The Rector of Justin

by Louis Auchincloss

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Critical Evaluation

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Louis Auchincloss made a career writing about the wealthy and privileged, often of New York City, who send their children to boarding schools like Justin Martyr before they move on to Ivy League universities and then to brokerage or law firms. Auchincloss was raised and educated similarly. His intimate acquaintance with the minute distinctions—social, political, and financial—that distinguish the upper classes gave him a privileged position in developing his fiction.

Although Auchincloss remained a practicing lawyer through most of his writing career, he managed to write dozens of novels, short stories, and nonfiction works, including a study of novelist Edith Wharton and a collection of her correspondence. The Wharton connection seems particularly appropriate given that Auchincloss’s fiction, in many ways, continues Wharton’s own portrayal of the rich of New York City.

Auchincloss denied any direct models for Justin Martyr and the Reverend Francis Prescott, though some speculation exists about the possible influence of his father’s experience at the turn of the century at Groton School and this fictional portrait. Howland Auchincloss was a member of the 1904 class at Groton, a school founded in 1884 by the Reverend Endicott Peabody, a New England Puritan cleric who founded the school for boys and spent many years as its headmaster. Although it might only be tentative, The Rector of Justin does draw on the traditions of New England’s segregated residential schools, to which the rich and connected have been sending their offspring since the mid-nineteenth century.

Auchincloss’s novel is based on the cumulative impressions of several narrations interspersed with entries from English instructor Brian Aspinwall’s diary. The effect is to create a portrait of Prescott, the rector of Justin, from multiple points of view, and to divide the narrative voice into several segments. It is a fictional technique Auchincloss used on more than one occasion, and it provided him with flexibility in fashioning his novels. It is like putting together a series of connected short stories. In this case the multiplicity provides a perfect literary device with which to develop the novel’s portrait of the impact of Prescott on former pupils, family members, and professional acquaintances. In addition, Auchincloss’s somewhat formal prose style also adds to the novel’s authenticity: Its formality matches the character’s turn-of-the-century sensibilities and their class positions.

The Rector of Justin is a social novel that captures the ethos of a period: It details the social, economic, and political specifics that make up the fabric of the characters’ society. The life that Aspinwall puts together becomes a metaphor and reflects the broader times. Represented in the novel are the shifting values and cultural attitudes that mark the transition of the United States as a nation run by a traditional white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant establishment. This establishment had in one way or another been in control of the United states since its founding. Prescott’s conventional values, shaped by a classical and elite education, represent the old family, old money Puritan establishment that becomes more and more challenged through the narrative. Money began to replace family, school, and class as determinants of value. A broader division of power also changed social and cultural values, as the country became more diverse; people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds began to rise in prominence and power.

Near the end of the novel, when Prescott is becoming increasingly distanced from the school, one of the board members asks him about the origins of the school as a Protestant institution for boys of Anglo-Saxon descent. The board member comments on how the school is changing, expanding its admission policies by admitting boys of different ethnic...

(This entire section contains 784 words.)

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and religious backgrounds. Prescott, at this point, no longer runs the school, but his opinions are still valued. By the end of the novel the religious beliefs and educational aspirations upon which the school was founded appear increasingly quaint, as the country has been battered by two world wars and a depression that have shifted ethical values.

The achievement of The Rector of Justin is the skill with which Auchincloss clothes these social changes in the pseudobiography of Prescott, whose mind-set is largely trapped in the late nineteenth century. Aspinwall is the perfect narrator, as he, too, holds the same values but eventually undergoes some of the changes that Prescott avoids. However, there exists a sense of sadness in the declining importance of Prescott—his values and his patrician Puritan world. This nostalgia for a period gone by is echoed in much that Auchincloss wrote. In the end, the perspective of The Rector of Justin is as much nostalgic as it is critical in its survey of Prescott’s life, career, and influence.


Critical Context