss to describe both authors as “psychological” as opposed to “social” novelists. Quite probably, he concluded, the social upheavals of the Depression and two world wars had rendered the convention more or less obsolete. Notwithstanding, Auchincloss was working even then to disprove his own suspicions, reaching back toward James and Wharton and even French novelist Marcel Proust for guidance as he sought to record and make sense of his own keen observations.
Although it was not until 1960 that Auchincloss reached full maturity as a novelist, he had spent most of the previous decade mapping out the fictional universe that his later characters would inhabit. Unlike O’Hara and Marquand, Auchincloss felt no need to invent social stratifications, finding them already in place. Of particular interest to Auchincloss, from his earliest novels onward, is the problematical question, or “myth,” of an American “aristocracy”—an apparent contradiction in terms which has nevertheless been perpetuated in American society ever since the earliest settlers or their descendants began looking down their noses at other settlers more recently arrived in the New World. During the twentieth century, as Auchincloss observes in his fiction, the notion of an American aristocracy has tended to persist, yet not without challenge and change. Increasingly, those born to what Thorstein Veblen described in 1899 as the leisure class have found themselves entering the workforce, often in direct competition with those born to “humbler” origins.
A persistent Auchincloss “myth” is that of the Protestant minister’s son, most commonly a native of New England, whose work ethic combines with ambition to drive him ever upward in the business or professional world. By the time he reaches the top, such a man is virtually indistinguishable, except perhaps for his continued commitment to the work ethic, from the hereditary “aristocrats” against whom he has successfully competed. His Harvard or Yale education, although acquired with scholarship aid supplemented by odd jobs, has been much the same as that of his richer peers. If anything, the minister’s son has earned higher grades and learned more, the better to realize his own American Dream. Meanwhile, his white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant status and name have provided the clergyman’s son with the perfect “cover,” allowing him to blend in as he moves from the meritocracy into the perceived aristocracy, joining country clubs and sending his children to private schools as he wisely invests the residue of a steadily increasing salary.
From the 1930’s onward, both Marquand and O’Hara had focused much of their attention on the business world, purporting to show how careers are made and broken. During the 1950’s, Auchincloss covered much the same territory, inevitably inviting comparison with the two older, already established novelists. On close examination, however, Auchincloss’s novels of the period seem rather more authentic and credible than those of O’Hara and Marquand, and with good reason. Unlike the two older authors, Auchincloss lived and worked in the world that formed the subject of his novels; what is more, he was well versed in the “novel of manners” tradition, which Marquand and O’Hara were not.
Beginning with The House of Five Talents, Auchincloss broadened and deepened his portrait of society, having laid the foundation of his fictional universe with the “Wall Street” novels of the late 1950’s. The Wall Street setting is still very much in evidence, often at the center of the action, but is complemented by historical and social background. Auchincloss began to experiment with viewpoint and narrative voice, producing convincing “eyewitness” accounts: The main narrators of The House of Five Talents and Portrait in Brownstone are elderly women, born during the nineteenth century; in The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler, the elusive nature of human “truth” is underscored by Auchincloss’s skillful use of multiple narrators, both male and female, no two of whom recall what they have witnessed in quite the same way. Each narrator is fully delineated as a character in his or her own right, self-revealing by choice of words and turns of phrase as well as by selective recollection.
A frequent reader of Proust, Auchincloss in his strongest novels approaches the French author’s remarkable blend of chronicle and art. In preparing The Rector of Justin and The Embezzler, for example, Auchincloss began with lawyerly research, reading thousands of pages of nonfiction dealing, respectively, with the history of prep schools and with the notorious Richard Whitney fraud case of the 1930’s; he then proceeded to transform history into art, discarding or changing the “facts” as he sought to tease out the archetypal meaning behind them. Of The Embezzler, he recalls, “When I was sure I had my crime exactly right, I invented an entirely new criminal and gave him an entirely new family, plus an entirely new motivation.”
A similar approach would characterize most of Auchincloss’s mature fiction; unlike the historian, Auchincloss is concerned less with what happened than with why and how it might have happened. A case in point is The House of the Prophet (1980), Auchincloss’s first and only true roman à clef, loosely but frankly based on the life and career of the columnist and pundit Walter Lippmann; upon learning that a Lippmann biography was in progress, Auchincloss resolved to tell the story in his “own” way, through art, altering certain facts and dates for dramatic effect, speculating upon the thoughts and motivations of “Felix Leitner.”
