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Auchincloss, Louis 1917–
Auchincloss is an American novelist, dramatist, critic, and short story writer. His background as a lawyer and as a member of one of New York's wealthy families provides material for many of his novels of manners. Often compared to Edith Wharton, he is also considered an important critic of her work. (See also CLC, Vols, 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
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The thirteen stories in Louis Auchincloss's Tales of Manhattan are divided into three groups: "Memories of an Auctioneer," "Arnold & Degener, One Chase Manhattan Plaza," and "The Matrons." All touch in one way or another the world of wealth, power, and social distinction that Auchincloss has made peculiarly his.
The first five stories are told in the first person by Roger Jordan, who works for and is later vice president of "the ancient auction gallery of Philip Hone & Sons, at the corner of Park Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street." One is the tale of a man who spent his fortune on a castle off the coast of Maine; another deals with an eminent professor and a young charlatan; a third portrays a painter who just misses fame. All the stories show how knowledgeable Auchincloss is, and the writing is urbane and often witty. (p. 205)
Each of the stories has a surprise ending. All we think we know about the man who built the castle is suddenly reversed by his daughter. The charlatan does contribute to the reputation of the professor, though not in the way the latter had expected. The secret of the unappreciated painter turns out to be rather shocking. The fact that surprise endings are old-fashioned doesn't bother me, but I feel that four out of the five stories are obviously contrived.
The fifth story, "The Money Juggler," is both more credible and more substantial than the others. Four members of the Columbia Class of 1940—a Wall Street broker, a popular columnist, a corporation lawyer, and the auctioneer-narrator—are having lunch together. Their chief topic of conversation is "the failure and flight from justice of our classmate Lester Gordon," who had enjoyed a series of spectacular successes. None of the four had liked Gordon, either in college or afterwards, and they all take pleasure in his downfall. But as the conversation proceeds it becomes clear that each of these men, who consider themselves morally superior to Gordon, has had a share of the profits he has so unethically amassed. The theme is one that Bernard Shaw exploited in Mrs. Warren's Profession and Major Barbara—the universality of guilt. Shaw, of course, had a way of escape: change the system, adopt Socialism. Auchincloss has no remedy. (pp. 205-06)
The stories in the third section are pleasant but not particularly profound. The central characters are for the most part pathetic: the extra man, the hanger-on in good society, who has to face the fact that he is no longer in demand; the highly competent mother of four children who is taught her limitations; a woman on whom everyone imposes; a man who has made great sacrifices for his family. These are stories that Edith Wharton, whom Auchincloss admires, might have written in her later years.
By far the best group of stories is the second, all of them concerned, as are the stories in Powers of Attorney, with members of a mighty law firm in downtown New York…. [Like] James Gould Cozzens, who is not a lawyer, Auchincloss is fascinated with the law both as an attempt to apply reason to human affairs and as, for literary purposes, a background against which the irrationalities so common in human behavior can be effectively exhibited.
In the first of the four stories in this group Sylvaner Price, now the dominant partner of Arnold & Degener, is trying to give a proper official account of Guthrie Arnold, the founder; but something—perhaps, he thinks, the senior partner's ghost—keeps compelling him to tell the truth. The discrepancy between public image and reality is a recurring theme. (pp. 206-07)
In "The Money Juggler" Roger Jordan says: "Glancing from John to Townie to Hilary, I was suddenly struck by the size of their common denominator. It was in their eyes, in the opaque glitter of their distrustful eyes. They were all prosperous, all expensively and similarly clad. I would have defied John O'Hara himself to have told in that assemblage of colored shirts, which was the descendant of a colonial governor, which the popular columnist and which the Wall Street lawyer. Over their apparel, which was as beautiful as a New Yorker advertisement, glowed the snakes' eyes that saw the world at a snake's level: one inch above the ground." The irony is that the narrator's eyes can't be more than an inch higher. Auchincloss has a larger vision than that, but not so large as I could wish. (pp. 207-08)
Granville Hicks, "'Tales of Manhattan'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission) Vol. I, No. 14, April 8, 1967 (and reprinted in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, by Granville Hicks with Jack Alan Robbins, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 205-08).
