“I used to say to my father,” he says, “‘If my class at Yale ran this country,

we would have no problems.’  And the irony of my life is that they did.”

—Louis Auchincloss, interview with Trevor Butterworth, Financial Times, September 21, 2007

In January (one year after his death at the age of 92), we bowed to Louis Auchincloss—specifically, on the 35th anniversary of the publication of his thematically related stories, The Winthrop Covenant (1976).  These stories, he said,

are designed to trace, by the use of fiction and dramatized history, the rise and fall of the Puritan ethic in New York and New England.  By Puritan ethic I mean that preoccupying sense, found in certain individuals, of a mission, presumably divinely inspired, toward their fellow men.

Andrew Lytle used to describe puritanism as “putting evil in the object,” whether that object be demon rum, tyrannical government, heretical beliefs, or defiling the environment.  A divinely inspired mission against an objectionable object can, depending on one’s point of view, produce anything from a great crusade against evil to a perverse ideological attempt to legislate against the order of creation.

Louis Auchincloss’s view tended toward the latter interpretation.  While bicentennial commissions and library associations and local history clubs were celebrating, on the dole, the publication of what historian Pauline Maier calls “American Scripture,” Auchincloss, quietly and without subsidy, took on a project few serious American writers have had the courage to approach.

The big knock against Louis Auchincloss’s long and successful career (meaning, people actually read his books) as a novelist, biographer, and critic is that he was “out of step” with his times.  He wrote about men and women who sought, possessed, or protected real money and exercised real power.  They inhabited Manhattan brownstones, mostly, and “white shoes” law firms and New England prep schools.  They spoke in complete sentences.  They had sex lives, but didn’t display them on the pages of his stories.  (Think here of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Booth Tarkington, and Thornton Wilder, among others.)  They were ugly and self-sacrificing, beautiful and petty, concerned with manners and often with the most efficient ways of compromising their enemies with anything but direct action.  They could be noble, but more likely were fierce and subtle defenders of family and fortune.  They were just like all of us, except that they were rich; Auchincloss’s critics can’t seem to get over that.

Good writers write about what they know.  Louis Auchincloss’s paternal grandfather’s name was John Winthrop Auchincloss.  The Puritan ethic was in his family, in the brownstones where he lived and socialized, in the law firms where “he lived in hope of not making partner,” and in his bones and his very soul.  Like Michelangelo sculpting to get the object out of the stone, many writers write because they have to.  The Winthrop Covenant reads like expiation; had Auchincloss been a Catholic, he could have told it in a confessional.  Not that being Puritan was itself sinful; but it placed crushing burdens on those who could not properly control it—and Auchincloss shows that it was hard to control, indeed.

The Winthrop Covenant comprises nine stories, following nine generations of Winthrops from the 1630’s to the 1970’s.  Each is about an influential Winthrop, although only two—the founder, John Winthrop, and his grandson Wait Still Winthrop—are real historical characters.  Auchincloss imagines the other seven, based on his convictions about the Puritan mission and his intimate knowledge of where and how they exercise authority: “the gleam of authority in those focused, staring eyes!”  But since the source of authority for Puritans is the covenant with God, there could be “two forces in the world, authority and the resistance which authority generated.”  The stories display both, and both lead, usually, to ruin.

“The Covenant” is about John Winthrop’s determination to protect the pact with the Almighty that led the Puritan tribes to the New World, to form the new City on a Hill, and Anne Hutchinson’s determination to be martyred in service to the God Whose covenant lay in her heart and not in the harmony of the community.  Auchincloss tells the story from the point of view of Anne’s husband, William, who is convinced that the zeal of both his wife and the governor amounts to “casuistry,” but is so morally neutral that he is unable to do more than observe the destruction they create.  “They were simply children,” he tells his daughter, “all of them, Cotton, Winthrop, even your mother.  Nasty little children.  They played with life.”

“They played with life” is about half the story.  Every one of Auchincloss’s Puritans has a mission: redeeming a family (“The Martyr”), a school (“The Mystic Journal”), a marriage (“The Triplets”); even the mission itself, as Wait Still Winthrop tries to expiate his guilt for condemning the witches of Salem by blaming them for threatening the community.  “They had denied their Puritan heritage!” he cries, just before the stroke that kills him.  The observer of the Bayard family, in “The Martyr,” says to the son of the beautiful Puritan who believes that his mother is a saint, “Your mother wishes to take on her own shoulders all the sins of the world.  Or at least all the sins of the Winthrops.”  There is a pinch of heroism in Auchincloss’s Puritans for every large measure of nasty.

