Second Reading: John Phillips's 'The Second Happiest Day'

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By Jonathan Yardley
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

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

Over the years father-son acts have been remarkably common in American life: Adamses and Bushes in politics, Rockefellers and Fords in business, Fondas and Douglases in movies, Mannings and Earnhardts in sports, Guthries and Marsalises in music, Peales and Wyeths in art, et cetera. Apparently there's some possibility of genetic predisposition in these endeavors, but in literature it's another matter altogether. Edgar Lee Masters's son Hilary and Joseph Heller's son Ted have written some fine (if lamentably little-known) books, but that's about all my researches yielded. The literary gene seems to be a unique occurrence rather than an inherited trait.

Except, that is, in the case of John Phillips, who in 1953 followed in the footsteps of his very famous father and published a novel of his own, "The Second Happiest Day." But hold it, you say, who was this famous father? The only Phillipses of literary note are Wendell (1811-84) and David Graham (1867-1911), both of whom are now anything except famous. The explanation for John Phillips lies in his decision to write under a pseudonym, or semi-pseudonym: His real name was John Phillips Marquand Jr., his father being the author of such huge bestsellers of the 1930s and 1940s as "The Late George Apley," "Point of No Return" and "So Little Time," as well as the winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

The novels of Marquand père have been immensely important in my life. Scorned by the literati for the sin of popular success, as well as for dealing with the lives of the well-to-do in fluid, effortless prose, they are in fact astutely observant and among the best novels of manners we have, ranking with those of Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss. They were my introduction, as a teenager in the 1950s, to serious, adult fiction, opening the way for me to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and other writers whom I venerate, but I have always treasured them for their own merits, which include tart humor, superbly realized characters and deep intelligence.

The relationship between Marquand and his firstborn son was, like most father-son relationships, complicated. They loved each other deeply and were proud of each other, but the father could be demanding and impatient and the son wanted a life of his own, which was difficult to achieve considering that he was the namesake of a writer whose books were automatic national bestsellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections.

It was further complicated because it turned out, once Johnny (as the family called him) turned his hand to writing, that his gift and his voice were eerily similar to his father's. It must have been extremely vexing to John Jr. that he could not shake the paternal tone and subject matter -- as eventually he wanted to, when he attempted a second novel -- and this may help explain why, after the considerable success of "The Second Happiest Day," he never published another novel.

This is a pity, for he had real talent. Like his father, he wrote about the lives and manners of the upper and upper-middle classes, but he did so with the perspective of the next generation, one that had fought and won, at terrible cost, the most devastating war in history. In 1943 his father had published "So Little Time," which set out to be about a father's anguish as his son prepares to go to war but ended up being mostly about the father himself, his career, his marriage, his love affair. "The Second Happiest Day" can be read as a response to that book, not a repudiation of it but an attempt to understand what the war did to those who served in it and to explain this to the "old men" who were their fathers.

* * *

"The Second Happiest Day" was published at a time when many veterans were writing novels about the war, some of which were huge commercial hits, but it is not a war novel in the received sense of the term. Only a few pages are devoted to the combat experience of its protagonist, Gus Taylor, in the European theater, where Johnny himself had served, as had his father before him in World War I. Instead the novel is concerned with Gus's relationship with his friends -- and a few rivals -- from school, college and the war, in particular with George Marsh, whose wealth, privilege, nobility of manner and savoir-faire Gus at once envies and disdains.

Gus is a character true to one of the most important traditions in American literature: an outsider. Like Jim Calder in Marquand's "Wickford Point" or, more famously, Clyde Griffiths in "An American Tragedy" or Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby," Gus is on the outside looking in. His alter ego is a girl with whom he has a strong but platonic friendship, Frances "Chee Wee" Gibbons: "Each of us belonged on the outside of a world we never hoped to achieve, admiring and wondering at the life within. We had been content to scrabble about on the periphery, talking brightly, smiling, and shaking hands with all comers, one a little jealous of the other at times, but always careful not to crowd him off the edge."

A child of the middle class in the Massachusetts town of East Northrup; orphaned at age 2 by the deaths of his parents in an auto accident, raised by a childless uncle and aunt; a scholarship boy at the venerable Emmanuel Academy; a noncommissioned officer in the war; a GI Bill student at Harvard afterward; low man on the totem pole of a New York law office -- he lives perpetually both within and without the world of privilege, wanting to be in yet knowing at heart that being out is better.

This is a vantage point with which I am deeply sympathetic, being the son of parents who served the elite as private-school educators and the beneficiary (or victim) of a full scholarship at a famous school for boys. The image that always has had the most resonance for me is that of a child with his or her nose pressed against the window of a grand room where other children in fancy clothes are playing with expensive toys and being served Louis Sherry ice cream on Tiffany china. It would be wonderful to have all those privileges, but the price of enjoying them -- exclusivity, snobbery, isolation from reality -- is too high.


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