J. P. Marquand was in many ways neither the typical nor the average American. He was a highly successful writer of good popular fiction as published for mass consumption by a middle-class public; and at the same time he was an equally successful producer of best-selling novels. His milieu was the aristocracy of old New England, which remains a closed society, requiring for acceptance its own combination of family background and inherited wealth. He was primarily a novelist of manners, somewhat in the tradition of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
Yet, as Millicent Bell makes clear in this meticulous and eminently readable biography, Marquand’s life is distinctly American and far more the traditional American success story than it might seem. There are echoes of Horatio Alger in the struggles of this young man whose comparative poverty excluded him from the group membership he considered his birthright, this young man who rose to affluence by means of his own talent and through his own efforts. Typical in this romantic sense, it is also typical in the flawed nature of goals achieved and in the very human insecurities of one outwardly successful man. Snubbed repeatedly in childhood and youth, Marquand devoted his life to erasing scars of wounded vanity and to forcing acceptance by those who had excluded him. The results were never entirely satisfactory.
Marquand was accepted by the aristocracy of Newburyport after his solvency was assured, and he married into it twice; but neither marriage was successful, and he never felt that his acceptance was all it should be. His first wife had led a sheltered existence and was emotionally incapable of coping with a more demanding situation; he was irritated by her parents and by her dependence on them. His second wife was stimulating and colorful but overpowering, and Marquand eventually became afraid of her. Both marriages ended in divorce, and both are illustrative of Marquand’s general relationship with the social class to which he aspired so desperately. He was never truly an insider looking out, never really an outsider looking in: he partook of both and remained ambivalent toward the elite that obsessed him. It is this dual insight that gave him endless frustration and at the same time gave lasting value to his best writing, for his novels have genuine significance within their limited genre.
Neither did Marquand gain full acceptance in the literary world. He found himself ostracized by that school of literary criticism whose axiom it is that any artist who produces for a commercial market cannot be considered capable of fine art. Whether the axiom is a sound one may be debatable, but it is a question best left to the process of time. Marquand was unquestionably a skillful writer and a fine craftsman. His popular fiction had to meet exacting standards, and it often contains flashes of brilliance; but it was nevertheless written to a comparatively rigid formula, as all Saturday Evening Post stories were. Hence it is circumscribed by very definite limitations, and although enjoyable, it is not memorable. There is perhaps a certain irony in the fact that serious art is often produced according to equally rigid formulae established by the schools of criticism themselves. Be this as it may, Marquand’s own more serious efforts were blighted by his popularity. His major novels, beginning with The Late George Apley, were best-sellers, and several became successful films. Their critical acceptance was generally good, but they were still rated “middle-brow,” and Marquand seems to have accepted this estimate of his stature when he joined the Book-of-the-Month Club editorial board. He nevertheless felt that he and his work deserved more favorable recognition.
The person who is successful to all outward appearances yet remains inwardly insecure and unsatisfied is a recurrent figure in American life and letters. In Marquand, Millicent Bell examines one such person in depth. She makes no attempt to magnify or exaggerate his importance, but she does give him justice. Marquand has assumed what is likely to remain a permanent if relatively minor position in American literature; within that context his unique vision occupies an important space. His peculiar authority is now carefully analyzed in terms of the life by which it was shaped. In addition to literary implications, Bell considers his life uniquely and significantly American in that it exemplifies an American dream whose end is disillusionment. Marquand was obsessed with a need for status and position, a yearning for acceptance by a particular elite, and his goal was always the triumphant return of a boy who has confronted the world and made good.
There are readers of this, or of any other, generation who will find it difficult to comprehend Marquand’s...
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