Louis Auchincloss Short Fiction Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3633
A keen and informed observer of American manners and morals, Louis Auchincloss established himself rather early in his career as the peer, if not the superior, of such older social chroniclers as John P. Marquand and John O’Hara, with a particular insider’s gift for exposing the well-concealed inner workings of society and politics. Writing in a clear, spare, even classical prose style, Auchincloss credibly “demystifies” for his readers the behavior of those in positions of privilege and power, persons whose actions and decisions help to make the rules by which all Americans should live.
A willing and grateful heir to the “novel of manners” tradition exemplified in the United States by Henry James and perpetuated by Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss is first and foremost a writer of “chronicles,” long or short, recording observations either topical or historical; well versed in the rules and patterns of Western civilization, Auchincloss tends to perceive historical value even in the topical, giving to his observations a stamp of scholarly authority often lacking in the work of other would-be social satirists. During the 1940’s, at the start of his career, Auchincloss tended to deal with the historical present, in the aftermath of World War II; later, in fiction both long and short, Auchincloss focused primarily on the 1930’s, the period of his adolescence and young manhood, much as O’Hara in middle age returned to his own adolescent years, the 1920’s, in search of clues to what has happened since that time in American society and politics.
Almost from the start, Auchincloss’s narratives tended to blur the traditional boundaries separating long fiction from short fiction. In most of his collections, the stories are linked by theme and/or recurrent characters, and in certain volumes the tales are told by a single unifying narrator.
The Injustice Collectors
Auchincloss’s earliest short fiction, assembled in The Injustice Collectors in 1950 after being published separately in periodicals such as Harper’s and The New Yorker, is unified by a theme suggested in the title, a nagging suspicion that most people, even—and in the present case, especially—those born to privilege are frequently the authors of their own misfortunes. In his preface to the volume, Auchincloss relates that he has borrowed the title from a popular book by the psychiatrist Edmund Bergler, modifying its meaning to suit his own aspirations as a writer of short stories. A psychiatrist or even a novelist, he explains, may well probe the causes of the behavior described, while writers of short fiction must content themselves with recording the symptoms. Indeed, the evolution of Auchincloss’s approach to narrative over the next four decades would frequently test and even cross the boundaries between long and short fiction, with assembled symptoms leading to a rather conclusive diagnosis. In his first volume of stories, however, Auchincloss had yet to unravel the tangled threads implicit in his chosen subject matter, let alone to follow them.
On balance, The Injustice Collectors is a rather traditional collection of stories in the manner of James or Wharton, with occasional flashes of originality and even brilliance. One of the tales, “Maud,” clearly adumbrates the type of restless, thoughtful heroine that would populate Auchincloss’s early novels, a woman whose expectations of life differ sharply from those of her parents. Feeling herself “imprisoned” in her attorney father’s household, Maud Spreddon refuses to accept even her own potential capacity for love; engaged to marry her father’s junior partner, Halsted Nicholas, who admires her rebellious streak and who has, in fact, waited for her to grow to marriageable age, Maud breaks the engagement abruptly, presumably doubting her fitness for marriage. Several years later, the two meet during World War II in London, where Maud is serving with the Red Cross and Halsted with the Army Air Corps. After a rather stormy reconciliation, Maud accepts Halsted’s second proposal; when Halsted’s plane is shot down over France two days later, a week before the Normandy invasion, Maud, unwilling to be pitied, resolves to keep the reconciliation a secret for life.
In “Fall of a Sparrow,” Auchincloss points the way toward a theme that will loom large in his second collection: the social dynamics between reserve officers and careerists during wartime. Narrated by an officer known only as Ted, “Fall of a Sparrow” shows the shortcomings and eventual disgrace of Victor Harden, Ted’s prep-school classmate whose outward success in school and service hides a deep-seated insecurity that proves in time to be his undoing. In The Romantic Egoists, Auchincloss will go even further in his delineation of military rivalries and factions, often raising serious questions in the reader’s mind as to how the United States and its allies managed to win the war.
