Jonathan Yardley

Bard of the upper crust

Louis Auchincloss in 1966
Louis Auchincloss in 1966
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Friday, December 3, 2010

A VOICE FROM OLD NEW YORK

A Memoir of My Youth

By Louis Auchincloss

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 203 pp. $25

Louis Auchincloss, who died last January at the age of 92, had one of the most remarkable careers in American literature. Beginning in 1947 with the publication of his first novel, "The Indifferent Children," he published 47 novels and short-story collections and 19 works of nonfiction, the last of which is this posthumous memoir, "A Voice From Old New York." More remarkably, his sheer fecundity is matched if not exceeded by the quality and intellectual reach of his books. Too often pigeonholed and/or dismissed as a mere chronicler of the manners of the Northeastern upper class, he was in fact a writer of rare skill and range, and his best books should find readers for a long time.

He reached his peak with the publication between 1960 and 1966 of five works of fiction: "The House of Five Talents," "Portrait in Brownstone," "Powers of Attorney," "The Rector of Justin" and "The Embezzler." Two aspects of this extraordinary winning streak must be noted. The first is that none of these books received any literary prizes. The second is that all of them - like everything he published between 1954 and 1986 - were written while Auchincloss pursued a busy, "limited but happy" career as a Manhattan lawyer specializing in wills and trusts, giving him particular insights into the private lives of those who inhabited the world into which he had been born in the fall of 1917:

"In the 1920s and '30s there existed indubitably, however hard to define, a social structure called 'society' that regarded itself as just that. These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn't seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics. Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either."

In setting down that last observation, Auchincloss no doubt had his tongue in his cheek, since no one knew better than he just how narrow and insular the world of New York "society" really was. Perhaps he had in mind Peter Arno's famous cartoon from the New Yorker in which one group of well-dressed socialites urges another: "Come along. We're going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt." He also knew something that his critics never understood, whether willfully or out of ignorance I cannot say, though I suspect a combination of the two: that however narrow and insular that world, it was merely the larger world in privileged microcosm, with rules and customs that, however peculiar, could be explored to shed light on the universal human condition.

Auchincloss was last in the line of important American novelists of manners that stretched from Edith Wharton through John P. Marquand and John Cheever, with a number of lesser figures along the way. Why this line has ended is a mystery, though probably it has to do with the trend toward writerly self-absorption that has taken over literary American fiction since the 1960s. The novelist of manners must be more interested in other people than in himself, and that, unfortunately, is not often found in the places where ostensibly "serious" fiction is now written.

It is also true that interest in what remains of the old American upper class no longer exists, so even if there were people who wanted to write about it, they probably would have a very hard time finding publishers. It is easy to imagine a member of the creative-writing professoriat recoiling in horror from Auchincloss's description of the household over which his father presided:

"To support his devoted wife and children he could count, in the year 1931 for example, on the following assets: a modest but ample brownstone in Manhattan; a house in Long Island for weekends and summer; a rented villa in Bar Harbor, Maine, for July; four housemaids; two children's nurses; a couple to maintain the Long Island abode; a chauffeur and four cars; several social clubs; and private schools for the children. . . . My father managed all of the above on an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year, out of which he managed to make an annual saving. Of course the dollar went further then, but still. Yet it never occurred to me that we were rich. We lived only as other successful lawyers' and doctors' families did."

Small world indeed, and Auchincloss spent his entire life in it except during World War II, when "I served as a naval officer and found myself in some tight spots, particularly in the English Channel where my LST operated as a kind of military ferry between the English ports and the Normandy coast." He went to private elementary school in Manhattan - "a great blessing, for getting to know some Jewish boys made me question the casual anti-Semitism that sprinkled the conversation at home and in the houses of family friends and relations" - and then was shipped off to boarding school at Groton, the inspiration though not the model for his masterly "The Rector of Justin." His class there was distinguished: "I used to say to my father: 'If my classmates should ever run this country all would be well.' The irony of my life is that they did indeed have a hand in it. And every one of them was a fervent backer of the war in Vietnam."

From Groton he went to Yale and didn't finish there, but graduated from law school at the University of Virginia. In 1941 he became a clerk at one of the big Wall Street law firms. After the war, though, "the apprehension that I might have chosen the wrong career had already begun to haunt me." He had been bitten by the urge to write at Yale and now wondered, "Might I not in some fashion combine the law with literature?" He left the law for 21/2 years, beginning his writing life, and when he "returned permanently to the law" he "became a partner in a much smaller firm." By then he had published three novels and a short-story collection, and if anything, he increased his productivity as he settled in at Hawkins, Delafield and Wood.

"As my writing career advanced," he says, "it seemed that, aside from the specific preoccupations of the characters and the stories themselves, a particular preoccupation emerged: class. Given what I have told you so far about my life and upbringing, it would have been shocking had the subject not been one of my major concerns. Class, whether real or imagined, is a subject of interest in America far greater than its actual existence would seem to justify."

Whether that is still the case seems doubtful. Americans now are more interested in wealth rather than class as a demarcation of social standing, and of course what the late journalist Joseph Alsop called "the WASP Ascendancy" has long since faded into the background, its preppy style imitated by Ralph Lauren and others but its long reign far in the past.

Auchincloss, who was richly endowed with the redeeming powers of humor and irony, is unapologetic about having been a member of this class - as close to an aristocracy as this country has ever come - and does not mourn its evanescence. It provided him with a rich subject for an amazing body of writing, and he made the most of it. "A Voice From Old New York" brings his career to a fit conclusion. It's a fine little book that may help readers understand that his literary legacy is far more complex and durable than most of his critics acknowledge.


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