Sara Henderson Hay (essay date 1950)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769
SOURCE: "Seekers of Hurt," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXIII, No. 41, October 14, 1950, pp. 37-8.
[Hay was an American poet and critic. In the following review, she discusses characterization in The Injustice Collectors and praises Auchincloss for his "excellent portrait studies. "]
The title of The Injustice Collectors derives from Dr. Edmund Bergler's "The Battle of the Conscience," where the phrase is used to describe neurotics who continually and unconsciously construct situations in which they are disappointed or mistreated. In his foreword Mr. Auchincloss says:
I do not purport to use the term in Dr. Bergler's exact medical sense, but in a wider sense to describe people who are looking for injustice, even in a friendly world, because they suffer from a hidden need to feel that this world has wronged them. Turning the idea over, one begins to speculate if punishment and injustice are not always more sought after than seeking, not only for such a reason as self pity, but for other reasons. . . . Is not the neurotic or the maladjusted or the unconventional or even the saint in some fashion the magnet which attracts the very disaster that he may appear to be seeking to avoid?
This is the theme which Mr. Auchincloss engages in his collection of short stories. The injustice collectors who move through these pages are not the underprivileged, the social outcasts, or those loosely termed unfortunates; the milieu of which he writes is that of wealth and leisure and caste; these are nice people, often charming people, stuffy people, expensively provincial people of Anchor Harbor, Maine; of Park Avenue and Long Island and Florida and the Riviera in winter. His stories are the more subtly penetrating because they are not melodramatic nor dismally sordid; the neurotics, the maladjusted, the self-punishers who in these eight excellent portrait studies work out their own destruction and defeat seldom realize that they are either destroyed or defeated. Mr. Auchincloss points no moral, nor suggests any alternatives for his characters. He is not concerned with analyzing the reasons why they behave as they do; he contents himself with symptoms rather than causes.
He is wonderfully adept at showing the conflicts between personalities; at exposing the tyrannies, the dominations, the iron fingers in the velvet gloves of courtesy and social convention and family relationships; he can draw a devastating picture in a few brief lines:
George, without being attractive, or handsome, or witty; being indeed the very reverse of these things, could nonetheless fill me with a sense of confusion and self doubt by the very firmness of his own self righteousness and the very blatancy of his affectation of a friendly homespun tolerance that undermined opposition to his dogma. . . .
The story "Maude" is one of the most effective in the book. "All Maude's life it had seemed to her that she was like a dried-up spring at the edge of which her devoted relatives and friends used to gather hopefully in the expectation that at least a faint trickle would appear. . . ." Maude so resented what she conceived of as the obligation to feel and be like other people that she negated and denied her own honest reactions, finding in her frustration of herself both justification and penance, taking an unconscious satisfaction, even, when her lover's death prevented the emotional release which she desired but did not want to desire. This story is a penetrating and expert portrayal of a neurotic refusal to meet life, of a clinging to a fancied independence which was in fact only a fear of emotional involvement.
In "The Ambassadress" he tells the story of Tony, the dilettante who believes himself a rebel against conventions, which he really clings to, almost convincing himself in his thrashing about to escape the domination of his sister that he actually wants to cut the bond between them, settling at last with a kind of relief into Edith's pattern for his life, an end to which he has been inevitably and irresistibly directing himself.
In these and the six other stories in the collection Mr. Auchincloss explores some of the various paths of defeat which people can unconsciously pursue. His style is fluent, cultivated, urbane. In spite of the inherent tragedy in the situations and the people involved, there is much that is deftly humorous. He has wit and irony; he has also a real understanding of and pity for the seekers of their own hurt.
The Injustice Collectors is the work of an extremely skilful and observant writer. These are not clinical case histories, but with the device of fiction Mr. Auchincloss puts his finger on fact.
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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.
James Stern (essay date 1954)
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SOURCE: A review of The Romantic Egoists, in The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1954, p. 4.
[Stern was an Irish short story writer and critic. Here, he discusses The Romantic Egoists, admiring the book's innovative design and skilled characterization.]
[The Romantic Egoists] reveals Louis Auchincloss as a writer of unusual brilliance. In it he combines a Henry Jamesian knowledge of upper-class New York society with an economy of style, an alertness of eye, an artful disarming modesty reminiscent of the stories of Christopher Isherwood. Mr. Auchincloss, however, does not carry a camera; he sees, or rather sees through people, with the piercing lens of an X-ray. Peter Westcott, the "I" of The Romantic Egoists, is a young man in whose company, one feels, even silence might not be sufficiently discreet, discretion not always the better part of valor.
The Romantic Egoists is neither a novel nor, in the conventional sense, a collection of stories. It is rather a reflection in an octagonal mirror. This ingenious device involves eight dramatic episodes in the lives of eight friends. It enables us to watch the bewildered, conforming yet obstinately loyal schoolboy of "Billy and the Gargoyles" grow up into the 33-year-old novelist who travels to Venice to visit, "partly out of curiosity and partly out of affection," a dried-up recluse of a cousin. He proceeds to write about this cousin a story which Mr. Auchincloss, infected no doubt with his narrator's devastating affection, calls "The Gem-like Flame." This portrait, incidentally, would have had the full approval of the author of "The Beast in the Jungle."
In the second reflection in the mirror, Peter Westcott is seen in the company of a colossally rich contemporary—an episode in which he observes that "royalty and great wealth .. . are on their best behavior in a day of militant democracy." It was the forthright behavior of Arleus Kane in a political situation, and the hypocritical conduct on the part of his spiteful friend Phoenix, that taught Peter Westcott a lesson—a lesson he was to learn again later when he became involved with a confirmed non-combatant in Naval Intelligence during the war. In each case Westcott was to detect in other people's characters traits he recognized in his own and which he realized he could not "stand to live with for any length of time."
As a psychological study of an idealistic young man faced with the problem of immense wealth and of the effect that wealth has on his friends' attitude toward him, "The Fortune of Arleus Kane" would be a masterly piece of writing in any book. In The Romantic Egoists some readers may feel that for sheer characterization and the art of story-telling it is overshadowed by the long episode entitled "The Great World and Timothy Colt."
Here Peter Westcott is shown acting as principal assistant to the most promising clerk in a New York law firm. As a personal friend of the Colts, the narrator describes how the democratic, happily married Timothy loses, by blind ambition, the affection of his colleagues and friends; how, on his acquisition of power, he sheds his democratic principles and all but wrecks his marriage. This may sound like a familiar story, the tale of a man who made a pact with the devil, but I doubt very much if it has been, even could be, more brilliantly, more terrifyingly told.
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The Injustice Collectors 1950
The Romantic Egoists 1954
Powers of Attorney 1963
Tales of Manhattan 1967
Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations 1970
The Partners 1974
The Winthrop Covenant 1976
Narcissa and Other Fables 1983
The Book Class 1984
Skinny Island 1987
False Gods 1992
Three Lives (novellas) 1993
The Collected Stories 1994
Other Major Works
*The Great World and Timothy Colt (novel) 1956
The House of Five Talents (novel) 1960
Reflections of a Jacobite (criticism) 1961
Edith Wharton (criticism) 1962
Portrait in Brownstone (novel) 1962
The Rector of Justin (novel) 1964
The Embezzler (novel) 1966
Motiveless Malignity (criticism) 1969
A Writer's Capital (autobiography) 1974
Reading Henry James (essay) 1975
Diary of a Yuppie (novel) 1986
*Based on a short story of the same name published in The Romantic Egoists.
Granville Hicks (essay date 1963)
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SOURCE: "Fiction Brief of a Law Factory," in Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, No. 33, August 17, 1963, pp. 15-16.
[Hicks was an American literary critic whose famous study The Great Tradition: An Interpretation of American Literature since the Civil War (1933) established him as the foremost advocate of Marxist critical thought in Depression-era America. Throughout the 1930s, he argued for a more socially engaged brand of literature and severely criticized such writers as Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton, whom he believed failed to confront the realities of their society and, instead, took refuge in their own work. After 1939, Hicks sharply denounced communist ideology, which he called a "hopelessly narrow way of judging literature," and in his later years adopted a less ideological posture in critical matters. In the following review, Hicks comments on the authenticity of Auchincloss's stories in Powers of Attorney.]
During the past sixteen years Louis Auchincloss has published twelve books, most of them fiction. This is not a bad record in itself, and it is the more impressive because during this entire period Auchincloss has been a practicing lawyer with a Wall Street firm. Law, according to a statement by his publisher, "is still a nine to five job with him, while fiction writing is a five and after job." He makes good use of his leisure hours.
He also, it is clear, makes good use of his business hours as a source of material. He knows the people who work in downtown New York, how they make their money and how they spend it. He is, indeed, an authority on whatever survives as an upper class in America, and he is one of the few contemporary writers who can be described as a novelist of manners.
In the twelve stories that make up Powers of Attorney Auchincloss has drawn directly on his legal experience. At least one character in every story is connected with the firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. This firm, with seventy lawyers and a staff of over 100, occupies "two great gleaming floors in a new glass cube at 65 Wall Street, with modern paintings and a marble spiral staircase and a reception hall paneled in white and gold." Clitus Tilney, the senior partner, knows that the firm is sometimes described as a "law factory," but he does not mind, for he is convinced of the value of efficiency. He is not only "the finest security lawyer in New York"; he is a remarkably competent administrator. His influence makes itself felt in several of the stories.
Some of the stories have only a slight connection with Tower, Tilney & Webb. In "The Single Reader," for instance, a somewhat Jamesian story about a man who keeps a diary, the protagonist is one of the partners, but he could be anyone. Again, in "The Ambassador from Wall Street," the central figure is an old lady who dominates the social life of a Maine island resort. Her lawyer, who brings the story to a climax, is the Webb of Tower, Tilney & Webb, but there is no necessary connection.
On the other hand, the office is the background of several of the stories, and several hinge on details of legal strategy. In the first story, "Power in Trust," Clitus Tilney is matched against Francis Hyde, a partner whom he has always found barely tolerable and whom he now resolves to force out of the firm. It is by way of an ingenious device that Tilney wins the battle. In "The Power of Appointment" an old-timer, who distrusts himself and has all his life been afraid of making a fatal error, does blunder, but his mistake has no serious consequences, and he realizes that all the time he has been only a figurehead.
Office politics on a lower level is the theme of "The Revenges of Mrs. Abercrombie." A veteran secretary with a privileged position, Mrs. A. is demoted in the last year before her retirement. Learning that she is to be given a present at the Christmas party, she prepares a speech that criticizes by implication the firm and especially Clitus Tilney. The speech, however, becomes a fiasco when she has an attack of hiccups, and what happens thereafter changes her mind about Tilney.
Auchincloss describes his characters sharply. Here, for instance, is Waldron P. Webb, the firm's principal trial lawyer:
Litigation, indeed, was more than Webb's profession; it was his catharsis. He was one of those unhappy men who always wake up angry. He was angered by the sparrows outside his bedroom window in Bronxville, by the migraines of his long-suffering wife, by the socialism in the newspaper, the slowness of the subway, the wait for the elevator, the too casual greeting of the receptionist. It was only the great morning pile on his desk of motions, attachments, injunctions that restored his calm. Sitting back in his red plush armchair under the dark lithograph of an orating Daniel Webster, facing his secretary and two chief law clerks, he would open the day with a rattling dictation of letters and memoranda. Gradually, as he talked and telephoned, as he stamped again and again on the hydra-headed serpent of presumption that daily struck anew at his clients with the forked tongues of legal subterfuge, as he defeated motion with countermotion, question with accusation, commitment with revocation, the earlier irritations of the morning subsided, the Santa Claus began to predominate over the Scrooge, and Waldron P. Webb assumed his midday look of benevolent, if rather formidable cheer.
This is the introduction to a comic, or at any rate ironic, story about divorce. There is much variety in the stories. "The Mavericks" is a complicated story about a casual affair and a great romance. "The Deductible Yacht," on the other hand, relates a simple tale about an income tax lawyer who is stricken by conscience. The last story tells how Clitus Tilney is offered the presidency of his alma mater, and is tempted, for he sees this as a noble way of rounding out his career. He is surprised by his wife's opposition, but in time he comes to recognize her wisdom.
Auchincloss entitled a collection of his essays Reflections of a Jacobite, and it is true that he is something of a conservative, in the sense that he accepts the world as he finds it, believing that, though it has its evils, any change would probably be for the worse. He has the kind of irony that often accompanies a mild conservatism. In the last story, for instance, Tilney is naïvely pleased by the offer of the college presidency until he learns why the offer was made. In "Deductible Yacht," the young income tax lawyer who makes a gallant gesture accomplishes absolutely nothing by it. In "The 'True Story' of Lavinia Todd," Chambers Todd decides that he does not want a divorce after his wife's account of the failure of their marriage has made her famous.
Always one has the feeling that Auchincloss knows what he is talking about. He is careful not to bury his readers under heaps of legal terminology; he never shows off; but he does use his knowledge of the law to good effect. The little world of Tower, Tilney & Webb seems real and alive, and full of what Hardy called "life's little ironies." Auchincloss is perhaps not so good a short story writer as he is a novelist, but he can tell an effective and engaging tale.
Maxwell Geismar (essay date 1963)
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SOURCE: "Life at 65 Wall Street," in The New York Times Book Review, August 18, 1963, p. 4.
[Geismar was one of America's most prominent historical and social critics and the author of a multi-volume history of the American novel from 1860 to 1940. Though he often openly confessed that literature is more than historical documentation, Geismar's own critical method suggests that social patterns and the weight of history, more than any other phenomenon, affect the shape and content of all art. In the following review of Powers of Attorney, Geismar describes Auchincloss as a technician in the style of J. D. Marquand and John O'Hara. The critic also finds that the stories are a "very literate and polished kind of entertainment. "]
Louis Auchincloss has a neat talent for light fiction. A disciple of Edith Wharton and of Henry James, he deals with the remnants—saving or otherwise—of that "Old New York society" which has had to face the debased standards of the modern age. Mr. Auchincloss frankly admires wealth, social position, good breeding. In [Powers of Attorney, a] collection of a dozen tales about the law firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb, the minority groups—the Irish, the Jews, and the rest—still have a hard time of it. But they are given a fair chance, and sometimes one of them makes it.
Makes what? Mr. Auchincloss is also a firm believer in success. To become a partner of this law firm, a disciple of Clitus Tilney himself, is still the fervent desire of all these ambitious young lawyers; even though Mr. Auchincloss, rather like J. P. Marquand and John O'Hara, shows the penalties and perils of success, the moral burdens of the upper classes, the slightly sour taste of social and financial leadership. The remarkable thing is, of course, that within this rather narrow intellectual framework, these stories are still so entertaining and readable. Mr. Auchincloss is a good technician; he believes in the literary world he is creating; and he succeeds, at least momentarily, in casting his spell over us.
Thus Clitus Tilney himself, though he runs a modern and efficient "law factory" at 65 Wall Street, still retains the old-fashioned virtues of the legal profession. When one of his more cynical partners, Francis Hyde, takes on a dubious case of what amounts to financial blackmail, Hyde must go. (Though I must admit I had a certain sympathy for this erring partner, drunken realist that he is.) In the same law firm, the Midwestern Jake Platt, on the verge of becoming a partner, has a nightmare vision that Barry Schlide—the brilliant but obsequious, cheap and uncultivated tax expert—will cut him out. Jake resorts to some very dubious tactics himself before he realizes that Clitus Tilney would never really permit this, and that Barry Schlide is too smart to expect a partnership. Yet Clitus is just as fair to Barry as he is to Jake; he emerges as the stern and righteous, but just and merciful father-image whose legal "sons" can never quite match his own moral fiber.
In a curious way, too, Mr. Auchincloss makes Clitus Tilney an appealing hero who is quite human; that is the real achievement of Powers of Attorney. There is the rather touching tale of Rutherford Tower, the ineffectual and terrified nephew of "the great chancellor." There is the entertaining story of another tax expert in this modern law firm which is so closely involved with big business—Morris Madison, whose secret diary has become more important to him than his work, acquaintances or the woman he loves. The best chronicle here is that of the tough cynical Harry Reilley, who has a dreadful little affair with the pathetic and opportunist Doris Marsh, and then falls in love with Clitus Tilney's own daughter.
Well, that has a happy ending too; things always manage to work out not too unpleasantly in this upper-class orbit of fictional fantasy. But in this story Mr. Auchincloss is moving very close to the "real world" of the law, of business, of the Social Register, of love, of human character and relations which the purpose of his writing is usually to transform. Nevertheless, as a very literate and polished kind of entertainment, I can't quarrel with Powers of Attorney. In fact, I enjoyed it.
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Gelderman, Carol. Louis Auchincloss: A Writer's Life. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993, 287 p.
A good introduction to the man and his works. Gelderman offers a highly detailed chronological and anecdotal account of Auchincloss's life, and refers to his literary output without extensive literary analysis.
Piket, Vincent. Louis Auchincloss: The Growth of a Novelist. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991, 258 p.
Chronological view of Auchincloss's works, with reference to biographical details that shed light on his literary career.
Dahl, Christopher C. Louis Auchincloss. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986, 276 p.
Overview of Auchincloss's works. Dahl analyzes Auchincloss's major fiction primarily through character analysis.
Milne, Gordon. "Louis Auchincloss." In The Sense of Society: A History of the American Novel of Manners, pp. 236-53. London and Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1977.
Offers a comprehensive overview of the novel of manners as adapted by Auchincloss.
Parseli, David B. Louis Auchincloss. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1988, 121 p.
Discusses Auchincloss's works in the context of the American literary tradition and his own awareness of his place within that framework.
Plimpton, George. "Louis Auchincloss: The Art of Fiction." Paris Review 36, No. 132 (Fall 1994): 73-94.
Auchincloss speaks about his own and others' writing, as well as the literary life.
Additional coverage of Auchincloss's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6,29; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4,6,9,18,45; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1980; and Major 20th-century Writers.
Patricia Kane (essay date 1964-1965)
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SOURCE: "Lawyers at the Top: The Fiction of Louis Auchincloss," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 2, Winter, 1964-65, pp. 36-46.
[In this excerpt, Kane compares Auchincloss's treatment of lawyers with those of other American writers. ]
A pat declaration of faith in mankind and the bar is among the inevitable platitudes of lawyers' public speeches, according to a Louis Auchincloss lawyer. Just as the character only amuses himself with wistful and whimsical thoughts about delivering any but the expected oration, Louis Auchincloss' fiction only hints a doubt about the Tightness of the world created and maintained by Wall Street law firms.
The cautious and correct lawyers of Auchincloss are not the hierophants that Alexis de Tocqueville once found American lawyers to be. They are practicing a well-known profession, not participating in a mystery—to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Master of occult learning, knowledgeable about securities, trusts, taxes, and estates, they devote themselves, not to an abstraction called law or justice, but to their firms, their own careers, and their clients.
Mr. Auchincloss could tender impeccable credentials as an interpreter of this downtown world; he is a partner in a Wall Street law firm of twenty partners whose practice is largely in estates and tax law. Although as a novelist he admittedly lacks the stature of a Henry James, he is a facile writer who presents with dispatch and lucidity an insider's view of a world nearly as bizarre for most readers as Samarkand. Many American novelists have written about lawyers, but no writer of consequence has written with such authority of the distinctively twentieth-century climate of finance in legal practice.
Auchincloss writes about downtown not just because it is the world he knows and can report, but because its hierarchy admirably suits a literary form that attracts him. In an essay called "The Novel of Manners Today" [published in Reflections of a Jacobite, 1961], Auchincloss remarks, in an unconscious echo of Hawthorne's preface to The Marble Faun, that while as a citizen he has no nostalgia for the old ways, as a novelist his eyes might "light up at the first glimpse of social injustice" because a novel of manners loses significance in a classless society. While Auchincloss locates nothing that could be called social injustice, he does find a stratified society in huge Wall Street law firms, an attendant snobbishness about other firms engaged in other kinds of practice, and a perspective from which to view the rich, both old and new.
Auchincloss' fiction differs in several particulars from that of others who have portrayed lawyers. He brings to the structured world that he knows intimately no Populist prejudice against city lawyers, no nostalgia for the less organized life of a small-town practitioner, and almost no interest in courtroom advocacy. While he takes for granted the necessity of the Wall Street world, he brings to his fiction a quality of detachment, even of irony, that produces readable novels, which contain comic and witty moments. He does not satirize lawyers, however, as did James G. Baldwin in Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi or Mark Twain in Roughing It. Auchincloss' lawyers are neither the uneducated swindlers nor the pompous buffoons of those frontier tales. Nor are they secular priests in the style of a lawyer created by William Faulkner in such works as Requiem for a Nun or by William Dean Howells in The Leatherwood God. Certainly not the contemptible pawns of financiers found in Theodore Dreiser's The Titan, neither are they saviors of civilization in the pattern of the judge in James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers.
Auchincloss' lawyers have as clients those with money and power. They have no sense of calling or responsibility to society as distinct from their clients. Expending no energy serving or preserving law, they look for loopholes in the statutes that will help their clients' prosperity. Unlike the sanctimonious lawyers of James Gould Cozzens' By Love Possessed, they seldom delude themselves or others by pretending that they have other dedications. Indeed they may see their role as contributing to the general welfare in that they work out the relationship between government and industry and have [as Auchincloss writes in The Great World and Timothy Colt, 1956] a "glory" as "architects of society." If they have any literary antecedent, it is Cooper's ideal lawyer who allied himself with the agrarian aristocracy of that day. In temperament they are not unlike the New York lawyer in Cooper's The Ways of the Hour who was so governed by his sense of decorum that he deigned to employ an emotional appeal to a jury, but their sense of decorum would necessitate rejecting as pretentious and undescriptive Cooper's choice of votaries as an appellation for lawyers.
Auchincloss' lawyers of a given position in a firm not only resemble each other sufficiently to make possible generalizations about them, they have few qualities that one could call distinctively those of a lawyer. They are virtually interchangeable with their counterparts in the trust department of a bank [as reflected in Auchincloss's fiction, including Venus in Sparta and Portrait in Brownstone]. If, as seems likely, this interchangeability—unremarked by Auchincloss—accurately reflects reality rather than the novelist's inability to imagine more than one kind of character, it reveals on another level the union of finance and law shown in the stories. Despite the details of the law of trusts, estates, taxation, and the like, and although the moral crisis for a character may turn on a decision within the maze of such law, Auchincloss does not convey a clear association between character and occupation. Indeed he has disclaimed a connection in a remark about the protagonist of The Great World and Timothy Colt: "He is not a man who finds it hard to be honest in a New York firm because of his milieu." Auchincloss' lawyers are less men of the law, which for good or ill the lawyers in most novels by American writers are, than they are men of the world of finance who specialize in the law of finance.
In the legal establishment of the world of finance a writer of Auchincloss' perceptions can find many elements to make the novel of manners a viable form. The structure of the firm contains clear gradations. Any suggestions of a more fluid organization, such as an open door to the senior partner's office, does not camouflage for those in the group what the lines are. Among the ingredients of such a firm and its members are conventions, prescribed amenities, definable manners, exclusiveness, and pride. Toward outsiders the expected responses range from scorn for the "uptown bar" and its divorce practice to courtesy toward clients, whatever one's personal feelings or however gross and insulting the client. In chronicling the adventures of members of this society, Auchincloss' tone often resembles that of high comedy although it also has something in common with that of Faulkner's comic tales. Auchincloss avoids the vice that he deplores in "most novels that deal with society": they "take on some of the meretricious gaudiness that it is their avowed purpose to deplore," and their "authors become guilty of the snobbishness and triviality of which they accuse their characters" (Jacobite). Not an apologist for the manners he observes, neither is Auchincloss a reformer. His analysis evokes laughter more likely to be thoughtful than derisive because he finds moral values to reside within the conventions and disciplines of the class-like organization of a law firm.
At the top of a Wall Street firm resides the eminence of a senior partner. In an Auchincloss novel the senior partner is not only successful and respected, he is likely to be a talented and well-mannered man, satisfied with the world he has helped to create. But unlike Faulkner's Gavin Stevens, he would not become a district attorney, defend an unsavory murderess, or devote himself to stemming the rise of a clan of plutocrats. Nor would he enter a courtroom to establish truth and solve a murder as does Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. His occasional courtroom appearance is undertaken only in behalf of a valued client and friend. His demeanor there might be more suitable to "a legal discussion over an after-dinner brandy than an argument in court," and his treatment of the opposing lawyer reflect "the good manners of a clubman to a fellow member's guest who is misbehaving himself (Egoists).
A senior partner rarely questions that a life devoted to manipulating power and aiding the rich fulfills and discharges his lawyer's function. For example, without a qualm he might assign such other responsibilities as membership on legal committees to a member of the firm who is a poor lawyer. Something like a civil liberties case seems to be unthinkable. If a senior partner feels any lack in his legal life, it is his sense that something of the "greater glory" of the profession has disappeared since the time that a man like Joseph H. Choate could persuade the Supreme Court that the income tax is unconstitutional (Egoists). That a lawyer who served business and argued a financial matter should represent glory identifies their ambition and values. The portrait of Daniel Webster on the wall is only interior decoration.
The senior partner can be as ruthless in his devotion to the firm as any arbiter of the standards of a class. The head of the firm portrayed in Powers of Attorney is shrewd at picking men who will be assets to the firm and brutal about those who lack "the personality for our kind of firm." When he is morally outraged at a partner's taking the wrong sort of case, he serves the firm at some personal risk in order to purge the offending partner. He violates legal ethics and counsels the opposing party, with the hoped-for result that the partner loses and resigns from the firm. The more cautious senior portrayed in A Law for the Lion waits to ask an offending partner to leave until he is assured of the continuing business of the firm's wealthiest client. The younger partner has displayed the "crudest possible taste" in bringing a scandalous divorce action against his wife. Although the victim is the niece of the senior partner, so long as he feels that the firm cannot weather the loss of the partner, he subordinates any family or personal feeling. The senior partner in an Auchincloss novel is not a rigid man of principle, but most of them have mastered the knack of compromise without losing their sense of integrity. In the privacy of his home one might occasionally call his firm "Shyster, Beagle and Shyster" after the firm in a Marx brothers movie (Powers of Attorney), but he would not indulge whims when a serious matter is at stake. For him the firm usually has the majesty and priority that Faulkner's Gavin Stevens accords justice.
The other partners resemble the senior in most particulars, but they are sometimes lesser men in talent or ethics. Some incompetents remain in their jobs because of family connections or long association with the firm. One such person (in Powers of Attorney), theoretically the authority on property law, devotes his life to studying Plantaganant law. In his reverence for principles of law removed from the facts of present practice he resembles the "new judge" in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn who awards custody of Huck to his drunken father because of the legal principle that families should not be separated. Auchincloss' tone is gentler than Twain's, and his lawyer does no actual harm, but the comic portraits are of similar mentalities.
An able partner may lack ethics. One, whose manners "verge on the greasy" (The Great World and Timothy Colt), counsels an associate to be expedient when it means being unfaithful as an estate trustee, then rewards him with a partnership. Still another abuses his position on a Bar Association committee to serve a client. When an associate questions its Tightness, he hotly declares that if he is fortunate enough to secure a big company as a client, a "good lawyer eats, lives and breathes for his clients" (Powers of Attorney). He differs only in degree from the lawyers in Dreiser's The Titan who buy, influence, or blackmail city councils and state legislatures to further the ends of the financier who employs them.
Below the partners are the associates, the bright young men, most of whom led their classes at the best law schools, who yearn to move up. They are expected to move with ease in the world of the rich, not to be what Auchincloss describes in another connection as "wide-eyed Scott Fitzgeralds, bareheaded before the refracted gleam of gold" (The Romantic Egoists). An associate's pride in his present status and his expectation of success stem from the kind of law he practices. For example, when one is asked by his son about being a mouthpiece, he stuffily and peevishly retorts that he does not argue in court and is "not that kind of lawyer" (Colt). Most associates work hard to improve their position, but some lack the requisites for promotion, and occasionally a rebel may leave voluntarily. Those who continue the climb work in the approved section of the firm, usually securities rather than litigation or real estate, under the direction of the senior partner. Auchincloss describes their devotion to the senior, with characteristic mild irony, as like that of "acolytes at an altar" as they move "silently to and fro with absorbed, preoccupied faces, conscious only of their high priest and his ministrations" (Colt).
Upward progress has its pitfalls. One tale of particular pithiness introduces a young associate who sometimes feels like a "captive Athenian scholar in the court of a Mac-donian king" (Powers). The associate, Bayard Kip, claims a social position superior even to that of most downtown lawyers. His family has lost its wealth, but it confidently identifies itself with the small group of families that were considered Manhattan society in the eighteenth century. Bayard Kip is assigned the tax work for Inka Dahduh, "the son of an Armenian rug peddler," who looks to Kip like "a conquering Tartar" and represents "the incarnation of the destroying spirit that had laid low the poor old shabby, genteel past." Kip tries to salvage his self-esteem by boasting that the tax returns that he prepares for Dahduh honestly disclose the facts.
Kip's refuge fails, and he assumes another moral stance. When he must spend a weekend on Dahduh's yacht, he looks at the visitor's log at first from idle curiosity, then with the realization that his client has used the yacht rarely for the business purposes reported on the income tax forms. Kip decides that even at the risk of his partnership he will refuse to sign Dahduh's tax forms. As a Kip he will make a gesture of repudiation of "the whole wretched age," just as his ancestors had resisted Astors and Fisks.
