By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In the spring of 1954 I was granted one of the most decidedly mixed blessings of a life that has seen many: admission to Groton, the most famous of American prep schools, and a generous scholarship to ease the way for my parents, who were anything except wealthy. Coming as I did from a prep school family, I knew this hermetic world all too well and entered Groton with too many chips on my shoulder. My three years there were tumultuous and mostly unhappy, with expulsion an ever-present threat, though I managed to graduate and made a number of friendships that I still treasure.
Congenitally restless in any classroom, I was a lazy, inattentive student who took paltry advantage of Groton's superb faculty, but I learned a great deal, by observation and osmosis, about this privileged, exclusive, self-contained and surpassingly strange place. I regarded it with equal measures of horror and fascination, tinged with more than a trace of envy, and thus unwittingly set myself up as an almost ideally receptive reader for Louis Auchincloss's masterly novel "The Rector of Justin," published in 1964. Himself an alumnus of Groton (Class of 1935), Auchincloss had been inspired to write the novel by his own experience there -- "I was at first abysmally wretched and later moderately content," he says in his afterword to the 2001 Modern Library edition -- and in particular by the example of its legendary founder, Endicott Peabody.
Auchincloss is one of the most accomplished and distinctive writers this country has known. Born in 1917 into Manhattanite wealth and position, he was from the end of World War II until his retirement in 1986 a highly successful Wall Street lawyer; it always gave my mother immense pleasure that for many years he held the same partnership at Hawkins, Delafield & Wood that her own father had occupied. From the publication in 1947 of his first novel, "The Indifferent Children," right through to this coming December, when "Last of the Old Guard" will appear, Auchincloss has been almost unimaginably prolific -- now in his 91st year, he has published about 70 books, both fiction and nonfiction -- and consistently maintained the high standards to which he holds himself. He is one of the great American novelists of manners, ranking with Edith Wharton and John P. Marquand, but he is much more, as "The Rector of Justin" makes plain.
I gobbled up the book immediately upon its publication and admired it without reservation, though I realize now this had more to do with reading it as a roman a clef (which in fact it is not) than with its great literary merit. I reread it a quarter-century later while doing research for a book about my parents, primarily for its insights into the prep school culture in which they spent their entire adult lives, and in my book I quoted approvingly Auchincloss's observation about "that curious half paternal, half protective, almost at times half contemptuous, attitude of men of affairs for academics," which perfectly summarized a vexing condition under which my father had labored all his life.
It is not until now, though, with a third reading of "The Rector of Justin," that I have arrived at a keener appreciation of its extraordinary breadth and depth. "The Rector of Justin" is a "prep school novel" in the same way that "Moby-Dick" is a "whaling novel." It uses the environment of a fictitious Episcopal school for boys, Justin Martyr -- "named for the early martyr and scholar who tried to reconcile the thinking of the Greek philosophers with the doctrines of Christ" -- to explore grand, universal themes, all of them centered on its protagonist, the school's founding father, Francis Prescott. It is, I now realize, a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature.
The novel begins in September 1939 and ends in April 1947. It is told principally through the diary of Brian Aspinwall, who comes to Justin Martyr at the age of 27 as an instructor in English and soon believes "that I may have a call to keep a record of the life and personality of Francis Prescott," who "is probably the greatest name in New England secondary education." Five other narrators contribute to the portrait: David Griscam, chairman of the trustees, chief architect of the school's wealth; his son, Jules, expelled by Prescott for an act of defiance; Horace Havistock, Prescott's oldest friend, "a remnant of the mauve decade"; Cordelia, Prescott's rebellious daughter; and Charley Strong, one of Prescott's "golden boys, Justin '11, senior prefect and football captain, a kind of American Rupert Brooke," who fled to Paris after World War I and underwent a crisis of identity and faith.