Among the more remarkable features of Auchincloss’s fictional universe, from the early 1950’s onward, has been his thoughtful, credible portrayal of the changing role of women in American society during the twentieth century. His second and third novels, Sybil and A Law for the Lion, deal with the emergent female consciousness as lawyers’ wives begin to question the inequities of marriage and of the divorce laws then on the books in the state of New York. In some novels, Auchincloss goes back in time to trace the emergence of the feminine consciousness among the economically privileged, showing how certain women deliberately refused to be liberated. However, in others, he reveals his sympathy with women who refuse to adopt stereotypical behavior. The heroines of The Lady of Situations (1990) and Her Infinite Variety (2001) remain very much their own persons, and in the end, both of them attain success in a male-dominated world, though in the process they have to become as ruthless as the men whose power they challenge.
Perhaps the most frequent criticism leveled against Auchincloss is that he writes exclusively about New York, and about New Yorkers of a certain social class. On reflection, however, such criticism tends to be shortsighted: For good or for ill, New York, even more than Washington, D.C., is where major decisions are made, often by people very like those of whom Auchincloss writes. Moreover, relatively few of his main characters are “natives.” Most commonly, the Auchincloss protagonist has migrated to New York from New England or the Middle Atlantic region in search of fame and fortune, much as a provincial European would settle in Paris or London. Auchincloss’s New York is, in fact, a microcosm of American civilization, at once rebellious against and nostalgic for its perceived European origins. Auchincloss’s greatest achievement as a novelist would seem to be his credible, literate, and resonant portrayal of life behind the scenes of political and economic power.
The House of Five Talents
First published: 1960
Type of work: Novel
Writing in 1948, a rich, aging spinster recalls her life and times.
The House of Five Talents, announcing the full range of Auchincloss’s skill as novelist and chronicler, is narrated in the first-person voice by Miss Augusta Millinder, known familiarly as Gussie, a seventy-five-year-old heiress who, after the social upheavals of two world wars and a depression, sees fit to record her memoirs for posterity. Ostensibly penned during 1948, Gussie’s testimony ranges from the gaslight era of her adolescence to the narrative present, providing an insider’s view of society against the backdrop of history.
Unmarried by choice, having broken her engagement to a promising young architect for reasons best known to herself, Gussie Millinder emerges early in life as a keen observer and occasional meddler, using her spinsterhood as a vantage point from which to analyze and criticize the marital and parental misadventures of her relatives and friends. Gussie’s meddling, however well-intentioned, fails more often than it succeeds, allowing the unseen Auchincloss to inject elements of plot into an otherwise linear narrative.
In her twenties, for example, Gussie tries, unsuccessfully, to thwart her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent remarriage to an actress. Later, in an incident presaging the plot of The Embezzler, she will offer to save a cousin’s husband from bankruptcy and prison by covering his embezzlement with her own funds, on condition that the man retire permanently from business. Unhappy in retirement, the man pleads with Gussie to release him from his vow and soon reverts to his old ways, eventually disappearing abroad as a fugitive from justice. With the approach of old age, Gussie again intervenes to force a marriage between her scapegrace nephew Oswald, a Communist sympathizer, and the showgirl who is carrying his unborn child; the marriage predictably fails, leaving Gussie with little choice but to adopt the child herself.
Set mainly in New York City, with occasional excursions to such fashionable turn-of-the-century “watering places” as Newport and Bar Harbor, The House of Five Talents credibly evokes both tradition and transition as Gussie meets the twentieth century, already “liberated” by her spinster status from constraints that still bind her married female relatives. As she approaches forty, for example, Gussie supplements her self-education with college courses and teaches in a girls’ school, although she does not need the money. With the approach of World War I, she volunteers for auxiliary service in Europe, proceeding upon her return to develop a career of active, if selective, community service, giving as freely of her time as of her money.
Notable for Auchincloss’s effective exploitation of first-person narration, The House of Five Talents also presents his first full-scale portrait of American society, showing how the would-be aristocracy defines itself, whether in its choice of sports and resorts or in the marriage of such rich Americans as Gussie’s sister Cora to impoverished but titled Europeans. Gussie Millinder herself, meanwhile, remains among Auehincloss’s most memorable and entertaining characters.