[The Country Cousin] rests lightly on plot and personnages, so that nothing seems really important. Upper class social life of the mid-1930s in New York and Shoal Bay skillfully frames the characters, who move rigidly within its limits. Although finely drawn and distinctly personal, the protagonists seem shallow. (p. 7)
The novel provides pleasant entertainment, but most readers will be quite indifferent to the fate of the characters, none of whom are likeable. (p. 8)
"Books in Brief: 'The Country Cousin'," in The Critic (© The Critic 1978; reprinted with the permission of the Thomas More Association, Chicago, Illinois), Vol. 37, No. 9, November 1, 1978, pp. 7-8.
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The group of people Louis Auchincloss subjects to ironic examination in [The Country Cousin] are, as they almost always are in his novels, Republican, rich, and thoroughly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, their wealth coming from inheritance, the law and the Stock Exchange….
Mr. Auchincloss handles the legal as well as the non-legal twists and turns with easy skill, and conveys subtly, and with fairness, the hypocrisy and corruption that taint even so high-principled a fellow as Jamey. But the cultural exhibitionism which pervades the book, even if intended as caricature, is excessive, to say the least.
Adolf Wood, "At the Shrine of Art," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3998, November 17, 1978, p. 1347.
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"Life, Law and Letters" is a series of observations, all of them agreeable, like good talk after dinner. Mr. Auchincloss has a way of being interesting without sounding important. That is, there are no sirens in these pages, or in his fiction, but the intelligence is always whispering. (p. 414)
Racine, Corneille, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Benjamin Cardozo, Henry Adams, Henry James, Lytton Strachey and Emily Dickinson all get talked about. The talk is invariably civilized. There are no terrors. As Mr. Auchincloss tells us in "A Writer's Capital," he has always regarded it as "particularly ignominious for a New Yorker of my generation and upbringing to have failed to enjoy life." (p. 415)
"A Writer's Capital"—his childhood, of course—is a fascinating document…. Briefly, Mr. Auchincloss lets us look under his hood, then slams it shut again on our fingers.
He grew up with "a false sense of duty." While "there were not many surprises in the long probe into my past and childhood," he learned from psychoanalysis to "feel free," to create his own character independent of his "background." He resents the critics who object to his "social privilege." He writes about what he knows—money and honor and our ruling class—as he should. Gore Vidal, whom he knew in the early 1950's at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, has suggested that he is a secret enemy of his class. He is, if not a Saint-Simon, at least an ironic spy, and quite valuable. (p. 416)
John Leonard, "Louis Auchincloss," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 30, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 8, 1979, pp. 414-16).
If one had supposed there was nothing left to say about the formidable Queen and her court, one would have supposed wrong, for Mr. Auchincloss, as a novelist, is able to bring generations of councillors and advisers … to new life, along with Victoria herself [in Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle]. Although "Victorian" has been used to signify sexual repressiveness, the personalities of Victorians ran riot in every other respect, and practically everybody in the book is an instance of individuality or eccentricity that is exceptionally diverting and perhaps, in what appears to be our more conforming age, enviable. (pp. 163-64)
"Briefly Noted: 'Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle'," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 32, September 24, 1979, pp. 163-64.
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[The] smoothness with which ["The House of the Prophet"] proceeds from start to finish is very nearly slick. The important plot developments occur in elegantly spoken little tête-à-têtes whose surprising frankness serves the dual purpose of titillating the reader … and of bringing each scene to a quick and electric climax. What Mr. Auchincloss's technique seems to reflect is a closed little society that functions according to agreed-upon rules, wherein people know their own minds and get things done with the merest flick of their tongues.
As usual, this makes for pleasant, easy reading. But one is tempted to complain that in "The House of the Prophet," Mr. Auchincloss's technique is distinctly ill-suited to his subject. After all, Felix Leitner, the novel's protagonist, does not really live in a world in which the rules have been made up in advance….
[What] we must keep in mind is that it is not Mr. Auchincloss who has put together this book, but rather his persona, Roger Cutter, who is at best Felix Leitner's disciple and at worst, in his own pessimistic judgment, a pilot fish to Leitner's shark. It is Roger Cutter—a figurative court eunuch, owing to his diabetes-induced sexual impotence—who has solicited memoirs of Leitner's wives and friends, written a narrative that connects them with one another, and edited the resulting posthumous biography of Leitner. (p. 184)
The tension between the egotist who appears in Cutter's narrative and the truth-seeker who stands beyond its reach, is what gives "The House of the Prophet" its redeeming ambiguity.