Kip insists on his gesture with unexpected results. The partner in charge of the tax department brusquely asks why he cannot simply take the word of an important client. Kip remains adamant, and to his chagrin the client is unruffled and immediately insists that the yacht not be claimed as a business expense. Thus when Kip is shortly thereafter made a partner, he feels that his principles are vindicated and his success a result of integrity.
But Kip has more to learn. He discovers that the client had intended to sell the yacht anyway and consequently acquired without cost what one of Kip's friends calls "the lifetime devotion of a brilliant young tax lawyer of unimpeachable respectability." In the face of this intelligence, Kip concludes that his "simple philosophy" is inadequate: "One tried to fight wrong, and the enemy turned up after the bout in even richer ermine. Perhaps the lesson of it all was that the appearances of honor and scrupulousness, of dignity and aristocratic distinction, were, after all, the only things that could be preserved." Kip learns from his defeat in success something of the complex fabric of the practice of law in a Wall Street firm and, not unhappily, salvages what he can. He thinks about restoring an Upjohn-designed house, a suitable pre-occupation for one who has just discovered that appearances suffice for the pride in status that has replaced pride in class. One feels confident that one day he will be a senior partner.
In the tale of the deductible yacht, Auchincloss displays his forte, the comedy of manners. His special awareness of the nuances of position, social and business, flavors the story. He manages without shifting from the perspective of Kip's thoughts and experiences to project a slightly ironic but not hostile account of the code of a member of the old aristocracy and the protocol of a Wall Street law firm. Juxtaposed is the shrewd conduct of the wheelerdealer who, having no restraint of manners, can manipulate those who do and achieve for himself some appearance of honor. Kip's defeat has the pathos that Auchincloss notes "has a bigger place than tragedy in the study of manners" (Jacobite). The comic effect of the double twist in Kip's adventures is not unworthy of comparison with a Faulkner tall tale, such as the incident in The Hamlet in which the innocent victims injured by a runaway horse first testify so as to establish that the man willing to compensate them is not responsible for their damages, then are awarded as damages the dead body of the horse.
Kip's story involves a character rarely seen in Auchincloss' fiction, a government-employed lawyer. Although he appears only briefly, he vigorously questions the sanctity of lawyers' serving financiers. He asks Kip if it ever occurs to him that there is "something wrong with a country whose best brains are spent in attacking and defending the shenanigans of an old trickster like Inka Dahduh?" Such a viewpoint rarely appears in an Auchincloss novel. Equally rare are lawyers who have served in government and discuss affairs of state rather than finance, such as one, briefly seen in another story (Colt), who seems to be modeled on a man like Dean Acheson or Adlai Stevenson. The existence of this urbane, knowledgeable, socially sought-after aristocrat who has once been an assistant secretary of state threatens a Wall Street lawyer sufficiently to make him forget himself at a party and speak rudely and boorishly. . . .
Auchincloss exposes with the same precision lawyers who enforce or follow understood principles of behavior and those who become indiscreet violators. In short, he is not over-awed by lawyers. This attitude informs his perceptive study of Edith Wharton, in which he dissects her typical male character, a "well-born, leisurely bachelor lawyer, with means just adequate for a life of elegant solitude" [Edith Wharton]. He insists on the accuracy of her portraits, saying of the lawyer in The Age of Innocence that "the reader who doubts that such a type existed has only to turn the pages of the voluminous diary of George Templeton Strong." Auchincloss' judgment has the authority of his having edited a portion of Strong's diary, which is published in Reflections of a Jacobite. Further, the lawyers in Mrs. Wharton's fiction are not unlike some in his own.
Auchincloss' refusal to be awed by lawyers combines with his admiration for them to produce his characteristic tone of detachment. A delightful example is the mocking, yet loving, look at a hero in the moment when he comes into the clubhouse after playing golf and sees a partner and several associates sitting in the bar:
As Tilney paused now, .. . his sweater and flannels a reproach to their urban darkness, . . . there was in Tilney's gaze, unconcealed by his perfunctory grin, some of the sterness of Abraham contemplating Sodom. .. . To his surprise and indignation he found himself surveyed as if he were something quaint and ridiculous, a sort of vaudeville character, vaguely suggestive of Edwardian sports and fatuity. . . . (Powers)
The humor of this passage lacks the bite of a Faulkner tale [The Town] in which a sardonic friend says of the lawyer hero that he misses the point entirely because "if it aint complicated it dont matter whether it works or not because .. . it aint right." But both writers mock as friends.
Despite the rueful awareness of Auchincloss' heroes that life in "green goods" (the insider's terms for securities practice) in a downtown firm is not paradise, and despite their attraction to occasional mavericks who make them briefly dissatisfied with their lot, they content themselves with a secure life that is familiar and respected. Although even a senior partner can be tempted at the thought of life as a college president, when he discovers that the offer is a ruse engineered by an ambitious younger partner, he can return with real pleasure to "weighing the chances of winning a directed verdict" in a securities case, laughing at his dream of being "whimsical and philosophical, entrancing his disciples under the crab-apple trees," and insisting that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" (Powers). The character and Mr. Auchincloss know how platitudinous that last phrase is, but platitude or not, they believe in mankind and the bar.
Leon Edel (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962
SOURCE: "High Polish," in The Washington Post Book Week April 9, 1967, p. 14.
[An American critic and biographer, Edel is a highly acclaimed authority on the life and work of Henry James. His five-volume biography Henry James (1953-73) is considered the definitive life and brought Edel critical praise for his research and interpretive skill. In the following review of Tales of Manhattan, Edel praises the skill, the "insights" and "delicate subtleties** of Auchincloss's stories, yet the reviewer also complains of a "certain thinness" in the author's work.]
Louis Auchincloss continues to tell his tales of Manhattan as an endless Arabian Nights entertainment. This is his fourth collection, and his earlier volumes, The Injustice Collectors, The Romantic Egoists, and Powers of Attorney, long ago demonstrated his ease and skill in the short story. It is perhaps his characteristic form: for his novels are also constructed on a short-story principle, as in The Embezzler, in which he told the same story from three different angles. In Tales of Manhattan he begins with five episodes told by an expert in an art auction firm; then he has four linked tales about (and by) the members of a law firm. He adds a final group called "The Matrons," in which we see various society women, both generous and predatory, in the social world of New York.
His skill, in spite of his rapid and abundant production, has grown. He has acquired great smoothness in spinning his stories, and his varnished situations are suffused with psychological truth and moral power. Readers of this volume will discover in it a fascinating tale about an art collector specializing in paintings of famous children who have met violent ends, like the little princes in the tower. With dramatic flair, the narrator reveals this man's constant turning to his own psychic "death" when he was young, his lost childhood. The same kind of subtle anecdote is told in "The Senior Partner's Ghosts," in which the partner, trying to write the life of his predecessor, discovers he can't get his words out without sounding like his subject. When he wants to set down eulogy, he records rascality. He is "possessed," as in the old medieval tales, and for all his high morality he has unwillingly embodied within himself all the venality and crookedness of his former chief.
In such tales Auchincloss combines with his narrative skills a documented knowledge of society; he knows it in depth and he has an uncommon grasp of the dynamics of power, social and financial. A whole phase of enterprise and psychological history is embodied in his tale of Louis Degener and Eric Temple, members of a law firm: Temple's recurrent rebellion and self-assertion against the rigidities and traditions of his class and profession, and Degener's constant discovery of the ideal compromise for him which advances the firm, satisfies the rebellion, and gives Temple more power. Degener in a sense becomes Temple's evil genius, taking the edge off his self-assertion yet making a pragmatic virtue of it. This is one of Auchincloss' ironic-moral tales, and it is matched by that of "The Money Juggler," a less finely written narrative, in which three socialite graduates of the Columbia Law School gossip about the money-and-success madness of one of their socially—and racially—"inferior" classmates. They describe his dizzy climb and fall with cool contempt, only to be reminded that each one of them aided and abetted the careerist in destroying the very values they pretend to cherish. This is Auchincloss' favorite theme.
The metaphor for the entire Auchinclossian society is to be found in his touching tale of "The Landmarker," in which a declining cookie pusher, Chauncey Lefferts, devoted to New York society and to the city's landmarks, begins to recognize in the disappearing city his own impending disappearance, "the very precariousness of surviving beauty, was analogous to his own threadbare elegance. What was he but a sober, four-story brownstone facade, with Gothic arches and an iron grille, such as one might find in Hicks Street or over at Brooklyn Heights." This story, like the others, has its further ironic twist, in Lefferts' final recognition that the very landmarks he loves are often destroyed by his own class, discarded as he has been socially discarded.
To reduce these tales to a brief sentence or two, however, does not suggest their insights and their delicate subtleties. Nevertheless, with a writer of such gifts, we ask ourselves why Auchincloss' work gives an impression of a certain thinness, of being in two dimensions. In part this may derive from the fact that he writes in the margin of his law practice; in part it may also come from his apparent need to produce a book a year, as he has done now for more than a decade. He might reply that this is what Anthony Trollope did, and perhaps we can find an answer in the example of that novelist. Trollope wrote his quota of words by the clock each morning before going to his job at the Post Office. However, he wrote as if he had all the time in the world to explore the society he knew so well; his characters have growth and development. With Auchincloss we are rushed along, in a kind of restless creation; the narrative leaves the reader—and the characters—little time for reflection and the sense of being in time and in space; we do not get a chance to live through the experience; it is over before we attain full awareness of it.
This is true of his novels as well as his tales. We never get a sense of "felt life." It is in this, I believe, that Auchincloss makes his compromise with excellence; this is the deeper flaw in his extraordinary virtuosity.
Martin Tucker (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
SOURCE: A review of Tales of Manhattan, in Commonweal Vol. LXXXVI, No. 13, June 16, 1967, pp. 372-73.
[Tucker is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he discusses Auchincloss 's narrative technique in Tales of Manhattan and finds that the author's frequent use of passive observers to relate stories robs the works of passion.]
The dominant impression a reader is likely to get from Louis Auchincloss' Tales of Manhattan is that the rich worry more about money than the poor. When threatened, they scratch and claw—some like tigers, some like kittens—but very few question the struggle in any terms but moneyed triumphs. Most of Auchincloss' characters reserve their moral complexities for questions of what things to buy with their money.
Such a theme is no more restrictive a representation of human nature than Dreiser's emphasis on the bitch-goddess of success in American society. Dreiser's characters bumbled and groped their way; Auchincloss' characters elegantly knife a man with a Renaissance stiletto. Among the rich in fiction, Henry James and Edith Wharton's people seem no less aware of money and manners than Auchincloss'. But Dreiser and James and Wharton did not fashion their characters in objets d'art as Auchincloss does in this newest book, a collection of stories and one playlet held together by the common theme and milieu of the rich and the near-mighty. In Tales of Manhattan the passion of Auchincloss' people does not carry much urgency, and their convictions all seem part of a crafty puppeteer show.
Certainly the raw material is present. One story concerns a man who has surrendered to his dream to build the most beautiful house in America. He spends almost his entire fortune to create this esthetic paradise, and then finds that his wife and children will not move into it with him, and that he has almost no money left to run it in the fashion it deserves. Another story concerns the machinations by which a junior partner evicts a doddering senior partner from the firm. An even more potentially sensational situation lies in the playlet, "The Club Bedroom," in which a mother admits to herself that her daughter is a tramp, and her only son a homosexual. She stands before a portrait of her dowager mother-in-law and accuses her of evading the responsibilities that have led to such a shambles of the family tradition.
The situations then are as much raw material for passion as anything found in Dreiser's working-class figures or Henry James' desperately moral characters. In Auchincloss, however, the passion does not hold. I suspect one of the reasons is his increasing use of a technique he displayed brilliantly—but not successfully—in The Rector of Justin. In that novel a schoolmaster and his life were dissected by the many people who knew him, and the reader came to know him through their voices: the man himself rarely spoke. In this collection of stories, every piece is told by an observer, who is in most cases passive.
Auchincloss divides his book into three sections. The first reveals the characters of several people as the narrator (an antique dealer) discovers them. The second concerns a composite biography of a law firm which various partners in the firm are writing: each revealing himself as he discusses the others. The last section, "The Matrons," deals with several old ladies who are studied by their acquaintances. Auchincloss' attraction to the oddball, the sensitive or artistic member of a society that allows eccentricity but not passionate criticism, runs through all the stories. What happens is that the oddball—the man who built his dream castle, the erratic lawyer who sacrificed his wife's reputation for the joy of political slugging, the painter who drew erotic fantasies with his parents in mind—becomes a case study for a compassionate conservative reluctant to break his own ties. The attraction of the wayward impulsive romantic is real enough, but the stately narration of events produces more passivity than passion. The choice of the narrator, particularly in the second section, is also mystifying sometimes. Why does Auchincloss choose one man as narrator above another? All people are interesting, of course, and what one man has to say about another is the stuff of literature. But Auchincloss' choice of narrator does not create a profundity of illumination, it merely creates a clever diversionary tactic from the real stuff he should be shaping.
Auchincloss' technique is not a new one. In fact, the point of view technique has already taken on an academic air. Certainly that academic tone—even dehumanizing would not be too strong a word—characterizes this latest work. It is a pity, because all the virtues of Auchincloss—precision, elegance, wit of style—are not allowed to add up to more than decoration.
Nora Sayre (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413
SOURCE: "Lampshades," in The Reporter, Vol. 37, No. 1, July 13, 1967, pp. 60-1.
[Sayre is a Bermudan-born writer and critic. Here, she uses a review of Tales of Manhattan to address two "perplexities" that appear in much of Auchincloss's work: the "drab and stunted" nature of his narrators and the "double views" that he provides of his main characters. The critic concludes that these elements ultimately hurt Auchincloss's fiction and result in a lack of variety.]
In a period which savages the tangible past, landmark preservation becomes an emotional necessity. It is not surprising that even a defective lampshade should be cherished. Louis Auchincloss's catalogues of Tiffany glass, parental portraits by Sargent, club lunches, debuts at Sherry's, façades by Richard Morris Hunt and Louis Sullivan no doubt answer a craving for civilization, a nostalgia for something slightly senior to the Green Hornet. Hence anyone who cares about an earlier America is apt to feel ungrateful on recoiling from his fiction. But one rebels at Auchincloss's own treatment of landmarks: "In Washington one dined with Henry Adams and Bessie Lodge; in Boston with Mrs. 'Jack'; in London with Ottoline Morrell and 'Emerald,' or else drove down to Rye to see poor old Henry James. In Paris, there was 'Dear Edith,' in Rapallo 'Max'; in Florence 'BB.'" Even though the tone is supposed to be ironic, the best names curdle at this treatment.
By depicting an age of infinite tassels, social prejudice, and little else, Auchincloss has done the past a disservice. In fact, he has preserved the lampshade without the bulb. His characters have none of the violence and few of the valid dilemmas bestowed by Edith Wharton and Henry James. Some of his readers even blame his flaws on the dead writers, conferring a double death. But Mrs. Wharton hated the social system that shattered her characters, whereas Auchincloss seems to share the code of his personae. This is faintly mysterious, since he has criticized Proust (and others) for being "obsessed" with social position, adding that the authors of novels about society can "become guilty of the snobbishness and triviality of which they accuse their characters." Moreover, his good essay "The Novel of Manners Today" reproves John O'Hara for stressing that "the most important thing about any character is the social niche in which he was born." Both remarks might come from churlish descriptions of Auchincloss's own work.
The perplexity of his attitude may be a stepchild of James's "operative irony"; the possibility of implying "the case rich and edifying where the actuality is pretentious and vain." (In a preface, James explained that projecting foolish characters could highlight "the superior case.") Auchincloss's ambiguities take two forms, and both seem deliberate. First, he nearly always chooses drab and stunted narrators: old women, musty bachelors, timid young men. These naturally have a walleyed view of society, or of his recurrent protagonists: the domineering fathers, disappointing sons, large, insensitive daughters, and the plain, mistreated mothers. There are also the raucous fiancées who have ferocious ambitions for their future husbands, and the intelligent upstarts with "no family" who nonetheless thrive professionally. His most sensual women are usually rapacious social hedonists: "More than ever she was like a doll in an expensive dress." Whether the narrators idolize or deplore these characters, their intonation is inevitably prim or censorious.
Auchincloss sometimes means these commentators to be laughable. But since their prejudices dominate almost all of his work, they fail as a satirical chorus, and it sounds as though the author were luxuriating behind their views. Unhorrified by chichés, he feeds them to all his characters: "My first instinct was to shoot you down like a dog." Or: "He then proceeded to drink his way through Harvard to an early grave." When the whole cast speaks or thinks in this style, it's hard to feel that the author has separated himself from their mentality. Elsewhere, he has labeled the hero of Mrs. Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon "an unmitigated cad."
Some of Auchincloss's narrators confess that they would like to be "peacocks," but he firmly maintains them as wrens. Admittedly, it's daring to permit a narrator of The Rector of Justin to announce on page 1: "Not that my life has been an exciting one. On the contrary, it has been very dull." In contrast, how swiftly Mrs. Wharton could make a character intriguing: on page 1 of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart has "an air of irresolution which might .. . be the mask of a very definite purpose." Hence one can immediately believe that "it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation."
While Auchincloss's characters don't excite the same speculation, he is deft at plotting. One may not care why Geraldine Brevoort leapt out of a window or why Guy Prime indulged in embezzlement, yet one is curious about the process and solution of the total scheme. He does provide what publishers wistfully call "pull," and his particular public is probably plot-starved.
The second perplexity stems from Auchincloss's pleasure in giving double views of his leading characters. Each may or may not be morally monstrous. Ida, the diffident heroine of Portrait in Brownstone, triumphantly arranges a possibly crippling marriage for her adored son; the Rector of Justin paralyzes many lives; Guy, of The Embezzler, is defended in the first half (by himself) and degraded by two sequential narratives. Auchincloss meticulously reports all aspects. His primary theme is that people can direct and govern each other's lives: he shows them devising careers, preventing or concocting marriages, and controlling one another's money. Cruelty—through such tyranny, rather than verbal cruelty—is one of his preoccupations. Hence one wants very much to know whether he considers that his dislikable protagonists are "justified" in their ruthlessness—or unforgivable, or even tolerable, or whether they were partially misunderstood by their era. Auchincloss constructs each moral dilemma skillfully, and then abandons the problem.
It would be easy to pronounce all his people abominable. But he doesn't intend that: so much space is spent on their defense. However, their most odious social values usually prevail—if only to punish them. Hence the impression that those who perpetuate their money and position are superior. A social columnist remarks, "Nobody who really counts gives a hoot about family any more." Perhaps the reason is that anyone who "really counts" in an Auchincloss novel already has copious "family." Thus, the ambiguities hang on Auchincloss's concealed point of view—instead of his characters' complexities. One doesn't ask for glaring conclusions. But since this novelist focuses on morality, his deviousness is frustrating.
The inmates of Tales of Manhattan concentrate on unveiling the sins of others. Most of the accused are decedents, not decadents. The iniquities of the dead are revealed through written memoirs, notebooks, or conversations with elderly descendants—another opportunity for peevish narration. It's a detective-story technique: many of the stories start with a mystery, which is amiable to unravel but usually disappointing when solved. The characters usually betrayed or abused one another for financial reasons, but some indulged in psychological revenge—such as a Bostonian painter who sketched his parents in "frankly pornographic" positions. The first section is narrated by a gallery auctioneer who tries to re-create personalities by studying their collections (a pleasing device); the second groups some parched lawyers' opinions of one another; the third concerns "The Matrons," a glimpse of female comptrollers which seems to suggest that money is corrupting for women.
One story has a touching validity that the rest lack: in "The Landmarker," an aged bachelor relives the past by revisiting New York's antique buildings; when his favorite is about to be demolished, he has a stroke. He recovers to find it gone. Here, Auchincloss expresses a loss that is perhaps more acute for New Yorkers than for any other city's inhabitants. Since he knows Manhattan's oldest bones so well, and since his material is delectable, it's a pity that his natives are an incapacious, whispery cluster—who, in fact, "count" only in the Social Register or in slices of cash, or by possessing "Henry Adams's own copy of Democracy and "Abraham Lincoln's bookmark." Their insignificance stimulates the memory that Sybille Bedford's A Legacy is probably the only modern novel descended from Henry James, and their bigotry can serve as an incentive to read Edith Wharton, who is (finally) rolling out of the trough. She can match all of Auchincloss's draperies, although his characters can't answer the variety of hers.
Carolyn F. Ruffin (essay date 1970)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
SOURCE: A review of Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations, in The Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 1970, p. 13.
[In the following review, Ruffin discusses the puritanical nature of the characters in Second Chance.]
The Puritans are always with us.
They are particularly with American literary men, even today. It's as though they didn't get in enough licks against the irreverent scribes of this world during the last century, haunting Hawthorne and shooting up out of the deep to disturb Melville.
Now they are after Louis Auchincloss.
Apparently in this collection of some new, some previously published, short stories [Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations], he set out to write about New Yorkers of that notorious generation. He confronts them with their own hypocrisy and weakness, and gives them the chance to decide whether or not it's too late to change.
They place high value on respectability, rectitude, and taste. They have worked, hard to attain their present status in society and in their professions. And while these professions may coincidentally be lucrative, they are not occupations associated directly with rank materialism. Among the callings are law, publishing, curating in a history museum, collecting valuable editions of great literature, etc.
When these characters' respectability is questioned, they fall back on that good old debit-credit approach to morality which sees Providence as the great Auditor in the sky. As long as their own bookkeeping appears impeceable, they are sure they will be treated justly.
They expect this justice to come from a Deity, who, as one character describes him, is "white, Anglo-Saxon, genteel," and Protestant. (Genteel after the tradition of Jonathan Edwards's divinity.)
And they know that His Justice is precise and predictable. For instance, if one's cherished wife sleeps around, it is because Heaven is punishing one for seeking pleasure in this world. It could have nothing to do with the fact that a man has failed to understand or communicate with his spouse.
What is most Puritan about these characters is their dilemma. Despite then outward confidence that they are among the chosen, inwardly they have a growing fear that they are among the damned.
For these Puritans the handwriting on the wall is the graffiti of a younger generation. (That's the reason for the collection's subtitle.) The youthful message is familiar: Cut the hypocrisy, practice law for the underprivileged; marry for love, not some grand design; communicate. There's more to morality than balancing your own books.
Mr. Auchincloss has done a fascinating study of the various ways people react when the moving finger is put on them. Some of the stories are a little too neat and precise. And unless the plot is thoroughly thickened, his eventempered, gentlemanly prose gets a little transparent and unconvincing.
However, four of the tales—two of which have appeared before in magazines—are particularly masterful. They are "Black Shylock," "The Sacrifice," "The Collector," and "The Prison Window."
"The Prison Window" exudes the same brooding supernatural mood conjured by Shirley Jackson in such short stories as "The Lottery."
In all of the stories Mr. Auchincloss sustains a carefully created but subtle tension. He lets his character build a convincing case for his own rectitude which lasts at times until the final sequence. Yet even while this case is being argued, circumstances and other people's needs intrude upon the Puritan, unsettling his well-structured world.
Then in the last paragraph, with the mildest kind of irony, Auchincloss exposes his character's self-deception as in "The Collector." Or with a brutal accusation the author may bring the speaker to his knees, as in "Black Shylock."
The effect of both techniques is similar. The absolute blacks and whites of Puritan justice get shaded into the gray of ambivalence and uncertainty. The good and the bad are more likely to end up here or hereafter in a kind of purgatory of bewilderment than among the well-cataloged blisses of heaven or tortures of hell.
The finale of "The Sacrifice" is an example.
A justice finds in the brutal murder of his young grandson a purging of his own hatred of the frustrated, violent element in his city. His wife, her hope and will to live almost destroyed by the tragedy, cannot forgive her husband's reaction. She loses all love and respect for him.
The justice concludes the story with this:
But this, the nightmare, had been only a nightmare. He had survived. For what he had discovered was that his love for Mary Ellen did not, after all, depend on her love for him. It existed of and by itself, and it might survive all her scoffing, all her cruelty, even all her hate. He would look after Mary Ellen, and this love now proven so tough, so durable, so oddly independent, might expand indefinitely to take in . . . the whole of the big dirty world. . . .
The saving grace of Mr. Auchincloss's collection is that Puritans from whatever era make good drama. And his Puritans grapple with those hard to get at sins—prejudice and neglect of others.
Despite rumors to the contrary, there are enough of us left who haven't shook the Puritans to guarantee that Mr. Auchincloss's New Yorkers will find soul brothers.
Brom Weber (essay date 1970)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1069
SOURCE: A review of Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LIII, No. 35, August 29, 1970, pp. 24-25.
[Weber is an American educator and critic, who has published extensively on the poet Hart Crane. In the following review, he discusses psychological and sociological identity as it is explored by Auchincloss in Second Chance.]
Louis Auchincloss is an urbane, ironic, and experienced chronicler of the doings of our Anglo-Saxon, genteel wealthy in New York, familiar with their values, their modes of behavior and organization, and the extent to which they encounter and react to phenomena from the world outside their offices, apartments, and suburban estates. The stories in Second Chance, Auchincloss tells us on its jacket, have been designed as an exploration of "the identity crisis among the middle-aged and elderly in this city and its suburbs in the immediate present. They are concerned with the bewilderment in people from forty to ninety at finding themselves living in a world in which there is no general agreement not only as to what is a good life, but as to what is an amusing one."
As usual, Auchincloss's fictional reports are interesting as literature, informative as social observation. They illuminate not only the upper strata of Manhattan and Long Island, but also those of Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere, even though details vary. Consequently, the generally negative import of Second Chance—that there is little likelihood of one for most of the book's characters—will arouse disquietude in more than a few communities.
The majority of the stories deal with individuals who, after contemplating or launching a new life on the sea of emotional or social possibility, forgo their adventure or conclude it by foundering badly. Defeat occurs most often because of indecision about the propriety or desirability of a new life. The individual then recedes into his habitual pattern despite its inadequacies. Frequently, nonheroic reactions such as lethargy and fear of novelty are concealed behind transparently irrelevant moral excuses.
In several stories, however, a character recognizes quite clearly that a projected change is either meretricious or incapable of realization. These particular fictions reach beyond mere depiction of the travail of a social class that sometimes senses it is obsolescent and corrupt or is accused of being so. In these stories Auchincloss by implication prescribes values and attitudes which, in his judgment, justify the survival of those guided by them.
In both types of story, strangely enough in view of Auchincloss's intention to probe an "identity crisis," there is no intermingling of social classes. Messages of discord or change from without are generally delivered by children or grandchildren rather than by interlopers. When the latter do appear—Jews in "Second Chance" and "Suttee," an Italian immigrant's son in "The Prince and the Pauper"—they turn out to be incorporated members of the Establishment. Furthermore, young family emissaries of alien concepts are not particularly effective champions of the "socialism" and "liberalism" they urge upon their elders. As the tough old grandfather in "The Double Gap" keeps reminding the grandson who has rejected the family law firm's ethos in favor of action "in the ghettos, the slums, the poor rural areas, the starving parts of the world":
I'm glad that I've made you [financially] independent so you won't be compelled, like your breadwinner friends, to go to work for a firm in whose "mystique" you cannot believe.
Since the problem of identity is not merely psychological but sociological as well, the social insularity of almost all the characters in these stories prevents them from developing a significant segment of whatever identities they possess or might create. Indeed, the relegation to offstage of the social conflict and turmoil so prevalent in our time establishes a dreamlike pall around the characters that hampers any genuine search for their identities.
The fictionist of manners may, if he wishes, flesh out the being and world of a character by concentrating upon personal depth rather than social breadth. Henry James, for example, so complicated and intensified the emotional, physical, and intellectual experience of his characters that in his pages a paralyzed, isolated creature will appear to be electrically charged, connected by hot wires to a myriad invisible yet tangible people, his social existence taking form quite miraculously.
Just that kind of rich creation is to be found in "Black Shylock," the initial and also most successful story in Second Chance. Powerfully, dramatically, Auchincloss shows that perversity of spirit raised to high art may produce apocalyptic revelation, yet is essentially socially delusive and personally non-sustaining. This fictional argument against pure negation and for moral responsibility achieves its victory because the central character is permitted to develop his paranoid fantasies without visible restraint on the part of his creator.
There are, of course, other good stories in Second Chance, but none achieves the strength and magic pervading "Black Shylock." One admires Auchincloss's delicate wit, firm language, knowledge of contemporary events and catchwords, and admirable distaste for vulgarity and mendacity. Yet all too often he does not put his gifts to full use, seemingly hesitant to risk marring the polish of his fiction by exposing it to unknown strains. In this he may well be one of his own characters, still not aware of the range of his own identity.
The concluding story in this collection, "The Sacrifice," suggests that the end of the search for identity is to be found in a willingness to abandon the search. Judge Platt discovers, to his horror, that he hates the violators of "law and order." Recognizing that hatred, like rudeness and murder, is a human phenomenon, he frees himself of human ties and thus can experience the love inherent in the "peace of God." Second Chance, then, appears to be saying that spiritual transcendence is all that remains for its characters.
The answer is much too simple, as simple as the belief that the absence of "general agreement" is a phenomenon of the 1970s. It may well be that the exclusiveness, the naïveté, the complacency, and the inertia of the twentieth-century heirs of the genteel tradition have rendered them irreversibly anachronistic. Perhaps they are fated to vanish wholly. Auchincloss's authority is such that one hesitates to reject his conclusion. He probably has good sociological support for it. Nevertheless, not having plumbed the regenerative powers of his characters sufficiently in these stories, he has not established his conclusion's validity artistically.