Portrait in Brownstone
First published: 1962
Type of work: Novel
A broker’s wife discovers her true strengths as she transforms herself from matron into matriarch.
Combining the narrative approach of The House of Five Talents with the general subject matter of his earlier Wall Street novels, Auchincloss in Portrait in Brownstone explores both office politics and the emergent female consciousness through the eyes of one Ida Trask Hartley, who, around the age of sixty, begins at last to perceive the full extent of her experience and talents. Bookish and somewhat retiring, Ida has spent most of her life in the shadow of her hard-driving husband, Derrick, a minister’s son from New England, and her glamorous cousin Geraldine Denison, Derrick’s sometime mistress. Indeed, it is Geraldine’s suicide, following a long slide into alcoholism and depression, that begins the process of Ida’s awakening and liberation, a process that forms the true plot of the novel.
Like Gussie Millinder in The House of Five Talents, Ida Hartley is a keen observer and gifted storyteller. In search of self-discovery, she revisits her past, recalling her mother’s close-knit extended family, the Denisons, and her uncle Linnaeus Tremain, a brilliant, perceptive financier. Although all the male Denisons are gainfully employed and most have been to college, it is Tremain’s sustained generosity that enables them all to live in relative comfort and that allows Ida to attend college, the first woman in her family to do so.
Enrolled at Barnard College and interested in liberal politics, Ida soon finds herself debating political issues with Derrick Hartley, a Harvard graduate who, having made a small fortune with a Boston brokerage firm, has moved to New York with hopes of working for Linnaeus Tremain. Little deterred by Tremain’s insistence that no vacancy exists in his firm, Derrick quite literally “dines out” on his accumulated savings while waiting for the older man to change his mind. It is at those dinners that Derrick makes the acquaintance both of Ida Trask, who will fall in love with him, and of Ida’s mother, who will persuade her brother-in-law to give Derrick a job. As Tremain in time learns, much to his dismay, he has at last met his match.
Ida asks her cousin and perpetual rival Geraldine to entertain Derrick during a weekend in 1912 when she needs to be out of town. Derrick, studious and reserved, soon loses his heart and head to the flirtatious, fickle Geraldine, who does not return his love. In time, Ida wins Derrick back and marries him. A daughter and then a son are soon born to the Hartleys, whose marriage proceeds smoothly and without major incident until 1935, when Geraldine, recently widowed, entices Derrick into an affair with divorce and remarriage in mind. Derrick, meanwhile, has prospered in his work, somewhat at the expense of his chosen mentor Tremain. Having in effect forced Tremain’s retirement, he goes so far as to have the older man’s name removed from the firm’s corporate name after his death, a gesture which deeply offends Ida.
Following Geraldine’s death early in 1950, Ida at last takes stock of her life, noticing that her daughter Dorcas and Dorcas’s second husband are about to do to Derrick what Derrick once did to “Uncle Linn.” At the same time, she perceives that her son Hugo, still unmarried as he approaches forty, has embarked on a potentially dangerous affair with a divorce-bound married woman. Mustering all the accumulated resources of her intelligence, education, and experience, Ida moves quickly to intervene in both cases, assuming control of Derrick’s firm after he suffers a sudden, provoked heart attack and buying for Hugo a sufficient share of stock in the company for which he works that he will be able to name himself president, thus ensuring his eligibility for marriage to a much younger distant cousin and removing the married woman from his life.
To be sure, Ida’s sudden assertiveness stops somewhat short of “liberation” as perceived by later generations. Still, Auchincloss, through Ida, has successfully portrayed a moment of transition in American social history, when women of his mother’s generation, at least the lucky ones, discovered at last the courage of their convictions.
Significantly, Ida is the only character in Portrait in Brownstone allowed to speak for herself; the sections of the novel devoted to Derrick and their children are narrated in an affectless third-person style reminiscent of the author’s Wall Street novels, providing counterpoint as Ida seeks within herself the resources needed to assume the control for which she has been well trained.
The Rector of Justin
First published: 1964
Type of work: Novel
The New England prep school, a uniquely American institution formed on British models, is here caught and portrayed in all its ambiguity.
