Auchincloss, Louis 1917-
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, literary critic and lawyer.
Closely associated with the literary and social traditions of old New York, Auchincloss is widely regarded as the heir to novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton. His short stories and novels depict in ironic detail the moral and ethical implications of the actions of Wall Street lawyers and executives at work and at play; as a lawyer and member of a prominent family himself, he knows his subject intimately. Credited with furthering the tradition of the novel of manners in contemporary American fiction, Auchincloss is also the author of respected literary criticism both on American writers and William Shakespeare.
Auchincloss was born in Lawrence, New York, and raised in Manhattan and on Long Island. His father, a lawyer, and his mother, whose literary tendencies he inherited, were of upper crust New York society, which allowed him to observe firsthand the people whose ways would find their way into his fiction. He attended prep school at Groton, a world that provided the basis for his novel The Rector of Justin, published many years later in 1964, and Yale University, where he wrote his first novel. Failing to interest a publisher in his book, he left Yale abruptly and enrolled at the University of Virginia Law School, where he wrote for the law review. In 1941, he joined Sullivan and Cromwell, a well-connected Wall Street firm that he left twice, once to serve in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence and gunnery officer during World War II, and once to devote several years, from 1951 to 1954, to his writing, during which time he also underwent psychoanalysis. Satisfied that he could both practice law and write fiction, he returned to his trusts and estates practice, this time at Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, and there remained until his retirement in 1986. Auchincloss serves as president of the Museum of New York and is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the New York Bar Association. He was awarded honorary degrees by New York University in 1974, Pace University in 1979, and the University of the South in 1986; he currently teaches at New York University.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Auchincloss's short story collections depict New York blue-blood society during its heyday and twilight. Often focusing on high-powered lawyers and their families and firms, he relates tales about social status, ambition, codes of behavior, and office politics. His first collection, The injustice Collectors, is unified by themes, containing stories of wronged and wrongheadcd individuals. In The Romantic Egoists, a collection containing "The Great World and Timothy Colt," the stories are narrated by one character, Peter Westcott. Powers of Attorney evinces Auchincloss's use of the law firm as a framing device, an approach he employed again ten years later in The Partners, a collection of stories linked by the recurring character Beeky Ehninger, a law firm partner from the old school. Spanning lives of two generations of characters, Second Chance is an experiment with a shortened form of the novel of manners. The Winthrop Covenant and The Book Class are both family sagas, the first depicting the historic Puritan John Winthrop and his descendants (of whom Auchincloss is one), and the latter portraying the strong, literary-minded women of Auchincloss's mother's generation. The Book Class, too, is narrated by a single character, likely modeled on Auchincloss. The novels he wrote during the late 1950s and 1960s, The Rector of Justin, The House of Five Talents, and Portrait in Brownstone, remain, however, some of his most famous and well-regarded works, chronicling, as do the stories, the general decline of the ruling WASP class from their glory days at the turn of the century.
Auchincloss's critics fall mainly into two camps: those who regard the world he describes as too narrow in scope for substantive fiction and those who, like novelist Gore Vidal, believe that much can be learned from an insightful rendering of the elite of Wall Street. Defenders argue that his characters achieve psychological complexity despite the similarity of their problems, and his plot-driven writing is significantly enhanced by his experimentation with a variety of narrative forms. One area of agreement among commentators is that he is a true novelist of manners and may, in fact, have taken this particular literary form to new heights. Auchincloss's career spans five decades, and his staying power is an indication of his popularity.