James Tuttleton (essay date 1972)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2191
SOURCE: "Louis Auchincloss: The Image of Lost Elegance and Virtue," in American Literature, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, January, 1972, pp. 616-32.
[Tuttleton is an American educator and critic whose books include The Novel of Manners in America (1972). In the following excerpt, he compares Auchincloss's fiction to that of Henry James and maintains that Auchincloss's writing is as much a departure from James's work as it is influenced by it. The critic also comments on the subject matter of Auchincloss's fiction and its relationship to issues of class. Tuttleton argues that Auchincloss effectively depicts affluent New York society and that critics shouldn't dismiss his work merely because of his well-todo characters.]
The simplest truths are the most consoling: one of them is that New York will always have a past, together with writers consumed with nostalgia for lost days. Henry James and Mrs. Wharton—even Washington Irving—looked back at things that were gone, and we have become accustomed to look back at these writers who are also gone, in this way obtaining a doubled effect of remoteness, looking down a corridor of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of lost elegance and virtue. The past, however, need not be distant nor the authors dead.
Louis Auchincloss most nearly resembles Henry James in the emphasis he gives to the moral issues that grow out of the social lives of the very rich in New York City. And because he has described himself as a "Jacobite," many reviewers have concluded that it is therefore enough to describe him as merely an imitator of the Master. Auchincloss most differs from James, though, in the informed analysis he is able to give to the nice problems of ethics in the legal profession—a command of the world of Wall Street brokers and bankers which James himself sorely regretted not having. Auchincloss calls himself a Jacobite because so much of his lifetime's reading has been "over the shoulder of Henry James." To read the fiction of Proust, Trollope, Meredith, Thackeray, George Eliot, and Mrs. Wharton in the light of the criticism, fiction, and letters of James, Auchincloss has observed, is to be exposed to the full range of possibility for the novel of manners, "to be conducted through the literature of [James's] time, English, American, French and Russian, by a kindly guide of infinitely good manners, who is also infinitely discerning, tasteful and conscientious." James, for Auchincloss, has always been a "starting point," a "common denominator" [Reflections of a Jacobite]. But Auchincloss has always, once started, gone his own way—often qualifying and contesting, as well as enlarging, the social insights of the nineteenth-century novelist of manners.
The world brought to life in his novels is the nineteenthand twentieth-century life of the metropolitan rich in New York City—particularly the lives of the lawyers, bankers, trust officers, corporation executives, and their wives and daughters. As a lawyer, Auchincloss knows them in their Park Avenue apartments and in their Wall Street offices. He sees the glitter and glamour of their world, its arrogant materialism and its unexpected generosities. He knows the rigidity of its conventions—just how far they can be bent, at what point they break, just when convention may break a character. He understands what happens to the idealistic men and the unfulfilled women of this world. And he is able to tell their stories with unusual sympathy. Rarely has Auchincloss ventured from this small but exclusive world, because it is the world he knows best. For this "narrowness," I suppose, it is possible to criticize him. But if he does not write panoramic novels of the U.S.A., great fluid puddings encompassing the whole of the American scene, it is because he has learned from Henry James the lesson James tried to teach Mrs. Wharton: that she must be "tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces her to a backyard in New York" [The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock, 1920; I, 396]. The New York haut monde is Louis Auchincloss's backyard. His ten novels are his Austenean two inches of carefully carved ivory......
In semipolitical literary criticism there are sometimes objections to the kind of people Auchincloss writes about. It is sometimes said, for example, that the world of New York society people is somehow not as interesting as that of share-croppers, boxers, or big-game hunters. Granville Hicks [in Saturday Review XLIX (February 5, 1966)] has confessed this bias in remarking that "to many people, myself included, an Italian boy who robs a poor Jew is a more challenging subject than an upperclass New Yorker who misappropriates funds, and a bewildered intellectual in search of wholeness of spirit belongs more truly to our times than the aged headmaster of a fashionable preparatory school."
But there is no necessary reason why this claim should be true. The Assistant and Herzog may be better novels than The Embezzler and The Rector of Justin. But their superiority has nothing to do with the subject matter or the "relevance" of these books—it has only to do with the greater artistry by which the novels of Malamud and Bellow are brought to life. In justifying the attention Auchincloss gives to people like Guy Prime, Augusta Millinder, Ida Trask, and Frank Prescott, I find it instructive to remember Auchincloss's observation on the universality of Tolstoy's art [in Reflections of a Jacobite]: "What he understands is that if a human being is described completely, his class makes little difference. He becomes a human being on the printed page, and other humans, of whatever class, can recognize themselves in his portrait. The lesson of Tolstoy is precisely how little of life, not how much, the artist needs.
His view of Proust also casts light on Auchincloss's choice of subject. In arguing that there has never been "so brilliant or so comprehensive a study of the social world" as that found in Proust, Auchincloss observes:
To him the differences between class and class are superficial. Snobbishness reigns on all levels, so why does it matter which level one selects to study? Why not, indeed, pick the highest level, particularly if one's own snobbishness is thus gratified? Society in Proust parades before us, having to represent not a segment of mankind, but something closer to mankind itself. It is the very boldness of Proust's assumption that his universe is the universe . . . that gives to his distorted picture a certain universal validity. It is his faith that a sufficiently careful study of each part will reveal the whole, that the analysis of a dinner party can be as illuminating as the analysis of a war. It is his glory that he very nearly convinces us.
Without drawing the parallel too closely, I submit that Auchincloss too sees that the differences between classes are superficial and that there is therefore no adequate reason why one should not deal with headmasters and lawyers, bankers and brokers, if they permit the kind of social analysis that illuminates our essential human predicament. The problem implicit in his choice is that of making is believe that this universe is—if not the universe—at least a believable universe, and describing his characters so fully and convincingly that we do not care about the class they belong to. It is Auchincloss's difficulty that, as good as some of his novels are, he does not always so convince us. But the limitation is one of his talent, not of his material.
It is, in fact, a mistake to think about Auchincloss's characters as belonging to a distinct "class." He does not believe that the United States is a classless society. But he does recognize that it is not possible for the contemporary American novelist of manners to write the kind of social fiction produced by Howells, Wharton, and James. The increasing democratization of the United States, he argues in Reflections of a Jacobite, has resulted in a rearrangement of social attitudes, so that today "snobbishness is more between groups than classes, more between cliques than between rich and poor." Surely there is a difference, he remarks, "between the feelings of the man who has not been asked to dinner and those of the man who has been thrown down the front stairs."
Most of these "groups," however (labor-capital, East-West, North-South, young-old, workers-intelligentsia), do not provide much social conflict for the would-be novelist of manners. "It is my simple thesis," Auchincloss has argued, "that the failure more generally to produce this kind of novel is not attributable to the decadence or escapism of mid-twentieth century writers, but rather to the increasingly classless nature of our society which does not lend itself to this kind of delineation. I do not mean that we are any duller than the Victorians, but simply that the most exciting and significant aspects of our civilization are no longer to be found in the distance and hostility between the social strata." Consequently, he has turned increasingly toward the inward world of his characters in order to explore why, in this cliqueish, classless society, people hang onto their snobbishness in the ways they do.
The divided career of Louis Auchincloss as lawyer/novelist and his indifference to "sociological" explanations of evil have led other critics to attack his social and moral criticism as fakery and to claim that he is captivated by the very social prejudices which are his subject. Robert M. Adams, for example, has ridiculed Auchincloss for writing, "like a latter-day Trollope, a pseudo-critique of commercialism which collapses docilely as soon as one perceives it is being launched from a platform provided by commercialism itself." The assumption on which this statement is based—that the novelist must stand outside the society he seeks to criticize before his criticism can be authentic—is arrant nonsense. Auchincloss may be a conservative opposed to Old and New Left radicalism. But this fact in itself does not invalidate his insider's criticism of the limitations—moral and social—of the world he describes. There is certainly adequate rational, theological, and moral justification for the claim that evil arises from selfish, snobbish and dissipated people as well as from economic or sociological causes.
No politician, Auchincloss takes society, for literature, more or less as he finds it. But he is not guilty of what Edith Wharton called [in A Background Glance, 1934] "the tendency not infrequent in novelists of manners—Balzac and Thackeray among them—to be dazzled by contact with the very society they satirize." He is fascinated by the world he portrays: he loves the details of an estate settlement as much as Thackeray loved the stylish little supper parties of Mrs. Rawdon Crawley; he is as fascinated by the complexities of a corporation merger as Proust was by the intricacies of precedence; and he is as delighted by the eccentricities of the rich as Balzac was by the spectacle of miserly greed. But if Auchincloss loves his world, he is not taken in by it. Conscious of the moral and social incongruities between his world and the world, say, of Malamud, he is as disturbed as any reader of the Partisan Review that no matter how painstakingly Proust "underlines the dullness, the selfishness, and the fatuity of the Guermantes set, they remain to the end still invested with much of the glamour in which his imagination clothed them" [Reflections of a Jacobite].
But Auchincloss has no wish to idealize or glamorize his "aristocracy," or to claim for it, nostalgically, an elegance or virtue inconsistent with the known facts of New York City social history. Nor is he "hankering after any good old days." He has asked whether anyone would wish to return to "a New York where [in Reflections of a Jacobite] servants slept in unheated cubicles on the top of drafty brownstones, with an evening off every second week. . . ." His love for the elegance and virtue of this affluent world is the love of an artist for his material, which is quite another thing from his feeling for it as a man. Every writer, he has observed, has two points of view about "the society in which he lives: that of a citizen and that of an artist. The latter is concerned only with the suitability of society as material for his art. Just as a liberal journalist may secretly rejoice at the rise of a Senator McCarthy because of the opportunity which it affords him to write brilliant and scathing denunciations of demagogues, so will the eye of the novelist of manners light up at the first glimpse of social injustice. For his books must depend for their life blood on contrast and are bound to lose both significance and popularity in a classless society." Our awareness of this distinction between society as experienced and society as transformed in fiction ought to discourage us from condemning, as reactionary, the novelist who insists on exploring inequities and ambiguities from the inside of the social mechanism. Auchincloss's virtue is that he brings alive the New York City life of Henry James and Mrs. Wharton by showing us that, however elegant or virtuous it may seem, it is neither very distant nor dead.
G. Edward White (essay date 1972)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4559
SOURCE: "Human Dimensions of Wall Street Fiction," in American Bar Association, Vol. 58, No. 2, February, 1972, pp. 175-80.
[White is an author and legal scholar. In the following article, he discusses the themes of bureaucratization, class consciousness, ethics, and contemporary Wall Street legal practices as they are treated in Auchincloss's fiction.]
During the past four decades much has been written on the public image of large New York City law firms. The "Wall Street" firms, as they have come to be called, have been denounced as capitalist predators, hailed as responsible intermediaries between corporations and the public, seen as bureaucratic structures in an increasingly specialized and hierarchical world and viewed as the last bastions of nineteenth century individualism. In most of these accounts, far less attention has been paid to what the Wall Street lawyer does than to what he symbolizes. Although a survey of the literature on Wall Street firms may give some insight into the changing impressions those institutions have made upon the public mind, it yields little understanding of the effect of Wall Street practice upon the individuals who engage in it.
There has been one notable exception to this generalization: the novels and short stories of Wall Street practitioner Louis Auchincloss. Beginning in 1953, Auchincloss has produced novels—A Law for the Lion (1953) and The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956)—and four collections of short stories—The Romantic Egoist (1954), Powers of Attorney (1963), Tales of Manhattan (1967) and Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations (1970)—about the working lives of Wall Street lawyers. The information about Wall Street practice contained in these books has been subordinated, of course, to Auchincloss's major novelistic purposes; it is arguably less "reliable" or "authentic" than a similar nonfictional account might be. Nonetheless it provides a basis for understanding the human dimensions of Wall Street practice missing in other accounts. Through Auchincloss's fiction one gets a sense of how, in a myriad diverse ways, it feels to work for a large New York City law firm.
I propose to concentrate on four themes of Auchincloss's Wall Street fiction: bureaucraticization, class consciousness, professional ethics and the contemporary critique of Wall Street practice by young lawyers. The first three of these are described by Smigel [in The Wall Street Lawyer, 1964] and Carlin [in The Lawyers Ethics, 1967] as central to an understanding of large-firm law practice; the fourth is a matter of much interest for prospective Wall Street practitioners and the firms that interview them. The themes by no means exhaust the material pertaining to Wall Street life in Auchincloss's fiction, and they should not be regarded as, in their totality, serving to define the Wall Street lawyer's universe. They are, however, pervasive and pressing aspects of the world of contemporary Wall Street firms.
Nonfictional accounts of the history of large New York City firms during the twentieth century stress the change in size and structure of the firm unit and a consequent change in the character of law practice. In the early twentieth century, the ancestors of the present Wall Street firms were relatively small in size with a general practice that included anything from litigation to probate work. With rapid developments in technology and the consequent growth of large-size specialized business enterprises, they took on a new appearance. Firms grew in size, became more specialized and compartmentalized, drew an increasing percentage of their business from corporate work and assumed the characteristics of large-scale hierarchical organizations. Of particular importance for the members of those firms was the apparent clash between a mode of their professional heritage—the "free", independent general practitioner—and the increasingly specialized and constrained character of their own practice. The tensions produced by this clash are at the heart of Auchincloss's treatment of bureaucratization.
In developing the bureaucratization and other themes, Auchincloss stresses the interaction of two levels of human response. The first level is the subscription by most of a firm's lawyers, and especially by those holding internal positions of power, to a general professional stance on a particular issue, such as bureaucratization. The second is the emergence of tensions and contradictions in that stance and the reaction to them by individual firm members.
The general professional stance on bureaucratization views it as a necessary but lamentable phenomenon. The change is necessary, as Sheridan Dale, one of the principal characters in The Great World and Timothy Colt, put it, because "when you get up to eighty-six lawyers with an overhead of a million a year . . . you're a big business, and you ought to act like one". Another senior partner, Clitus Tilney of Powers of Attorney, "knew what disorganization did to overhead". For "every sixty minutes dedicated to the law" Tilney "had to devote twenty to administration". Lloyd Deneger, Dale's and Tilney's counterpart in Tales of Manhattan, was able to attribute "the splendid position that [his firm] occupied in the field of corporation law" to the fact that its internal atmosphere resembled "a huge, bright, humming legal machine" far more than "a gentleman's chaos of prima donnas in high white collars at rolltop desks".
But the change is also lamentable: the acceptance of increased organization is continually accompanied by a professed adherence to an older, more informal way of practicing law. Tilney was conscious of "the fashion among [Wall Street] lawyers to affect an aversion to administrative detail, to boast that their own firms were totally disorganized, that they practiced law in a bookish, informal atmosphere, suggestive of Victorian lithographs of county solicitors seated at rolltop desks and listening with wise smiles to the problems of youth and beauty". Some senior partners made serious attempts to approximate the older style. Dale's predecessor, Henry Knox, despised "administrative problems", which he considered "beneath him", and described his firm as "a group of gentlemen loosely associated by a common enthusiasm for the practice of law".
Auchincloss's lawyers and staff members attempt to shape their working lives in response to the ambiguities in their stance toward bureaucratization in two notable ways: through "teamwork" and through the presence of status gradations within the firm.
"Teamwork" for Auchincloss is a concept limned with ironies, some of them savage. The modern Wall Street firm requires a fair amount of co-operation among individuals who are competing with one another for positions of internal power: influence among one's partners or partnerships themselves. Henry Knox's image of law practice implied only a cursory degree of co-operation among gentlemen loosely associated by a common enthusiasm for the law; the complexity of the real-life modern law office necessitates far more interdependence among its members. But interdependence, in a firm staffed by individuals in direct competition with one another for a small number of lucrative positions, faces powerful currents of resistance.
Auchincloss's lawyers resolve this difficulty by defining "teamwork" in anarchistic terms. A "team man" is not one who butters up his superiors or champions the joys of group labor, but rather one who is willing to devote the bulk of his time and energy to producing work that reflects craftsmanship of a superior quality. The firm benefits from this product but recognizes it to be primarily the result of high personal standards and strong ambitions for power and success in the individual lawyer. Auchincloss's lawyers expect their office mates to be primarily concerned with their own ambitions and achievements, even at their colleagues' expense. It is no shock to Clitus Tilney to discover that Chambers Todd, one of his partners, had attempted to entice him to take a college presidency because Todd wanted Tilney's senior partnership. Nor is it surprising to Horace Mason, an associate in Powers of Attorney, to learn that coassociate Jake Platt snoops in his personal files; he cheerfully confesses to Platt that he has snooped in Piatt's.
A second way in which the Auchincloss characters resolve the difficulties inherent in superimposing an individualistic professional model on a large interdependent business organization is the creation and maintenance of informal status gradations. The primary purpose of these gradations is to create a set of specialized identities for the lawyers. An associate working in the corporate department need not see himself in the context of the entire firm but merely in terms of those in his immediate area. He is located at a point in the vertical arrangement of the firm, and he may find solace, as did one of the characters in Tales of Manhattan, in its "orderly, hierarchical atmosphere . . . where one knew precisely at all times what was expected of one and where one rose from tier to tier pretty much in proportion to one's efforts". He may also take comfort in his horizontal location: the "corporate men" in The Great World and Timothy Colt "looked down on everything" outside their department. Departments have their own personalities. In Powers of Attorney a partner in estates sees the corporate department as made up of "bright, intolerant younger men who had been on the Harvard Law Review"', a head of litigation in A Law for the Lion is "not sure" that one of the younger associates "wouldn't turn out to be too tweedy, too social for the discipline and dedication of the litigation group".
Not all associates enjoy their locations. A contemporary of Timmy Colt finds the estates department a "morgue" and feels that he "might as well be an undertaker". A young man in real estate in Powers of Attorney is conscious that working in his department "was like climbing the stairs in a department store while alongside one an escalator carried the other customers smoothly and rapidly to the landing". Some of Auchincloss's lawyers are constrained by their roles. Sylvester Brooks of Powers of Attorney can function only in his wholly ceremonial role as the "perfectly charming and worldly-wise old gentleman" and "supreme arbiter of wills"; his "job was a form, an ingenious face saver, conceived by a benevolent senior partner to keep an old body occupied". Rutherford Tower, a nephew of his firm's founder in the same collection, had been made a partner "for only three reasons: because of his name, because of his relatives, and because he was there".
In other cases, however, a man's personality blends so smoothly with his working role that the two become indistinguishable. Waldron Webb, the senior litigator of Clitus Tilney's firm, "was one of these unhappy men who always wake up angry. He was angered by the sparrows outside his bedroom window in Bronxville, by the migraines of his long-suffering wife, by the socialism in the newspaper, the slowness of the subway, the wait for the elevator, the too casual greeting of the receptionist. It was only the great morning pile on his desk of motions, attachments and injunctions that restored his calm. . . . Litigation, indeed, was more than Webb's profession; it was his catharsis." Harry Hamilton, Webb's counterpart in A Law for the Lion, was able to "play without rival his chosen role of enfant terrible" in the "sober and mild atmosphere" of his firm. He surrounded himself with a "little clique of admirers who aped his cynicism, his heavy humor, his extravagant passion for baseball, and who every evening at six were to be found ambling after him down the corridor on their way to dinner at the same waterfront restaurant".
Other status gradations exist in Auchincloss's firms. Managing clerks, secretaries and women lawyers are set apart by their lack of mobility and the regimented quality of their working lives. In general, status gradations serve as devices through which Auchincloss's practitioners, by limiting the number of persons whose approval is necessary for their professional development, can deepen their sense of autonomy. Although the vertical and horizontal subdivisions of the offices serve as constraints, they also breed a kind of independence by fostering the creation of a plethora of small subfirms, each a microcosm of an older style of law practice, within the large, impersonal whole. One of Auchincloss's characters in Powers of Attorney recalls that the senior partner responsible for establishing in his firm an "elaborate [system of] etiquette" that publicized and reinforced status differences among the employees was remembered by his colleagues as the last of "the great individualist lawyers".
Auchincloss's treatment of the theme of social class runs counter to the traditional identification of Wall Street firms as apologists for an upper-class way of life. In Auchincloss's hands class consciousness becomes a two-edged concept. Sheridan Dale's success with his upper-class clientele, for example, comes from the fact that he is not one of them. Dale's mentor, Cyrus Sheffield, had seen in the "unprepossessing young man from Fordham the future confidant of his rich widows and old maids". Rather than delegating this business "to attenuated young men of better family than brains", Sheffield "had the wits to perceive . . . that affluent ladies from east of Central Park, distrustful of anyone from their own world as for that very reason too soft, would eagerly embrace, in their business affairs a champion from the great murky outside city which they felt to threaten them—that they would prefer to fight, like ancient Romans, barbarians with barbarians".
Alongside a general inclination among members of Wall Street firms toward upper-class life styles, Auchincloss places a sense of the relative insignificance of those styles in forging a successful law practice. Clitus Tilney may wear "aristocratically" unpressed tweeds, cover the walls of his brownstone with Hudson River School landscapes and pour "very cold dry martinis into chilled silver mugs", but he has a "habit of checking the firm's books to see if Rutherford [Tower]'s 'Social Register practice', as he slightlingly called it, paid off. At one point in Jake Piatt's agonizing over his potential partnership, he is disconcerted by an associate's remark that "this firm is properly concerned with its reputation of being a bit on the social side. Having Barry [Schilde] [a Jewish competitor of Piatt's] as a partner might balance things out."
Auchincloss's portrait of the pervasive yet limited influence of upper-class life styles among Wall Street firms suggests that it is one thing to determine that firms are aware of class characteristics among their personnel but quite another to assess the importance of those characteristics. On one occasion Professor Detlev Vagts of Harvard Law School expressed surprise [in Harvard Law Review, 1964] at Auchincloss's emphasis on "sartorial matters and the Social Register", things he felt "made little difference" to Wall Street lawyers. In making that comment Vagts unintentionally captured the essence of Auchincloss's view of Wall Street class consciousness—matters such as dress and club membership receive a great deal of emphasis and are seen as making very little difference.
Auchincloss's lawyers profess a strict adherence to high ethical standards and voice their allegiance to the Canons of Professional Ethics. A senior partner of Tales of Manhattan, his successor recalls, "always insisted that the Code of Professional Ethics should be . . . strictly interpreted. . . . He never held a share of stock in a corporation that he represented. He would not even allow the firm's telephone number to appear on our letterhead, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that we persuaded him to enter it in the directory."
But this public stance does not prevent them from not following their principles when, as one from the same collection puts it, "they stand in the way of old and valued clients". In fact, Auchincloss appears to suggest, the presence of a high-powered clientele may increase the pressures on Wall Street lawyers to behave in unethical ways. "If you ever have the good fortune to secure a big company as your client," Chambers Todd informs a subordinate on one occasion, "you will learn that the word 'unbiased' has no further meaning for you. .. . A good lawyer eats, lives and breathes for his clients." Clitus Tilney wistfully acknowledges the truth of Todd's remark: "I wish we could return to the old days of great integrity. . . . Before we were captured by the corporations. Before we became simple mouth-pieces."
An extended treatment of the effect of clients upon ethical issues appears in The Great World and Timothy Colt. Timmy Colt, the protagonist, is confronted with an ethical question involving the management of a trust.
One of Colt's clients, George Emlen, the nephew of the surviving senior partner in Colt's firm, suggests, upon the maturation of an Emlen family trust, that he take the stock of a small family company that leases textile patents as his third of the trust principal, allowing his two sisters, the other beneficiaries, to divide the cash and marketable securities. The book value of the company stock is worth less than one third of the total trust holdings.
Colt becomes suspicious of George's motives, and he resolves to check his firm's files that pertain to the activities and plans of the Emlen company and of Holcombe textiles, a giant company on whose board of directors George sits. He finally finds a Holcombe memorandum of new business in which the company declares its intention to increase the production of a new kind of washable summer suit and to acquire a series of patents to that end. The Emlen company holds three of the patents. George's scheme becomes clear: he intends to make the Emlen patents available to Holcombe for a reasonable sum in return for Holcombe's eventually steering some business toward one of his textile mills.
Colt then communicates George's scheme to his cotrustee, Florence Emlen, George's mother. But Mrs. Emlen, a figurehead who simply signs releases and distribution papers, fails to grasp the implications of Colt's remarks and turns to George in her confusion. Colt then capitulates, and on hearing from one of George's sisters that they are most anxious to have the distribution made, resolves not to oppose it. Still troubled, however, by "his own deprecated conscience", he confides in Ellen Shallcross, the stepdaughter of his senior partner, with whom he has been having an affair during his separation from his wife. Attempting to save Colt from his dilemma, Ellen tells one of the Emlen sisters the details of George's scheme, only to find that the trust distribution has already been made.
Ellen's information stimulates one of the Emlen sisters to hire a lawyer and sue for a compulsory accounting of the trust, alleging that the trust distribution releases the sisters signed were invalid as fraudulently obtained. Colt's first resolve is to perjure himself at trial, since he is certain that none of the adversary parties can prove that he knew of any arrangement between George Emlen and Holcombe which would have made the Emlen company shares worth more than their book value. But at the last minute Colt takes the stand and simply tells the truth: that he investigated the Emlen-Holcombe files, learned of the patents and concealed this information from the Emlen sisters, thus facilitating an unequal distribution of trust assets and consequently neglecting his responsibilities as trustee.
Confessing that "the case is unprecedented in my experience", the judge refers the matter to the Grievance Committee of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Ultimately, Colt learns that the committee probably will not disbar him, since Canon 11 of the New York City Code of Professional Ethics confines abuses "dealing with trust property" to those instances where the lawyer abused his fiduciary position "for his personal benefit or gain". "I'm told", Colt informs his wife, "the committee may regard it as a quixotic breach of trust and only censure me. But it's not going to make it any easier to get a job."
In this example Auchincloss seems to be suggesting that the world of Wall Street practice is an especially difficult one for those, such as Colt, who are "governed by their consciences". At every stage in the Emlen trust proceeding Colt's desire to arrive at a fair and straightforward distribution of the assets runs up against pressures from his clients or his senior partner. Ultimately he is faced with the choice of either deliberately violating his trust or losing his place as junior manager of the Emlen family fortunes. When he temporarily chooses the latter, this choice fills him with such self-hate that he subsequently jeopardizes his career in Wall Street practice.
The Timothy Colts are the casualties of the prevailing stance toward professional ethics in Auchincloss's Wall Street. Those who survive are those who adhere to the dictum of Gerald Hunt, senior partner of the principal firm in A Law for the Lion. Hunt, Auchincloss notes, "was too much a man of the world to find in the application of broad moral rules to individual problems anything but the crudest possible taste". Hunt "professed many principles himself; few people, indeed, professed more", but "to premise one's conduct on their absolute relation to reality, well, that was being childish". Translated into law office terms, Hunt's dictum suggests that a successful practitioner keeps his sense of ethical outrage in the perspective of his clients' interests. To do otherwise is not to live in the world.
Are the major themes of Auchincloss still central to an understanding of Wall Street life? Do the dynamics of bureaucratization, class consciousness and professional ethics still serve as a means of defining the character of professional life for the Wall Street lawyer? Or have those issues been altered by the recent concern among young lawyers for the ways in which large private law firms respond to the presence of minority groups, the problems of poverty and the demands of consumer interests? Has, for example, the specter of the "organization man" become outdated, the WASP upper-class success model been replaced, the multileveled ethical philosophy of a Gerald Hunt been dismissed as hypocrisy? Some of these questions are tentatively addressed by Auchincloss in "The Double Gap", a story in his recent work, Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations.
"The Double Gap" involves an extended dialogue between Albert Ellsworth, senior partner of Carter & Ellsworth, and his grandson, Philip Kyles, concerning the latter's decision not to work for Ellsworth's firm on his graduation from law school. Ellsworth presents an "apologia" for the prevailing professional stance with regard to bureaucratization, class consciousness and questions of professional ethics. Kyles, in his turn, offers a critique of Ellsworth's position and emphasizes what he judges to be the central concerns facing a prospective Wall Street lawyer in the 1970s.
Early in the conversation Ellsworth states that his "greatest concern over the last thirty years" has been "the increase in size of our office". His chief dilemma, as managing partner, has been "to preserve the individualist spirit and the moral standards of the old-time practitioner" in the face of "the fantastic business regulations exacted by modern socialism". To achieve this he has reached out to the spirit of the firm's founder, Elihu Cowden Carter, the individualist lawyer incarnate. Ellsworth, sensing the contrast between his own "drab way" and the "color and inspiration" of his firm's founder, "deliberately set out to create the legend of Elihu Cowden Carter as a religion and a creed to hold [his] office together".
This classic approach to the problem of bureaucracy is ridiculed by Kyles, who finds Carter's French furniture, which Ellsworth had moved from the founder's office to the firm's reception hall, "pompous", Carter's writings "windy", and Carter himself "a brilliant ham actor who persuaded a credulous public to accept the hatchet man of a big, bullying corporation as a, legal philosopher and statesman". In keeping Carter's spirit alive, Ellsworth has revealed himself, in his grandson's opinion, as "a magnificent old cynic" who "can't admit it", a trait "my generation can never understand".
Class consciousness also enters the dialogue. Ellsworth recalls the time "a journalist . . . came to interview me about a book that he wanted to write on the big New York law firms". The interviewer, "was frankly cynical about what he expected to find", Ellsworth notes, "nepotism, old school ties, inter-firm back scratching. I told him that none of the big firms could long survive those things, that character and brains were their indispensable stock in trade. I invited him to use a desk in our office and to open all files that were not privileged. After three months he wrote a piece that justified me." At another point Ellsworth refers to his "great . . . inhibitions about his social inferiority", that marked his courtship of Kyles's grandmother, whom Ellsworth saw as marked by "impulses of generosity" that "reached out to . . . the servants, the hard-working clerks in the office, the poor of her charities, the world itself.