The Rector of Justin continues Auchincloss’s analytical portrayal of American society and its institutions, here focusing upon the type of boys’ boarding school that he himself attended and that has furnished the United States with much of its business and political leadership since the end of the nineteenth century. Told from a number of viewpoints, the tale of Justin Martyr Academy and its founder, the title character Francis Prescott, remains tantalizingly incomplete even at the end, showing the basic anomaly of an institution that seeks to foster “democratic” ideals while charging high fees and adhering to a selective admissions policy.
The unifying narrator of The Rector of Justin is one Brian Aspinwall; too frail of health to join his fellow Americans in preparing to fight the Nazis, he arrives to teach at Justin Martyr Academy during the eightieth year of the legendary founder’s life. At first merely keeping a diary of his impressions and encounters, as of his own possible vocation to the Episcopal priesthood, Brian finds himself drawn to the old man by what he perceives as the latter’s unwavering moral courage. In time he goes on to project a full-scale biography of Prescott, assembling spoken and written testimony from a variety of witnesses. Proceeding with his chosen task, Brian discovers that others before him have tried, and failed, to produce a Prescott biography. Brian too will fail, for want of life experience and objectivity.
The book, as it stands, intersperses Brian’s reflections with his steadily increasing, yet maddeningly inconclusive, documentation. Notably absent from the growing pile of written testimony is any word from Prescott himself; throughout his long life and career the old man has written little or nothing, preferring instead to be remembered by his actions. Yet it is precisely those actions, variously remembered and interpreted, that somehow fail to “add up,” leaving even the elderly Prescott himself with the impression that he has somehow failed in his self-appointed mission.
Born during 1860 in New England, Prescott lost his father to the Civil War and his mother to disease while he was still a child, spending most of his youth in an early prototype of the type of school that would become his “dream.” Completing his education at the University of Oxford, Prescott carefully studied the British “public schools” as potential models for his own academy, somehow missing the basic contradiction between British aristocratic ideals and the already ingrained democratic ideals of his New England boyhood. While at Oxford, moreover, Prescott momentarily lost interest in the religious studies that he deemed necessary for the founder/headmaster of an Episcopal school, instead reading deeply in the Greek and Latin classics.
Diverted from his dream, Prescott returned to the United States in 1881, embarking on a brilliant career with the New York Central railroad and planning marriage to a vivacious young woman from California, only to abandon both in great haste after a mysterious dream or vision during which his earlier ambition returned with a vengeance. Curiously, Prescott remains somewhat uninterested in theology, pursuing the prescribed course of study only to acquire what he sees as the teaching credential needed for his chosen task. While at Harvard, Prescott also met Harriet Winslow, an intellectually inclined “proper Bostonian” to whom he would remain married until her death nearly sixty years later. His wife and three daughters, however, would assume a distinctly secondary importance in his life, overshadowed by the creation—and preservation—of the “perfect” boys’ preparatory school.
As Brian Aspinwall proceeds with his research, it becomes increasingly clear—to the reader, if not to Brian himself—that Prescott’s single-minded perfectionism, ironically founded on imperfect principles, has left many human casualties in its wake, including family, friends, and former students. The school’s alumni and trustees, represented in the novel mainly by the Wall Street lawyer David Griscam, continue to draw inspiration from Prescott’s dream even as they perceive its limitations, going so far as to lie to Prescott about the school’s business affairs in order to keep the shared dream intact. In his eighties, Prescott at last begins to perceive some of the flaws in his ideal, lamenting the fact that his students and alumni are, in fact, aristocrats of the sort that he instinctively distrusts and dislikes. Still, he crucially fails to acknowledge, let alone examine, his own role in perpetuating those institutions that he professes to hold in contempt.
Thanks to the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints presented, The Rector of Justin emerges as both a readable, intriguing novel and a document of social history elevated to the dimension of myth. Although suspected of using his own alma mater, Groton, and its founder, Endicott Peabody, as his models, Auchincloss in fact cast his net considerably wider, studying the history of preparatory schools in general before concocting his own archetype, a school whose ingrained contradictions, embodied in the heart and soul of its founder, are all too plainly evident. For all of its implied criticism, however, The Rector of Justin is neither an exposé nor an indictment of the American prep school; throughout the narrative, the possible virtues of a prep school education are clearly delineated, showing that Prescott’s vision, however flawed and unrealistic, is not without its merits.
