The Rector of Justin Summary
by Louis Auchincloss

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(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 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...

(The entire section is 1,503 words.)