Kyles sees some of these issues rather differently. He remembers his grandmother as one who "could no more love the people in the slums than she could love the members of her own family" and who "tried", in his opinion, "to cover the desert of a heart dried up by a psychic shame with the flowers of charity". Kyles feels that "the gap seems to be narrowing between the big corporations and their lawyers and the Mafia and theirs"; he wants to "benefit [his] fellow men directly, in the ghettoes, the slums, the poor rural areas, the starving parts of the world".
In matters of professional ethics, as well, Ellsworth's attitudes approximate the prevailing attitude of Auchincloss's Wall Street. His "game", as Kyles terms it, is "to be at once the greatest and most ethical member of the whole wide bar". He believes, like one of his peers from another story in Second Chance, that "a law firm is something much more than its clients' problems", that lawyers "must be dedicated to something higher than the client, something higher than mere monetary reward". Yet on occasion he adopts Gerald Hunt's view of the relationship of principles to specific situations, especially those involving important clients. He confesses to Kyles that he looked the other way when the Great American Fruit Company, a major client of his firm, bribed courts in Dutch Honduras, accepting that practice "as a sine qua non to doing business in Central America", and that he allowed the firm "to try and win a case before a judge whom I knew had been fixed" without resigning.
Ellsworth's attitude is described by Kyles as a "compensating game of ethical canons which has the function, at least in the minds of your generation, of raising the lawyer to a higher moral plane than that of his client". For Kyles, this "game" is simply a rationalization for the fact that "clients' best interests" are "the be-all and end-all" of his grandfather's peers' "professional lives". "I want to bust .. . the 'establishment,'" Kyles tells Ellsworth, "you want to romanticize it. Neither of us can bear it as it is."
Auchincloss appears to suggest in "The Double Gap" that, although the themes of bureaucratization, class consciousness and professional ethics may remain central to Wall Street practice in the coming generation, the prevailing responses to those themes among lawyers may be altered. If the respective professional stances combine to form, as Kyles asserts, a "mystique" in which Wall Street practitioners wrap themselves, the capacity of that mystique to survive appears questionable. Kyles informs his grandfather that "those of us who have to earn our bread may go to work for firms like yours, but they won't buy the 'mystique'".
Should this phenomenon occur in great enough numbers or permeate not only the lower but the upper levels of Wall Street firms, the professional world that Auchincloss's characters strive to understand may well become new, and even brave.
Gore Vidal (essay date 1974)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5103
SOURCE: "Real Class," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXI, No. 12, July 18, 1974, pp. 10-15.
[The author of such works as Visit to a Small Planet ( 1956), Myra Breckenridge (1968), Burr (1973), and Lincoln (1984), Vidal is an American author particularly noted for his historical novels and iconoclastic essays. In his work he examines the plight of modern humanity as it exists in a valueless world and amid the world's corrupt institutions. Vidal's work in all genres is marked by urbane wit and brilliant technique. Here, he takes issue with other critics, especially Granville Hicks, who complain that Auchincloss's subject matter is too limited. Vidal counters that Auchincloss's characters are drawn from the " ruling class of the United States" and that his focus on this group is unique and valuable, though it has caused many critics and educators to ignore his work. Commenting specifically about The Partners, Vidal notes several flaws and virtues that he believes are typical of Auchincloss's work.]
"What a dull and dreary trade is that of critic," wrote Diderot. "It is so difficult to create a thing, even a mediocre thing; it is so easy to detect mediocrity." Either the great philosophe was deliberately exaggerating or else Americans have always lived in an entirely different continuum from Europe. For us the making of mediocre things is the rule while the ability to detect mediocrity or anything else is rare. A century ago, E. L. Godkin wrote in The Nation: "The great mischief has always been that whenever our reviewers deviate from the usual and popular course of panegyric, they start from and end in personality, so that the public mind is almost sure to connect unfavorable criticism with personal animosity.
Don't knock, boost! was the cry of Warren Harding. To which the corolary was plain: anyone who knocks is a bad person with a grudge. As a result, the American has always reacted to the setting of standards rather the way Count Dracula responds to a clove of garlic or a crucifix. Since we are essentially a nation of hustlers rather than makers, any attempt to set limits or goals, rules or standards, is to attack a system of free enterprise where not only does the sucker not deserve that even break but the honest man is simply the one whose cheating goes undetected. Worse, to say that one English sentence might be better made than another is to be a snob, a subverter of the democracy, a Know-Nothing enemy of the late arrivals to our shores and its difficult language.
I doubt if E. L. Godkin would find the American bookchat scene any better today than it was when he and his literary editor Wendell Phillips Garrison did their best to create if not common readers uncommon reviewers. Panegyric is rarer today than it was in the last century but personality is still everything, as the Sunday New York Times Book Review demonstrates each week: who can ever forget the Times's gorgeous tribute not to the book by Mr. Saul Bellow under review but to its author's admittedly unusual physical beauty? What matters is not if a book is good or bad (who, after all, would know the difference?) but whether or not the author is a good person or a bad person. It is an article of faith among us that only a good person can write a good book; certainly, a bad person will only write bad books (the continuing Ezra Pound debate is full of fine examples of this popular wisdom).
But then moralizing is as natural to the American bookchat writer as it is to the rest of our countrymen—a sort of national tic. Naturally, there are fashions in goodness owing to changes in the Climate of Opinion (current forecast: Chomsky occluded, low pressure over the black experience, small Stravinsky-Craft warnings). Also, since Godkin's time, the American university has come into its terrible own. Departments of English now produce by what appears to be parthenogenesis novels intended only for the classroom; my favorite demonstrated that the universe is—what else?—the university. Occasionally a university novel (or U-novel) will be read by the general (and dwindling) public for the novel; and sometimes a novel written for that same public (P-novel) will be absorbed into Academe, but more and more the division between the two realms grows and soon what is written to be taught in class will stay there and what is written to be read outside will stay there, too. On that day the kingdom of prose will end, with an exegesis.
Meanwhile, bookchat, both P and U, buzzes on like some deranged bumblebee with a taste for ragweed; its store of bitter honey periodically collected and offered the public (?) in books with titles like Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction by Granville Hicks, one of the most venerable bees in the business, a nice old thing who likes just about everything that's "serious" but tends to worry more about the authors than their books. Will X develop? Get past the hurdle of The Second Novel (everyone has One Novel in him, the First) or will fashion destroy him? Drink? Finally, does he deserve to be memorialized in Literary Horizons? Mr. Hicks's list of approved novelists contains one black, one Catholic, one Southern Wasp, and six Jews. That is the standard mix for the Seventies. The Fifties mix would have been six Southern Wasps, one Jew, no black, etc.
For those who find puzzling the high favor enjoyed by the Jewish novelist in today's bookchat land, I recommend Mr. Alfred Kazin's powerful introduction to The Commentary Reader, "The Jew as Modern American Writer." Mr. Kazin tells us, with pardonable pride, that not only are Jews "the mental elite of the power age" but "definitely it was now  the thing to be Jewish." As a result, to be a Jew in America is the serious subject for a P or even U novel, while to be a Wasp is to be away from the creative center; the born Catholic (as opposed to a convert like Flannery O'Connor) is thought at best cute (if Irish), at worst silly (if drunken Irish). In the permissive Sixties, Negroes were allowed to pass themselves off as blacks and their books were highly praised for a time but then there was all that trouble in the schools and what with one thing or another the black writers faded away except for James Baldwin, Mr. Hicks's token nigger. Yet even Mr. Hicks is worried about Mr. Baldwin. Does he really belong on the List? Is it perhaps time for his "funeral service" as a writer? Or will he make one final titanic effort and get it all together and write The Novel?
Like Bouvard, like Pecuchet, like every current bookchatterer, Hicks thinks that there really is something somewhere called The Novel which undergoes periodic and progressive change (for the better—this is America!) through Experiments by Great Masters. Consequently the Task of the Critic is to make up Lists of Contenders, and place his bets accordingly. Not for Mr. Hicks Brigid Brophy's truism: there is no such thing as The Novel, only novels.
At any given moment the subject or the matter of American fiction is limited by the prevailing moral prejudices and assumptions of the residents in bookchat land. U-novels must always be predictably experimental (I reserve for another occasion a scrutiny of those interesting cacti) while the respectable P-novel is always naturalistic, usually urban, often Jewish, always middle-class, and of course, deeply, sincerely heterosexual.
Conscious of what the matter of fiction ought to be, Mr. Hicks somewhat nervously puts Louis Auchincloss on his list. On the one hand, Auchincloss deals entirely with the American scene, writes in a comfortably conventional manner, and is one of the few intellectuals who writes popular novels. On the other hand, despite virtues, Auchincloss is not much thought of in either the P or the U world and Mr. Hicks is forced to buzz uneasily: "Although I have read and reviewed most of Louis Auchincloss's work in the past twelve years, I hesitated about including him in this volume." So the original Debrett must have felt when first called upon to include the Irish peerage. "Certainly he has not been one of the movers and shakers of the postwar period." As opposed, presumably, to Reynolds Price, Wright Morris, Herbert Gold, Bernard Malamud, and the other powerhouses on Mr. Hicks's list. Actually, only two or three of Mr. Hicks's writers could be said to have made any contribution at all to world literature. But that is a matter of taste. After all, what, Pontius, is literature?
Mr. Hicks returns worriedly to the matter of fiction. Apparently Auchincloss "has written for the most part about 'good' society, the well-to-do and the well-bred. And he has written about them with authority. What bothers me is not that he writes about this little world but that he seems to be aware of no other. Although he is conscious of its faults, he never questions its values in any serious way." This is fascinating. I have read all of Auchincloss's novels and I cannot recall one that did not in a most serious way question the values of his "little world." Little world!
It is a fascinating tribute to the cunning of our rulers and to the density of our intellectuals (bookchat division, anyway) that the world Auchincloss writes about, the domain of Wall Street bankers and lawyers and stockbrokers, is thought to be irrelevant, a faded and fading genteel-gentile enclave when, in actual fact, this little world comprises the altogether too vigorous and self-renewing ruling class of the United States—an oligarchy that is in firm control of the Chase Manhattan Bank, American foreign policy, and the decision-making processes of both divisions of the Property Party; also, most "relevantly," Auchincloss's characters set up and administer these various foundations that subsidize those universities where academics may serenely and dully dwell like so many frogs who think their pond the ocean (the universe is the university again).
Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and bookchatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer's debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, by betraying his class. But then how can the doings of a banker who is white and gentile and rich be relevant when everyone knows that the only meaningful American experience is to be Jewish, lower-middle-class, and academic? Or (in Mr. Hicks's words), "As I said a while ago and was scolded for saying, the characteristic hero of our time is a misfit." Call me Granville.
Ignorance of the real world is not a new thing in our literary life. After the Second World War, a young critic made a splash with a book that attributed the poverty of American fiction to the lack of a class system—a vulgar variation on Henry James's somewhat similar but usually misunderstood observations about American life. This particular writer came from a small town in the Midwest; from school, he had gone into the service and from there into a university. Since he himself had never seen any sign of a class system, he decided that the United States was a truly egalitarian society. It should be noted that one of the charms of the American arrangement is that a citizen can go through a lifetime and never know his true station or who the rulers are.
Of course our writers know that there are rich people hidden away somewhere (in the columns of Suzy, in the novels of Louis Auchincloss) but since the Depression, the owners of the country have played it cool, kept out of sight, consumed inconspicuously. Finally, no less a P (now P-U) writer than that lifelong little friend of the rich Ernest Hemingway felt obliged to reassure us that the rich are really just folks. For the P-writer the ruling class does not exist as a subject for fiction if only because the rulers are not to be found in his real world of desperate suburbs. The U-writer knows about the Harkness plan—but then what is a harkness? Something to do with horse racing? While the names that the foundations bear do not suggest to him our actual rulers—only their stewards in the bureaucracy of philanthropy: the last stronghold of the great immutable fortunes.
The serious P-writer knows that he must reflect the world he lives in: the quotidian of the average man. To look outside that world is to be untrue and, very possibly, undemocratic. To write about the actual movers and shakers of the world we live in (assuming that they exist of course) is to travel in fantasy land. As a result, novels to do with politics, the past, manners, are as irrelevant to the serious P-writer as the breathy commercial fictions of all the Irvingses—so unlike the higher relevancies of all the Normans.
In a society where matters of importance are invariably euphemized (how can an antipersonnel weapon actually kill?) a writer like Louis Auchincloss who writes about the way money is made and spent is going to have a very hard time being taken seriously. For one thing, it is now generally believed in bookchat land that the old rich families haven't existed since the time of Edith Wharton while the new-rich are better suited for journalistic exposés than for a treatment in the serious P or U novel. It is true that an indiscriminate reading public enjoys reading Auchincloss because, unlike the well-educated, they suspect that the rich are always with us and probably up to no good. But since the much-heralded death of the Wasp establishment, the matter of Auchincloss's fiction simply cannot be considered important.
This is too bad. After all, he is a good novelist, and a superb short-story writer. More important, he has made a brave effort to create his own literary tradition—a private oasis in the cactus land of American letters. He has written about Shakespeare's penchant for motiveless malignity (a peculiarly American theme), about Henry James, about our women writers as the custodians and caretakers of the values of that dour European tribe which originally killed the Indians and settled the continent.
Mr. Hicks with his eerie gift for misunderstanding what a writer is writing about thinks that Auchincloss is proudly showing off his class while bemoaning its eclipse by later arrivals. Actually, the eye that Auchincloss casts on his own class is a cold one and he is more tortured than complacent when he records in book after book the collapse of the Puritan ethical system and its replacement by—as far as those of us now living can tell—nothing. As for the ruling class being replaced by later arrivals, he knows (though they, apparently, do not) that regardless of the considerable stir the newcomers have made in the peripheral worlds of the universities, showbiz, and bookchat, they have made almost no impact at all on the actual power structure of the country.
Auchincloss deals with the movers and shakers of the American empire partly because they are the people he knows best and partly, I suspect, because he cannot figure them out to his own satisfaction. Were they better or worse in the last century? What is good, what is bad in business? And business (money) is what our ruling class has always been about; this is particularly obvious now that the evangelical Christian style of the last century has been abandoned by all but the most dull of our rulers' employees (read any speech by the current president to savor what was once the very sound of Carnegie, of Gould, and of Rockefeller).
Finally, most unfashionably, Auchincloss writes best in the third person; his kind of revelation demands a certain obliqueness, a moral complexity which cannot be rendered in the confessional tone that marks so much of current American fiction good and bad. He plays God with his characters, and despite the old-fashionedness of his literary method he is an unusually compelling narrator, telling us things that we don't know about people we don't often meet in novels—what other novelist went to school with Bill and McGenghis Bundy? Now, abruptly, he ceases to play God. The third person becomes first person as he describes in A Writer's Capital the world and the family that produced him, a world and family not supposed either by their own standards or by those of book-chatland to produce an artist of any kind.
I must here confess to an interest. From the time I was ten until I was sixteen years old my stepfather was Hugh D. Auchincloss, recently saluted by a society chronicler as "the first gentleman of the United States"—to the enormous pleasure and true amazement of the family. The Auchinclosses resemble the fictional Primes in The Embezzler, a family that over the years has become extraordinarily distinguished for no discernible reason or, as Louis puts it, "There was never an Auchincloss fortune . . . each generation of Auchincloss men either made or married its own money."
Plainly, even sharply, Louis chronicles the family's history from their arrival in America (1803) to the present day. He is realistic about the family's pretensions though he does not seem to be aware of the constant chorus of criticism their innumerable in-laws used to (still do?) indulge in. I can recall various quasi-humorous rebellions on the part of the in-laws (once led by Wilmarth Lewis) at the annual clan gathering in New York. What the in-laws could never understand was the source of the family's self-esteem. After all, what had they ever done? And didn't they come to America a bit late by true "aristocratic" standards? And hadn't they been peddlers back in Scotland who had then gone into dry goods in New York? And what was so great about making blue jeans? Besides, weren't they all a bit too dark? What about "those grave, watery eyes over huge aquiline noses"? And wasn't there a rumor that they had Italian blood and when you come right down to it didn't they look (this was only whispered at Bailey's Beach, muttered in the men's room of the Knickerbocker) Jewish?
In the various peregrinations of the branch of the family that I was attached to (I almost wrote "assigned to": sooner or later the Auchinclosses pick up one of everything, including the chicest of the presidents), I never came across Louis, who was, in any case, eight years older than I. Right after the war when I was told that a Louis Auchincloss had written a novel, I said: Not possible. No Auchincloss could write a book. Banking and law, power and money—that was their category.
From reading Louis's memoir I gather that that was rather his own view of the matter. He had a good deal to overcome and this is reflected in the curiously tense tone of his narrative. He had the bad luck, for a writer, to come from a happy family, and there is no leveler as great as a family's love. Hatred of one parent or the other can make an Ivan the Terrible or a Hemingway; the protective love, however, of two devoted parents can absolutely destroy him. This seems to have been particularly true in the case of Louis's mother. For one thing she knew a good deal about literature (unlike every other American writer's mother) and so hoped that he would not turn out to be second-rate, and wretched.
From the beginning, Louis was a writer: word-minded, gossip-prone, book-devouring. In other words, a sissy by the standards of the continuing heterosexual dictatorship that has so perfectly perverted in one way or another just about every male in the country. The sensitive, plump, small boy like Louis has a particularly grim time of it but, happily, as the memoir shows, he was able eventually to come to grips with himself and society in a way that many of the other sensitive, plump boys never could. A somber constant of just about every American literary gathering is the drunk, soft, aging writer who bobs and weaves and jabs pathetically at real and imagined enemies, happy in his ginny madness that he is demonstrating for all the world to see his manliness.
By loving both parents more or less equally, Auchincloss saw through the manly world of law and finance; saw what it did to his father who suffered, at one point, a nervous breakdown. Not illogically, "I came to think of women as a privileged happy lot. With the right to sit home all day on sofas and telephone, and of men as poor slaves doomed to go downtown and do dull, soul-breaking things to support their families." As for Wall Street, "never shall I forget the horror inspired in me by those narrow dark streets and those tall sooty towers. . . ." The story of Auchincloss's life is how he reconciled the world of father with that of mother; how he became a lawyer and a novelist; how the practice of law nourished his art and, presumably, the other way around, though I'm not so sure that I would want such a good novelist creating a trust for me.
Groton, Yale, Virginia Law School, the Navy during World War II, then a Manhattan law firm, psychoanalysis, marriage, children, two dozen books. Now from the vantage point of middle age, the author looks back at himself and our time, holding the mirror this way and that, wondering why, all in all, he lacked the talent early on for being happy, for being himself. With characteristic modesty, he underplays his own struggle to reconcile two worlds, not to mention the duality of his own nature. Yet I suspect that having made himself a writer, he must have found demoralizing the fact that the sort of writing he was interested in doing was, simply, not acceptable to the serious U or even the serious P-chatterers.
The literary line to which he belongs was never vigorous in the United States—as demonstrated by its master Henry James's wise removal to England. Edith Wharton remained an American; yet to this day she is regarded as no more than pale James. Since Mrs. Wharton, the novel of manners has been pretty much in the hands of commercialites. But of the lot neither the insider Marquand nor the outsider O'Hara is taken seriously in U-land while in P-land they were particularly downgraded after the war when bookchat was no longer written by newspapermen who were given books to review because they were not good enough to write about games but by young men and women who had gone to universities where the modern tradition (sic) was entirely exotic: Joyce and Lawrence, Proust and Kafka were solemnly presented to them as the models worth honoring or emulating. It is true that right after the war James made a comeback, but only as an elaborate maker of patterns: what Maisie knew was not so important as her way of telling what she knew.
The early Fifties was not a good time for a writer like Louis Auchincloss. But it could have been worse: at least he did not have to apologize for his class because, pre-Camelot, no American writer had a clue who or what an Auchincloss was. Yet even then his novels never much interested his fellow writers or those who chatted them up because he did not appear to deal with anything that really mattered, like the recent war, or being Jewish/academic/middle-class/heterosexual in a world of ballcutters. No one was prepared for dry ironic novels about the ruling class—not even those social scientists who are forever searching for the actual bill of sale for the United States.
Auchincloss himself was no help. He refused to advertise himself. If the bookchatterers had no idea what Sullivan and Cromwell was he wasn't going to tell them: he just showed the firm in action. He also knew, from the beginning, what he was doing: "I can truly say that I was never 'disillusioned' by society. I was perfectly clear from the beginning that I was interested in the story of money: how it was made, inherited, lost, spent." Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives. In fascinating detail, he shows how generations of lawyers have kept intact the great fortunes of the last century. With Pharaonic single-mindedness they have filled the American social landscape with pyramids of tax-exempt money, for the eternal glory of Rockefeller, Ford, et al. As a result, every American's life has been affected by the people Auchincloss writes so well about.
I cannot recall where or when I first met Louis. He lists me among a dozen writers he met twenty years ago at the Greenwich Village flat of the amiable Vance Bourjaily and his wife. I do recall the curiosity I had about him: how on earth was he going to be both a lawyer and a writer (a question entirely subjective: how could I write what I did and be an effective politician? Answer: forget it). I can't remember how he answered the question or if he did. I was amused by the reaction of other writers to him. They knew—particularly the wives or girlfriends—that there was something "social" about him but that was neither a plus nor a minus in the Eisenhower era. Earlier it would have been a considerable handicap. In my first years as a writer, I was often pleased to be identified with the protagonist of The City and the Pillar—a male prostitute. After all, that was a real identity, I thought, sharing the collective innocence.
Louis moved through these affairs with considerable charm and he exaggerates when he writes: 'The fact that I was a Wall Street lawyer, a registered Republican, and a social registrite was quite enough for half the people at any one party to cross me off as a kind of duckbill platypus not to be taken seriously." Rather wistfully, he observes: "I am sure I had read more books by more of the guests at any one party than anyone else." I am sure that he had. But then it has always been true that in the United States the people who ought to read books write them. Poor Louis who knew French and American literature, who "kept up" with what was going on, now found himself in a literary society of illiterate young play-actors; overexcited by the publicity surrounding Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they decided to imitate these "old masters." At least a dozen were playing Hemingway—several grizzled survivors still are. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner were also popular archetypes. No one was himself—but then selves are hard to come by in America. So, in a way, Louis was indeed like a platypus in that farmyard of imitation roosters. After all, he didn't resemble any famous writer we had ever heard of. He was simply himself, and so odd man out to the young counterfeiters.
Since then, Auchincloss has learned (through psychoanalysis, he tells us) that "a man's background is largely of his own creating." Yet pondering the response to this discovery as expressed in his work, he writes,
American critics still place a great emphasis on the fact of background on character, and by background they mean something absolute which is the same for all those in the foreground. Furthermore, they tend to assume that the effect of any class privilege in a background must be deleterious to a character and that the author has introduced such a background only to explain the harm done. Now the truth is that the background to most of my characters has been selected simply because it is a familiar one to me and is hence more available as a model. .. . I cannot but surmise that the stubborn refusal on the part of many critics to see this is evidence of a resentment on their part against the rich, a resentment sometimes carried to the point of denying that a rich man can be a valid subject for fiction. . . . Such a point of view would have been, of course, ridiculous in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries when the great bulk of the characters of fiction came from the upper or upper middle class. Critics did not resent Anna Karenina or Colonel Newcome.
Louis Auchincloss's latest book, The Partners, is a collection of related short stories set in a New York law firm. A merger has been proposed between the demure firm of the partners and a larger, flashier firm. Old values (but are they really values?) combat new forces. Invariably those who do the right self-sacrificing thing end up echoing Mrs. Lee in Henry Adams's Democracy: "The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of your countrymen would say I have made a mistake."
The author's virtues are well displayed: almost alone among our writers he is able to show in a convincing way men at work—men at work discreetly managing the nation's money, selecting its governors, creating the American empire. Present, too, are his vices. Narrative is sometimes forced too rapidly, causing characters to etiolate while the profound literariness of the author keeps leaking into the oddest characters. I am sure that not even the most civilized of these Wall Street types is given to quoting King Lear and Saint-Simon quite as often as their author has him do. Also, there are the stagy bits of writing that recur from book to book—hands are always "flung up" by Auchincloss characters; something I have never seen done in real life west of Naples.
One small advance: in each of Auchincloss's previous books sooner or later the author's Jacobite fascination with the theater intrudes and, when it does, I know with terrible foreboding that I shall presently see upon the page that somber ugly word "scrim." I am happy to report that in The Partners there is no scrim, only the author's elegant proscenium arch framing our proud, savage rulers as they go single-mindedly about their principal task: the preserving of fortunes that ought to be broken up.
Richard Todd (essay date 1976)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772
SOURCE: A review of The Winthrop Covenant, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 237, No. 4, April, 1976, p. 112.
[In the following review of The Winthrop Covenant, Todd comments on the moral situations Auchincloss presents and the author's focus on Puritan values and behavior.]
Wonderful money. It is such interesting stuff, and yet current fiction pays so little attention to it. American novelists love to talk about money, as everyone who has seen two of them together has noticed. But these days they don't write about it very often or very well. I can think of just one contemporary American writer who has made a career of observing wealth: Louis Auchincloss. . . .
He has slowly attracted a sizable audience, though he has few friends in the critical Establishment. Perhaps the warmest praise he has received came from his distinguished distant cousin Gore Vidal, in an essay in The New York Review of Books. Vidal remarked approvingly on Auchincloss' frank fascination with money, and said, "of all our novelists Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their boardrooms, their law offices, their clubs. . . . Almost alone among our writers he is able to show in a convincing way men at work . . . discreetly managing the nation's money, selecting its governors, creating the American empire."
Auchincloss is a relentlessly old-fashioned novelist, as even many of his titles make plain (The Great World and Timothy Colt; Pursuit of the Prodigal). His novels suffer from artificiality of plot and manner. I suspect, though, that unlike most writers, he's probably more embarrassing at the moment than he will be in the future. He is, at a minimum, an entertaining correspondent from an underreported country, the country of the rich.
His new book, The Winthrop Covenant, aims higher. It's an effort to examine the philosophical underpinnings of the American upper class.
It consists of nine short stories, all related, as Auchincloss says in a preface, to "the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic." "By Puritan ethic I mean that preoccupying sense, found in certain individuals, of a mission, presumably divinely inspired, toward their fellow men." This headmasterly tone is typical of Auchincloss. But this definition is also a bit wry. The "preoccupying sense" of Auchincloss' characters is more often than not a ruinous obsession.
The movement of the book is a long climb up the Winthrop family tree, beginning with Governor John Winthrop and General Wait Still Winthrop, a judge at the Salem witch trials. The rest of the branches are fictive—three centuries of representative patrician types, ending with a portrait of a CIA old-boy.
These stories are uneven; some of them suffer from being more nearly outlines for novels. And there is the difficulty of Auchincloss' rarefied diction. His seventeenth-century figures often sound more contemporary than his contemporaries. Consider these eloquent snippets of post-coital recrimination (c. 1950):
"At least I shall have given you the satisfaction of making a cuckold of a man you deeply envy and can never possibly equal." .. . "I suggest that you sought my chamber only to revenge yourself on John."
But manners interest Auchincloss less than morals in this book. The Winthrop Covenant matters mostly as an extended act of brooding on a central strain in American character. Auchincloss' Puritans brood a great deal themselves. Although they are afflicted with a sense of mission, they are hardly altruistic; the greatest efforts go toward self-justification. In an early story, Wait Still Winthrop, at the end of his life, anguishes over having sent a Salem witch to death, only to find a moral loophole that excuses him from guilt. His imaginary descendant, the CIA official, uses his inherited gift for indignant wrath to shame his son out of draft evasion; meanwhile the man is lying to the public about American warfare in Southeast Asia. The mildest of the Winthrops, a prep school chaplain, is told by a more worldly figure: "For you, the drama is all within you." It might be said of all these characters.
For Auchincloss, Puritanism is an exquisite mix of arrogance and guilt—arrogance breeding guilt, and guilt doting on its own niceties to the point of renewed arrogance. The contradictions were there from the start. The doctrine of grace, central to Puritan theology, might have been devised by R. D. Laing as a model for the creation of schizophrenics. Some are saved and there is nothing anyone can do about it: to be a member of the elect is to feel both helpless and omnipotent. The Winthrop Covenant implies that those Americans with the clearest claim to aristocracy have always been profoundly confused about the meaning of their presumed superiority.
Louis Auchincloss with Vincent Piket (interview date 1985-1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4800
SOURCE: An interview with Louis Auchincloss, in The Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1988, pp. 20-37.
[In this excerpt from an interview conducted between October 1985 and July 1987, Auchincloss discusses various subjects related to his work, including characterization and the evolution of his career. The author also comments on his relationship with other writers and his opinion of contemporary society and the world of letters.]
[Piket]: You have written that most of a writer's characters are just himself "wearing different funny hats".
[Auchincloss]: That seems true to me. Basically you have no one else to write about other than yourself, no other source than yourself. Who else do you know, I mean truly know? It's a banal but true thing that we are all islands, with very little knowledge, deep down, of other people. If we read that Napoleon was banned to Elba, then of course we only have ourselves as a source to imagine how bad and terrible that sentence must have been. We can't imagine Napoleon's feelings. So even if a writer chooses a model for a character, he is still writing his own perception of that model, which means that he is making that model into a reflection of himself.