First published: 1966
Type of work: Novel
A notorious fraud case of the 1930’s is recalled during the 1960’s by its perpetrator, his former wife, and her current husband, once his best friend.
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 his own character, refuses, Guy simply cannot understand Rex’s need to succeed on his own. Thereafter, the two men’s differing needs and temperaments continue to strain their friendship, even as their professional relationship grows even closer. Guy’s brokerage firm, soon prosperous, becomes a principal client of Rex’s bank.
During World War I, the two Harvard graduates again find themselves at odds: Guy, among the first to volunteer for combat, is instead assigned to a staff job, presumably because of his skill at meeting people; Rex, late to volunteer because of the pressures of his job, joins the war at the last minute but nevertheless emerges as a true hero. Thereafter, Guy envies Rex the latter’s combat experience, even as Rex remains convinced that Guy could have seen action had he so desired. During the decade to follow, the battle lines between Guy and Rex become even more sharply defined, as their respective approaches to finance come into conflict.
By Guy’s own rueful reckoning, his own decade, the broker’s decade, was that of the 1920’s, an age of deals and speculation; Rex’s decade follows, after the crash of 1929, when a banker’s conservative instincts are needed to save whatever money might be left. A born salesman and trader, Guy is both ill-prepared and temperamentally ill-suited for the retrenchment of the Depression years. Still in good financial shape himself, he moves into the 1930’s at full speed, investing in such then-risky ventures as tranquilizer pills and prefabricated housing. In order to keep his various ventures afloat, he borrows to the limit from a variety of institutions; once that limit is exceeded he becomes, in effect, the embezzler of the title, pledging securities that his firm holds in trust for various family members and for the Glenville Country Club, founded by Guy Prime himself. He intends to put the money back.
One fact upon which The Embezzler’s three narrators seem to agree is that Guy did not embark on the most reckless phase of his trading until after he discovered, or began to suspect, an affair between his wife, Angelica, and Rex Geer during 1934. Guy himself encourages Angelica to interest Rex in horseback riding as therapy for job-related stress. Whatever his suspicions may be, Guy soon begins borrowing heavily from Rex’s firm, and then from Rex himself, to cover unanticipated losses in real estate and mining ventures.
The ultimate confrontation between the two men begins during the spring of 1936, when Guy asks Rex to “cover” some embezzled bonds belonging to the Glenville Country Club; Rex, whose son is by then engaged to Guy’s daughter Evadne, agrees to do so, on condition that Guy liquidate his firm and retire from business, the better to protect trusting, unsuspecting clients. Left with little choice, Guy asks for a “reprieve” of several months to “set his affairs in order,” proceeding instead with even riskier speculations in a desperate, reckless attempt to repair the damage himself and keep his firm in business. Predictably, he fails, and Rex, also predictably, refuses to bail him out; Guy’s firm thus goes into bankruptcy, and Guy himself goes to prison, willingly and almost gleefully—he has not gone down without a fight.
A quarter of a century after the fact, Guy, Rex, and Angelica—whom Rex has married after her divorce from Guy and the subsequent death of Rex’s ailing first wife—have widely differing interpretations of what happened, why, and to whom. Both Guy and Rex feel betrayed by each other, Guy because Rex stole not only his wife but also his good name, Rex because Guy in effect “sold out” the stock market to the government, forcing the imposition of federal controls in place of the gentlemanly code of honor that had previously sufficed on Wall Street.
Angelica Hyde Prime Geer, whose memoir closes the novel, attempts to strike a balance between her husbands, seeing their conflict of wills not in absolute terms but as a clash of idiosyncrasies. She tends to favor Rex’s interpretation of events, having long since concluded that Guy is something of a mythomaniac, an incurable romantic who tends to lose contact with reality. In the end, however, it matters little who may be “right” or “wrong”; Auchincloss, through his skillful use of shifting narrative viewpoints, has illuminated an otherwise puzzling incident in recent American history, showing how hard it is to know exactly where the truth lies.
First published: 1982
Type of work: Novel
A man who prides himself on ethical behavior finds that it is not as easy as he had thought to live a morally upright life.
