(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Rector of Justin continues Auchincloss’s analytical portrayal of American society and its institutions, here focusing upon the type of boys’ boarding school that he himself attended and that has furnished the United States with much of its business and political leadership since the end of the nineteenth century. Told from a number of viewpoints, the tale of Justin Martyr Academy and its founder, the title character Francis Prescott, remains tantalizingly incomplete even at the end, showing the basic anomaly of an institution that seeks to foster “democratic” ideals while charging high fees and adhering to a selective admissions policy.

The unifying narrator of The Rector of Justin is one Brian Aspinwall; too frail of health to join his fellow Americans in preparing to fight the Nazis, he arrives to teach at Justin Martyr Academy during the eightieth year of the legendary founder’s life. At first merely keeping a diary of his impressions and encounters, as of his own possible vocation to the Episcopal priesthood, Brian finds himself drawn to the old man by what he perceives as the latter’s unwavering moral courage. In time he goes on to project a full-scale biography of Prescott, assembling spoken and written testimony from a variety of witnesses. Proceeding with his chosen task, Brian discovers that others before him have tried, and failed, to produce a Prescott biography. Brian too will fail, for want of life experience and objectivity.

The book, as it stands, intersperses Brian’s reflections with his steadily increasing, yet maddeningly inconclusive, documentation. Notably absent from the growing pile of written testimony is any word from Prescott himself; throughout his long life and career the old man has written little or nothing, preferring instead to be remembered by his actions. Yet it is precisely those actions, variously remembered and interpreted, that somehow fail to “add up,” leaving even the elderly Prescott himself with the impression that he has somehow failed in his self-appointed mission.

Born during 1860 in New England, Prescott lost his father to the...

(The entire section is 877 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Outwardly traditional in form, consisting of an assemblage of journal entries, letters, and memoirs, The Rector of Justin goes beyond tradition in the skillful characterization afforded each of the several narrators whose testimony combines to produce the novel. The principal narrator of The Rector of Justin is Brian Aspinwall, a somewhat old-maidish graduate student who has joined the faculty of Justin Martyr Academy during the eightieth year of the fabled old headmaster’s life. From keeping a journal about his life at the school, including his encounters with Dr. Frank Prescott and his ailing wife who soon dies, Aspinwall goes on to project a Prescott biography, interviewing many of the old gentleman’s family and friends; in several cases, the interviewees have already written memoirs of their own, which are incorporated within the body of the novel.

Born in 1860 and orphaned at an early age, the Boston-bred Prescott is himself the product of a New England private-school education. From his earliest youth onward, however, he has cherished a dream of the perfect boarding school—unlike the school he himself attended and more on the order of such “competition” as Groton and St. Mark’s. With his friend Horace Havistock, with whom he seeks to share the dream, Prescott spends three years at Oxford University, ostensibly to study the British public school model. Upon his return to the United States, he briefly forsakes his dream for a promising career with the New York Central railroad and is...

(The entire section is 626 words.)