The Romantic Egoists
Unified by the narration of Peter Westcott, whose legal and naval experiences run roughly parallel to those of the author, The Romantic Egoists shows Auchincloss hitting his stride as a master of prose fiction, as do the novels published around the same time. “Loyalty Up and Loyalty Down,” the fictional account of an incident later recalled in A Writer’s Capital, pits Westcott and his fellow reservists against Harry Ellis, a career officer risen from the ranks, who happens to serve as their skipper. Although perhaps traditional as well as predictable, the tension between the college graduates and their commanding officer is here presented from a somewhat different perspective. What the reservists resent most deeply about their skipper is his apparent willingness to let the rest of the Navy sink, if need be, in order to save his own ship; repeatedly, he will turn down authorized requests from other vessels for food and supplies, and when obliged to rescue surviving marines from a battle station he treats them with contempt, calling them names as he parades before them in a Chinese dressing grown. Westcott, willing but finally unable to serve as peacemaker, eventually allows Ellis to hang himself, observing the skipper’s orders to the letter while preserving his own integrity; Westcott watches with combined amusement and consternation as the vessel, lead ship in a convoy, runs over a buoy, followed by all the ships in its wake. Only later will Westcott reflect on the possible danger to the other ships and on the depths to which the running feud with Ellis has finally reduced him.
Written in a similar vein, “Wally” contrasts the ambitions of the title character, one Ensign Wallingford, with those of Lieutenant Sherwood Lane, an Ivy Leaguer and “aristocrat” who, after more than a year of shuffling papers in the Canal Zone, feels that his background and training more than qualify him for a desk job in Washington, D.C. Of all the officers stationed in the Canal Zone and seeking a transfer, only Wallingford and Lane actively seek further shore duty; the others, motivated either by patriotism or by the spirit of adventure, expect to see action at sea. Wallingford, a native of Omaha and a graduate of the hotel school at Cornell University, wants nothing more or less than to serve as he has been trained, managing a hotel for the Navy somewhere in the United States. Whenever possible, Sherwood Lane will block Wally’s repeated requests for a transfer, uneasily seeing in the midwesterner’s “ridiculous” ambitions a discomfiting and disquieting reflection of his own. In the end, with Westcott’s covert assistance, Wally will finish out the war in Florida, helping to run a hotel for the navy with one of his former Cornell professors as his commanding officer; Sherwood Lane, surpassing either his or Westcott’s wildest speculations, will have ended the war as a surviving hero, having soon tired of the Washington job and served with high distinction as a line officer. “None of us, least of all Sherwood,” concludes Westcott ruefully, “could really stand to live for any length of time with that part of ourselves we recognized in Wally.”
“The Great World and Timothy Colt,” the longest and arguably the strongest of the tales collected in The Romantic Egoists, began the author’s detailed exploration of his own working environment as a lawyer on Wall Street and is as painstaking as his examination of social and professional dynamics in the navy. A prototypical “workaholic” married to a former law-school classmate at Columbia University, Timothy Colt personifies the rising postwar “meritocracy,” in whom ambition and hard work might well compensate for perceived disadvantages of “background.” Seen from the perspective of his slightly younger associate Peter Westcott, “Timmy” Colt is hard-driving and meticulous, yet not without his personable side—at least at first. If Timmy works best under pressure, however, the pressure soon begins to exact its toll, leaving him particularly vulnerable to the gibes and taunts of Sam Liendecker, a rich, influential client to whose case Timmy and Westcott have been assigned by the managing partner. As Flora Colt will explain to Westcott, Liendecker instinctively senses Timmy’s fundamental weakness—a nearly total lack of self-esteem that keeps him striving even harder to please those in need of his services. In time, Timmy, pushed beyond his limits, will insult the aging Liendecker in public, a breach of etiquette for which both his wife and his superiors expect him to apologize. Thus goaded, Timmy in fact will apologize—with Westcott as witness—and it is at that point that Timothy Colt “sells out,” in his own mind, to forces that he feels have conspired against him. Thereafter, he quite deliberately and consciously behaves as the antithesis of his former self, incidentally blaming his uncomprehending wife, as well as himself, for the direction that his career has taken. Timmy thus emerges as the ultimate “Romantic Egoist”—not an “egotist” but a self-absorbed dreamer for whom even the best of life will prove a disappointment.
As Auchincloss noted in his preface to the earlier collection, writers of short stories must content themselves with “symptoms.” In time, however, the author of “The Great World and Timothy Colt” saw fit to broaden and deepen his analysis of Timmy with a full-fledged novel published under the same title in 1956. In the novel, several of the names are changed and some of the characters are changed or others added, but the central argument of the narrative remains quite the same as the quixotic Timmy Colt, who, risking disbarment, willingly testifies in court to an offense that he did not, in fact, commit—except in his own mind.
Before long, Auchincloss would all but abandon short fiction for the better part of a decade, devoting his increasingly prodigious energies to “Wall Street” novels in the vein of The Great World and Timothy Colt. By the time his next collection appeared in 1963, Auchincloss would in turn have deserted the Wall Street novels in favor of the historically dimensional social chronicles, beginning with The House of Five Talents.