Watchfires is set in New York during the Civil War period. When the protagonist of the novel, Dexter Fairchild, was sixteen, his father, a prominent Episcopal clergyman, left his wife, his children, and his parish to run off to Italy with a married woman. As a result, Dexter lost his faith, but he replaced it with a strict ethical code. Now a lawyer, Dexter Fairchild considers himself a model of probity and self-control.
As the novel begins, Fairchild, now forty, is deeply troubled. It seems increasingly unlikely that a compromise between the fire-eating Southerners and the fanatical abolitionists will be reached, even to save the Union. The conflict has reached into his own household: Fairchild’s wife, Rosalie, has espoused the cause of the abolitionists, and the two Fairchild boys, Fred and Selby, have taken to debating the issues loudly all over the house.
However, Dexter has a more immediate problem. His cousin, Charles Fairchild, has discovered an amorous note that his wife, Annie, received from Jules Bleeker, a journalist. Since Annie is Rosalie’s younger sister, Dexter considers it his moral obligation to put Bleeker in his place. He has Bleeker fired by the newspaper where he works and ousted from society. Rosalie is furious; her husband, she says, is like a self-ordained priest, a watchman over everyone else’s conduct. Ironically, like his father, Dexter proves unable to practice what he preaches. When Annie throws herself at him, they become involved in a passionate affair, which continues until she dismisses him for being too possessive.
The Civil War ends the political debates in the Fairchild household and gives both Dexter and Rosalie an opportunity to live purposeful lives. Dexter works with his father-in-law to raise money and acquire supplies for the troops. Rosalie nurses wounded soldiers until Dexter becomes ill from overwork, and then she cares for him. They do become closer. However, Rosalie needs another cause, and she finds it in women’s rights. Again, Dexter is appalled, but by now the two of them have learned to ignore their basic incompatibility, which in their youth was not considered an impediment to marriage.
After the war, Fred seeks his fortune by becoming involved with the speculators around Cornelius Vanderbilt. When Selby is killed in a train wreck that was the direct result of their machinations, Fred is devastated. However, he recovers, marries a Vanderbilt, and succeeds in the field of law. The book ends in 1895 with Dexter Fairchild at the graves of his wife and his son Selby, who, he says, are still trying to keep him from making a fool of himself.
In Watchfires, Auchincloss tells the story of a past era through the eyes of two well-meaning but very different people who lived through it. As the story progresses, Dexter keeps trying to reason out what is right and then to do it, only to find himself in the wrong. By contrast, Rosalie lets her heart lead her but too often is disappointed in the people who share her beliefs. Throughout the book, Auchincloss never lets his readers forget that power and wealth can accomplish anything. During the war, there is some honest patriotism. Before the war, however, men such as Rosalie’s powerful father and his friends own everyone around them, and after it the gospel of greed engulfs the nation.
Diary of a Yuppie
First published: 1986
Type of work: Novel
In his journal, a lawyer justifies every unfeeling and unscrupulous act that marked his road to success.
Diary of a Yuppie is a candid first-person account of a crucial period in a young lawyer’s life. The book is presented as a private journal but is unlike most such works in that it is surprisingly free of confessions of guilt or even expressions of regret. To Robert Service, the title character, the end always justifies the means.
The novel begins in 1979. At thirty-two, Service is happily married to Alice, a beautiful, intelligent woman whom he met at Columbia University, and they have two daughters. Service specializes in corporate takeovers, and he has done so well that at the beginning of the next year, he expects to be made a partner in his firm. With this achievement, he will have outdone his father, who never became a partner but settled instead for an inferior position. The respect that Service might otherwise have bestowed on his real father has gone to Branders Blakelock, a highly respected member of the firm and the young man’s mentor and sponsor.
However, from Service’s vantage point, Blakelock no longer deserves his respect or even his loyalty when, by criticizing the younger man’s tactics, he proves to have what Service considers nineteenth century values. To Service, that criticism justifies his conspiring with Glenn Deane, another unscrupulous lawyer, and Peter Stubbs, a gifted and wealthy young man, to steal the most capable young men from their present firm and start their own. After Blakelock informs her as to what Service has done, Alice is so appalled that she moves out. Service cannot understand why she disapproves of his actions. He misses her, however, and is determined to do anything to get her back.