Would you agree that there was a direct influence of the psycho-analysis you underwent in 1952-1953 on your writing? Your novels of the later 1950s, The Great World and Timothy Colt, Venus in Sparta and Pursuit of the Prodigal are markedly different from the novels of the years before psycho-analysis.
Yes, I would agree that I enlarged my field. But I don't know the exact extent of the influence. I think it is impossible or at least very difficult for a writer to say what has influenced him. But I'm sure that psycho-analysis helped me. It made me realize fears of my own. I was aware that with Timothy Colt I started writing about male main characters rather than female ones. Still, it was not a conscious decision. I recall a friend of mine saying, "The hero of Pursuit of the Prodigal is the first real man in your fiction", and my thinking that was so, that he was a very male male. I also think that without the analysis I would never have written a book like The Rector of Justin, touching on a school not modeled on Groton but in its atmosphere and influence not dissimilar from Groton. The anger which that book created among the Groton family would have been nerveracking for me before. Now I had much more confidence in myself and I didn't care. . . .
The stories in Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations  typically deal with attempts at revitalization and rejuvenation after disillusionment and disappointment. Were you aware of that? Would you say that the theme applied to this period of your career?
No, I think that was a way of putting them together, I had been looking rather desperately for a common denominator for the book of short stories, but it was hard to find, and I rather pushed that.
Why did you decide to write your autobiography A Writer's Capital in this period?
Well, because John Irwin, the editor of the University of Minnesota Press, suggested that I either write—I remember the letter, it seems silly—a biography of myself or of Mary McCarthy. So I picked myself. Then I became intrigued with the idea, because it seemed to me rather conceited to write an autobiography, but as long as somebody else asked for it I felt it was all right. I also thought that the University Press having asked for it gave it a dignity which it wouldn't have if I wrote it of my own accord. The only one I really worried about was my brother John, I thought that he would think it was terrible to go into mother and father the way I did. I rather quaked about that, and then I would think it was written for a University Press, and that this would give it a sanction and a dignity. I could say, "After all, the University Press wants it." But when I sent John the book he loved it. He said, "I can't imagine why you thought I'd object to that." He said, "Of course you wouldn't have written it if mother and father were alive, but I have no objections to your doing it now." The family all liked it, I had no trouble with that.
In A Writer's Capital you suggest that your "writer's capital" is constituted by your boyhood and young manhood, roughly the period from 1930 to 1950. Would you say that this period in American social history interests you more than any other period?
The 1930s, yes, I think there's always some period in life that you regard as the "real world", maybe it's when you first mature in some ways. There's a book out called New York in the Thirties and looking at its pictures I keep thinking, "That's New York, that's New York". The Thirties seem to me a more real world than the Twenties or than any of the decades since. I think it's when one first becomes aware of the world as an adult. I think that the development of one's basic interests and one's ways of viewing the world are most often settled much earlier than the age of thirty, sometimes even as early as the age of ten. Certainly people change little after their teens, at least I feel I have and feel that I have taken the Thirties with me. I have used that period a great deal in my fiction, more than any other period.
In the final story of the 1974 story collection, The Partners, your character Beeky resolves to leave the large law firm of which he has been senior partner and to form a smaller, "crazy new law firm". After the many years of adhering to the role of the responsible and moral head of the firm, he is determined to have as much fun as his partners have had all the time. Would you say that the period in your writing career from 1974 onwards reflects a similar attempt at a new direction?
No, I don't think so. The idea of Beeky having his own firm was just a kind of fantasy. It wasn't based on any kind of reality and I'd never heard of anybody doing anything quite like that. I just liked the idea that somebody might. I liked Beeky's character. He was a little bit like a former senior partner that I knew and of whom I was very fond, but only a little bit. But I don't see a relation between Beeky's state of mind and his resolution and my own at that time. Certainly no conscious relation.
How then would you characterize the last ten years of your career? That you have become very eclectic in your subjects and forms is indicated particularly by the many historical novels and stories that you've written recently.
Yes, I dropped limitations. It was like Flaubert going from Madame Bovary to the wildness of Salammbô. I had always kept away from the past because it seemed to me that since I lacked the personal knowledge of it, I had no right to it. I thought my view was too limited for it. When I started out as a writer I wrote not only about things and events I knew and people I knew, but people that I could imagine myself being, and events that I could imagine happening to myself. Almost every character in my earlier fiction I was able to imagine myself being.
But gradually I began to wonder why I should be bound in this way, and this caused me to drop a number of limitations. I used some history in The Rector of Justin, but I studied for it: I read two books about Dr Jowett before I used one little scene with him in it. The history of The House of the Five Talents, I felt, was so close to the present that I could barely regard it as history. The same goes for Watchfires. The Cat and the King and Exit Lady Masham are my first truly historical novels, dealing with an era which is completely removed from my own experience, as to a certain degree the short stories of The Winthrop Covenant had been. I very much enjoyed doing those historical novels, and once I found that the water was all right I decided to stay in it for a while. Still, I look upon my historical novels very much as tours de force, as tests of the imagination, as tricks. However much I enjoyed doing those books, they do not constitute the most important part of my work.
So I have expanded my field to the past, even though I have stayed in my small area in the present. Which in effect means that I have made an escape, an escape from the responsibility of dealing with one's own time (which is not to mean that it is always the writer's task to write about his own time). I like what Mary McCarthy once wrote. She wrote that the novel was essentially a thing of the past, for instance the nineteenth century, because it pretends to deal with a world that makes sense. There is something in that. The point is that the twentieth century does not make sense. It is rather hard to present this world of intercommunication and lack of communication in a novel. It is perhaps therefore that the novel has come to be more and more introspective.
Why did you put so much autobiography into The Book Class?
Well, there is as much in the main character of Honorable Men, and you can't imagine characters more different than he and the character in The Book Class. But the most important reason for putting those elements in is that I have them at hand. There's no other reason. Why invent a law school if you have one? And, for young men of certain means Yale and Virginia law school are natural choices.
The story of "The Country Cousin" pops up several times throughout your career.
I have been concerned with that story for a long time. First in The Injustice Collectors, in 1950, where it appeared as "The Unholy Three". Before that a manuscript of the story had got lost, but I managed to recreate it. I later did a one-act play of it, and also a three-act play, which I was dissatisfied with and threw out. And finally I wrote the novel. People, I think my mother, used to ask me, "Why do you come back to that story? It's ridiculous". It is, but I love that theme. I used to know a lady acquaintance of my parents, who was an old maid and I use the term advisedly, with lesbian streaks—although then it wasn't called that: in those days lesbians were said to have a "Boston marriage". She had a musical ear, went to the opera a lot. She showed me tickets for 54 performances of "Tristan" which she had been to, which must have been about as many as there had been in New York at that time. She was a noisy, art-loving, heavy-breathing woman; I liked her, and went to the opera with her several times. My parents didn't like her, because she drank too much. So she wasn't invited to their parties because she was no "addition". She was a model for the elderly lady in the story.
The novel as such is to some extent a mystery to me. It has a complicated plot, especially in the second part. Probably there is too much plot, and I seem to be losing my hold of the theme in the second part. The theme, or rather the real story of the book is the episode of the night club. I think I'm through with that story by now. . . .
Do you plan and outline a novel with great care before starting it?
Yes. I have the book wholly outlined before I start. I find it impossible to work otherwise. But, of course, there are often many changes. For instance, Watchfires ended in my original draft right after the Civil War, even though it had the same epilogue it has now. I found the jump in time too big and decided to extend the story and add the wife's part about the suffrage question as well as the son's part, the part about his job in Grand Central. Some novels I was able to write in a more straight way, The Embezzler is one of those.
Sometimes I have a terrible desire to revise my work. I think all writers have, even though they don't do it, like myself. Except James. But the debate is still going on whether he improved his work by his revisions. One novel which I should like to revise is The Embezzler: the novel would be more exciting if I had made the dramatic contrast between the individual viewpoints greater. Sybil in Sybil should in the end not have gone back to her husband. She goes back to him because she thinks that there is only one love in one's life; but she is too intelligent to think that. One of the editors at Houghton Mifflin suggested that she should have married her cousin and I think he was right. In A Law for the Lion, the little plot in the end, where the young lawyer marries the reserved girl is sheer muck. I find the book embarrassing, I can't look at it. In Watchfires, the part about the suffragette movement is anachronistic, as some of the critics were right to suggest. That is to say, it is not unhistoric, and it is possible to document all of the events, but the atmosphere is 1970ish. The ending of Honorable Men is too kaleidoscopic and too quick; it's too tied. The main character of Diary of a Yuppie is too literary, even for the novelist manqué that he is. I'm happy about The House of Five Talents. I'm fairly happy about Portrait in Brownstone. I would leave The Great World and Timothy Colt alone. I would suppress The Dark Lady. The Country Cousin is much too overplotted. I would leave my short stories alone; I think of "The Wagneriane" [in Tales of Manhattan] as my best short story. A World of Profit is as good as it can be. / Come as a Thief doesn't come across. I would leave the historical novels alone, they are little tours de force. The Book Class is all right. I would suppress The Indifferent Children.
At the moment I'm going very slowly with the stories that I'm writing now [published as Skinny Island]. I always have this impatience with what I have on my desk. I always have the desire to go on to the next thing. But right now I' m paying careful attention to the stories.
A few months ago I had all my early stories and other contributions to The Grotonian, The Yale Literary Magazine and the Virginia Law Review bound and so I reread them. And it occurred to me that the most striking thing about them is that they show no promise whatsoever! Of course, there are always people saying, "No promise? Naturally, why should there be any promise if there is no talent?", but to my mind they contain no promise that their author would even be a published author in later days. The pieces are perfectly terrible, and yet unmistakably by me. You wouldn't think that after so many decades they could pain me, but they do. I suppose they're really painful because I feel there's so much in them that is still there in me. If I could really put them into the past altogether, then I wouldn't mind so much. But I don't quite have that feeling. In some ways I feel I haven't changed at all, which makes it quite unbearable to read them. The first story that I can read without a feeling that it is perfectly awful is "Maud", which appeared in The Atlantic in 1949.
If you look at post-war American fiction, where would you place yourself as a writer?
Oh, I don't know. That's for other people to say.
With whom do feel you have much in common?
You mean who writes most the way I do?
Well, I don't know really if anybody does. I think Hortense Calisher really writes somewhat my way. Obviously Marquand and I had a good deal in common, but he's no longer with us. I suppose the character most like me is Anthony Powell in England. I read all of A Dance to the Music of Time, and I'm always finding that I don't like it quite as much as I think I'm going to, but I like it nonetheless. But I think Anthony Powell is by far the closest of anybody writing to what I do.
Are you happy being called a novelist of manners?
I don't really know, because I don't exactly know what the term means. James Tuttleton includes Henry James in the category, and if one does that—even though there is justification for it in James's earlier novels, but certainly not in The Golden Bowl—one might as well include me. So I think the term is rather vague. Often the term is associated with good manners, the novel of good manners or even artificial manners. One might then think of Jane Austen. But personally, when I think of the novel of manners I do not necessarily think of "good manners". I would think of Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, which decribes the manners of a whole community, or of Trollope's The Way We Live Now.
You 're also often included among the present-day WASP writers, whom Joan Didion once described as "homeless": "The white, Protestant writer in America is . . . homeless—as absent from the world of his fathers as he is 'different' within the world of letters. " Would you agree with that?
I don't feel that at all. I feel I have a very definite niche. In fact, I feel at home in many places.
In your novelistic methods and styles you largely adhere to the principles of realism. Doesn 't the modernist and postmodernist critique of realism bother you at all?
No it doesn't bother me. I think it is nonsense to say that in a particular era you can write in only one particular way. I think there is always room for all styles and methods of composition, and I don't see, for instance, why it would be impossible to write a novel of letters in the 1980s, or an epic narrative for that matter. Each writer should be free to choose a style which suits him best. I am tolerant in these matters. I am irritated by any theory which dictates what the right style is at a particular time in history. And about modernism or postmodernism: that seems to me a thing of the 1960s-1970s. Besides, many writers have nothing to do with postmodernism. Joan Didion, for instance, writes straight narrative. Hortense Calisher does so, too. Saul Bellow might have written the way he does in the early 1900s. He happens to do it in these times and is much applauded for it. But if, say, a WASP writer does the same thing he is rejected. That may sound bitter but it's true. William Gaddis, whom I am reading now [Recognitions] and whom I much admire, does the same as me: he changes point of view, goes in and out of his characters, and is in flavour still like Trollope. I think Gaddis catches the spirit of our times perhaps best of our present-day novelists. The latest heresy in literary criticism is the idea that has emerged during the surge of feminism in the past years, the idea that the fiction by women is different from that by men, per se.
Critics have objected that the world which I write about is small. Well, New York City is big enough for me. A man like William Faulkner wrote about a small town down south and gets away with it. Great novels have been written about so-called irrelevant subjects and settings. I notice a continuing resentment in this country over any aspect of class distinction, even though Americans are obsessed with class. If I send one of my characters to a private boarding school in the Northeast I get criticized for parochialness, even though during the first half of this century particularly the boarding school was the equivalent of the orindary high school to the entire Northeast managerial class. And I would say that it has continued to be that to this day. But as soon as you write about a boarding school in a novel you get criticized for narrowness.
Are you in any way interested in contemporary critical theory?
No, not really. Whenever I write a critical piece about a certain book my starting-point is never theory, but rather my own impressions or ideas of that book.
Do you meet many fellow writers?
I have been meeting more of them since my retirement from the law in 1986. In my legal life, and my life in New York cultural institutions I didn't meet any writers. My schedule was too busy for it, and I was working office hours. You know, many writers like to stay up late and when some time ago one of them invited me for a party beginning eleven o'clock p.m. I simply couldn't accept. That's when I go to bed.
Things were different when I didn't practice; I would meet Phillip Roth and Jean Stafford and stay up and talk all night. I was on friendly terms with quite a number of writers then. Hortense Calisher was rather a friend—I always liked her very much. Vance and Tina Bourjaily were good friends. So was Gore Vidal. Norman Mailer I saw, but he wasn't a friend. We were just too different to be friends, and also I couldn't keep up with his sort of life. No, Jean Stafford was the only first-class writer who was a close friend. I was thrilled by knowing her. I had never known a first-class writer well, and I was flattered by her kindness even though she may have been more interested in my background than in myself. We remained friends until her disintegration, when her alcoholism made friendship more and more pointless.
My life changed with my marriage in 1957, and when shortly afterwards I became a partner in the firm. Then the artist type of life became totally out of keeping with my life as a lawyer. But as my retirement approached I had more time for literary activities, for lectures and so. Not long ago I went on a trip to Russia with a number of other writers under the cultural treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. I loved it. I loved talking to them, to Charles Fulller, William Gass, William Gaddis, Arthur Miller, Jerome Lawrence. And I realized what I had missed. But I guess you pay a price for everything.
Some time ago you were invited to serve as a judge in a contest in creative writing. You declined because, as you wrote to the Organizers, you found that you lacked "the necessary criteria to judge the fiction of young writers"; these criteria you defined as "the necessary scope and sympathy".
Yes, I do not read enough young writers for that. I only read well-known authors. Not because I lack sympathy, or because of a hostility on my part to young writers, but because I lack the time. Also I almost always read for a purpose, for an essay or for a book.
I find that my tastes have hardly changed over the years. My Groton education was almost entirely in English and French literature. And to the present day I keep on rereading the English nineteenth-century novelists, the Brontës, Thackeray, Trollope, as well as their French counterparts, the Goncourts, Proust, Flaubert, and Balzac to a lesser extent. I am still devoted to the French neo-classical dramatists, Racine and Corneille. I revisit Racine constantly; here is the copy of his collected works that I bought in 1935, when I was an undergraduate. And of course I read Shakespeare, who remains a great inspiration.
It wasn't until Yale that I came to American fiction. I don't remember reading any American fiction at all at Groton; I was very, very heavily nurtured in English nineteenth-century fiction. I never read any Edith Wharton and Henry James before I went to Yale, I even think I didn't read Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter until I went to Yale. There also I discovered James under the influence of my late friend Jack Woods. I read Edith Wharton, and others, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Lewis, Faulkner. Although I remember not liking Faulkner when I was at Yale. I came to Faulkner later. And of course Thomas Wolfe, whom we all read frantically.
To what extent do you share the view of Chip Benedict, the main character of Honorable Men, that since the beginning of this century there has been a general decline of culture, art, and morals?
Chip is a very extreme case. He is suffering from a moral compulsion which makes him take extreme views. I do not take so dim a view. But if you ask me whether moral standards have shown a decline, I would say yes. People have ceased to be shocked. There is a widespread, rather cynical acceptance of events. Think for instance of the Richard Whitney case in the 1930s, which created a tremendous excitement in New York and in the class Whitney belonged to. Nowadays that seems impossible. Nor do I think that the commercialization of art has had a great impact on art itself. It hasn't led to a considerable vulgarization. There has always been vulgar clack. And for those who care there has always been the right kind of art. Generally, I don't think that the world changes very much. Henry Adams made the mistake of thinking that. Some of the attitudes towards events change perhaps, but not the events themselves. Man can't be more corrupt than he is. Think of Commodore Vanderbilt who frankly admitted that he had bought the entire state legislature. That was last century, it would be impossible now. You could buy one or two individual judges, but not the entire legislative body.
I agree with Chip's feeling that the existence of nuclear weapons extinguishes the old-fashioned notion of human courage, honour, valour. Visiting Nagasaki in 1945 I felt that myself. I thought if someone's going to throw an atom bomb at you you're going to have to surrender, and you only have one alternative. If you've got one, you throw a bomb at him, then you both blow up, but you can't afford a war—it's either death or compromise, so it's kind of an end of valour. I did not foresee how long conventional warfare would go on. I would have been amazed if you had told me in 1945 that almost half a century later there would be an active war going on in the Gulf, and one in Afghanistan, in which no atomic weapons were used. I think that would have surprised everybody. I think we thought that they would proliferate faster than they have, I mean in other countries. They will.
Would you agree that your novels express a combination of a social, a moral and a psychological interest, together with a more straightforward delight in storytelling?
I think that's true. Morals and story-telling. I used to be more psychologically minded than I am today. I was more interested in self-destruction than I am today. Timothy Colt is a character, of course, who completely destroys his own career. I was fascinated that people did that, but I have exhausted most of that fascination. I certainly would not call the honourable man in Honorable Men a selfdestructive character, although he has elements of it in him, but then everybody has elements of it. I also used to explore the idea that my wife finds fascinating, the idea that people create their own environments. But morals are certainly a persisting interest of mine. There are morals in all my books. The ethical question is always there. In 1986 I was given the New York State Governor's Arts Award, and they praised my work for its examination of "man's ongoing struggle to apply ethical values in everyday life". I am quite happy with that.
Christopher C. Dahl (essay date 1986)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10386
SOURCE: "The Stories," in Louis Auchincloss, The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986, pp. 137-69.
[In the following chapter from his book-length study of Auchincloss's work, Dahl provides an overview of the author's short fiction. The critic summarizes the short story collections, then analyzes several stories that he feels are representative of Auchincloss's most accomplished work in the short fiction genre.]
Auchincloss's productivity as a writer of short stories rivals his output as a novelist. . . . Although his literary reputation will no doubt ultimately rest on his novels, he is an able practitioner of short fiction. Gore Vidal has called him "a superb short-story writer," and he has been praised for his "thoroughly disciplined technical skill and artistry" in William Peden's standard study of modern American short fiction. Occasionally Auchincloss's stories are overly contrived, and several of the longer ones seem outlines for novels, but at their best they are very good indeed. They display their author's psychological acuity and quick grasp of the ironies interwoven in complex human relationships. They achieve their effects—often pathetic as well as ironical—with admirable ease and economy of means, and in several of the stories that depict contemporary manners, an almost uncanny pre-science accompanies Auchincloss's usual versimilitude of detail.
When they have been published separately, Auchincloss's stories have appeared almost exclusively in general-circulation magazines. None have appeared in the "little" magazines, and, though Auchincloss has published three stories in The New Yorker and several in Harper's and The Atlantic, most of his work has made its way into magazines that cater to an even broader popular audience, magazines ranging from the old Saturday Evening Post to McCall's, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy. In an age of shrinking markets for short fiction, Auchincloss has been fairly successful as a short-story writer, though he has achieved nothing on the scale of the commercial success of such earlier writers as John Marquand or even Edith Wharton. . . .
Anyone who considers Auchincloss's short stories, however, encounters much the same paradox that is raised by the novels. Because the stories are not self-consciously difficult on the surface, they appeal to a popular audience. Yet, at the same time, they are marked by a profound literariness. While they meet the expectations of the average reader much more completely and easily than many stories published in, say, The New Yorker, they are frequently allusive and sometimes depend for their full effect upon knowledge of particular literary antecedents. Plot is also much more important in a typical Auchincloss story than in the stories of such writers as John Cheever and John Updike, both of whom share Auchincloss's interest in contemporary manners, but whose stories are often vignettes or brief impressionistic sketches. Auchincloss's stories, in contrast, often deal with events that develop over many years, and they may rely upon unexpected twists in plot or ironic conclusions. Almost always, they fulfill our conventional expectations for narrative, for a "good story."
Though the publications in which his stories have been published tell us much about Auchincloss's fiction, their wide appeal should not be overemphasized. Auchincloss has never aimed for a particular magazine audience. He has never been influenced by contracts with a magazine publisher, like Wharton and Marquand, nor has he been exclusively associated with a single journal, like Updike or Cheever. Indeed, almost half of Auchincloss's stories were first published as parts of collections rather than in periodicals.
Within the obvious limits imposed by their author's choice of social milieu and geographic location, Auchincloss's stories display a good deal of variety, and his interests as a story writer have changed as his career has developed over the years. As in his early novels, Auchincloss is often interested in the weak—failures or misfits who nonetheless possess peculiar strength despite their awkwardness or oddity. Though the settings of the earlier stories are always richly realized and authentically portrayed, Auchincloss's primary focus is upon the psychology of his characters. Throughout his career, he has been interested in the figure of the artist; like Henry James he frequently depicts writers, artists, or people who spend their lives acquiring works of art. Even though several collections are set in law firms, that has not limited him from pursuing extralegal interests in many of the stories involving lawyers. The more recent stories, especially those written since the late 1960s, have often tended to deal with social change in the worlds they portray. With his sardonic wit and elegant eye, Auchincloss has always been a fine chronicler of his times. Some of his keenest commentaries on contemporary life are contained in his stories.
More than most other short-story writers, Auchincloss has attempted to construct unified collections of stories. All his collections have coherent rationales—either a unifying theme or a set of recurring characters. In some cases Auchincloss's quest for unity has led to a literary form that mediates between the usual collection of unrelated stories and the novel. Indeed, several reviewers have mistakenly referred to two of his collections, The Partners and The Winthrop Covenant, as novels, and one of his recent novels, The Book Class (1984), comes close to being a collection of short stories. Since all the collections are so carefully planned, it is useful to describe each one briefly.
The first volume of stories, The Injustice Collectors, published in 1950, takes its title from a term coined by the psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. Injustice collectors, as Auchincloss explains the term, are "people who are looking for injustice, even in a friendly world, because they suffer from a hidden need to feel that this world has wronged them." Each story focuses upon one such collector—the girl who destroys her chances of marriage to the most eligible young man in the Maine summer resort by unleashing her impossible parents in a nasty dispute with the boy's father, for example, or the LST commander who ruins his career by his inability to accept assistance from his executive officer in his first attempt to bring his ship alongside a larger supply ship. The characters and settings are typical of Auchincloss's early work: shy girls and matrons in New York society, expatriate Americans in Paris, eccentrics in Maine resort towns. Each story is related with precision and dry humor, often by a first-person narrator who is himself the subject of Auchincloss's ironic scrutiny. Because of its craftsmanship, The Injustice Collectors remains in many respects Auchincloss's finest collection.
The Romantic Egoists (1954) depicts a similar group of outsiders, many of whom also display the same self-destructive tendencies. Though the outsiders in The Romantic Egoists share a self-preoccupation that is romantic in its intensity, the collection is unified not so much by a common theme as by the use of a single first-person narrator, Peter Westcott, whose responses to the cruder, but more vital characters he observes often shape the individual stories. F. Scott Fitzgerald adopted an almost identical title, "The Romantic Egotists," for the original version of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and Peter Westcott is Fitzgeraldian in his sympathy and urbanity. The characters and situations depicted in the collection are more varied than those in The Injustice Collectors. In addition to "The Great World and Timothy Colt," which Auchincloss reworked and expanded into the novel of the same title, there is another law-firm story, as well as a fine story about prep-school life, "Billy and the Gargoyles," two stories about life in the U.S. Navy, a Fitzgeraldian study of a rich schoolmate, a sketch of an elegant divorcée transformed by her boorish second husband, and a powerful story about a middle-aged American in Venice, "The Gemlike Flame." Even in The Romantic Egoists there are hints of the unifying techniques that characterize the more tightly integrated collections that follow. Auchincloss repeats characters and settings. Lorna Treadway, the elegant divorcee in one story, appears again as a minor character in "The Great World and Timothy Colt." The first two stories in the collection deal with overlapping events from Peter Westcott's prep-school days.
Auchincloss's next collection, Powers of Attorney, published in 1963, makes full use of interlocking characters and situations. All the stories involve the partners and employees of the Wall Street law firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. Rather than producing boring homogeneity, this unifying device yields a broad panorama of characters from secretaries to senior partners. Several of the stories portray weak or pathetic characters—the old partner who is so irrelevant to the firm that no one even blames him for a costly mistake in a will that he has officially approved, or the nostalgic executive secretary at a farewell reception who delivers a tipsy speech punctuated by her own hiccups—while others portray the hard-driving litigators and managing partners in the firm.
At the center of the collection is Clitus Tilney, the head of the firm, and the man who has transformed Tower, Tilney into a modern, highly efficient corporate organization. Tilney is not above forcing a rival representing the older, less organized style of legal practice out of the firm by giving secret advice to the other side in a lawsuit brought by the rival. Although Tilney's conduct is unethical, Auchincloss does not sit in judgment. He does not see the senior partner as radically evil, and in the final story in the collection, "The Crowning Offer," he celebrates Tilney's innate pleasure in practicing law. As in A Law for the Lion and The Great World and Timothy Colt, Auchincloss stresses the bureaucratization of legal practice and the ways in which modern Wall Street firms have become subservient to their largest corporate clients. Although every story involves a member or employee of the firm, several stories diverge from law-firm life per se to describe the personal dilemmas of wives or clients.
In Tales of Manhattan (1967), Auchincloss again uses the device of interconnected stories. In this volume, however, the tales are grouped in three separate sets. The first section, "Memories of an Auctioneer," includes five stories told in the first person by Roger Jordan, the vicepresident of a leading auction gallery. The final story in the section, "The Money Juggler," which Auchincloss later expanded into the novel A World of Profit, recounts four friends' memories of their college classmate, a shady businessman whose tactics they deplore, but from whose activities they have all profited. In each of the preceding stories, items offered for sale by Roger's gallery lead him into interesting quests that reveal the personalities or lives of their owners.
The second group of stories in the volume, "Arnold & Degener," is another law-firm series. Each story is cast as a chapter in the firm's history written by a specific partner. Here the very act of telling becomes an act of appropriation as each writer attempts to impose his own image on the firm, to assert his dominance over his subject, or to express long-concealed anger or jealousy. As in The Rector of Justin, which immediately preceded this collection, and in The House of the Prophet, published twelve years later, writing biography becomes an attempt to assert personal power as well as a search for the true pattern of events.
The final section, entitled "The Matrons," contains three stories and a one-act play. At the center of each work is the sort of upper-class woman well beyond middle age for whom Auchincloss seems to have special sympathy and affection. Two of the stories depict figures from the turnof-the-century New York described in The House of Five Talents. One is an aged "extra man," somewhat like the protagonist in Edith Wharton's "After Holbein," who is taken under the powerful wing of his wealthy hostess. The other is a gentle alcoholic who becomes for a brief time manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, whose experiences are recalled by his elderly niece who knew him in her girlhood. Another story is a study of the relations between a "perfect," noninterfering mother and her daughters on the occasion of her seventieth birthday.
The relation between a mother and her grown daughter generates the action of Auchincloss's slightly Ibsenesque play, The Club Bedroom, which was performed at the A.P.A. Theatre in December 1967 and televised on the New York educational channel. Influenced by the popular monologues of Ruth Draper, the play is Auchincloss's only stage production. It does not seem out of place in Tales of Manhattan, for the events of the plot build to an ironic climax reminiscent of the endings of several of the stories. In the final scene, Mrs. Ruggles, the genteel but impecunious protagonist whose dwindling resources help support her daughter's affair with a married man, is denied her one small hope for the remaining years of her life—a permanent room in the fashionable ladies club to which she belongs. The only person who might conceivably have a grudge against her, the wife of the man with whom her daughter is involved, happens ironically to be chairwoman of the committee that must approve requests for rooms in the club.
Auchincloss's fifth collection, Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations, was published in 1970. Although not all the stories are equally successful, Second Chance is arguably Auchincloss's best collection of stories of manners. As the subtitle suggests, many of the stories deal in some way with the so-called generation gap, a source of much painful discussion in the late 1960s. Auchincloss is concerned not only with the relationships between parents and children but also with the connections between grandparents and grandchildren, old people and young, contemporary figures and their historical antecedents; and he is interested as well in different "generations" of behavior within the lives of individuals. In the fine title story of the volume, for example, a middle-aged business man abandons the assumptions of his own generation and lives out the "new morality" of the young. Second Chance is decidedly Auchincloss's most topical collection. "The Cathedral Builder" was obviously suggested by the decision of the Episcopal Diocese of New York during the late 1960s to abandon plans to finish the construction of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and other stories in the collection involve a black English teacher at a private school and the takeover of a publishing house by a large conglomerate.