Powers of Attorney
Arguably, Auchincloss by the early 1960’s had “relegated” his Wall Street material to the shorter fictional form; the stories collected in Powers of Attorney indeed hark back to the themes and settings of novels written before 1960. The narrator Peter Westcott is gone for good, not to reappear—and then as Dan Ruggles—until Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits, published as late as 1989. In place of a unifying narrator, however, Auchincloss presents a cast of recurrent characters who move throughout the stories, perhaps serving as focal point in one tale and as part of the background in others. Perhaps predictably, the main “character” of Powers of Attorney is a Wall Street law firm whose members often grapple with problems and decisions similar to those that beset Timothy Colt in the short story and later novel bearing his name. “The Deductible Yacht” tells the tale of a hereditary New York “aristocrat,” born to high moral principles, for whom the elevation to partnership at Tower, Tilney and Webb is inextricably linked to his professional relationship with the Armenian-born Inka Dahduh, a self-made tycoon who makes no secret of having the law “shaved” in his favor; in the end, Bayard Kip will accept both partnership and client as the price for maintaining his wife and family in the style toward which his background has pointed him.
“The Single Reader,” among the more Jamesian of the stories in the collection, portrays the “secret life” of Morris Madison, the firm’s senior tax specialist. Deserted early in life by an unfaithful spouse, Madison has devoted decades of his free time to a diary that he imagines as the modern-day equivalent of writer Saint-Simon’s Mémoires du duc de Saint-Simon: Ou, L’Observateur véridique sur le règne de Louis XIV (1788; The Memoirs of the Duke of Saint Simon on the Reign of Louis XIV, 1857); when at last he contemplates remarriage to an eligible widow, Madison makes the mistake of asking the lady to read his multivolume journal, in which she no doubt correctly recognizes an indomitable rival for the aging lawyer’s love.
Tales of Manhattan
Tales of Manhattan, published in 1967 with a sequel, Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan, to follow twenty years later, is somewhat less unified—or novelistic—in its construction than Powers of Attorney; notwithstanding, groups of stories are internally linked, more or less demanding that they be read in sequence within each section. The opening sequence, “Memories of an Auctioneer,” is narrated by Roger Jordan, an art dealer with the instincts of a sleuth, a keen eye for beauty, and a sharp nose for sniffing out fraud in life as in art. Persuaded that possessions, especially collections, offer psychological clues about their owners, Jordan manages to unearth more than a few juicy secrets; his observations, however, are not limited to artifacts. In “The Question of the Existence of Waring Stohl,” Jordan at first suspects the title character, an obnoxious dilettante and would-be novelist, of “sponging off” his and Jordan’s former professor, the eminent literary critic Nathaniel Streebe. Unknown to Jordan, however, Stohl is mortally ill; not long after Stohl’s early death, Streebe will reveal himself as the true parasite of the pair, having encouraged the young man’s literary ambitions in order to write his posthumous biography, published to good reviews under the same title as the Auchincloss story.
Second Chance, published as a collection in 1970, contains some of Auchincloss’s strongest short fiction, particularly “The Prince and the Pauper,” ironically sharing its title with a tale by Mark Twain. “The Prince and the Pauper” in many respects summarizes the entire Auchincloss canon, showing the mobility and true pragmatism that lie beneath the apparent structure of “society.” Balancing the fortunes of the “aristocratic” attorney Brooks Clarkson against those of Benny Galenti, a former office boy and law-school dropout (owing to the pregnancy of Teresa, now his wife) whom Brooks singled out for special treatment and in time elevated to office manager with appropriate raises in pay, Auchincloss portrays with enviable skill the social dynamics at work in American society. Benny, the son of immigrants, feels that he can never shake off his debt to Brooks, who provided him not only with a decent salary but also with investment advice and, on occasion, a loan with which that advice might be followed. At the time of the story, Brooks Clarkson has lost his position with the law firm, continuing a long slide into alcoholism and general disrepair that he seems to have wished upon himself, together with his wife Fanny; the implication is that Brooks has felt somehow undeserving of, and threatened by, his elevated status both professional and social, finding in the Galentis a vitality and drive somehow lacking in himself and Fanny. The story ends with Benny somewhat reluctantly accepting for the sake of his family a membership in the Glenville Club, from which the Clarksons have long since been expelled for drunken misbehavior and nonpayment of dues. Society, implies Auchincloss, will continue to make and to break its own rules.