The three longest stories are the first, the last (“The Penultimate Puritan”), and the middle, which Auchincloss tellingly calls “In the Beauty of the Lilies Christ Was Born Across the Sea.”  It’s his Civil War tale, the Central Event in American History; and it has no politics, no economics, and no war.  Winthrop Ward, a “lawyer, a family man, forty-three years old, with a heart murmur,” does have strong opinions on the crisis between North and South, all having to do with saving the union.  His wife, Rosalie, sniffs, “There you go again, Winthrop, with your sacred union.  Why must we stay together?”  Ward has no particular concern for slavery (“Why had the first blithering idiot to bring a black man in irons to the New World not been hanged for his pains?”), dislikes the Irish and others in the underclasses, despises Southerners for their arrogance, and has the social power to manipulate Lewis Andros, the richest banker in New York (who lacks the right bloodlines).  The sacred union, it turns out, dissolves because of the Puritan’s moral outrage over an affair in the family.  Winthrop Ward wants to destroy Jules Bleecher, a Virginian who is bedding the wife of Ward’s cousin, Charly, the wife in question being the niece of Lewis Andros.

The story is too good to give away here; it is Auchincloss’s artistry at its best.  (He thought so, too.)  Ward, of course, wants to fix things.  When he fails, this is part of his remarkable prayer:

Dear God, of course I know that we must allow our Southern States to live in peace.  But if in thy great wisdom thou seest fit to permit them to strike the first blow, if thou turnest thine eyes away and allowest them to secede, then will it be wrong if we leap to arms with joy and jubilation in our hearts and if we bring the devastation of thine anger to their fair land, burning their plantations with a cleansing fire and chastising their rebel people with the sword?

Rosalie thinks he is playing God.

The story that follows (“The Arbiter”) has Adam Winthrop playing God by trying to create a great novelist.  It is probably Auchincloss’s story of Edith Wharton, but it echoes a telling comment made by the great Puritan John Adams.  “I must study Politicks and War,” he wrote,

that my sons may have the liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.

The great Puritan families followed just that progression, particularly as their religious lamps dimmed.  “The Arbiter” sets standards of taste in painting, architecture, and literature for a New York that was otherwise obsessed with money.  The Edith Wharton character spits at Adam Winthrop, “That old Puritan fire has gone out!” but she doesn’t get it.  They still controlled the schools and the banks and the law firms that set agendas almost invisible to the unwashed citizens of what seemed to be a fast-changing America.

“The Penultimate Puritan” jerks us back to the public stage.  Althea Stevens Gardiner, estranged wife of John Winthrop Gardiner of Boston, New York, and Washington, tells the story in a letter to their son, who has repudiated his father and his heritage and has run off to Sweden to escape the Vietnam War.  John is of the Greatest Generation, and found in World War II his life’s meaning.  Althea writes that, for John, “an anti-christ could satisfy the spiritual needs of a Boston-bred puritan even better than a Christ.”  Hitler gave John and his Harvard friends “their long-wanted substitute for religion.”  And “Like their abolitionist forebears of the eighteen-fifties, they received the message well in advance of other Americans.”

Auchincloss, who served in the Navy during World War II, got no such message; but his Groton and Yale classmates certainly did.  “They were all idealistic, good, virtuous,” Auchincloss often said in interviews, “the finest men you could find.”  There was not one single failure in his Groton class.  From the Bundy brothers on down, “They believed America cannot lose.  We stand for every virtue and right that’s in the world.”  Furthermore, to watch these men rule the country “was the most disillusioning thing that happened in my life.”

John Winthrop Gardiner is their fictional summation.  He loses his wife and son to his dedication to the Cold War.  Althea once asks him, “John, what faith is it that gives you such a confidence in interfering in other peoples’ lives?”  His answer: “My absolute faith in what a man should be.”  And even all his losses don’t change a thing.  “I fail to see the utility of penance for honest error,” he says; and “there is no duty to be crushed by failure.”  As Althea is begging her son to come home, she notes in passing that John “is a dove now, an agent of peace.”  Nothing deters him.  “The world is too full of people like your father.  That is why it may blow itself up.  That is why it may be saved.”

Her ambivalence mirrors Auchincloss’s.  The Winthrop Covenant does, after all, produce the “old Puritan fire,” which in turn gives our history all those episodes of “authority and the resistance which authority generated.”  Puritans could be on either side (a real sense of mission works either way), but they always sought to be the refiner’s fire that makes the object of their mission pure.  It’s interesting to me that Auchincloss did not include a “Founding story.”  Maybe he couldn’t find enough Puritanism in the Revolution to qualify it as a revolution (although one suspects that an Ezra Styles or Mercy Otis Warren character would do), which implies another level of ambivalence about their covenantal influence.

The Winthrop Covenant was not the usual Bicentennial story line.  One interviewer (David Carter in BOMB) tried to test Auchincloss on whether the subjects he wrote about imply that he is a “conservative.”  Auchincloss wouldn’t bite.  He did say, in several different ways, “There’s no real alternative to what there is.”  And while he also insisted that there is no necessity to be loyal to one’s social class or school, and that real change happens, he admitted that “I cling to certain things.  I say, ‘Before I give anything up, I look behind me and if there’s a line waiting, I keep it.’”  This kind of realism (mostly) insulated Louis Auchincloss from the enthusiasms of his Yale classmates.