Does the novel ever resolve that ambiguity? Not really, and that is the triumph of the book….
[As] the title of the novel announces, this is the domestic view of the prophet without honor in his own house. But we also glimpse the prophet abroad. By giving us both views, Mr. Auchincloss has not only surpassed the limitations of his technique, he has also turned those limitations to his advantage. This makes "The House of the Prophet" easily his best novel since "The Rector of Justin," and debatably the most accomplished book he has written to date. (p. 185)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'The House of the Prophet'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 5, 1980, pp. 184-85).
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Mr. Auchincloss has written primarily about well-educated, decently-behaved professional people very much engaged in their work. And he has done so with considerable moral tact, sharpness of observation and narrative prudence. Reading a novel by Mr. Auchincloss is not like going on a spree, but it is never a waste of time or cause for acute spasms of nausea. There are no heights or depths, but the middle ground has its charms and occasionally its fascinations. (p. 7)
Louis Auchincloss has a fine eye for the social implications of habitat. His descriptions [in "The House of the Prophet"] of the differences and snobberies associated with two summer colonies in Maine—one the preserve of socialites, the other of academics—offer a marvelous combination of satire and shrewd observation. Moreover, he is a master of the quick character sketch, the presentation of temperament and physique in one or two strokes of the brush….
Filled with nicely enameled miniatures and well-observed settings, the novel deals with intelligent people and great issues. Why, then, one must ask, is it not a better, a more satisfying book? For, although it is always thoughtful and often entertaining, "The House of the Prophet" is a good but not outstanding piece of fiction. One reason for this is Mr. Auchincloss's lack of an ear. He is a writer who sees but cannot hear. Although the conversations in the book are often described as brilliant, witty and charming, and though there is a laudable effort to include the arts—El Greco and Shakespeare keep cropping up—the tones and rhythms of voices are dull and indistinguishable. Discussions of French Gothic bring to mind James Michener, not Henry Adams.
Compounded with this difficulty is the presentation of the character of Felix Leitner through his own conversation and writing. Though Leitner's moral character and psychological motivation are matters of dispute, his genius is taken for granted by all of the characters and presumably is meant to be accepted by the reader…. Felix Leitner, unfortunately, is allowed to demonstrate his brilliance verbally throughout the book. What he has to say about a wide range of topics from the Constitution to Shakespeare's late plays demonstrates neither striking originality nor unusual elegance. He sometimes sounds clever, never profound.
His favorite topic is history, and here lies the greatest cause of his downfall as a credible figure of genius. The reader learns to brace himself for the occasions when Felix lectures to an adoring friend, spouse or dinner partner…. The more textbook generalizations drone on, the less powerful the intellectual drama becomes. (p. 29)
Robert Kiely, "Adviser to Presidents," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1980, pp. 7, 29.
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Had there been no Scott Fitzgerald, Louis Auchincloss might have written a better and more original novel than [The House of the Prophet] in which Felix Leitner is a disguised Jay Gatsby whose story is narrated by a Nick Caraway named Roger Cutter. While this is an interesting tale, better than most that are foisted on the public by present-day publishers, this reader is constantly distracted by the ghost of Gatsby. There are differences, of course, but it is the similarities that are striking, and Auchincloss' book suffers.
Gatsby is a disarming romantic with an all consuming dream that readers empathize with, even as they laugh at the naiveté of a man who is all heart and very little head. But they cannot smile at Felix Leitner, who suffers from the same ethnic and social handicaps, for he is an intellectual whose cold acumen elicits feelings of inferiority. Gatsby is attractive because of magnetism and mystery; perhaps too much is known about Leitner. This pundit, lawyer, newspaper columnist, and advisor to people in high places displays a morality that is subjective and a truth that is snobbishly inconstant, though his mission demands "that I can have no friend but truth." With such a person, it is extremely difficult to be either comfortable or sympathetic.
Gatsby is infinitely more fortunate in having Nick Caraway to narrate the folderol of East Egg and West, whereas the trumpery of Seal Cove and Butterfield Bay is recounted by Roger Cutter, a devoted dolt without merits of his own….