Six months later, the new firm has seventeen partners and thirty-nine associates. However, Service’s conspirator Deane has gathered a little court around him that threatens Service’s power. Again, Service strikes, but by expelling Deane from the firm, he infuriates Alice, who had been about to return to her husband.
Although Service had always prided himself on his fidelity, he now becomes involved with another woman, Sylvia Sands, a professional fund-raiser, who proves to be both as clever and as unscrupulous as Service. At first, Service is dazzled by the circles in which she moves, but before long, he realizes that she is controlling both his social life and his professional commitments. When she tries to force him to divorce Alice and marry her, he breaks off the affair. Alice takes Service back, just as he is, and he resolves to act more like the man Alice wants him to be. When she turns out to be pregnant, he is ecstatic, for to him that is proof that the gods are truly on his side.
Throughout the novel, Service justifies every unethical act on the grounds that, because every human being is selfish and greedy, he is merely acting in self-defense. It is significant, then, that in the end he promises to “act” differently, not to “be” different. Moreover, since he will no longer be keeping a journal, he will not even have to contemplate what he truly is. Clearly, Auchincloss means Robert Service to represent modern man at his worst: a creature who glories in his freedom from all constraints, a creature without a soul.
The Lady of Situations
First published: 1990
Type of work: Novel
Battling financial obstacles, social stereotypes, malice, and scandal, a determined and sometimes ruthless young woman makes her way to success.
By entitling his book The Lady of Situations, Auchincloss points to the fact that his heroine, Natica Chauncey, attains success by treating every difficult situation not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Her independent spirit and her clear-sightedness qualify Natica for her role as a heroine. However, her life story suggests that a woman such as Natica will often sacrifice others in order to fulfill her own potential.
The Lady of Situations is for the most part narrated by an omniscient author. However, the novel is framed by first-person narratives entitled “Ruth’s Memoir,” in which Natica’s aunt, Ruth Felton, reports her observations, thus functioning much like a Greek chorus. A similar passage appears at three other points in the book.
The novel begins in the 1960’s, with Ruth, now in her seventies, recalling the time three decades before when Natica’s difficulties began. Natica’s bankrupt father spends his time perfecting his fly-fishing technique; her mother refuses to admit that the Chauncey name no longer means anything. She is too obtuse to let Ruth pay Natica’s way through a prestigious private school, where she could make the friendships that would serve her in later life.
The primary narrator now takes up Natica’s story. After graduating from Barnard College, Natica meets and marries Thomas Barnes, an assistant rector at Averhill School. Unlike her naïve husband, Natica sees Averhill as it is, a hotbed of hypocrisy and malice. However, after autocratic headmaster Reverend Rufus Lockwood makes Natica his secretary, she enjoys feeling powerful and is almost happy. Unfortunately, when Lockwood’s wife realizes that Natica has some influence over him, he is forced to fire her.
By now, Natica is so bored with her husband and the school that she embarks upon an affair with a new teacher, the wealthy, charming Stephen Hill. After she becomes pregnant, Hill insists on her divorcing Barnes and marrying him. Ever the pragmatist, Natica agrees. Though he is the innocent party, Barnes is dismissed from Averhill, becomes a military chaplain, and is later killed in wartime.
Meanwhile, Natica has miscarried. She is somewhat relieved, however, because she feared that the child would resemble Barnes, who was probably his father. Back in the United States, Hill’s mother, who adores Natica, arranges for her to be accepted by society. However, Hill proves to be lazy and moody. Realizing that he resents her success in business, Natica quits her job and persuades Hill’s mother to buy them a bookstore. When he learns from Barnes that he was not the father of the child Natica lost, Hill shoots himself.
Again, Natica makes the best of things. She persuades Hill’s mother to pay her way through law school and then joins a law firm, where she finally meets a man she can both love and respect. When she appears in the final “Memoir,” set in 1966, Natica is happily married and has three children, as well as a flourishing law practice.
Ruth points out, however, that Natica has made her way to success by manipulating some people and destroying others, notably two husbands. Natica just laughs, but Ruth muses that she would rather be an old maid than have Natica’s memories. Ruth fulfills the role of the Greek chorus, raising the moral questions that Natica does not choose to ask.