WICKFORD POINT By John P. Marquand (1939)
IN HIS day John P. Marquand was one of the most popular and celebrated of American novelists, but Marquand's day was a long time ago. Nobody seems to read him now except Yardleys and other superannuated white Anglo-Saxon Protestants; his novels occupied prominent places on my parents' bookshelves, first in Virginia and then in Rhode Island, and last spring when I visited my uncle in Hawaii, of all places, what should I find but a full shelf of Marquand, of all people. Perhaps time, or the times, has passed us by; but at least so far as Marquand is concerned, that is a pity. He deserves better.
This is a sentiment with which Marquand, were he still around to do so, would heartily agree. He had high regard for his own skills and accomplishments as a professional writer, and deeply resented his dismissal in literary and academic circles as a "popular" novelist whose work did not merit serious consideration. Before the great success in 1937 of The Late George Apley, Marquand had worked for a decade and a half as a hack writer: he published innumerable formulaic short stories in the mass-circulation press, notably The Saturday Evening Post, and he wrote mystery novels featuring a Japanese detective named Mr. Moto, a name familiar now primarily to solvers of crossword puzzles. His hackwork was very good, very professional, but it put him into a niche from which he was never permitted to escape.
This was, and remains, an injustice -- not a great one, but an injustice all the same. After 1937 Marquand underwent a sudden and thorough metamorphosis from hack writer to serious novelist. In the decade after Apley his best work was done: in quick succession he published Wickford Point (1939), H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), So Little Time (1943), B.F.'s Daughter (1946) and Point of No Return (1949). These books sold well, sometimes prodigiously so, in the book clubs and the stores, and won Marquand a middle-brow following but little high-brow respect. The seemingly effortless facility of his prose and his concentration upon the lives of the relatively privileged did not sit well in literary circles at a time when Joyce was in the ascent and when memories of the "proletarian novel" of the '30s were still vivid. Marquand was never really given a fair shake by the literary critics, and he never quite got over it.
Hence Wickford Point. The second novel of Marquand's second career is many things, prominent among which is an attack on the literary-academic establishment and a defense of what he called "the consistent craftsman of fiction." In this sense at least Wickford Point is an angry book, and when Marquand's dander was up he could leave his target in pieces on the floor. To personify what he saw as the sterility of intellectual life he created Allen Southby, a self-consciously tweedy professor at Harvard and author of The Transcendent Curve, a turgid study of early American literature and an unlikely best seller. Southby is all genteel pretense and sham:
"He was a scholar and he may have been the only adequate apology for leisure and social injustice, but he had shut himself into an ivory tower. He had no first-hand knowledge of what the rest of us might think, for he was removed from contemporary care by a comfortable income and by a succession of easy, uneventful years, until his ideas were as unconnected with reality as the furnishings of his study. In spite of all his research I could not help suspecting that he was incapable of understanding the spirit of his own or any historical epoch, because he had not lived in his own generation."
Those words, which if anything have gained heightened pertinence over the years, are written by the book's narrator, Jim Calder, who comes as close to an autobiographical character as anyone in Marquand's fiction; but then Wickford Point comes closer to autobiography than any of Marquand's novels. Calder is a free-lance writer who has moved from newspaper work to the pulp magazines and finally "had graduated with others from the 'pulps' into that more desirable field of periodicals, the 'smooths,' called so, presumably, because their pages had a glossy finish that could hold photographs and half-tone illustrations."
Calder is envious of Southby's success and reputation, which he correctly recognizes as undeserved, and takes malicious pleasure when Southby invites him to read the manuscript of a novel upon which he is working. It is a ghastly piece of work -- "He had been reading a lot of those earth-earthy books, where the smell of dung and the scent of the virgin sod turned by the plow runs through long paragraphs of primitive though slightly perverted human passion; but those others could write, and Allen Southby never would if he lived as long as Moses" -- but Calder is startled to see that it takes place in and about the locale where he himself grew up: at the isolated and unspoiled place north of Boston called Wickford Point.
With this discovery Calder begins to reflect that Wickford Point, with a history dating back to a minor transcendental poet named John Brill but better known, such as he was known, as the Sage of Wickford, "an ungifted Boswell with a death grip on the coattails of his betters," might itself be a subject for fiction. The conceit of the novel is that as he reflects upon this possibility he fulfills it, with the writing of Wickford Point; like Marquand's other novels it is an intricately designed mixture of past and present, with flashbacks employed to give us both Calder's own story and that of his family and his place.
IT IS AN immensely entertaining story, for the assemblage of eccentric aunts and irresponsible cousins at Wickford Point affords Marquand ample opportunities to exercise his considerable gifts for characterization and satire. Quietly but deliberately, Marquand creates strong narrative tension as he poses Jim, with his insistence on living in the real world, with the Brills, who "had lived in a world of their own so long that they could not face another world." In the Brills and Wickford Point, possessing "an inexorable sort of gentleness, a vanity of effort, a sadness of predestined failure," Marquand devised a metaphor for New England as he saw it a half-century ago:
"I could remember when there had been security at Wickford Point, when the house had a clean, soapy smell, when there were plenty of people in the kitchen to do the work, and two outside men to tend the garden and the grounds. That was when my grandfather was alive and before my great-aunt Sarah's mind was failing. The subsequent change was gradual, like the decline of the Roman Empire, and children do not often notice such essentials, although they observe most of the things that grown-ups forget or take for granted."
Marquand proved perhaps less accomplished as prophet than as novelist, since New England seems to have averted the decline this novel forecast for it, but he certainly was right about the decay of the old Yankee gentility; he portrays it here with a satiric bite but also with compassion -- more compassion, in fact, than he was generally able to summon in his satires. A fair amount of that compassion, to be sure, is directed at himself in the guise of Jim Calder, but in truth he doesn't let Calder get away with either self-pity or self-glorification, and he depicts his alter ego's position -- half-insider, half-outsider among the New England gentry -- with candor and dispassion.
It's Calder who initially drew me to Wickford Point -- there's scarcely a character in literature with whom I more strongly identify -- and I find that three decades after my first encounter with him, the attraction still holds. So too do my liking and admiration for the novel. If this is a confession of a taste for middle-brow fiction, so be it; Dickens was middle-brow, too. Marquand was a gifted storyteller, and an acute social critic who understood that manners at any level of society reflect, in one way or another, the manners of society as a whole. In his time he was often compared with John O'Hara, but as O'Hara's star rapidly wanes a more likely parallel is with Louis Auchincloss. None of his work achieves the depth of Auchincloss at his most serious (Portrait in Brownstone, The Rector of Justin, The House of the Prophet), but he had the same sharp eye for social nuance, the same ability to distance himself from his own world and the same critical intelligence. His work deserves a revival: not in the ivory towers, where there never will be a comfortable place for him, but among real readers.
Note on Availability: Like most of Marquand's post-"Apley" novels, "Wickford Point" is often available in used bookstores. An edition is also published by Peter Smith Publishers.