John Marquand, Zinging WASPs With a Smooth Sting

By Jonathan Yardley
Thursday, February 20, 2003

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.

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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company