In The Partners (1974), perhaps his most popular collection, Auchincloss returns to the technique of interlocking stories involving members of a large Wall Street law firm. The Partners is also his most highly unified collection. The central character, Beekman ("Beeky") Ehninger, a senior partner in the firm of Shepard, Putney & Cox, appears in all but two of the fourteen stories and is thus far more fully developed than Auchincloss's usual protagonists. In contrast to Clitus Tilney, the aggressive, self-confident senior partner in Powers of Attorney, Beeky is a conciliator and negotiator who often doubts himself. Married, like Michael Farish in Venus in Sparta, to an older woman who has been divorced, he is troubled by a milder and nondebilitating version of Michael's sexual insecurity. As in the previous law-firm collections, Auchincloss provides a number of incisive views of human relationships in large corporate firms. Though several stories are satiric or critical, the collection as a whole comes around—in the final story especially—to a wry but genial endorsement of the special desire of some men to practice law in firms. Having negotiated the merger of Shepard, Putney & Cox with a larger firm headed by an old prep-school rival of his, Beeky decides to retire. He makes the decision at a party, in a kind of comic epiphany: he will retire from the firm only to set up "a crazy new law firm" composed entirely of "duplicates," the redundant lawyers who must be dropped from the two firms because of the merger. At the end of the story, Beeky goes to bed happily, clutching this new "fierce little resolution." In all the stories in which he appears, Beeky's great gifts are his gregariousness, loyalty, and fellow-feeling; he is, above all, a man who shares the love Auchincloss's own father felt for his law firm as a human institution.
The Winthrop Covenant, Auchincloss's seventh collection, grew out of the American Bicentennial in 1976. It is an attempt to explore one strand in the American character—"the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic in New England and New York"—as displayed in the lives of members of a single family, the Winthrops. Written especially for this volume, the nine stories cover the years from 1630 to 1975. Though Auchincloss does not fully achieve his ambitious historical aim, the collection contains several fine stories, such as "The Arbiter" and "In the Beauty of the Lilies," set in those particular periods of American history in which Auchincloss is most at home. . . .
In his . . . collection, Narcissa and Other Fables (1983), Auchincloss returns to the looser organization found in his earliest collections. Though none of the stories are fables in the conventional sense of the term, each deals in some way with a favorite Auchincloss theme: the moral confusion that arises when older values lose their legitimacy and are not replaced by anything even remotely satisfactory. As a sort of coda, there are twelve "Sketches of the Seventies"—a new genre for Auchincloss but one well suited to his sensibility. None of the sketches is longer than a page or so, but each captures a moment in which the ironies or shortcomings of fashionable life in the 1970s are revealed. The range of settings, situations, and types of stories in the volume—from sketches to long stories, from a tale about an elegant expatriate in Florence in the 1920s to a wry first-person narrative by the victim of a corporate takeover in the 1970s—reminds one of the variety that Auchincloss is capable of and attests to his continuing vitality as a short-story writer.
Because of their sheer numbers, it is impossible to analyze all, or even a significant fraction, of Auchincloss's stories in detail here. The rest of this chapter, however, will suggest the variety and range of the stories as well as some of Auchincloss's artistry by considering a sampling of his work: two strong early stories; a series of stories on a single theme, writers and writing; and several recent tales in which Auchincloss offers keen commentary on the changing manners of the last two decades.
Most of the early stories tend to be more obviously polished performances than the more relaxed stories in some of the later volumes, and two of them, "Greg's Peg" and "The Gemlike Flame," are especially powerful and carefully cratted. The former story, published in The Injustice Collectors, depicts the improbable rise to social prominence of a thirty-five-year-old innocent, Gregory Bakewell, who is taken up by the members of the fast set at a Maine summer resort. The tale is told by the middle-aged headmaster of a boarding school who befriends Greg and urges him to make something of himself. In a carefully controlled narrative, Auchincloss sketches the strange rise and fall of Greg, while at the same time revealing the enigmatic character of the narrator.
Greg is an unprepossessing, even grotesque character, "an oddly shaped and odd-looking person, wide in the hips and narrow in the shoulders," whose "face, very white and round and smooth, had, somewhat inconsistently, the uncertain dignity of a thin aquiline nose and large, owl-like eyes." Dressed in white flannels and a red blazer—garb seldom seen outside a schoolboy's sixth-form graduation ceremony—Greg is "a guileless child" who still lives with his widowed mother. Having been educated by private tutors, he has never left home or really done anything with his life. Thus he presents a challenge to the headmaster, who takes him mountain-climbing and advises him to spend the winter away from his mother so that he can "learn to think." Though Greg seems deaf to the narrator's appeals, he does respond in his own way. Over the next three summers, he carries out an elaborate campaign to make himself a social leader in the resort community. Beginning at the bridge table with his mother's elderly friends, Greg gradually comes to meet their children and grandchildren and is finally adopted by the hard-drinking, sophisticated set in the resort. In showing Greg's social progress, Auchincloss provides a succinct anatomy of the various generations and groups in an old-line summer resort.
Greg becomes a "character" in Anchor Harbor, and thus immune to criticism, but his new role as "one of the respected citizens of the summer colony" does not really represent an advance for him. Though "his spotless white panama was to be seen bobbing on the bench of judges at the children's swimming meet," and he has become a sponsor for the summer theater and outdoor concerts, his winning costume at the annual fancy dress ball reveals his true nature: twice in a row, he goes dressed as a baby. Greg starts to drink too much, and, as his mother realizes, his frenetic new life is killing him. The climax of the story occurs when, for the last time, Greg does the little drunken dance that gives the story its title. The narrator, who has carefully avoided seeing "Greg's peg" before, observes his actions at the tennis club dance with fascination and horror:
His eyes were closed, and his long hair, disarrayed, was streaked down over his sweating face. His mouth, half open, emitted little snorts as his feet capered about in a preposterous jig that could only be described as an abortive effort at tap dancing. His arms moved back and forth as if he were striding along; his head was thrown back; his body shimmied from side to side. It was not really a dance at all; it was a contortion, a writhing. It looked more as if he were moving in a doped sleep or twitching at the end of a gallows. The lump of pallid softness that was his body seemed to be responding for the first time to his consciousness; it was only thus, after all, that the creature could use it. (Injustice Collectors)
Greg's macabre dance is cut short by some rowdy visitors who hoist him on their shoulders in mock triumph and throw him into the swimming pool. The young visitors are put to rout by Greg's indignant friends, who fish him out of the pool, but he is never the same again. He seems to realize that even the admirers who applauded him and called for his dance that summer were really on the side of the young men. Rather than become a social leader, he has turned into a pet or mascot. The Bakewells do not return to Anchor Harbor the next summer, and two years later the narrator learns that Greg has died in Cape Cod, where he is remembered dimly, if at all, as "a strange, pallid individual" carrying a market-basket for his mother.
Like the characters in the other stories of The Injustice Collectors, Greg is impelled to seek out his own humiliation. Part of the effect of the story comes from the pathos and oddity of his situation. Yet Auchincloss carefully avoids the predictable psychologizing that a character like Greg might evoke. Rather than the conventional domineering mother one might expect, Mrs. Bakewell turns out to be a brisk, efficient woman who does not pressure her son to stay at home and who recognizes far more clearly than the narrator the evil and destructiveness of the frivolous society Greg has entered. Indeed, she is both a comic figure, as she announces to the headmaster that she has read his books and disapproves of them, and a moral voice in the story, when she questions his belief in heightened awareness as the ultimate goal in life.
It is Auchincloss's expert handling of the narrator, however, that gives "Greg's Peg" its distinctive interest. Though honest and perceptive, the headmaster also has a gloomy, misanthropic side. When he first meets Greg, he is still recovering from the death of his wife. He takes pleasure in coming to Anchor Harbor, a place not unlike Bar Harbor, Maine, in the early fall after most of the summer people have gone. His headmasterly desire to improve Greg's character leads, ironically, to Greg's downfall, and his partial complicity in the downfall gives the story its bleak edge. After he finds that Greg has never heard of him or his wife, the headmaster finds himself "oddly determined to imprint my ego on the empty face of all he took for granted." For him Greg is "a perfect tabula rasa" and he eagerly seizes the "responsibility of writing the first line." His grand miscalculation is to presume that the blank surface that Greg presents is capable of being inscribed with any sort of definite message. Greg remains, throughout, the "lump of pallid softness" that is revealed in his little dance, incapable of being shaped by the headmaster's version of muscular Christianity.
When the headmaster finds out what his advice has wrought, he angrily abandons his protégé. A couple of times thereafter, and especially as he watches the grotesque little dance, he thinks he glimpses an appeal for rescue in Greg's eyes, but he is uncertain and takes no action. When Mrs. Bakewell suggests that he save Greg, he points out that "people don't save people at Anchor Harbor." The headmaster is of course not directly responsible for Greg's downfall—he could not, after all, have predicted Greg's elaborate campaign for social selfadvancement. But the vehemence with which he rejects Greg's overtures for continued friendship and the impassive tone in which he relates the story suggest puzzling depths in his character. One shares the narrator's uneasy interest in Greg's fate, while Auchincloss skillfully leads one to ask uncomfortable questions about the narrator's own role. Though it might initially seem merely a story about an eccentric in the fashionable setting of an old summer resort, "Greg's Peg" is an elegantly unsettling examination of a perceptive but flawed individual who intervenes in someone else's life without fully knowing his own motives.
"THE GEMLIKE FLAME"
"The Gemlike Flame," first published in New World Writing for 1953, and reprinted in The Romantic Egoists, is a brilliantly developed portrait of another lonely figure. The story depicts Clarence McClintock, an American expatriate in Venice, at a crucial and revealing moment in his life. Like "Greg's Peg," the story, in its sympathy and focused intensity, is a good example of Auchincloss's early style at its best.
Clarence McClintock is seen through the eyes of his cousin Peter Westcott, the young novelist who appears in all the stories in The Romantic Egoists. Peter is an ideal narrator, a sympathetic observer who knows Clarence's past but is objective and honest about his own responses. He encounters Clarence—a sort of legend in his family, "personally distinguished and prematurely bizarre"—on a visit to Venice. Emotionally scarred by a domineering mother who waged a bitter custody battle for him when he was a child, Clarence had come to Italy many years before "to admire it and be left alone." Since he had never bothered to make any friends in Venice during all this time, Clarence clings to Peter as an embodiment of a past that remains very real to him. When Peter is beginning to feel trapped, he introduces his cousin to Neddy Bane, a charming but feckless college classmate who has left his wife and now dabbles in painting. Inevitably, their relationship is broken up by Clarence's mother, who arrives in Venice for an elaborate masked ball that represents everything the serious and almost ascetic Clarence abhors. "Quite remorseless in her pursuit of pleasure," his mother in effect steals Neddy away. At the end of the story, having desperately tried to keep his friend away from the ball, Clarence catches sight of Neddy in a silly costume kneeling at the feet of his mother, and he stalks off alone into the night.
Early in the story Clarence warns Peter that he "burns with a hard gemlike flame." The phrase, from the Conclusion to Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance, points to the heart of the story: Clarence's unexpected intensity as revealed in perhaps his only serious relationship with another human being. Practically everyone except Peter—and especially Clarence's mother—is eager to see his friendship with Neddy as a tawdry homosexual affair, but Clarence regards it, ironically, as an ideal love and his own highest contribution to Art, insofar as he supplies the order and discipline Neddy needs to paint. That Neddy is a totally unworthy object of devotion ultimately means very little, for Clarence has found "a love that I've looked for all my life." Even Peter has difficulty understanding that there is something ineffable in his love, "a quality in his feelings that was over and above what is called sublimation, a quality that made of it something higher than—." Peter's sentence breaks off as he realizes how hopeless the task of explaining that "something higher" would be, and the story proceeds to the final scene, in which Clarence turns away to guard the gemlike flame alone: "Should not true flame-tenders, the people like himself, enjoy in solitude the special compensations of their devotion?" he seems to ask. Clarence continues to walk resolutely away from the scene of the ball, as described in the strong final image of the story, "away from the lighted palace and the gondolas that swarmed about it like carp."
"The Gemlike Flame" is a fine story not because of the exotic, Jamesian situation of wealthy Americans abroad, but because Auchincloss refuses to cheat the reader of the complexity of Clarence's feelings, even though he offers no alternative to the psychological explanation that comes to Peter's mind. Despite the abundance of specific detail, the power of the story comes from the absolute economy of its essentials. In A Writer's Capital, Auchincloss recalls his extreme pleasure when Norman Mailer told him at a party that he would not mind having written the story himself. Though Mailer's sensibility and interests are radically different from Auchincloss's, he was right to admire this story.
STORIES ON WRITERS AND WRITING
Peter Westcott's presence in all the stories of The Romantic Egoists is only a suggestion of the prominence of writers and the act of writing in Auchincloss's stories. No fewer than ten stories are directly concerned with writing fiction, biography, or autobiography, and the essential situations and characters in another half dozen stories are drawn from previous works of literature. Several of the latter stories are explicit homages to James or Wharton. Given Auchincloss's admiration for James, this persistent interest in art and the artist as a theme for short fiction is hardly surprising. What is distinctive, however, is Auchincloss's repeated attention to the effects of all sorts of writing on not only authors but other people as well. The stories about writers and writing, which come from all periods of his career, are among his most characteristic and effective.
In Auchincloss's fiction, the activity of writing is invariably more than a simple recording of events or a form of creative expression. Writing may well be a mode of communication or self-revelation, but at the same time it may also be an act of aggression, a defense mechanism, or a means of appropriating, and thereby controlling, someone else's life. This sense of writing-as-appropriation, as has been suggested, is particularly prevalent in some of the law-firm stories (as well as in the biography-novels, The Rector of Justin and The House of the Prophet). One of the "Arnold & Degener" stories in Tales of Manhattan raises the issue in a striking, though comic fashion.
In "The Senior Partner's Ghosts," Sylvaner Price decides to write the biography of Guthrie Arnold, founder of Arnold & Degener and his mentor. Though he appears to others as "a man of no accessories, no appendages, no stray bits or loose ends," Price fancies himself a romantic a la Victor Hugo. Unlike the usual law-firm history, his biography will be a work of art, a vivid evocation of Arnold's true personality. As Price sits down to dictate portions of his book, horrible revelations of cutthroat buccaneering practices on Arnold's part tumble out of his mouth. Shortly thereafter, as if possessed by "the evil genius of Guthrie Arnold," Price makes a speech at a meeting of the firm urging his partners to take business away from a rival firm whose senior corporate expert is dying of cancer, and a few days later he finds himself involuntarily tearing up a page from the will of a deceased client. After the latter episode, Price suffers a stroke and is hospitalized. His partners make him consult a psychiatrist, who assures him that his visions are merely the result of long-suppressed guilt. After one more disquieting excursion into sensational biography, Price gives up private composition and free association and dictates an ordinary, boring firm history in the presence of his censorious secretary. Though the new biography kills off any humanity in its subject, "what did it matter, so long as there was peace?"
On one level, "The Senior Partner's Ghosts" offers a humorous explanation for the dullness of many official histories of law firms. At the same time it also points up the disparity between the respectable front of the large corporate law firm and the aggressive activities of some of its partners. Even if Sylvaner Price's memories of Guthrie Arnold are the product of an overheated imagination as the psychiatrist suggests, they describe plausible instances of dubious professional conduct—behavior no doubt occasionally encountered by the lawyers who first read the story in The Virginia Law Review.
More generally, the story is a study of an ordinary, seemingly bloodless professional man who cherishes a secret romantic streak in his nature. Price is silently pleased, for example, to learn that a young partner's wife has compared him to King Philip II at the Escoriai. The comic denouement of the story suggests how difficult it is for a man like Price to escape the bounds of the professional persona he has assiduously cultivated for forty years. Perhaps the psychiatrist is right: in Price's mind, only his godlike mentor Guthrie Arnold is permitted to get away with expressing the romantic side of his nature. Yet, like several other psychiatric opinions in Auchincloss's fiction, this diagnosis, though correct in its way, seems reductive. Sylvaner Price creates his own hero and a myth of the firm, which he can control, but the hidden power of the subconscious mind is more difficult to contain. Though its tone is fanciful rather than portentous, "The Senior Partner's Ghosts" reminds us of the dangerous power of the writer's imagination. It is not a major story, but it illustrates Auchincloss's masterful skill in balancing a number of disparate elements in a single story without capsizing what is admittedly a light vessel.
In two other law-firm stories, both from Powers of Attorney, Auchincloss further explores the uneasy connection between writing and human relationships. For Morris Madison, the tax attorney in "The Single Reader," writing fulfills some of the same secret desires that it reflected in the mind of Sylvaner Price. Madison, however, is not troubled by "ghosts" as Price was. Over a period of thirty years he fills more than fifty morocco-bound volumes of his diary with carefully polished and often bitingly satiric entries. As the years go by, the diary takes over his life. He rearranges all the engagements outside the office in order to provide the best possible raw material for the diary and even leaves money in his will for its posthumous publication. When he shows a few representative volumes to the woman he wishes to marry—the "single reader" of the title—she recoils in horror, not because the diary is bad (it is brilliant), but because she fears becoming a human sacrifice to its insatiable appetite.
In "The 'True Story' of Lavinia Todd," writing is not only self-expression but also a rueful emblem for failed communication and the inconspicuous self of the writer. Mrs. Todd, a middle-aged woman who is deserted by her husband, pours out the story of her betrayal in a long account that is accepted for publication in a woman's magazine. Rather than offend her husband, the candid story of their marriage and his callous behavior seems to bring him back to her side. He invites her out for dinner, praises the story, and asks for a reconciliation. She discovers, however, that he has never read the story and has only praised her work because his colleagues and several powerful clients have expressed their admiration. The "true" Lavinia Todd remains unread, and the art of the story, which has merely mirrored life, is once again mirrored in her own life.
The stories in which Auchincloss borrows situations or characters from previous authors may strike contemporary readers as overly derivative. This is not the case at all. Somewhat like the early films of François Truffaut, the best of these stories are hommages, or tributes, to Auchincloss's masters, James and Wharton. A good example of this type of tribute in its simplest form is "The Evolution of Lorna Treadway." This slickly written tale from The Romantic Egoists involves a sophisticated divorcée who marries a boorish Texas oilman and adopts all his values, becoming vulgar and trivial herself as she throws large parties to advance her husband's business career. While the narrator of the story talks with the husband, he momentarily plays with a Jamesian conclusion for his tale. "How neat it would have been," he thinks, if the oilman "had become with marriage the suave, accomplished man of the world, if he and Lorna, in other words, had changed places," so that people would pity him for being tied down to the giddy, unsophisticated "bride of his earlier and poorer days." But, of course, "that would have been strictly fiction." Though the pliant heroine might have come out of an Edith Wharton story such as "The Other Two," Auchincloss's story remains firmly anchored in the sharply defined reality of the fashionable world it describes.
In "The Diner Out," from The Partners, Auchincloss takes the basic situation of Wharton's "After Holbein" and grafts it onto a story about an aging attorney, Burrill Hume, who faces the bleak prospect of retirement from practice. The grafting is not quite successful—and perhaps few if any of the young attorneys who first read the story in Juris Doctor would have caught the allusion. But the final lines, in which Hume recognizes his approaching death, acquire added resonance by their direct reference to the ending of Wharton's story, in which the senile, dying protagonist, leaving a dinner party given by an even more senile old lady, takes a "step forward, to where a moment before the pavement had been—and where now there was nothing." Auchincloss has transmuted Wharton's mordant comedy into sympathetic humor tinged by pathos.
Auchincloss renders his most elaborate and subtle tribute to Henry James in "The Ambassadress." In this story from The Injustice Collectors, he reenvisions the main characters of James's late novel The Ambassadors from the perspective of Chad Newsome, the young man who must be rescued from the clutches of Europe, rather than through the consciousness of Lambert Strether, the middle-aged protagonist and rescuer in the novel. Auchincloss's central character and narrator, Tony Rives, is a somewhat older Chad Newsome endowed with a good deal of Lambert Strether's sensibility. The rescue mission in the story is carried out by Tony's older sister Edith Mac-Lean, who parallels Sarah Pocock in James's version, but who also reflects some aspects of Strether's experience. Edith not only manages to bring her brother home but also gets him to marry her husband's niece—something her counterpart in the novel had been ordered to do but does not accomplish. In Auchincloss's ironic version of the tale, Edith's triumph is even greater, for it also includes taking away Gwladys Kane, the older woman to whom Tony had been attached, and making her one of her own friends. Edith's deepening relationship with Gwladys excludes Tony, which throws him into renewed acquaintance with the niece and eventually leads to his marriage. Strether's respect for the older woman in the novel (Madame de Vionnet) is transformed in Auchincloss's story into something that appears to be an instance of successful social manipulation by a powerful woman. And yet, in the concluding scene of the story, which takes place at his wedding, Tony still does not know whether his sister consciously plotted to draw Gwladys away from him or things merely worked out to her advantage by a lucky coincidence.
"The Ambassadress" is not merely a witty reworking of a Jamesian situation but a finely articulated tale of complex relationships in a closely knit group of people. As might be expected in a short story rather than a novel, Tony is a more limited character than Strether. In Tony's appreciation of his expatriate life, one finds none of Strether's luminous vision of European culture. Tony's reeducation, unlike Strether's, teaches him the power of strong family ties, which can even reach across the Atlantic. Tony returns to New York to be married, not with Strether's sense of renunciation and all it entails, but with a sense of how life is determined—albeit for the best—by forces we do not understand. Auchincloss is finally more interested in the complex psychological dynamics at work in a given situation than in James's theme of enlightenment and renunciation. The result is more realistic; though not so richly resonant, nonetheless subtle: a sharper, brisker story, but still a work worthy of the master.
The three stories that focus directly upon professional writers, "The Question of the Existence of Waring Stohl," "The Novelist of Manners," and "The Arbiter," show the aggressive or hostile impulses in writers who make use of people around them as material for their art. Auchincloss, a writer who himself draws much of the material for his fiction from life, shows a decided tendency to stress this exploitive side of the artist. In the earliest of the three tales, "The Question of the Existence of Waring Stohl," reprinted in Tales of Manhattan, a distinguished professor of English befriends one of his students, a young novelist with very little talent and an obnoxious personality. No one understands why he goes out of his way to cultivate the young man's acquaintance until the novelist dies and leaves him his unpublished journal. The journal becomes the central piece of evidence in the professor's last and greatest work: a literary history in which the young writer becomes the embodiment of the superficiality and vacuousness of his era, a "non-author" whose novel is called a "non-book." The professor wins a Pulitzer prize, and the young novelist receives a negative sort of immortality. In "The Arbiter," one of the stories in The Winthrop Covenant, the novelist Ada Guest bases one of the characters in her best novel, "a sterile dilettante, who is trying to hide his business failure in a drawing room success," on her long-time friend Adam Winthrop, and she seems likely to make similar use of her husband later. Though Auchincloss's primary interest in this fine story is the relationship that develops between the two men, Ada shows the same voracity in using material from life for her art.
Why this strange voracity in appropriating other people's lives? For the novelist of manners, as for the historian or journalist, it may be inevitable. Discussing class distinctions in an essay on Marquand and O'Hara, Auchincloss has observed that the novelist of manners "has two points of view about the society in which he lives: that of a citizen and that of an artist, The latter is concerned only with the suitability of society as material for his art. Just as a liberal journalist may secretly rejoice at the rise of a Senator McCarthy because of the opportunity it affords him to write brilliant and scathing denunciations of demogogues, so will the eye of the novelist of manners light up at the first glimpse of social injustice." So too, within the limits of human decency or the libel laws, the novelist of manners may exploit the human material he finds around him, often in a seemingly amoral fashion.
"The Novelist of Manners" looks most directly at this exploitive tendency and suggests it may also be a weapon for striking back when the author is wounded. Published in The Partners, the story describes the relationship between a young lawyer and the novelist Dana Clyde. It is at once an interesting psychological study and an oblique defense of the novel of manners in the late twentieth century. The hero of the story, Leslie Carter, a junior partner in Shepard, Putney & Cox, has been sent abroad to take charge of the firm's Paris office. A frustrated novelist who unsuccessfully tried to write his own Great Gatsby in college, he eagerly makes his way into French society, much like the young Proust. He is delighted to find that his firm must represent Dana Clyde, whose society novels he has admired since college, in a libel suit brought by someone maligned in his latest book. After the suit is settled, he attaches himself to Clyde as a kind of disciple, urging him to write "the last great novel of manners of the western world"—the great work he himself could never write. His life takes on new meaning, for he now has a mission: "to save Dana Clyde and make him compose his masterpiece."
When, however, after some urging, Clyde retires to a hillside in Malaga to write the great book, he mysteriously breaks off all connection with the younger man. The reason for the break is revealed only when Leslie reads the manuscript of the new novel. One of the main characters is a wickedly satiric potrait of himself as an absurd young lawyer who becomes the fifth husband of the novel's heroine, but who proves impotent on his wedding night and commits suicide. On his return to Paris, Clyde avoids Leslie entirely, and Leslie must seek an explanation for the malevolence of the portrait from the novelist's wife. Quite aware of what might happen all along, Mrs. Clyde had tried to warn Leslie, but he would not listen. Instead, his badgering has forced Clyde to recognize that he is an irrevocably second-rate writer. As Leslie admits, the new novel is "Dana Clyde at his best," but it is hardly the "last great novel of manners" he had predicted. In creating the character of the young lawyer, Clyde has gotten revenge against Leslie for destroying the saving illusion on which he has operated for many years—the idea that, if only he had worked harder, he could have written another Madame Bovary. At the end of the story Leslie recognizes that he has been a fool. The novel of manners "does still have a function," he says, "if only to prove to a poor thing like Leslie Carter that he doesn't want to write one any more."
Considered as a whole, the story recalls a pattern found in several of James's stories, in which a second-rate artist is protected by a wife who clearly sees her husband's lack of genius and the complication and interest of the plot arise from the entry of some third person who upsets the equilibrium achieved by the couple. In Auchincloss's variation of the pattern, however, Leslie is innocent of any intention to denigrate Dana Clyde's work. After having been attacked in the novel, he learns several lessons. He recognizes the folly of his own hidden aspirations to be a novelist and the ridiculousness of trying to live out those aspirations in someone else's career, and he is presumably a bit wiser about rushing in to meddle in someone else's life. Under Auchincloss's scrutiny, a seemingly casual relationship turns out to have multiple, ramifying effects.
Viewed in its biographical and historical context, however, "The Novelist of Manners" gains further interest. The story takes place in 1972, in a period when, as Dana Clyde is well aware, the novel of manners is in eclipse. "Oh, I have a following yet, I grant," he says to Leslie. "There are plenty of old girls and boys who still take me to the hospital for their hysterectomies and prostates. But the trend is against me. The young don't read me. The literary establishment scorns me." Clyde's plaint is heard frequently in Auchincloss's writings of the late 1960s and 1970s: "I have always dealt with the great world. The top of the heap. How people climbed up and what they found when they got there. That was perfectly valid when the bright young people were ambitious for money and social position. But now they don't care for such things. They care about stopping wars and saving the environment and cleaning up the ghettos. And they're right too. When the world's going to pieces, who has time to talk about good form and good taste?" Leslie suspects that Clyde's endorsement of social activism is not quite sincere, but the general question remains valid and pertains to Auchincloss's work as well.
Though much of the passage sounds as though it might fit Auchincloss himself, James Tuttleton is right to maintain that Dana Clyde is not Auchincloss. As is true of many of his characters, there are elements of Auchincloss in Clyde, but there are also details from Auchincloss's personal history in Leslie Carter as well. Like Leslie, Auchincloss was impelled on his way to law school by the failure of a novel he had written in his last year at college. Though Dana Clyde is not Auchincloss, it is nevertheless correct to see the story in the context of Auchincloss's own work and the tradition of the novel of manners in the 1970s. As usual, Auchincloss keeps his claims for what he and others like him are doing quite modest and somewhat sardonic. Leslie's final words about the function of the novel of manners do not constitute a ringing general defense. But, as the story itself suggests, this sort of fiction is certain to endure in some form. Wherever human folly displays itself in faulty behavior, there is a need for the novel of manners, and, whether or not it is in current critical favor, fiction that evokes a particular time and place always seems to find an audience.
Obviously, however, even the most faithful rendering of the manners and customs of a given era will not necessarily yield great art. In a story from his most recent collection, Auchincloss carefully distinguishes between life and art and takes a more sanguine view of the writer in his role as an artist. Worthington Whitson, the absurd Mauve Decade dandy who is the protagonist in "The Artistic Personality," has, like the characters in the other stories, been wronged by a novelist, Alistair Temple. But Auchincloss varies the pattern. Rather than exploiting Whitson as a character in his fiction, Temple had staged an elaborate drama in real life that led to Whitson's downfall as "the acknowledged arbiter elegantarium of Fifth Avenue and Newport" at the end of the nineteenth century. The reader sees Temple obliquely, through Whitson's indignant remarks almost twenty-five years later in a conversation with Bernard Berenson, who admires one of Temple's novels and wants to know more about him.
