Literary Criticism of Louis Auchincloss

For a writer with a full-time professional career, Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010) proved astoundingly prolific, producing nearly one book of fiction or nonfiction each year from the 1950’s into the early twenty-first century. Like that of many highly prolific writers, the quality of his work is decidedly uneven. At his best, however, Auchincloss meets and surpasses the standard set by John P. Marquand and John O’Hara for twentieth century American social satire, displaying a resonant erudition that somehow eluded the two older writers even in their brightest moments. Even in the best of his novels, the results of Auchincloss’s erudition are sometimes too conspicuous for the reader’s comfort, but they can easily be overlooked in favor of the authenticity displayed by characters portrayed in convincing situations.

Louis-Auchincloss-AP-100127034062Auchincloss’s reputation as a major writer rests primarily on novels written during the 1960’s, a time somewhat past the vogue of social satire in the United States but coinciding neatly with the author’s full maturity: The worst of his mistakes were behind him, and he had not yet experienced the temptation to repeat himself. Pursuit of the Prodigal, published in 1959, shows Auchincloss approaching the height of his powers, yet not quite free of his earlier mode as he portrays the tribulations of a “maverick” lawyer who is uncomfortable with the conventions into which he was born. Set in the immediate postwar years, Pursuit of a Prodigal, despite the distinct insider’s voice, shows a clear indebtedness to Marquand’s Point of No Return, published a decade earlier. The following year, however, Auchincloss broke new and enviable ground with The House of Five Talents, ostensibly the memoirs, composed in 1948, of the septuagenarian Miss Gussie Millinder, heir to and survivor of an impressive nineteenth century New York fortune. The author’s demonstrated skill at characterization and narration served clear notice of his new, mature promise, soon to be fulfilled with Portrait in Brownstone, The Rector of Justin, and The Embezzler, any one of which would suffice to confirm Auchincloss’s reputation as the successor to O’Hara and Marquand as a master observer of American society and a superior stylist.

It is hardly surprising that Auchincloss achieved his greatest success with books narrated by the characters themselves, frequently by two or more characters in successive sections of one novel. Although his early novels and certain of his short stories bear witness to his control of third-person narration, Auchincloss is doubtless at his best when assuming the voice and persona of a featured character, striking a thoroughly convincing tone of vocabulary, style, and reflection. At times, his narrators are authentically unreliable without, however, approaching the virtuoso performances sought and achieved by Marquand in such works as The Late George Apley (1937) or H. M. Pulham, Esq. (1941). Unlike Marquand, Auchincloss seeks less to ridicule his characters than to represent them true to life, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. It is to Auchincloss’s credit that he can credibly assume such diverse personae as those of Miss Gussie Millinder and the three main characters of The Embezzler, as well as the slightly fussy schoolmaster who narrates The Rector of Justin.

Given the fact that Auchincloss has chosen to serve as a chronicler of his generation and those immediately preceding, it stands to reason that a number of his featured characters are drawn rather closely upon recognizable models—perhaps too closely in The House of the Prophet, rather less so in The Embezzler and The Rector of Justin. Such a practice has both its benefits and its pitfalls. At his best, Auchincloss meets and surpasses the aims of the finest historical fiction, showing rounded characters where the record presents only flatness. On other occasions, however, his presentation is so sparse as to require the readers’ knowledge of the facts behind the fiction. This is not to say, however, that any of Auchincloss’s novels are simple romans à clef; in each case, Auchincloss is careful to discover and point a message that goes far deeper than a simple recitation of documented facts.

Together with the highest minded of his characters, Auchincloss exhibits and values a strong sense of moral and ethical responsibility; unlike certain of his predecessors and erstwhile competitors in the genre, he never indulges in sensationalism or exposé for its own sake. Even when scandal invades the lives of his characters, as often it must, there is no perceptible intent to scandalize or titillate readers. Indeed, given the Proustian atmosphere that reigns in many of Auchincloss’s novels, readers often wait in vain for the comic catharsis, however slow to build, with which Marcel Proust frequently rewards his readers’ patience. It must be noted that Auchincloss presents all but the meanest of his characters with considerable indulgence, providing a human warmth that is totally lacking in the work of such satirists as Sinclair Lewis and often absent in the more bitter works of O’Hara and Marquand.

