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Second Reading

John Marquand, Zinging WASPs With a Smooth Sting

By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, February 20, 2003; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past

It is just about impossible for me to imagine beginning this series of essays about books of yesterday -- books I remember with affection and admiration but have not read in many years, books I would like to encourage others to discover -- with anything except a novel by John Phillips Marquand. His are not the best books I've ever read, but they are among the books I love most, and the neglect into which they have fallen is a literary outrage.

Never mind that it takes a great deal of work to perfect a "smooth technique"; in the places where literary reputations are made, Marquand was dismissed as a slick entertainer. (1943 Photo Courtesy Of Little, Brown & Co.)

I first read Marquand half a century ago, when I was 13 years old. It was my good fortune to be the child of parents who read incessantly and never once said that a book was "too old" for me, so when they talked with enthusiasm about their own reading I tended to try it for myself. Nothing gave them greater pleasure than Marquand. He had, as they had, one foot on the inside of the blue-blooded WASP world and one foot on the outside; they shared his fondness for many of its people and his longing for the wealth and privilege many of them enjoyed, but they also shared his keen awareness of WASP smugness, insularity and complacency.

They found Marquand's satires of that world both hilarious and accurate, and so do I. That Marquand has almost vanished from the literary landscape is to me an unfathomable mystery. From the publication in 1937 of "The Late George Apley," for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, until his death in 1960, Marquand was one of the most popular novelists in the country. The literati turned up their noses at him (as they do to this day) because he had done a fair amount of hackwork in his early career and continued to write, unashamedly, for popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. But his reviews in newspapers and magazines generally were enthusiastic and his sales were spectacular; his novels often were main selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which in those days meant a lot, and went right onto the bestseller lists.

The best of them are "Apley" and its five immediate successors: "Wickford Point" (1939), "H.M. Pulham, Esquire" (1941), "So Little Time" (1943), "B.F.'s Daughter" (1946) and "Point of No Return" (1949). Marquand published three more in the 1950s ("Melville Goodwin, USA," "Sincerely, Willis Wayde" and "Women and Thomas Harrow") but by then his deft touch had turned a bit ham-handed, and a bitter tone had crept into his work. A possible explanation is to be found in Millicent Bell's "Marquand: An American Life" (1979), which is likely to remain the standard biography:

". . . Marquand minded that the 'literary establishment' denied him the title of greatness. He would feel to the end of his career that he was penalized for achieving too supremely the identity of popularity for which he had worked so hard at the beginning. The change of character he subsequently struggled for -- from the writer of magazine fodder 'for the millions' to that of serious artist -- was never to be completed as far as these critics were concerned: He would never join his contemporaries Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner -- even Sinclair Lewis -- in the literary histories. He would be bound . . . to resent this exclusion from the best company, as he knew it to be, the company of the immortals."

Bell wrote those words in the course of discussing "H.M. Pulham, Esquire," which was "read by many Americans, not only in the serial that had run in McCall's and in a Reader's Digest condensation, but in printing after printing -- 14 by 1949 -- as well as in the separate Book-of-the-Month Club edition, a cheaper Dollar Book reprint and later paperback reprints." It is, astonishingly, one of only two of Marquand's major novels still in print ("Point of No Return" is the other), though a couple of his well-crafted Mr. Moto detective novels from the early 1930s are still available. It is also, as can be reported with immense pleasure, every bit as good now as it was six decades ago.

Like all the rest of Marquand's work, it is written with what the author himself called the "smooth technique" routinely disparaged by his critics. Its prose flows without apparent effort, which scored Marquand no points at a moment in literary history that favored Hemingway's self-conscious leanness, Fitzgerald's poetic romanticism and Faulkner's dense complexity. Never mind that it takes a great deal of work and discipline to perfect a "smooth technique," and never mind that Marquand's prose is just about as distinctive and readily identifiable as that of other writers celebrated as stylists; in the places where literary reputations are made, he was dismissed as a slick entertainer.

Yet the truth is that "Pulham" is a work of depth and complexity. Set in Boston and environs in 1938 and 1939, with an important side trip to New York, it employs the flashback technique perfected by Marquand to explore the life of his narrator and protagonist, Harry Pulham. Now in his mid-forties (like Marquand himself at the time), Pulham has been approached -- commanded is more like it -- to help plan the 25-year reunion festivities of his Harvard class. The approach is made by his classmate Bo-jo Brown, football hero and perpetual schoolboy. "Our Class is the best damned class that ever came out of Harvard," Bo-jo announces, "and the reason is that we've always pulled together." So at least Bo-jo imagines; the truth is considerably more complex, not to mention more interesting and amusing.

This is because Marquand understood that "playing the game," as Bo-jo has done all his life and as Pulham is always inclined to do, is every bit as likely to complicate and diminish one's life as to enrich it. The world in which these sons of Harvard move, and into which they drag their wives and children, is at heart just a "God-damned university club," in the scornful description of an officer whom Harry encounters in the trenches of World War I. Harry likes to think that he and his crowd "do not bring our children up to be snobs" and claims that "I always like fresh points of view," yet in the same breath notes that his classmate Bill King "came from New Jersey and went to some unknown preparatory school and did not know anyone when he went to Harvard, and yet I still maintain that he is the most brilliant member of our class." Why, Harry adds, "sometimes I think I shall not mind if my son George does not make a Club at Harvard"!