As he questions Whitson about Temple, Berenson speculates about the artistic personality. Temple had cleverly engineered a situation in which the prominent hostess with whom Whitson was allied was tempted, against Whitson's advice, into attending a ball given by an unacceptable new family. This event effectively destroyed Whitson's authority as a social arbiter and put an end to his grandiose scheme to set standards for entry into New York society. For Whitson, Temple's actions represent betrayal—a betrayal all the more perfidious because the novelist arranged the episode deliberately "to divert himself by creating a drama in New York society." But for Berenson his actions are those of an artist. "You mean he constructed a scenario for his own inspiration? He modeled a plot out of real life? And then never used it?" he asks. "Perhaps," he suggests to Whitson, "you provided the scaffolding, my friend, which he had later to remove" when he wrote his greatest novel. Berenson toys with Whitson throughout the dialogue, however, and when the absurd Whitson decides at the end of the story that perhaps he can claim some renown for having helped a great novelist, Berenson laughingly rejects his own speculation.
In the course of the conversation one learns that Temple not only has played a clever trick on Whitson but that he himself was the most ardent of social climbers, in no way removed from the society he set out to satirize. Temple's actions and his character in life finally do not matter, for according to Berenson one "must distinguish . . . between an artist's individual personality and his artistic one." In the light of his masterpiece, Temple's personal failings are irrelevant: "The artistic personality is the creator. And that is something totally detached from the vulgar appetites, from greed, from Mammon, from snobbishness and social ambition. Alistair Temple the man may have been everything you think. But Alistair Temple the artist had not the smallest ounce of worldliness. Of that I am convinced." Though there is much else going on in the story—in his conversation with Whitson, for example, Berenson himself may be constructing a "scenario" not unlike Temple—Auchincloss provides, in the distinction between the two personalities, a final line of defense for all the voracious novelists in his fiction. Though it is presented in a complicated, oblique fashion and hedged about by ironies and qualifications, Auchincloss's view of the writer in "The Artistic Personality" is essentially Romantic. Art, especially great art, works in a mysterious way its wonders to perform; by some unfathomable process, the work of art, if it is worthy, transcends its creator. Like Henry James, Auchincloss accepts only the highest view of the writer's art.
CHRONICLES OF OUR TIME
"But why is the artist whose subject is society any better than that society?" Whitson asks Berenson in the story just discussed. "Because he must see it in a different light. He illuminates it," Berenson replies. At their best, Auchincloss's stories about contemporary life do indeed manage to illuminate society and thereby illuminate the lives of everyone.
Since the beginning of his career as a writer, Auchincloss has kept careful watch on what was going on in the various worlds he has inhabited. In his first novel, The Indifferent Children, he captures the essential futility of the military bureaucracy, and in The Great World and Timothy Colt he presents a definitive account of life among young associates in the large corporate law firms during the early 1950s. Because of their smaller scope, however, the short stories have provided him with an especially useful medium for observing particular changes in business, society, and the professions. Indeed, in the last decade and a half, as his novels have tended to be increasingly concerned with the past, Auchincloss's keenest observations in contemporary life have most often been found in his stories.
In the stories in his four most recent collections, published from 1970 to 1983, Auchincloss notes many of the changes in sex roles, relations between generations, and behavior at the office witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. Sometimes, as in "The Marriage Contract," published in The Partners (1974), Auchincloss simply looks at the enduring problems of marriage as they are manifested in a new situation. Marcus and Felicia Currier are both lawyers, representatives of the sort of two-career couple that was becoming more common in the early seventies. The stresses on their marriage come from new sources—managing two careers, including a temporary move to another city by Felicia, competing for professional success, and simultaneously raising two children—but the fundamental conflict for control between Marc and Felicia is not radically different from the conflicts between husbands and wives that one encounters in the novels Auchincloss wrote in the 1950s.
At times, however, from his basically conservative perspective Auchincloss can be amazingly prescient about trends in American society. "The Double Gap," which appeared in 1970, for instance, nicely predicts the disillusionment and grim professionalism that set in during the early 1980s among those who had been the idealistic young people of the sixties. Cast in the form of a series of memos between a young law student and his grandfather, who is the senior partner in a large law firm, the story vividly states the case for both sides of the debate between generations during the era of the "generation gap." Neither advocate persuades the other, but, after the grandson has refused for the last time his grandfather's offer to join his firm and has totally rejected his justification for practicing corporate law, the grandfather writes one more memo. Warning his grandson that in his zeal for representing the downtrodden he too may become "a one-client man" not unlike a dishonest former member of his firm, he wishes him good luck.
I'm glad that I've made you independent so you won't be compelled, like your breadwinner friends, to go to work for a firm in whose "mystique*' you cannot believe. I am convinced, sincerely convinced, that you will do big things. I am only disappointed that you will not be doing them with me. And I cannot help but wonder a bit, when you and your contemporaries have scraped all the gilt off the statue of life (gilt which I call passion and you call sentimentality), whether you will not be a bit disappointed at the dull gray skeleton that you find beneath. (Second Chance)
By the end of the decade in which this story appeared, not only had the idealists of the sixties come face to face with the dull gray skeleton, but their younger brothers and sisters were rushing cynically into law and medical school without even the passion that justified the grandfather's career.
Though "The Marriage Contract" and "The Double Gap" accurately illustrate Auchincloss's responses to social change, neither represents his short fiction at its best. Another story of the 1970s, "Second Chance" is richer, more finely wrought, and characteristic of its author's unique strengths. In this, the title story of Auchincloss's 1970 collection, Gilbert Van Ness divorces his wife of more than twenty years, takes an entirely new job, and marries a younger woman—a common enough occurrence in recent years and a topic of much discussion when the story appeared. Auchincloss approaches this central situation from a fresh perspective, however. We see Gilbert's midlife transformation through the eyes of his brother-inlaw Joe, who has known him since college and who handles the divorce for the family. Before he leaves his first wife, Gilbert seems a failure, "a Confederate officer returning to his ruined plantation after Appomattox." After the divorce he becomes an almost instant success in a flashy Madison Avenue advertising agency, quickly rising to president and ultimately marying the daughter of the founder. Joe is blamed by his wife's family, the Kilpatricks, for letting his old friend off with a one-time financial settlement rather than a percentage of Gilbert's future earnings.
The central drama in the story is not Gilbert's amazing luck but rather his more stable brother-in-law's uneasy response to his success, which Auchincloss depicts with great sublety and tact. When the Kilpatricks start complaining about the settlement, Joe finds that he would rather have them believe that he was swayed by his longtime friendship than that Gilbert's "stronger personality had put it over my weaker one. Or that I had been dazzled—even envious—at the prospect of his liberty." Later in the story Gilbert accuses him of fearing the idea that one can "start again and win" and argues that his moral indignation is merely a convenient way of avoiding an opportunity to change his own life. "You hate me because I remind you in your indolence that you could do it, too. That it's not too late." It is this "demon of the second chance" that Joe must confront in himself.
After he gets home from the party at which he talked to Gilbert, he carefully considers his indictment. He is reasonably certain that it is not valid, but a small doubt remains. When he attends an impressive dinner party at Gilbert's apartment, he is almost convinced again that Gilbert has been right all along—until he notices a very small detail. Gilbert hands a fork to his bulter without even pausing in conversation. Obviously there was a speck on it, but the fact that the butler knows just what to do with the fork reveals "the enormous amount of domestic machinery that must have been hid behind that simple gesture." Rather than being the free soul that he claims to be, Gilbert is a fraud. "I had exorcised the demon of the second chance," Joe comments at the end of the story. "I had saved my marriage, not from dissolution, but from the cloying idea that I wanted its dissolution. Or that I had wanted to be like Gilbert. Or that I had thought it might be unmanly not to be like Gilbert. Now he could go on handing spotted spoons to his butler for eternity. I simply did not care."
That the major psychological insight of the story should turn upon this small detail of manners is thoroughly characteristic of Auchincloss's approach. The lawyer-protagonist is also typical of Auchincloss's reserved and invariably decent heroes; both his dilemma and its resolution seem fitting. Yet, in spite of the rather specialized elements present in "Second Chance," the story describes and offers surprisingly immediate and generally accessible commentary upon an ordinary experience shared by many men of the protagonist's age. In addition to this, Joe is expertly placed in the context of his marriage and his relations with his wife's family. We are given just the right amount of psychological and social background, and Auchincloss's tone, faintly ironic but generally sympathetic, achieves sufficient distance to permit us to see the humor in the narrator's situation. In "Second Chance" and in several other stories like it, we see what makes Auchincloss's short fiction entertaining and valuable.
Peter Cameron (essay date 1987)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
SOURCE: A review of Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan, in The New York Times Book Review, May 24, 1987, p. 5.
[Cameron is an American short story writer and critic whose short fiction collection One Way or Another (1986) earned him recognition as a skilled and highly promising young author. In the following review, he argues that some of Auchincloss's stories in Skinny Island are less successful than others, but asserts that the collection is "first and foremost elegant fiction. "]
Louis Auchincloss's 30th book of fiction, Skinny Island, is a collection of stories about man versus high society. The center of this world is Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, and except for an occasional meeting on Wall Street, a season in Newport, Bar Harbor or Narragansett, a semester at a prep school, and a moment or two on the Avenue Foch, these stories are all set like vertebrae on the expensive backbone of Manhattan. Fifth Avenue is a street where a character "knew all the houses by the names of their owners and kept a mental list of those in which he dined." The St. Regis is where one moves into "a delicious little suite" when one gets tired of the brownstone on East 73d.
The stories begin in 1875 and conclude in the 1980's, and thus we see how both the idle rich and the short story have evolved over the last century. We move from the Washington Square of Henry James ("A Diary of Old New York"), to the Fifth Avenue mansions of Edith Wharton ("The Wedding Guest"), yet this journey through literary Gotham stalls on the commuter trains of John Cheever. The later stories—from the 40's on—all read similarly, and the feeling of moving onward is missed. It is ironic that the concluding stories—the ones set in this decade—seem the least specifically grounded in time and place.
Two themes are prevalent. Either a character wants to behave in a way that polite society deems unsuitable, or society insists on changing in ways that an individual cannot abide. In "A Diary of Old New York," Adrian Peltz, an aging widower, is forced to realize that what he assumes is morality everyone else believes is either wishful thinking or lunacy. His refusal to admit a lying, cheating real estate developer into his men's club is his undoing. In "The Wedding Guest," Griswold Nome's insistence on inviting his vaguely licentious step-grandmother to his perfect wedding appears to ruin what had promised to be a perfect marraige.
Morality is not the only conflict in these privileged lives: art, religion and money are all potential pitfalls and the ease with which Mr. Auchincloss introduces these larger issues into his crafted narratives is admirable. The best stories turn on politics and sex. "America First," set on the eve of World War II, finds Elaine Wagstaff returning to New York from her beloved, but no longer safe, Paris. In New York she finds her allegiance divided between Suzannah, her deadbeat, long-suffering daughter, who is working on a campaign to keep America out of the war ("America First") and her old friends, who, with their ties to Europe, are pressing for the United States to enter the war. Elaine pledges herself to America First and reconciles with Suzannah, only to realize that the cause is not only the wrong one for her, but that it, and its adherents, are dreary, selfish and parochial.
She defects and joins the hedonistic Europeans—"She had almost forgotten what it was like to be among people who cared so intensely for appearances, for things. Dining at Erica's apartment. . . was like swimming in a translucent Caribbean cove amid brilliantly colored fish over a sand as smooth as a rich carpet. It made Suzannah's world seem like the hustle and bustle of a Coney Island beach covered with bulbous women and white-limbed men in lumpy black bathing suits."
The widowed and wealthy Frances Hamill in "No Friend Like a New Friend" also abandons family and appearances in pursuit of a good time. After her husband's death, she takes up with an aging, pathetic, yet companionable homosexual, despite how it "looks" to everyone else. When Frances announces, "Looks? Why should I care about looks?" her lifelong friend replies, "I thought we both did. I thought it was important how we appeared to the world .. . I thought you and I believed that our outward selves should reflect, as far as possible, the things we stand for." All this refined behavior in the midst of scandal can get a little monotonous, so one especially appreciates the moments when characters forget their manners.
The citizens of Mr. Auchincloss's island don't have to work for a living. "Darling, if you're too proud to live on my money—our money, as I've always regarded it—if you insist on wasting your life in a family business that hardly pays the cook, then that must be your problem. I'm going to Paris." Their days, over the course of a hundred years, vary little. The men stop in at their offices on the way to their clubs, while the women sit on committees and lunch. They rendezvous at the opera.
The stories in Skinny Island are slight, but they're svelte. In a matter of pages Mr. Auchincloss can set up a whole life, richly and accurately. Yet some of these lives seem less deserving of his talent than others—there are stories here whose characters and actions seem negligible and anemic when compared to their juicier counterparts. If there is a sameness to the lives of these characters, the narrator moves through this limited gallery generously and expertly. There is nothing anthropological in Mr. Auchincloss's approach, however. Happily, Skinny Island is more than a record of how the other half lived, and continues to live. It is first and foremost elegant fiction—a century of vicarious pleasures.
M. O'Sullivan (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3073
SOURCE: "Postlapsarians: Louis Auchincloss's The Winthrop Covenant," in The Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1988, pp. 38-45.
[In the following essay, O'Sullivan analyzes biblical allusions in The Winthrop Covenant. The critic notes that the collection initially compares America to an idyllic Garden of Eden, but eventually develops a more complex view wherein characters must deal with an imperfect land and their own sense of mission.]
In The Winthrop Covenant, his collection of stories examining the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic in New York and New England, Louis Auchincloss examines the movement from public to private redemption in the world of the privileged. Although Auchincloss, almost inevitably, begins by introducing imagery that reflects the traditional view of the American as a prelapsarian Adam and his country as a fresh Eden, he goes beyond these images in his nine stories to bring the tale nearer completion with true and false prophets, a proto-feminist trinity, and even a new gospel with its false—and possibly true—messiahs. In the ironic wit of his delicately poised prose, Auchincloss traces the difficulties of characters who confuse their own search for salvation with their attempts to become saviours.
Auchincloss's first story, "The Covenant", establishes the terms of his theme, the "preoccupying sense, found in certain individuals, of a mission, presumably divinely inspired, toward their fellow men" [as stated in his foreword to The Winthrop Covenant]. The story focuses on William and Anne Hutchinson's alienation from the old world, their decision to join John Winthrop's colony in the new one, and their subsequent problems with the authorities of the new colony and with each other. William and Anne are never quite in agreement on the matter of the covenant. William's problems stem from a lack of conviction that he is among the elect, a fear that never seems to affect the other characters in the story. His solution is to envision a new covenant for the new world, a covenant that would provide "a fresh start for everybody". Where the founders of the Bay Colony proposed an ideal site for the working out of the old covenant, restricting participation as far as possible to the elect, William seeks to escape that covenant into a new one. Both visions, of course, were to prove inadequate.
William's illusions might never have happened had he remembered the time when his grandmother had quietly challenged her husband's theology and received a blow for her presumption: "And William thus dimly derived this early lesson: that there were two forces in the world, authority and the resistance which authority generated". Authority reappears in the story in the fixed, sinister gleam of Queen Elizabeth, the hard little light of John Winthrop, and even the earnestly limited vision of Anne. At every point that humanity asserts itself, as when the Bay Colony ministers try to strengthen the colonists' confidence in their labours by skirting the debate between work and grace, an authoritarian figure demands the reassertion of the rule of principle and force. William finally acknowledges his illusion by voluntarily joining his wife in her exile in Rhode Island, while understanding that she is moving inexorably towards martyrdom. Only as a martyr can she fulfill her mission. Perhaps realizing that the new garden had always been an illusion, at the end of the story William sits, cared for by his married daughter who visits, ironically, from Providence, starting out to sea, to the past, to the old world.
Auchincloss's next story is, appropriately, "The Fall", a letter from a young clergyman about his deathbed interview with Major General Wait Still Winthrop, one of the Salem witch trial judges. In the course of attempting a confession, General Winthrop can only complain about the pride of those he tried. Complaint easily metamorphoses into justification:
"But every man in that first settlement knew that he lived under a divine light as bright as any that shone in Europe. Brighter even. It was that shared spirit that saved the Bay Colony from wolves and Indians, from frost and hunger. We were united, Mr. Leigh! And because our union had no king or pope to protect it, it was vital that we should learn to maintain that consensus. It was not easy. We were soon threatened by separatists. The witch Hutchinson was the first. Then came the Quakers. But the community was never threatened as perilously as in 1692. God alone knows the full extent of the deviltries with which our colony then seethed. But when the accused in Salem were given the chance to help the magistrates to reassert the indispensable cohesion of a colony in covenant with God, they refused. By God, I say they deserved their deaths! They had denied their Puritan heritage!"
The fall is confirmed in the general's eyes by the witches' refusal to repent and in our eyes by his refusal. In one case a force for disruption is inadequately dealt with; in the other the delusion of a new covenant and its corollary, the conviction by the covenanted of their right to enforce it, overcome deathbed reservations.
Wait Still Winthrop's granddaughter becomes the central figure in the third story, "The Martyr", an account by a young French tutor of a family's attempt to escape its fate. A young European sent to the wilderness for the indiscretion of socializing with the philosophes offers an ideal vehicle for Auchincloss's examination of the Winthrops' preoccupation with duty. Rebecca Bayard, the Winthrop, fears that her children, Katrina and Sylvester, may suffer for the sins of their great-grandfather and thus encourages them to become just like their father, the rather mindless, visceral Patroon of Bayardwick on the Hudson River. With the aid of the tutor, Rebecca attempts to help a man she believes to be a slave accused of arson to escape. Unfortunately, Katrina betrays the attempt and the man is caught and hanged. Only then does Bayard tell Rebecca that the man who died was a free man whom "Sylvester had bribed .. . to take the part because he wanted you, Rebecca, to believe that you had saved a man's life. He told me he had to exorcise the Winthrop curse". Although she attempts to establish a messianic role for herself—the tutor rather superfluously notes to Sylvester, "Your mother wishes to take on her own shoulders all the sins of the world"—the myth she finally recreates is an older one, that of Orestes. Having set the Winthrop's furies to work, Rebecca sends the tutor home: "I hope you will forget all about the bleak new world in that sunny land". She dies and neither child marries, perhaps to avoid passing on the family's guilt. Bayard, however, passes through all this apparently oblivious to the world of guilt and memory which overwhelms his wife and children.
The Paris to which the tutor returns becomes, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the setting of "The Diplomat". Samuel Shaw Russell, a young diplomat, is the first Winthrop to reject the family mission, to refuse to see himself "as another link in that chain of special human obligation which began in Boston in 1630". Russell can only arrive at this position after resolving two conflicts. The first is with his image of his father, the bearer of the sacred name, Everett Winthrop Russell, who believed that
God viewed with especial favor his domain in the northern New World. He professed to see signs of divine partiality in our successful escape from ancient tyranny, in our preservation from cold winters and Indians, in our deliverance from the German mercenaries of George III. God manifested His will through individuals, divinely selected, whose impact upon history was undoubted. Where, he would ask, would Massachusetts have been without our ancestor John Winthrop?
Russell's second conflict is with the wily Talleyrand's old-world criticism of the new land: "There is something in your air that . . . well, that I grasp only with difficulty. It is a kind of repudiation, not exactly of the past, but of all that I, at least, find most important in this vale of tears. The douceur de vivre—we might put it that way. Americans are not strong on douceurs. You believe more in morals. You even seem to believe that morals began with you'." His father's position falls after the young man envisions himself a great bird of prey soaring over the American continent. The somewhat secular mysticism of this vision gives him a "sense of human powerlessness" which establishes him as an outsider in both the game of diplomacy and the mission of the family.
Winthrop self-righteousness reasserts itself forcefully in the next two stories. The first, "In the Beauty of the Lilies Christ Was Born Across the Sea", fulfills the promise implicit in its orphic title. Winthrop Ward, whose flights of imagination combine casual anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and anti-Irish prejudices with violently sexual fantasies, organizes the economic interests of New York against the lover of his cousin's (and partner's) wife. Ward is so preoccupied with playing his roles—overtly as an arbiter of behaviour and covertly as a hero—that even his language takes the flavour of melodramatic nineteenth-century prose: "'She has not submitted to the lewd embracements of that fiend'." In the next story, "The Arbiter", Adam Winthrop, a more comfortably established guide to the mores and morals of New York than his predecessor, tries to discourage the novelist wife of a friend from travelling to Paris. He insists that her genius can only develop at home. Both Winthrops oppose movement towards self-fulfillment by women they admire. And both base their opposition on an aversion to passion. When Annie Ward points out to her cousin that she has learned from works like Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter and Phedre that "passion is the whole thing in this world", Winthrop Ward reacts by staring at her, "sobered by the enormity of her misconstruction. 'But those books and plays all point out the pitfalls of illicit love'." In a similar outburst, Ada Guest, Adam Winthrop's protege, points out her newly found understanding about him and his fellow members of her salon: "You are dry, Adam, all of you! Dry with the dust of New York, derivative rather than inspired, clever rather than forceful. . . . The old Puritan fire has gone out." But where nothing challenges Adam's condemnation—even Bob Guest, Ada's husband, returns alone from Paris to rejoin Adam's circle—Winthrop Ward suffers the anguish of a perceptive wife who recognizes and criticizes both his public and private roles. Her suggestion that his reality relies as much on fantasy as his dreams leads him to the story's penultimate prayer. In asking God's forgiveness for any carnal thoughts, he offers a Winthrop extenuation, "My conduct has been correct, even if my heart has been sinful."
Auchincloss's pair of arbiters are followed by a pair of Winthrops who turn inward. The first, Danny Buck, refuses to take a public role in judging his friend and superior, the headmaster of Farmingdale Academy, Titus Larsen. After the chairman of the board of trustees asks Danny to keep a journal to see if Larsen has become incapable of governing, Danny finds that this diary, from which the story receives its title, "The Mystic Journal", soon begins to fill with fantasies of jealousy and resentment, fantasies which he must repudiate. Although Danny recognizes that his journal is a false gospel and burns it, he suggests to the chairman of the board that its very existence might, in some magical way, have actually helped Larsen. But the chairman sees something else, the traditional Winthrop sense of self-righteousness and the Puritan ethic manifesting themselves in a purely private way:
"What concerns you is not the capacity or incapacity of Titus Larsen to be headmaster, but the moral capacity or incapacity of Daniel Buck to judge him. The drama for you is all in you. You are happy now, obviously. Why? Because it has been decided that Titus Larsen is qualified to continue in Farmingdale? No. Because it has been decided that Danny Buck was almost a sinner and has now ceased to be! What does it matter, I ask you, what happens to a million schools and headmasters so long as Danny Buck saves his own soul?"
The next story, "The Triplets", continues this transferrai of the Winthrop sense of mission from the external world to the internal one. The central character is Natica Seligman, daughter of the Winthrop triplets, three sisters who act in unison with their children. The triplets, who exist for the most part outside the story, function as an indivisible but impotent trinity. While they counsel Natica to "love and let love"—a strange Winthropian injunction—they cannot help her penetrate the privacies of a husband who has decided to leave a successful public career for teaching. As with most Winthrops, Natica must sort out her relationship with her family before she can resolve her problems with her husband. To help her, the triplets' greatest admirer and closest friend tries to define the ambiguous nature of the current Winthrop role:
"The triplets are so manifestly the fine flower of a great tradition. Who dares to challenge them? They have combined their great ancestor's passionate mission to save the world with all that is beautiful and luxurious in the world to be saved. We may suspect, at least down here in benighted New York, that the mission is defunct and that its lovely ministers are frauds—or let us say illusions—but what have we that is better?"
A bit later, sensing that he might have been too negative in his assessment, he suggests they retain an important function for society as the "masks our civilization wears." Only when Natica discovers that her husband suffers from a debilitating disease, however, can she seek redemption in his illness. When he rebuffs her, she resolves to explore a new dimension of the family's tradition:
She would give up the mask, at any rate, even if that was all she had left from the Winthrops. Without it she might expose herself as a cipher to the world. But perhaps to be a cipher was better than to be a pose. So long as the tablet was blank, there was no reason to assume that one could not write on it. At any rate, she would have given up the mission, or the burden of seeming to have one. From henceforth the mission would be only to herself.
As her words reveal, the need for a mission remains; her only hope for individual salvation lies in imposing its demands on herself rather than others.
Auchincloss's last story, "The Penultimate Puritan", a long letter from a mother to her son resisting the Vietnam war in Stockholm, returns explicitly to the biblical theme in its opening sentence: "Here beginneth the first chapter of the gospel according to Althea Stevens Gardiner The story concentrates on the relationship between Althea Stevens and John Winthrop Gardiner, seen from the perspective of a deserted wife whose husband abandoned her for a little "chit of a girl." Althea, sets the tone for her epistle with the comment:
You will remember from your sacred studies at Farmingdale that in the first century Christians believed that Christ would come again to judge the world in only a few years time. They also believed that this second and final coming would be preceded by a false one, that of an antichrist, who would spread fire and destruction along with his false doctrine. Your generation believes only in the false coming. You see the future as terminated by a hypocrite with a hydrogen bomb. Your father sees only the bomb.
It takes Althea some time after her marriage to realize that John needed an antichrist even more than a Christ: when Hitler fails to offer a sustained evil, communism becomes an adequate substitute as John joins the CIA. After the Vietnam War leads to a rupture between father and son, with the father supporting clandestine activity while demanding of his son strict adherence to traditional values, Althea raises the inevitable question of Winthrop spouses and gets the inevitable response:
"And what is [your faith] based on? Do you even believe in God?"
"My faith is in me."
But just as the father's self-righteousness motivates him, the son, Jock's, self-righteousness forces him into deserting from the army and condemning his father and country. His mother sees accurately the source of his protest, a source consonant with that projection of the ego implicit in the covenant: "You and I, Jock, want to tear down the Establishment because we loathe and resent it—not because we give a damn about the great unwashed." His act of protest, the flight to Europe from a postlapsarian garden of Eden, merely reverses the original progress and aligns him as firmly with the other Adamic figures in the stories, as does his ironic surname, Gardiner.
If John is the penultimate Puritan and Jock the ultimate one, where is the saviour, the figure who might either fulfill the Winthrop mission or establish a new covenant? There is a comic possibility in Althea's dowdy, dreaming daughter Christine "with her rosy view of an imminent socialist future." But the story dismisses Christine so fully that it is hard to think of her as more than a naive innocent who has translated the Winthrop legacy into a vague desire to do good for the world. If Jock can be seen as the Baptist, then the true messiah might be his as yet unborn stepbrother, the child John's lover bears. That child offers the possibility of extending his father's mandate against the forces of darkness or of emerging as the first truly spontaneous symbol of love in a far from spontaneous clan.
Auchincloss's tale is not finished, as, of course, it cannot be. In fact, it serves as but a chapter in his writings, for all of his works deal, directly or indirectly, with the preoccupying sense of mission. Despite Gore Vidal's observation that he "plays God with his characters" [in The New York Review of Books XXI, No. 12 (July 18, 1974)], however, he does so no more than most other novelists. And, as Vidal has also noted, as a member of the class he portrays, Auchincloss shares the temptations, illusions, and frustrations of their postlapsarian state. Defining and redefining that state has become his preoccupying mission, a mission which is, appropriately, more Promethean than messianic.
David Parseli (essay date 1988)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4733
SOURCE: "The Novel as Omnibus: Auchincloss's Collected Short Fiction," in Louis Auchincloss, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 84-95.
[In this chapter from his book on Auchincloss's work, Parseli discusses the author's short story collections, commenting on the manner in which they experiment with long and short forms.]
Although deservedly best known for his novels, Auchincloss since the later 1940s has earned acclaim also as a writer of incisive, memorable short stories. In his first two published collections, The Injustice Collectors (1950) and The Romantic Egoists (1954), the stories are thematically linked; in certain subsequent collections, such as Powers of Attorney (1963), Tales of Manhattan (1967), The Partners (1974), the collected stories are linked through recurrent characters as well. In those volumes Auchincloss appears to be attempting a fusion of short and long fiction with stories that can be read either individually or in sequence, offering the double satisfactions of the short story and the novel. The Partners in fact, was originally advertised and published as a novel, although it is little different in form and structure from the earlier Powers of Attorney. The Winthrop Covenant (1976) attempts a family saga of sorts through a chronological series of short fictions; Narcissa and Other Fables (1983) is basically a traditional collection of shorter pieces, some of them very short indeed. In The Book Class, published the following year as a novel, Auchincloss again combines the conventions of short and long fiction, although rather less successfully than in Powers of Attorney or The Partners: Although episodic in form, The Book Class has the outward structure of a novel, demanding that it be read from start to finish, not piecemeal; at the same time, the action remains too loosely plotted to deliver the satisfactions normally expected of the novel. Notwithstanding, The Book Class remains noteworthy as an example of his continued experimentation with the fusion of long and short fictional forms.
THE INJUSTICE COLLECTORS AND THE ROMANTIC EGOISTS
Auchincloss's early short stories are generally incisive, well-crafted character sketches with crisp, self-expository dialogue. His proclivity, reflected in the titles of his first two collections, is toward conspicuous if less than deviant behavior set against the generally well ordered social background featured in the novels. In a preface to The Injustice Collectors Auchincloss attributes his choice of title to the psychiatrist Edmund Bergler, acknowledging that his own use of the term extends well beyond the limits of Bergler's strict medical definition:
I do not purport to use the term in Dr. Bergler's exact medical sense, but in a wider sense to describe people who are looking for injustice, even in a friendly world, because they suffer from a hidden need to feel that the world has wronged them. . . . That a character's undoing or rejection may be the result of his own course of action is hardly surprising, but it may be significant that he has chosen, not only the course but also the result to which it leads.