A New Yorker by proclivity as well as by birth, Auchincloss remains, above all, a New York novelist; his characters spend most of their time in the metropolis, leaving it only for such traditional watering places as Newport and Bar Harbor or for higher civic duty in Washington, D.C. The author’s sense of place serves to illustrate and to explain the dominant role traditionally played by New Yorkers in the shaping of American society.

The House of Five Talents

In the first work of his “mature” period, The House of Five Talents, Auchincloss undertakes a personal record of upper-level Manhattan society through the still-perceptive eyes of one Augusta Millinder, age seventy-five, whose immigrant grandfather, Julius Millinder, founded one of the less conspicuous but more durable of the major New York fortunes. The Millinders had, by the time of Augusta’s birth in 1873, established a position of quiet dominance, based upon diversified in-54 Notable American Novelists vestments. The world in which Augusta and her more attractive elder sister Cora grew to maturity was thus one of easy movement and understated privilege, pursued frequently aboard yachts and in private railroad cars. As a memoirist, Augusta remains securely inside the closed world that she describes, yet she is privileged to have a gift for shrewd observation.

As the second and less attractive of two daughters, “Gussie” Millinder learned at an early age to view male admiration with a jaundiced eye. Indeed, the only man to whom she ever became engaged had proposed several years earlier to her vacuous sister Cora, who subsequently married a French prince. Although it seems likely that Lancey Bell, a rising young architect, has proposed to Gussie in good faith, she remains so skeptical that she breaks the engagement, having developed such inner resources that she no longer believes marriage to be necessary or desirable. In fact, the marriages in and around Gussie’s family do little to encourage her faith in that institution. Soon after ending her engagement, Gussie becomes a reluctant participant in the dismantling of her own parents’ marriage and household. Her father, aged sixty, has become enamored of a former actor half his age and wishes to marry her, supported in his folly by Gussie’s older brother Willie and sister-in-law Julia.

Although the divorce and remarriage eventually take place as planned, Gussie has discovered in the meantime her own increasingly formidable talent for high-minded meddling. She has also begun to explore the extent of a freedom uniquely available to rich and well-read spinsters. Although dissuaded from attending college in her youth, she has taken enough courses at Columbia during her early adulthood to qualify her for part-time teaching in a private school. Later, around the age of forty, she becomes deeply involved in volunteer work. By 1948, when she at last addresses herself to her memoirs, she has led a life both independent and fulfilling, but not without its disappointments.

Appropriately, Gussie’s greatest disappointments have less to do with spinsterhood than with her various relatives, many of whom seem to have a singular talent for ruining their lives, at least when measured by Gussie’s demanding but forgiving standards. Gussie’s personal favorite appears to have been her nephew Lydig, a versatile and talented former army flight instructor who tries his hand at various pursuits successfully but without commitment, only to seek fulfillment in a life of adventure. Having taken up mountain-climbing, he dies in an avalanche around the age of thirty, a year before the stock market crash of 1929.

The changes wrought by the Great Depression and its consequences upon the Millinders are recorded with a sympathetic but dispassionate eye by Gussie, whose own personal fortune is sufficiently great to sustain major loss without requiring more than minimal changes in her privileged lifestyle. Among the few things she is obliged to forfeit is her private railroad car, while the chauffeured limousine remains. To the others, Gussie remains a rock of stability in a river of change, able to avert disaster with a well-placed loan (or gift) and a bit of timely meddling. At the age of seventy-five, however, she admits that her interventions have not always been the right ones, much as they may have seemed so at the time. Several marriages remain broken beyond all possible repair and certain of her cousins face congressional investigation for their leftist sympathies.

Self-aware, yet not too much so for credibility, Gussie Millinder remains one of Auchincloss’s most engaging narrators and one of his most satisfying creations, combining in her large and slightly outrageous person the best qualities of observer and participant in the action that she records.

Portrait in Brownstone

Auchincloss’s next novel, Portrait in Brownstone, attempts a broader picture of New York society. Although fulfilling much of the promise held forth by The House of Five Talents, it falls short of its predecessor in tightness of construction, in part because of a multiplicity of narrative voices and viewpoints. Each chapter is presented from the viewpoint of a particular character, and while certain characters speak for themselves, others do not, presumably because their self-awareness is so limited as to require the author’s third-person intervention.

