“The market may have its martyrdoms as well as the
pulpit; and trade its heroisms, as well as war.”
We were two old parties, my visiting brother and I, sitting under the grape arbor at the end of a mild summer day. When I say “two old parties,” however, in the manner of Somerset Maugham, I do not mean that we were either ancient or as acrimonious as the great British novelist was said to have been in his last days. The fact is, I don’t think that my brother and I are in our last days, as such, but we have seen enough early ones to know that we are well on our way. I mention this at all only because something he said to me may in turn have something to do with the way one settles down to reading a traditional novelist like Louis Auchincloss.
Anyway, my brother said to me: “You know, Tom, we are the last stable generation.” I gathered immediately what he meant by this, that the many married children of the several branches of the clan were simply riddled with broken families, divorce, and ill-willed lawsuits. Since, too, we had both served with overseas forces in World War H, I said in response: “We were also the last great middle-class Army. There will never again be armed forces in this country of the caliber and education we had then.” In saying this, the aim was not pride or self-congratulation but a kind of mutually wistful acknowledgment that an age had passed.
The age we mourn is the age of Louis Auchincloss. It was the age of class. I do not mean class, of course, in the sense of a British caste system and all that; but there was a truly shared sense of decency abroad and maybe, above all, a sense of responsibility at almost every level of the social structure in those days. The generation just coming into its maturity before World War II had somehow already grasped, despite an ominous future, the idea that we were about to take our place in the world. We were to be held responsible for the quality of our efforts and for the choices we made. This may sound like a training manual for the upper classes, but it was in fact the very stuff taught to us by dedicated, if also anonymous, teachers in the average American public schoolroom.
The novels of Louis Auchincloss declare, in their quiet way, that these things still matter. He is even now old-fashioned enough to say that a sense of decency in family and business, often in both of these aspects at once, matters a great deal and should continue to be the standard by which we are judged. People do not often think of themselves as being judged these days, the liberties already having been won to do just about anything we please. That is to say, ourselves to please. This has become so much the case, I’m afraid, that Louis Auchincloss is not the kind of novelist that the Serious Critics can take seriously. A sense of responsibility, moreover, is too easy for them. Alienation is the big theme today.
Another reason the Serious Critics do not pay much attention to Louis Auchincloss is that he does not provide for them an order of inquiry which simulates the rigors of the scientific method. Serious Critics, of course, have to justify their own existence in a predominantly scientific age and in a university atmosphere which heavily favors the latest and most ponderous of pedantries (whatever they may be), as in, for example, the current ascendancy of the so-called deconstructionists. We have much too hastily forgotten, to our own extreme disadvantage, the commonsense dictum issued some years ago by T.S. Eliot in which he suggested that the soundest critical method is simply to be very intelligent. The evidence to the contrary, however, presumes that the Serious Critic has to be densely difficult in order to simulate any intelligence at all.
The real difficulty is that Louis Auchincloss is a reasonable novelist. This statement is based on the observation that very few contemporary novelists are in any way remarkably reasonable. Louis Auchincloss is not only an intelligent novelist (Strike one!) but he is also a social registrite (Strike two!) and a Wall Street lawyer (Strike three!) in the bargain. He is, in short, just about everything that celebrity book reviewers—or, as Core Vidal calls them, the book-chatters—fancy least. To them, in fact, Auchincloss is the enemy.
But in his charming memoir, A Writer’s Capital (University of Minnesota Press, 1979), Auchincloss is fully aware of his critical difficulties as a novelist. His background, he readily admits, “was quite enough for half the people at any one party to cross me off as a duckbill platypus not to be taken seriously.” If you substitute Serious Critics for Auchincloss’ “half the people at any one party,” you will have seized upon the prevailing attitude which continues to ignore, if not treat with contempt, one of our finest novelists of manners and morals. The term itself, “novelist of manners,” is generally used by the Serious Critics as a category for dismissal. But quality in abundance is not easy to dismiss.
With some 28 volumes of novels and short stories to his credit, including such outstanding titles as The House of Five Talents (1960) and The Rector of Justin (1964), Auchincloss’ most recent work is the novel Honorable Men, which centers on one Charles “Chip” Benedict. A World War II hero in the Normandy landing, Benedict returns to civilian life to become chairman of the board of the Benedict Glass Company, founded by his grandfather. Laudatory articles about him are published in both Fortune and Forbes, and his success is thereby granted the official recognition of corporate America. There are the usual domestic problems, meaning of course marital difficulties with his wife, Alida (the name echoing that of Auchincloss’ real wife, Adele); but the burden of the novel is strictly a man’s business during the Vietnam era. Benedict has taken a sabbatical from his law practice to serve as special assistant to the Secretary of State. Benedict’s job is to prove the feasibility, if not the morality, of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. He suffers a crisis of conscience and quits the department.
In this particular work, in many ways a microcosm of the Auchincloss oeuvre, it is only mildly perplexing to wonder just how much personal fun the author is having with his hero’s name and the tide of the book itself— that is, Benedict (Arnold), of course, and Shakespeare’s “So are they all, all honorable men” from Julius Caesar. Also, “Chip” (off the old block) seems equally obvious, with “block” signifying Establishment, etc. Nevertheless, the Auchincloss shelf of novels is a considerable achievement in a tradition that can claim Henry James and Edith Wharton as its precursors. It is no coincidence that Auchincloss has written outstanding studies of both authors.
Louis Auchincloss is not only one of our finest chroniclers of manners and morals, or what’s left of them, but he also has applied to these beleaguered entities a high degree of professional integrity while, at the same time, focusing on the usually despised world of Big Business itself As Core Vidal has said, in an unusual display of rationality, reviewing Auchincloss’ The Partners (1974): “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and board rooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and book-chatters from actual power that those who should be most in this writer’s debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, betraying his class. Almost alone among our writers, Auchincloss is able to show in a convincing way men at work.”
In any case, the first important novel of business in American fiction was probably William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), but Howells was unfortunate in choosing for his prototype a figure of the crudely self-made man who would shortly become extinct in the increasingly sophisticated and complex world of modern industry. And yet, clearly, Auchincloss continues to share with Howells the problem of how to survive as a moral human being in any milieu which deals essentially with the spirit and nature, so often ruthless, of human competition. For the novelist Auchincloss, this was the world as seen through the eyes of a successful attorney among the well-off and even the very powerful, who, for all that, remains nonetheless human and vulnerable.
I remembered these things when I sat with my brother, two old parties, on a late summer day and mourned the passing of an age. But we still have something left of that age in the novels of a very decent and responsible man named Louis Auchincloss. I wanted especially to say this because, in reading him, it helps to have lived in his time and to have shared such values of his—and our—generation as now seem sadly on the wane. Meanwhile, of course, the Serious Critics will have taken little note of all this.
[Honorable Men, by Louis Auchincloss (Boston: Houghton Mifflin) $15.95]