Auchincloss' tour de force is arresting, but Fitzgerald's is the vastly superior book.
Joseph D. Ayd, S.J., "Fiction: 'The House of the Prophet'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 1, April, 1980, p. 2.
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[The literary device of viewing a man through the use of multiple narrations] is, of course, an old one; and the use to which it is put—to show, that if one seeks to learn the truth about a dead man from his former intimates, what one will get is merely a series of distorted reflections in a Hall of Mirrors—is also old. But Mr Auchincloss uses it with freshness. Was Leitner a monster or was he a saint?…
A novelist technically more brilliant than Mr Auchincloss—[an Anthony] Burgess or a [John] Barth—would no doubt have varied the styles of the various narrations…. The reader is here obliged to accept a convention whereby each memoir might merit the description 'as told to' Louis Auchincloss.
If an aristocracy can be said to exist in the States, then Mr Auchincloss belongs to it; and his writing, like Edith Wharton's before it, has about it the patrician dignity of someone who, at whatever cost, has come to terms with both himself and the world. There are innumerable sharp insights into literature, politics and the vagaries of human behaviour…. [Aperçus] abound, recalling Somerset Maugham; but Mr Auchincloss lacks Maugham's unrivalled ability to sweat over the mot juste with the dedication of a Flaubert and then to come up, unerringly, with a cliché.
Rather, in its gentlemanly discretion, its accuracy and its acuity, this style perpetually fulfils Henry Adams's declared ambition when he wrote his Education: 'to satisfy himself as to whether, by stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigidly consequent, he could fix, for a familiar moment, a necessary sequence of human events.'
Francis King, 'The House of the Prophet'," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 244, No. 7920, April 26, 1980, p. 22.
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A main theme of [The House of the Prophet] is the contrast between Leitner's happy relationship with his public and his often difficult relationships with those close to him. The title does not in fact refer to a person or a place of vatic perception but to the verse in Matthew 13:57 that says that prophets are not honored in their own houses.
The House of the Prophet reflects Auchincloss' long established strengths. The conversations are informed and adroit, the narrative tone is literate, eloquent, ironic but with a continuous undertone of seriousness. It is written with the author's enthusiastic interest in the daily conflicts and personalities of the world of influential people that he has always lived in. Its subject is also entirely believable; the portrait of Leitner is convincing as what such a man would have to be like in personal life. But this fact also has to do with what seems wrong in this smoothly crafted study.
The House of the Prophet harks back in many ways to The Rector of Justin, Auchincloss' portrait of a headmaster of a New England boarding school who was modeled partly on Endicott Peabody, the famous master of Groton…. In The House of the Prophet Auchincloss has not been able to deal with a fact that he is too much of a realist to deny, which is that the personal lives of most writers—especially political writers—are simply not very interesting. Their work is the drama of their lives and tends to absorb their egos. Aside from a single incident …, Leitner is shown as continually moving toward his own search for truth, away from people—and also away from further self-revelation. In a similar case, a biographer can refer to an author's works, which often form a chronicle of his or her personality in time. But since Leitner is essentially a fictional character …, there is no work to point to. We are left at the end with seemingly empty debate as to whether Leitner was a monster or a saint in his single-minded pursuit of the truth. What was the truth that he pursued?
All the same, it should be said that the exploration of character is something special in Auchincloss' novels. In it he often continues a pattern familiar in English and American fiction of the past, in which a morally conscious and ironically perceptive observer, who is usually in some sense passive, comes slowly to know another person who is important to his or her destiny and is changed by this knowledge…. [Today this pattern] offers a view of the human ego in a moral light and an appraisal of knowing innocence which are available only in such authors as Auchincloss, C. P. Snow, and Anthony Powell, who still write in the tradition of the novel of manners. The House of the Prophet conforms closely to this pattern…. But for the reasons given, this novel may not be the best to begin with to appreciate this aspect of Auchincloss' work. The Rector of Justin would probably be a better choice or one of those novels in which the illumination of character is more implicit, such as Portrait in Brownstone or The Great World and Timothy Colt. (pp. 13, 23)
Paul Crabtree, "The Vanishing Ego," in The Lone Star Book Review (copyright © 1980 Lone Star Media Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 11, May, 1980, pp. 13, 23.
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