The characters surveyed in The Injustice Collectors are a varied and generally interesting lot. Maud Spreddon, the title character of "Maud," is an early prototype of the intelligent, restless Auchincloss woman; ill at ease in her lawyer father's household, Maud will break her engagement to Halsted Nicholas, her father's partner and a long-time family friend, presumably because she doubts her fitness for marriage. Later, during World War II, she will meet Halsted by chance in London and agree to marry him at last. After Halsted's death in battle two days later, Maud decides to keep their renewed acquaintance a secret from her family: "She did not tell her parents or even Sammy that she had seen Halsted again before his death, or what had passed between them. Such a tale would have made her a worthy object of the pity she had so despised herself for seeking. It was her sorrow, and Halsted would have admired her for facing it alone."
In "The Miracle," which opens the collection, a wellborn but self-made tycoon schemes successfully to keep his cherished only son from marrying a somewhat older spinster. "The Fall of a Sparrow" recalls the author's naval service during World War II. "Finish, Good Lady," narrated in the first person by a middle-aged nurse-companion, recalls stresses in the family of one of her elderly patients. "Greg's Peg," told by a prep-school headmaster, revisits the oddly futile life of one Gregory Bakewell, a summer acquaintance, who clung to his indifferent, eccentric mother until his own death in early middle age. On balance, the stories in Auchincloss's first collection are polished and thoughtful, told from a variety of viewpoints; it was not until The Romantic Egoists that the author would adumbrate both the form and the style of his later collections, closing the perceived distance between short and long fiction.
Like the "injustice collectors," the "romantic egoists" featured in the second collection differ slightly from the supposed norm. Egoists, not egotists, they tend toward self-absorption, with impossible dreams and ambitions. Perhaps the strongest and most representative tale included in The Romantic Egoists is "The Great World and Timothy Colt," in effect a preliminary study toward the novel of the same name in which the title character's obsession is already quite fully developed.
Without exception, the eight stories comprising The Romantic Egoists are told by the lawyer Peter Westcott, a semi-autobiographical persona similar to O'Hara's James Malloy. The facts of Westcott's life, however, remain secondary to his observations, and when Westcott functions within the various narratives he is of interest mainly as a foil or interlocutor. He tells the story of Timmy Colt from the point of view of a younger associate in Timmy's law firm, privy to Timmy's thoughts and decisions; in "Wally," set in Panama during the war, he recalls the amusing, if faintly pathetic efforts of a fellow officer named Wallingford, a graduate of Cornell University's hotel school, to obtain a transfer to hotel duty. "Billy and the Gargoyles" recalls Westcott's prep-school days, in particular the misadventures of a less adaptable cousin. "The Legends of Henry Everett" contrasts appearance with reality in the life and career of the octogenarian senior partner of Westcott's law firm. "The Fortune of Arleus Kane," although it deals with a familiar Auchincloss theme, is perhaps a bit simplistic in its portrayal of a young attorney continually hampered in courtship, career, marriage, and politics by the burden of his family's wealth. Nearly one-fourth of the volume, however, is devoted to Auchincloss's original telling of the Timmy Colt story, stopping short of the turnabout and eventual disgrace recorded in the novel. Taken together, the eight stories almost constitute a novel, or a portion of one, except that none of Westcott's diverse acquaintances appear to be acquainted with each other. Significantly, the viewpoint character of Westcott, although satisfactory, would never again appear in Auchincloss's fiction, either long or short. His next volume of collected stories, published nearly a decade later, would be narrated throughout in the third person, yet would resemble even more closely a novel thanks to the prevalence of shared and recurrent characters.
POWERS OF ATTORNEY AND THE PARTNERS
Although published just over a decade apart, Powers of Attorney and The Partners are basically similar in tone, content, and subject matter, as well as in accomplishment, regardless of the fact that the earlier volume was initially marketed as a collection of stories and the second as a novel. Both volumes deal episodically with the problems and personalities of a large, "modern" Wall Street law firm, known as Tower, Tilney, and Webb in Powers of Attorney, as Shepard, Putney, and Cox in The Partners. In each volume the exposition centers around a responsible, middle-aged partner charged with guiding his colleagues through transitions in the legal profession: Clitus Tilney of Tower, Tilney, and Webb carries the designation of senior partner, while Beekman "Beeky" Ehninger of Shepard, Putney, and Cox holds the somewhat less prestigious title of managing partner. Typically, each firm has at least one eccentric elderly partner, several youngish "drones," and a number of ambitious young associates both with and without Ivy League degrees. Some of the latter are female. To a greater degree than in the novels, Auchincloss's presentation is here tinged with a heavy irony that often approaches broad humor:
Webb stared in fascination at the beautiful, promiscuous, near-naked quartet, with their host of beautiful, near-naked children. Who would have believed that a scant eighteen months before they had been engaged in no fewer than six bitter lawsuits? And now, with children tumbling over each other and over them (children who hardly knew, perhaps, which adult was a parent and which a step-parent), laughing and sipping gin, making jokes—oh, agony to think of!—of their "little men downtown" who had taken their squabbles with such amusing, passionate seriousness, they might have been the foreground in an advertisement for an exotic foreign car, so congenial, so gay, so pearly-toothed did they all appear. "Rabbits," he muttered angrily to his partner as they turned back to the club house. "They're nothing but rabbits. People like that don't deserve the time the courts waste over them. They should do their breeding without sanction of law!" ("From Bed and Board," Powers of Attorney)
In both volumes, Auchincloss's approach to character often recalls the incisive portraits of the seventeenth-century French satirist Jean de la Bruyère, whose work Auchincloss knows well. Unlike the Frenchman, however, Auchincloss most frequently manages the delineation of character through the sustained portrayal of behavior. The spineless but petulant Rutherford Tower, a partner in Tower, Tilney, and Webb by sheer force of nepotism, dreams of revenge against his stronger partners and believes that he has found the means when an elegant old gentleman enlists his help in writing a will; too late, Rutherford will learn that the old man was a true eccentric, with dozens of worthless wills scattered across the Eastern seaboard. Morris Madison, another Tilney partner, deserted by his socialite wife early in his successful career as a tax specialist, has since devoted all of his spare time to a diary of social observation inspired by the Duc de Saint-Simon. Some twenty-five years later Madison will contemplate remarriage to the widowed Aurelia Starr, carefully selected as "The Single Reader" of the story's title; by that time, however, Madison's obsession has all but consumed him, enough so to send the poor woman fleeing for dear life. Ronny Simmonds, a junior associate in Shepard, Putney, and Cox, has seen service in Vietnam and is still considering his options when he is nearly trapped into loveless marriage by the machinations of a female senior partner and her divorced daughter, possibly a nymphomaniac. In "The Novelist of Manners," perhaps the most memorable episode included in The Partners, Auchincloss turns his ironic wit not only upon the law but also upon the writer's craft, with observations as incisive as any to be found in such nonfiction volumes as A Writer's Capital and Life, Law and Letters.
Set in France, "The Novelist of Manners" recounts a clash of wills between one Dana Clyde, a decidedly "popular" novelist known for his lurid portrayals of the "jet set," and Leslie Carter, a junior partner who, as head of the firm's Paris office, has been engaged to defend Clyde against a libel action from an offended "shyster" lawyer. Young Carter, an impassioned francophile with some unresolved literary aspirations, quickly befriends the prosperous middle-aged writer and urges him to attempt, away from his fast cars and high-living friends, the true literary masterpiece of his career. When the long-awaited volume is at last ready to appear, with galley proofs mailed to Carter in his capacity as Clyde's attorney, Carter notes with some surprise that the novel is little different from the usual Clyde standard, certainly no better; although well aware of Clyde's tendency to use real-life models, especially among lawyers, Carter is nonetheless stung to discover himself in the character of Gregory Blake, an attorney who marries a glamorous woman who is his client in a divorce case only to kill himself on the wedding night, having discovered his own impotence. It is Clyde's wife Xenia who will explain to a bewildered Carter both the nature and the extent of his transgressions:
"But is it a great novel? Is it that last great novel of manners of the western world?"
"It is not."
"You say that very positively. Didn't you assure him it would be?"
"I was a fatuous ass. I was Gregory Blake."
"I'm afraid you were worse than that, Leslie. You badgered Dana into writing that book. You never stopped to think it might hurt him. Well, it did. It hurt him terribly. That's why he can't forgive you."
"But I never meant it to hurt him!"
"Of course you didn't. You're not a sadist. But it still did. You see, Dana had a secret fantasy. He liked to think of himself as a genius, but a genius manqué. He liked to tell himself that if it hadn't been for his love of the good life—the douceur de vivre, as he always called it—he might have been another Flaubert. "Ah, if only I could work as he worked," he used to say. Well, he worked at Malaga, he really did. And you see what he produced. He sees it, too. He can no longer kid himself that he could ever have written Madame Bovary. So he took his revenge."
Apart from its finely honed satire of "life, law and letters," "The Novelist of Manners" is notable also for the implied view of the convention reflected in its title. By implication, the novel of manners has long since been deserted by such "serious" practitioners as Auchincloss and his predecessors, leaving the field to slick, prolific craftsmen like the fictional Dana Clyde. The reading public, denied the talents even of O'Hara and Marquand, is thus increasingly dependent for its knowledge of society upon the commercial product most commonly peddled in supermarkets and at airport newsstands.
Ironically, the mere existence of such volumes as Powers of Attorney and The Partners suggests a viable direction for future would-be novelists of manners: Combining the incisiveness of the short story, particularly as practiced by O'Hara in his later years, with the unifying vision peculiar to the novel, Auchincloss's hybrid ventures provide rich and satisfying reading, even as their episodic structure might make them suitable fare for such casual readers as the airline passenger. Unfortunately, Auchincloss's experiments in combining two genres have yielded distinctly uneven results, with Powers of Attorney and The Partners emerging as the most successful such efforts to date.
TALES OF MANHATTAN AND SECOND CHANCE
Between Powers of Attorney and The Partners Auchincloss further enhanced his reputation as a writer of short fiction with two collections that, although less unified than the two volumes just cited, consist of tales related to one another by common elements of theme and structure. Published soon after the author's most successful novels, both Tales of Manhattan (1967), and Second Chance (1970) helped sustain Auchincloss's reputation as a keen observer of manners and morals.
Divided into three approximately equal subgroups, each containing closely interrelated pieces, Tales of Manhattan contains some of his strongest, most memorable writing, particularly in the fictional memoirs of the auctioneer Roger Jordan. An avid student of human nature with the instincts of a sleuth, Jordan delves beneath the polished surface of the social and artistic world to reveal the darker side of collectors and artists alike: "Stirling's Folly" uncovers, beneath the remnants of a distinguished collection, a long-buried intrigue of self-indulgence, arson, and betrayal; in "The Moon and Six Guineas" Jordan discovers incontrovertible evidence that a group of near-pornographic sketches, thought to represent painter John Howland's licentious senility, are in fact juvenilia portraying the artist's stiff, straitlaced parents in positions of amorous abandon. In "Collector of Innocents" Jordan deals perceptively and, in the end, diplomatically with an aging clubman once committed to canvas as a happy, carefree child. The two remaining Jordan stories, however, reach beyond the art world into territory even more familiar to readers of the author's longer fiction. "The Question of the Existence of Waring Stohl" recalls the world of letters as seen in Sybil and Pursuit of the Prodigal, while "The Money Juggler" clearly adumbrates the plot, theme, and characters of Auchincloss's subsequent novel, A World of Profit.
"The Question of the Existence of Waring Stohl," among the more incisive and ironic of Auchincloss's short stories, cleverly reverses the perceived roles of predator and victim. At first, it appears even to the perceptive Roger Jordan that the brash literary upstart Waring Stohl is taking unfair advantage of the genteel, dilettantish professor and critic, Nathaniel Streebe. Stohl, however, knows himself to be in precarious health and suggests to an astonished Jordan that the situation is indeed quite the opposite: Streebe is the true opportunist, now pressuring Stohl to write and publish a second novel. Soon after Stohl's early death, Streebe will further enhance his own reputation with an edition of the younger man's unpublished journals, complete with commentary, bearing the same title as the Auchincloss short story.
In "The Money Juggler" Auchincloss presents his basic outline for A World of Profit, including such supporting characters as the writer Hilary Knowles and the attorney John Grau. In the shorter version all the male principals are portrayed as members of Jordan's Columbia University graduating class of 1940; the title character, prototypical of Jay Livingston, is here known as Lester Gordon, having traded his original surname of Kinsky for that of some maternal relatives originally known as Ginsberg. Although A World of Profit remains, on balance, among the author's weaker novels, it is nonetheless more successful as fiction than "The Money Juggler," in which the limitations of the shorter form force a substitution of crammed narration for the dialogue and action later portrayed in the novel.
The second group of stories, entitled "Arnold and Degener, One Chase Manhattan Plaza," surveys territory similar to that covered in Powers of Attorney, later to be revisited in The Partners; the main difference, from a technical point of view, is that the characters here speak for themselves, having been asked by the senior partner to contribute to a history of their firm. "The Matrons," comprising the final section, includes Auchincloss's only published play, The Club Bedroom, later successfully televised with Ruth White cast in the main role of Mrs. Ruggles.
Second Chance, subtitled Tales of Two Generations, combines in most of its component tales the intense irony of Tales of Manhattan with a strong sense of society in transition. "The Prince and the Pauper," [is] perhaps the most masterful and memorable of the stories .. . ; the title tale, previously unpublished, is notable for its double-edged portrayal of two middle-aged men whose wives happen to be sisters. Gilbert Van Ness, after two decades of subjugation to his wife's large, close-knit family, emerges from psychoanalysis with a fierce determination to start over again, changing both wives and careers. His former brother-in-law, known only as Joe, is alternately fascinated and repelled as he observes—and records—Gilbert's successful if ruthless rise to power. Among the other notable stories in Second Chance are "The Cathedral Builder," describing the obsession of a miserly nonagenarian lawyer, and "The Sacrifice," in which an aging jurist contemplates the prevalence and consequences of violence. Notable for its polished prose as well as for its varied insights, Second Chance compares favorably with such earlier collections as The Injustice Collectors and The Romantic Egoists, even as it lacks the added "noveiistic" dimension found in Powers of Attorney and The Partners.
THE WINTHROP COVENANT AND THE BOOK CLASS
In The Winthrop Covenant Auchincloss attempted yet another sort of fusion between long and short fiction with a series of episodes purporting to show the Puritan ethic as formed and deformed from colonial times through the narrative present. Centering more or less upon the archetypal Winthrop family, rich in clergymen, lawyers, and diplomats, the various component stories are decidedly uneven in tone and quality, yielding an overall result considerably less successful than Powers of Attorney or The Partners. Curiously, however, Auchincloss continued to value The Winthrop Covenant among his favorite works and would, during the following decade, develop two of its episodes into full-length novels: Watchfires (1982) owes much to the story "In the Beauty of the Lilies Christ Was Born Across the Sea"; similarly, "The Penultimate Puritan" contains, in germ, most of the plot and characters of Honorable Men (1985), although the characters have different names. A third episode, "The Mystic Journal," harks back to The Rector of Justin in its evocation of a private school for boys during the early years of the twentieth century. The remaining tales, although hardly negligible, do little to enhance the author's already estimable reputation as a master of both long and short fiction.
Although published and presented as a novel, The Book Class (1984) remains more closely linked, in theme and structure, to Auchincloss's short stories than to his earlier novels. Like The Winthrop Covenant, it represents still another effort to call into question the presumed boundaries between long and short fiction.
More anecdotal than episodic in structure, The Book Class represents the efforts of the narrator, Christopher Gates, to understand, and indeed to explain, the often obscure lives of his mother and her friends, founding members of the "book class." The class itself, stopping always short of true education or enlightenment, exemplifies the peculiar paradox that Christopher sees in the women's now-vanished life-style: Neither feminist nor feminine, the New York society matrons born around 1890 nonetheless exercised considerable power among their families and friends. Their power, however, was often exercised in secret, and it is Christopher's chosen task to afford his readers a peek behind the scenes rendered even more vivid by his singular personal perspective. Having intervened, unsuccessfully, as a youth to prevent his mother's implication in a 1936 financial scandal similar to that described in The Embezzler, Chris developed not long thereafter a true vocation for meddling; throughout the action recalled, the narrator himself often figures as participant as well as observer.
Cast in the form of a memoir, The Book Class lacks the structure normally expected of the novel and is nearly devoid of plot. Following the drift of his own memories and argument, Chris moves from one member of the book class to another, even back again, pausing to ruminate on such questions as viewpoint and narrative voice: In the case of Justine Bannard, for example, Chris Gates can only speculate on how Justine must have contrived to keep her marriage intact after learning from young Chris that it was threatened. Published by itself, as a self-contained unit, the Justine Bannard chapter would be a typical, even distinguished Auchincloss short story; so also would Christopher's recollections of Georgia Bristed, whose activities helped to convict one of his former classmates for treason. Unfortunately, such episodes—or anecdotes—remain trapped within the apparent framework of a novel, which demands that they be read consecutively, and together. On balance, however, The Book Class is in all likelihood a more successful effort than The Winthrop Convenant, despite—or perhaps due to—its less ambitious scope.
NARCISSA AND OTHER FABLES
Just as he continued, throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, to write conventionally plotted novels, so also did Auchincloss continue to write conventional short stories. Narcissa and Other Fables, published during 1983, is a conventional story collection, including some items initially appearing elsewhere and others published for the first time. If there is a common element among the stories it is the author's keen sense of irony, here honed and polished to a fine satirical edge. In "Charade" the well-derived but impoverished bluestocking Madge Dyett, retrieved from Auchincloss's long-discarded first novelistic effort, engages in delicate "mind-games" with a rich couple seeking a wife for their blatantly homosexual son, a most reluctant law student; in "Equitable Awards," .. . a would-be divorcee in early middle age finds herself caught between the expectations of two generations without having truly belonged to either. There is, to be sure, a fabulistic cast to many of the tales, as to much good short fiction, but the designation "fable" applies most specifically to the very short fictions appearing at the end of the volume as "Sketches of the Nineteen Seventies," originally published in New York magazine as "Stories of Death and Society." Never more than one and one-half pages in length, the fabulistic "Sketches" most resemble rather grim jokes, easily retold, well summarized in the representative titles "Sictransit" and "Do You Know This Man?" In the former the octogenarian heiress of several generations of bankers, invited out of respect, strolls unrecognized through a gathering of young executives, the original bank having since undergone several mergers; the woman is deferred to by reason of her regal bearing, although no one present seems to know who she is. In the latter "fable" an aspirant benefactor seeks immortality through his art collection, only to have his will so construed that he is soon forgotten.
Other notable stories in the collection include the title tale, in which a rich dilettante is expected to pay for her strange compulsion to pose in the nude, and "Marley's Chain," set in Virginia, in which a retired bachelor diplomat reconsiders the option of marriage. Perhaps typically those stories, like "Charade" and many anecdotes in The Book Class, are set during the 1930s, the period of the author's richest recollections. Less typical, and somewhat less successful, is "The Cup of Coffee," a broad farce dealing with office politics in a contemporary setting; although humorous, the story is hampered by the flatness and implausibility of the principal characters. "The Seagull," couched in epistolary form, presents the nearly implausible apologia of an Episcopal priest who has conceived the scope of his "ministry" to include adultery. On balance, however, the collection ranks in style and quality with such earlier efforts as The Injustice Collectors and Tales of Manhattan, showing that the author has not lost his singular talent for deft exposition in the shorter form.
Taken together, Auchincloss's collected short fictions compose a not inconsiderable body of work. As social observation, they are perhaps as remarkable as those of O'Hara, although fewer in number and somewhat narrower in scope. As an ironist in the short story form, Auchincloss is perhaps outshone only by John Updike, whose frequent experiments with form, style, and voice are even bolder, with frequently remarkable effect. Auchincloss's principal contribution, however, appears to be in his frequent pressure against the boundaries that appear to separate the short story from the novel; perhaps future prose writers would do well to follow his example.
Anne Bernays (essay date 1992)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
SOURCE: "Downtown Deities," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 2, 1992, p. 2.
[Bernays is an American author and educator. In the following review of False Gods, she declares that Auchincloss's "language, world view and subject matter seem to be in a time warp," and that the author's dated style results in unrealistic characters.]
Reading Louis Auchincloss is a little like watching one of those engaging Victorian scenes in the window of a pricey department store at Christmastime, with elegantly dressed, animated doll figures executing a domestic choreography. In False Gods, Auchincloss's 32nd book of fiction, the author once again proves that he understands the nuances of what we used to call "moral dilemma" in a way no other American writer does. For him, the deadly serious moral dilemma is all—plot and theme, text and subtext.
Each of the six stories in False Gods takes place chiefly in New York, Auchincloss's special turf, and focuses on one of six Greek gods got up in more or less modern dress. Thus "Hermes, God of the Self-Made Man" is about Maurice Leonard, a Jew whose father changed his name and who manages to thrive in pre-World War II WASP society. When Maurice falls for Dorothy, her powerful father makes him the following offer: "I like you, and if you will go away today and stay away from Dorothy, I'll give you a boost when the right time comes." The pact consummated, Maurice goes to work for a Gentile law firm. Twisting fate delivers Dorothy into his arms; she becomes more Jewish than he, and, to Maurice's distress, their son wants to change the family name once again—this time back to its original form.
In a story entitled "Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Song." a Catholic society woman suffers over her daughter's engagement to a Protestant; she is overjoyed when the daughter is killed, because her soul has been saved. In the same story a great deal is made of a wealthy dilettante's so-called "heretical" novel—which the author eventually destroys in order to preserve his standing in the community.
In "Hephaestus, God of Newfangled Things," the story turns on the spiritual miseries suffered by a late-marrying architect. His new wife persuades him to abandon artistic integrity by designing "modern" houses rather than sticking to his particular—and not very popular—style. His mother compounds his despair by reminding him that artists "could do anything they liked with their lives, so long as the art always came first."
"Athene, Goddess of the Brave" is about a man who has made some questionable moral decisions as a youth, and is shamed for life after he saves himself from drowning in a marine disaster by getting into a lifeboat dressed in a woman's fur coat and hat filched from an empty stateroom. This is a story that begs out loud to be treated humorously, but even here, Auchincloss does not forsake the high serious mode that characterizes both his voice and its limitations.
All the stories in this collection draw the reader close to people who seem to be battling their own psyches over matters that—viewed objectively and with contemporary eyes—don't have all that much moral voltage. Auchincloss performs the verbal equivalent of a visual artist who turns out pictures indistinguishable from those of a 19th-century painter. All the people in the paintings wear "period" dress and behave with 19th-century decorum; they are faithful imitations without contemporary gloss or comment.
Auchincloss's language, world view and subject matter seem to be in a time warp—so much so that he often sounds like a parody of Henry James or Edith Wharton, as in the following description: "Heloise was not so much beautiful as exquisite. Her blond hair and wide opaque eyes and pale luminous skin might have evoked a sense of serenity had they not been balanced by her darting gestures and the vivid mobility of her facial expression, which announced the accomplished maitresse de maison, and by the low musical voice that constituted so perfect an instrument for her fine intelligence."
But there's a difference between writing about people who live by obsolete codes and writing in their emotional and verbal idiom. What Auchincloss delivers is an exact imitation rather than an inflected narrative—as if he were unaware of that most useful of contemporary takes on experience: irony. So the figures in Auchincloss's well-crafted stories seem more like archaic dolls performing an archaic dance than they do real men and women with urgent emotional business to transact.
Bruce Bawer (essay date 1994)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss, in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1994, p. 62.
[Bawer is an American author who has served as literary critic for The New Criterion and whose published works include Diminishing Fictions: Essays on the Modern American Novel (1988). In the following excerpt, Bawer praises Auchincloss's Collected Stories, Asserting that the book's depiction of "upper-crust New York WASPs" chronicles one of "the most significant social changes of recent decades." Bawer also argues that Auchincloss's fiction will outlast that of many of his contemporaries.]
Forty-seven years and 50 books after he published his first novel, The Indifferent Children, Louis Auchincloss has yet to receive his full due. Academic critics and editors of anthologies have almost completely ignored him; so have the bestowers of literary awards. (Of all his books, only the splendid 1964 best seller The Rector of Justin has been nominated for major prizes.)
Why is this? The complaints are remarkably consistent: Mr. Auchincloss focuses on too tiny a sliver of human society—namely, the world of upper-crust New York WASP's, especially white-shoe Wall Street lawyers (of which he is one)—and treats his material in an old-fashioned manner that is overly derivative of Edith Wharton and Henry James. But these charges are outrageously unfair.
Yes, Mr. Auchincloss's social-register characters and stately prose often bring Wharton and James to mind; for some of us, that is not an unpleasant experience. Unfortunately for Mr. Auchincloss, he lives in a time when the protagonists of literary fiction tend to be middle- or lower-class, when the rich and powerful (in the form of movie stars and self-made tycoons) are found mostly in Jackie Collins-style potboilers, when both popular culture and serious fiction have propagated the notion that Ivy League Episcopalian types are emotionless snobs.
These days the general public, though fascinated by the superficial trappings of privilege, seems to have little interest in the deeper truths with which Mr. Auchincloss is passionately concerned—with, that is, the beliefs, principles, hypocrisies, prejudices and assorted strengths and defects of character that typify the American WASP civilization that produced what was for a long time the country's undisputed ruling class. Mr. Auchincloss may concentrate on a limited milieu, but it is a milieu whose impact on American society has been immense and whose decline in influence has been intimately connected to some of the most significant social changes of recent decades. It is a milieu, one might add, that Mr. Auchincloss knows intimately, and of which he is at once a sincere eulogist and a trenchant critic.
Few of Mr. Auchincloss's books demonstrate this fact as surely as The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss . . . [which] shows some of Mr. Auchincloss's best work in his strongest genre. Several of the earliest stories here—there are 19 in all, the oldest dating back to the late 1940's—view Mr. Auchincloss's little world through the eyes of characters who inhabit it but who are, in some way, outsiders. Both "Greg's Peg" and "The Single Reader," for example, are about friendless bachelors: one finds his niche as the local buffoon in a summer beach town; the other keeps a voluminous diary about the elite circles in which he moves, observing everything but never really participating. Mr. Auchincloss shows off his sense of humor in "The Colonel's Foundation," an eminently anthologizable little tale about a misfit lawyer who foolishly leaps at an apparent opportunity that his wiser colleagues would flatly reject, and in "The Mavericks," wherein an Irish-American lawyer's bluntness wins him the affection of his boss's unconventional daughter.
The theme of not belonging figures pivotally in the book's two most impressive stories, both of which were first collected in The Romantic Egoists (1954). "The Gemlike Flame" brilliantly delineates the complex, ambiguous relationship between Clarence, a reclusive American esthete in Venice, and Neddy, a male artist who becomes his protége and (as Clarence puts it) the object of his "pure love." The situation strongly recalls James's novel Roderick Hudson the narrator's description of Clarence as Neddy's "preceptor," furthermore, seems calculated to stir memories of James's story "The Pupil," in which that word occurs repeatedly.
"Billy and the Gargoyles" relates the quietly disturbing experience of Billy, a popular boarding-school boy who is mercilessly harassed when he violates the unwritten student code by befriending a "new kid." That new kid, who serves as narrator, recalls how a bully named George Neale initiated Billy's harassment and notes ironically that while he shared Billy's distress, he couldn't share his "attitude of superiority" toward the tormentors, "for I believed, superstitiously, in all the things that he sneered at. I believed, as George believed, in the system, the hazing, in the whole grim division of the school world into those who 'belonged' and those who didn't." The story's picture of that brutal school "system" amounts, by extension, to a cogent critique of the grown-up system of blue-blood society, with its careful drawing of lines between those who belong and those who don't.
Many of Mr. Auchincloss's later stories, composed in the twilight of that system, contemplate the good and bad aspects of its passing. In "The Prince and the Pauper," a highborn lawyer drinks himself into obloquy while a worthy, lowborn colleague graduates into the country club set; in "The Prison Window," a museum curator's love of beautiful 18th-century objects d'art is clouded by the introduction into her gallery of a rusty prison window, symbolizing the plebeian suffering that made possible these aristocratic pleasures.
Several of Mr. Auchincloss's stories of recent decades reflect at once a sad acknowledgment of yesterday's inequities and a disdain for today's culture, in which, as a character complains in "The Fabbri Tape," opposition to ethnic and racial discrimination is "the only moral value we have left." It is also a culture in which, as the protagonist of a story entitled "The Novelist of Manners" ruefully observes, authors who follow in the footsteps of James and Wharton are doomed to be seen as anachronistic.
This collection asks some weighty questions. What happens to non-WASP's when they achieve ascendancy in a culture founded by WASP'S and historically dominated by their rituals, manners and values? What happens to the WASP'S? What happens to the culture, for better and worse? The answers to these questions are important to our understanding of ourselves and our times, but the questions themselves are politically incorrect; they concern social facts that we're supposed to pretend nowadays not to notice. Among the things for which readers should be grateful to Mr. Auchincloss are his refusal to adhere to this or any other fashion and the independence and high artistry with which he has, over his prolific decades, persevered in constructing unfaddish novels and stories about unfaddish people. If there is any justice, Mr. Auchincloss's Collected Stories will continue to be read when the work of the trendier talents of our day has long been forgotten.