The Rector of Justin

by Louis Auchincloss

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

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.

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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.

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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.

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Born during 1860 in New England, Prescott lost his father to the Civil War and his mother to disease while he was still a child, spending most of his youth in an early prototype of the type of school that would become his “dream.” Completing his education at the University of Oxford, Prescott carefully studied the British “public schools” as potential models for his own academy, somehow missing the basic contradiction between British aristocratic ideals and the already ingrained democratic ideals of his New England boyhood. While at Oxford, moreover, Prescott momentarily lost interest in the religious studies that he deemed necessary for the founder/headmaster of an Episcopal school, instead reading deeply in the Greek and Latin classics.

Diverted from his dream, Prescott returned to the United States in 1881, embarking on a brilliant career with the New York Central railroad and planning marriage to a vivacious young woman from California, only to abandon both in great haste after a mysterious dream or vision during which his earlier ambition returned with a vengeance. Curiously, Prescott remains somewhat uninterested in theology, pursuing the prescribed course of study only to acquire what he sees as the teaching credential needed for his chosen task. While at Harvard, Prescott also met Harriet Winslow, an intellectually inclined “proper Bostonian” to whom he would remain married until her death nearly sixty years later. His wife and three daughters, however, would assume a distinctly secondary importance in his life, overshadowed by the creation—and preservation—of the “perfect” boys’ preparatory school.

As Brian Aspinwall proceeds with his research, it becomes increasingly clear—to the reader, if not to Brian himself—that Prescott’s single-minded perfectionism, ironically founded on imperfect principles, has left many human casualties in its wake, including family, friends, and former students. The school’s alumni and trustees, represented in the novel mainly by the Wall Street lawyer David Griscam, continue to draw inspiration from Prescott’s dream even as they perceive its limitations, going so far as to lie to Prescott about the school’s business affairs in order to keep the shared dream intact. In his eighties, Prescott at last begins to perceive some of the flaws in his ideal, lamenting the fact that his students and alumni are, in fact, aristocrats of the sort that he instinctively distrusts and dislikes. Still, he crucially fails to acknowledge, let alone examine, his own role in perpetuating those institutions that he professes to hold in contempt.

Thanks to the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints presented, The Rector of Justin emerges as both a readable, intriguing novel and a document of social history elevated to the dimension of myth. Although suspected of using his own alma mater, Groton, and its founder, Endicott Peabody, as his models, Auchincloss in fact cast his net considerably wider, studying the history of preparatory schools in general before concocting his own archetype, a school whose ingrained contradictions, embodied in the heart and soul of its founder, are all too plainly evident. For all of its implied criticism, however, The Rector of Justin is neither an exposé nor an indictment of the American prep school; throughout the narrative, the possible virtues of a prep school education are clearly delineated, showing that Prescott’s vision, however flawed and unrealistic, is not without its merits.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626

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 about to marry the vivacious young Californian Eliza Dean when he is suddenly recalled to his earlier vocation in a kind of vision. Eliza, at first willing to join in his changed plans, allows Havistock to persuade her that she is not “cut out” to be a headmaster’s wife; in exchange, however, she exacts a promise from Havistock that he will not teach in Prescott’s eventual model school; both promises are kept, as neither Havistock nor Eliza sees fit to interfere with Frank’s calling.

Leaving the railroad, Prescott enrolls in Harvard Divinity School, if only to acquire the credential needed by such a would-be founder of a church-related school; he is otherwise little interested in theology or in the Episcopalian priesthood. While at Harvard, he meets and marries Harriet, the intellectually derived New Englander with whom he will share nearly sixty years of his life. Thereafter, the facts of Prescott’s life become inextricably interwoven with those of the school, which he establishes and develops into prosperity through sheer willpower.

As Aspinwall sifts through the various layers of Prescott’s existence, he becomes discomfittingly aware that Justin Martyr, for all its founder’s protestations, is little different from any other boys’ preparatory school, particularly in the matter of elitism and snobbery; yet Prescott, even in his dotage, continues to cherish the illusion that Justin is somehow far more democratic than the competition, lamenting the philistinism of those “old boys” who, ironically, continue to provide the school with most of its financial support. So great is the force of Prescott’s personality, meanwhile, that his associates would sooner lie to him than risk shattering a dream that provides inspiration even to them.

Against the background of World War II in Europe and eventual American involvement, Aspinwall, medically unfit for military service, continues his effort to interpret Frank Prescott’s life and career even as he struggles with his own possible vocation toward the Episcopalian priesthood. The documents, both written and verbal, that would provide the material for his biography are often contradictory and baffling; at the time of Prescott’s death in 1946, Aspinwall has joined the priesthood and returned to Justin following his studies; the projected biography, however, will in all likelihood remain unfinished, its open questions unresolved.

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