The Partners, published in 1974, differs little in form or concept from the earlier Powers of Attorney. Once again, the “life” described is that of a Wall Street law firm in transition. Perhaps the strongest story in the collection is “The Novelist of Manners,” in which a best-selling, scandal-mongering novelist is successfully defended against a libel charge by Leslie Carter, a junior partner in the firm, who is stationed in Paris to handle European business. As the case proceeds, Carter, who harbors some literary aspirations of his own, persuades the middle-aged Dana Clyde to try his hand at a “serious” novel, taking a respite from the “good life” of parties and sports cars in order to do so. Clyde does as he is told, but when the novel finally appears it is little different from what he has produced before. Carter, meanwhile, is stunned to find himself portrayed in the novel as a character who commits suicide at the end, having discovered his own importance on his honeymoon with the novel’s heroine. As Clyde’s wife Xenia explains to Carter, Clyde can never forgive Carter for pushing him beyond his limits and has taken his revenge. Reminiscent of the author’s own conclusions after leaving from the law in favor of his writing, the destiny of Clyde and Carter also allows Auchincloss to make his own wry comments on the fate of the “novel of manners,” of which he may well be the last traditional, nonsensational practitioner.
Fellow Passengers, subtitled A Novel in Portraits, represents one of Auchincloss’s more intriguing experiments in blending long and short fiction. Unlike the vignettes in The Book Class, the “portraits” presented here can be read profitably as individual stories, each evoking memorable characters. For the first time since The Romantic Egoists, all the tales are told by a semiautobiographical narrator, in the present case a gracefully aging lawyer known as Dan Ruggles. Like Peter Westcott in the earlier collections, Ruggles tends to stand aside from the action that he recalls, revealing relatively little of himself save for his reactions. If anything, the details of Ruggles’s life are drawn even closer to Auchincloss’s own than those of Westcott; a case in point, “Leonard Armster” recounts in barely fictionalized form the short, troubled, but somehow exuberant life of the author’s friend Jack Woods, recalled in A Writer’s Capital as a major influence on Auchincloss’s aspirations and development as a writer. One cannot help but suspect that the other portraits are drawn equally true to life now that their models are dead, yet in each case Auchincloss moves away from illustration or photography toward archetype and art, portraying the characters against the background of their time, usually but not invariably the 1930’s.
The Atonement, and Other Stories
Auchincloss’s attention to short fiction did not stop with publication of The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss in 1994. The Atonement, and Other Stories, issued on Auchincloss’s eightieth birthday, presents twelve new selections. It portrays characters and situations very similar to those in earlier works. These later stories display no major innovations in theme or technique, but they reveal no diminishing of Auchincloss’s narrative powers. As the title suggests, a persistent theme in this collection is the attempt to make amends for past misconduct.
The title story, described by one reviewer as a miniature Bonfire of the Vanities (alluding to the 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe), portrays Sandy Tremain, a wealthy Wall Street investment banker whose partner is arrested for illegal insider trading. Equally guilty but able to elude prosecution, Sandy consults his father, a retired teacher who has devoted his entire life to the prep school where he was first a student and then a beloved master. Sandy considers confession, divorce, and solitary exile to a foreign country as a possible response to his dilemma. His father, however, describes such a course as a “bath of self-pity” and affirms that Sandy’s real and more difficult obligation is to stand with his wife and family.
In “The Hidden Muse” Auchincloss develops a character much like himself and dramatizes once more the tug of war between law and literature. The protagonist, David Hallowell, is a young World War II veteran and promising associate at a Wall Street law firm. In this case the misdeed that demands atonement is a sin against himself. David’s lawyer father died prematurely, and his mother desperately wants her only son to achieve glory in the same profession. Throughout his school years David indulges his talent for writing fiction, but, in acceding to his mother’s demands, he later abandons his secret muse. When his friend and mentor at the law firm rises to a full partnership, David has an epiphany. He realizes that his major concern is not what the firm can do for him, but what he can do with it. He resolves to resign his position and ends the story with plans for transforming his coworkers into characters in a novel.
In “The Last Great Divorce” Clarinda Eberling presents a first-person apology for her life. On the occasion of her daughter’s divorce in 1961, Clarinda looks back at the very public breakup of her own marriage in 1938. Joe Eliot and Howard Eberling were best friends and partners in a law firm. Clarinda married Joe but loved the more assertive Howard. After sixteen years with Joe, she engineers an affair with Howard that ultimately terminates two marriages, a long friendship, and a business partnership. To Clarinda’s dismay, however, Howard attempts “a kind of atonement” by retiring from public life and becoming an academic. Clarinda accepts her exile but can never completely atone for the pain she has inflicted on her two lovers and her drug-abusing son.