Now nearing 80, Prescott is still at the head of the school he founded in 1886, but preparing to step aside for a younger man. Readers who are tempted to see Groton's Peabody in him must be dissuaded. Physically they are completely different: Peabody was tall, while Prescott "is short for one that dominating, about five feet six, which is accentuated by the great round shoulders, the bull neck, the noble square head, the thick shock of stiff, wavy grey hair." Auchincloss is at pains to distinguish his school from Peabody's -- "Justin Martyr has never had the aura of snobbishness under which Groton and St. Mark's have suffered" -- and the men from each other, as he says in his afterword:
". . . to dramatize the troubled story of the Protestant church school my headmaster would have to be a much more complicated character than Endicott Peabody. He would have to have moments of doubt to balance his faith; he would have to see his school as a mountain of vanity as well as a monastery; he would have to be intellectual, cultivated, occasionally cynical, sometimes cruel, always clever. If Dr. Peabody had his moments of despair, they didn't show. I wanted my man to be tortured in his brilliant success by constantly having to question its validity, and at times to despise even his own teachers and pupils for their failure to make his ideals seem as shining as he had aspired to make them. I wanted him to be humble and vain, to be St. Francis of Assisi and King Lear on the heath. I wanted him to express the agony of failing ridiculously when he wanted at the very least to fail magnificently, and I wanted him to raise the question -- no more than that -- if he had failed at all."
All this and more is accomplished in "The Rector of Justin." Frank Prescott is one of the great characters in American fiction, commanding every page with his presence yet never becoming a mere Great Man cartoon. He is no saint. Horace Havistock recalls the days of their youth in New York, when Frank worked for the New York Central, before he followed his path to the ministry and Justin Martyr: "Frank all his life had a grudging, half-concealed fascination for big business. He used to say that if you sold out to Mammon, you might as well get a seat in the Inner Temple." When David Griscam proposes raising funds to expand the school -- "The idea was not so much to sell Justin Martyr," he says, "as it was to sell Francis Prescott" -- Frank responds angrily: "It's hard on the personality to be a headmaster. . . . It's particularly hard on mine. It develops all my tendencies to strut and bully. Here I am, covered with mud from the bottom of my own little puddle, and you want to pitch me into a larger one!"
Here's how he is remembered by Jules Griscam, the prodigal son: "Prescott was surrounded with an atmosphere of almost incredible awe, to which the parents, trustees and faculty all contributed. I do not think that many of the boys liked him, but they respected and feared him, which was much more fun, both for them and for him. . . . They were proud of his fame, excited by the rumble of his leadership and diverted by his wit, his inconsistencies, even by his sermons. As I have said, he was basically a ham actor, and the school was a captured but still admiring audience." It is Jules who, after being apprehended in an act of desecration of school property, calls Prescott on the carpet. Prescott wonders if Jules has been "possessed by the devil," to which Jules replies:
"Well, devils have a way of having the last word, you know . . . particularly with those who are making a peepshow of God's mercy. Who are using God's things as props in vaudeville. And so it was that your beautiful academy, your palace of lies, should have at last a graduate -- a moral graduate, shall we say -- who carries your act to its ultimate degree and shatters for a gaping multitude the great glass window of your idolatry."
This confrontation is the nadir of Prescott's life, and he never quite recovers from it. On the eve of his farewell tribute he tells David Griscam: "I see that Justin Martyr is like the other schools. Only I, of course, ever thought it was different. Only I failed to see that snobbishness and materialism were intrinsic in its make-up. Only I was naïve enough to think I could play with that kind of fire and not get my hands burnt." There is much honesty in all this, but Brian Aspinwall's judgment, offered after Prescott's death, probably comes closest to the truth:
"He knew his capacity to be petty, vain, tyrannical, vindictive, even cruel. He fully recognized his propensity to self-dramatization and his habit of sacrificing individuals to the imagined good of his school. Yet he also saw at all times and with perfect clarity that his own peculiar genius was for persuading his fellow men that life could be exciting and that God wanted them to find it so."
Too often among the literati it is said of Louis Auchincloss that he is a "mere" novelist of the manners of upper-crust people whose lives are irrelevant to those led by the rest of us. That anyone could read "The Rector of Justin" and still believe this is all the evidence one needs of the human mind's bottomless capacity for obtuseness. This is fiction set in a small place but on a grand scale, wise, compassionate and utterly unsentimental. It is one of the central books of my life, and I treasure its every word.
"The Rector of Justin" is available in a Mariner paperback ($13).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.