The lack of self-awareness betrayed in that passage is at once hilarious and horrifying. Harry Pulham sails serenely through life, touched by the occasional moment of doubt or the even more fleeting gasp of passion, yet he always retreats into the comforts of the only world he really knows, what the cynical Bill King calls "a certain tiny, superfluous segment that is going to be nonexistent." Marquand himself held that same judgment and that same prediction, and he was right; what the late Joseph Alsop called "the WASP ascendancy" is now so far down the road to oblivion that its taillights no longer are visible. Yet Marquand also understood that the longing for familiar community is deep-rooted; the community he knew best was the WASPs', so that is what he wrote about.

Which is what the novelist of manners does: puts under his or her microscope the behavior, beliefs and mores of a specific group or class to examine individuals and groups more generally. The best-known novelists of manners often write about the upper end of the social order -- Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Louis Auchincloss, Peter Taylor -- but every class has its own manners and all classes are fair game for the novelist. Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" is about the manners of New York society at various levels from bottom to top, much of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" is about the manners of the African American middle class, and Alice McDermott's novels are about the manners of Irish Americans in Queens and on Long Island.

Harry Pulham, like most of us, lives in his own cocoon. There is a moment -- it lasts for a few months -- when it seems that he has a chance to escape it. Immediately after college he slips effortlessly into the clubby Boston investment firm of Smith and Wilding, but then he serves with distinction and bravery in the war, a war that "smashed everything," that leaves him back at home "picking up pieces of things . . . pieces of human relationships, pieces of thoughts, and when I tried to put them together again they never seemed to fit." In a wholly uncharacteristic leap into the unknown, he takes a job with the advertising agency in New York where Bill King is employed.

This gives Marquand the opportunity to take a few amusing whacks at the ad game and ad-speak, both of which he knew well, but it also puts Harry in the same office with Marvin Myles: "Certainly she was not my type, for when I was 24 I had no liking for girls who were aggressive or for girls who knew too much. Marvin was not my type, but there was something in her character which I grew to depend on." Soon enough he is wholly in love with her, and she with him, and -- to his utter astonishment -- they begin a love affair, though Harry knows it is far more than that.

Then Harry's father takes ill. The two had never been close -- "Father himself was like required reading, something which you faced with a sense of duty and were rather surprised if it interested you" -- but Harry rushes to the paternal bedside. His father dies, and the responsibility for Harry's bewildered, ailing mother and his younger sister falls upon him. He knows in his heart "that everything with Marvin and me was unique, not to be placed in any single category, that nothing in this world was ever like it," but she is New York and he is Boston. He takes her to meet his family, and though everyone is polite it doesn't work: "I understood then that it was over, that it had always been impossible" -- impossible not for her but for him, because "I have to live where I belong."

So he goes back to Smith and Wilding -- "a gentleman's banking house run by gentlemen, a fine house with a sense of honor" -- and eventually he takes a closer look at Kay Motford. He has known her for as long as he can remember and has never been drawn to her -- "Kay was always sunburned and her nose kept peeling and she generally wore sneakers" -- but now she offers the comforts of the familiar. As friendship turns slowly into romance, or a WASP semblance thereof, she says to him in her direct, plainspoken way: "Harry, maybe people you've always known are better. You know what they're going to do."

Here he is now, midway through his forties, settled and prosperous: married to Kay, a townhouse with a George Inness landscape hanging in the parlor, a summer house in Maine, two children. "Of course Kay and I do quarrel sometimes, but when you add it all together, all of it isn't as bad as the parts of it seem. I mean, maybe that's all there is to anybody's life."

Those heartbreaking words are said over drinks to Bill King. Oblivious as ever to life's inconveniences and complexities, Harry is utterly unaware that Kay is now seeking happiness beyond the circle of "people you've always known," just as he had sought it two decades before. She and Bill are having an affair. Harry doesn't have a clue. He thinks that Bill comes to Boston for Harvard football games and that Kay goes to New York to shop. When he takes sick during one of Bill's visits, he worries that the two might not be having a good time without him and urges them to go off and have fun, which of course they do.

A conversation with his sister Mary nails it all on the head. Her marriage is pro forma, and she is attracted to the man who owns her horseback-riding school. "He collects women," she tells Harry, "and it's mighty pleasant for a change," to which Harry replies with sublime predictability: "I always knew he wasn't a gentleman."

Mary wraps it up: "That's what I mean. If you could ever stop being a gentleman and if I could ever stop being a lady -- but we haven't got the guts to be anything else, have we? . . . We won't do anything that's really wrong, because our inhibitions will stop us, darling."

If there isn't universality to that, the word has no meaning. The price too often paid for realizing the human longing for security amid the familiar is disappointment and loss. In "The Late George Apley" the title character falls in love with a girl from the wrong Boston neighborhood, but he comes to his senses and marries the proper one who has his father's approval. Like Harry Pulham he is left to spend the rest of his life in his ivory tower, enjoying its comforts and wondering what might have been. It is a question that many of Marquand's characters find themselves asking, and it most certainly is not a question asked only in Back Bay or Harvard Square.

Yes, Marquand had his limits, in themes, subject matter and style. So, too, do all those other American writers who enjoy the eclat that has for so long been denied him. It is ludicrous that the Library of America, which smugly proclaims itself guardian "of America's best and most significant writing," finds room on its shelves for ever less significant work yet turns up its nose at Marquand. It is equally ludicrous that the publishing firm of Little, Brown, for which Marquand earned millions upon millions of dollars over the years, declines to keep a single one of his major novels in print. So the next time you hear or read about some publisher or editor claiming to "serve the best interests of literature," pause a moment to reflect upon how shabbily Marquand is now served, not to mention all those readers who might discover his work to their joy and reward if only they could find it.

H.M. Pulham, Esquire, by John P. Marquand, Academy Chicago, paperback, $16.95. Because it went through so many editions, used copies are often available in secondhand bookstores, at libraries and on the Internet.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com

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