The principal character of Portrait in Brownstone, although never a viewpoint character, is one Derrick Hartley, a minister’s son from New England whose Harvard education and contacts facilitate his rapid rise within the presumably closed world of New York high finance. In the hands of O’Hara or Marquand, such a character as Derrick would emerge as a perceptive outsider with just a hint of the romantic hero; Auchincloss, however, presents Derrick as a thoroughgoing professional and opportunist, quick to impose his own stamp upon the closed world that almost did not allow him within its confines. He is also quick to enjoy and exploit the attentions of two female cousins, nieces of the employer whom he will eventually replace. Set principally in the period during and surrounding World War I, Portrait in Brownstone underlines the contrast between “old money” and well-bred industry. Derrick, although polished and considerably less of an arriviste than certain of Auchincloss’s later protagonists, has a talent for making money that renders him conspicuous among the Denison descendants, for whom the presence of money has obviated the need for making it.

After a brief and disastrous infatuation with the treacherous and ultimately unhappy Geraldine, Derrick returns his attentions to the younger, somewhat plainer cousin, Ida Trask, who had been his first love. Although disabused of her earlier illusions, Ida agrees to marry Derrick and soon bears him two children, a daughter and then a son. Ida, as a main viewpoint character, narrates much of the novel’s action, developing considerably as a character in proportion to a growing awareness of her own innate strengths; Ida is a survivor, a resourceful, intelligent woman who, born in a later time, might well have rivaled her own husband’s success. In any case, she is the only woman in the novel who could possibly handle the strains of marriage to a harddriving businessman such as Derrick, whose strongest attentions and affections are reserved for his work. Like Gussie Millinder, Ida has developed character and intelligence in the absence of great beauty. Unlike Gussie, however, she is willing and able to function competently within the demands of marriage and parenthood. Because of her intelligence and understanding, her marriage to Derrick survives a number of shocks, including their daughter’s marital problems and a late-blooming affair between Derrick and Geraldine.

Minor character that she may be, it is Ida’s cousin Geraldine whose life and eventual suicide polarize the action of the novel. Although it is Ida who should resent Geraldine and not the other way around, Geraldine continues to envy Ida’s relatively stable marriage and often genuine happiness. As Ida observes,

She remained to the end the little girl who had come down with a bright face and bright flowing hair to find in her Christmas stocking a switch and a book of sermons while mine was crammed with packages that I dared not open.

Childless despite several marriages, resentful of Derrick’s mechanical approach to lovemaking during their brief affair, Geraldine begins drinking heavily to dull the pain of bright promise unfulfilled.

Among the other characters portrayed in some detail are the Hartleys’ two children, born shortly before World War I. Dorcas, who has inherited her father’s temperament but little of his discipline, seeks a career of her own in publishing that is cut short by her marriage to a rebellious young editor who accepts the Hartley’s largesse while professing to scorn its source. Eventually, Dorcas enters into a second marriage with one Mark Jesmond, an associate of Derrick who, during an earlier career as a lawyer, had handled the details of her divorce from the editor. Dorcas at last finds fulfillment of sorts in assisting Mark in efforts to “depose” her father from headship of his firm, much as Derrick himself had done years earlier to Ida’s uncle Linnaeus Tremain. Dorcas’s brother Hugo, meanwhile, is beginning to enter adulthood at the age of thirty-five, thanks mainly to his mother’s direct intervention in the choice of his wife and career: Ida, it seems, has begun to assert herself as a matriarch.

Although marred by loose construction and a multiplicity of viewpoints, Portrait in Brownstone is notable for the keenness of its observation and the presentation of several memorable scenes. In any case, Auchincloss’s readers did not have long to wait before the publication of The Rector of Justin, considered by several critics to be the finest of his novels.

The Rector of Justin

Despite the fact that it shares with Portrait in Brownstone the potential pitfalls of loose construction and multiple viewpoints, The Rector of Justin is considerably more successful both as novel and as document. Auchincloss manages to broaden the appeal of the novel through his choice of subject matter, focusing upon the concept and execution of the American preparatory school. In analyzing the life and career of one Francis Prescott, founder of “Justin Martyr, an Episcopal boys’ boarding school thirty miles west of Boston,” Auchincloss provides through various viewpoint characters a thoughtful examination of a powerful American institution.

The main narrator of The Rector of Justin is Brian Aspinwall, whose arrival at Justin coincides with the outbreak of World War II in Europe. Brian has recently returned to the United States after several years of study at Oxford, where doctors have diagnosed a heart murmur that renders him unfit for service in the British Army. Unsure as yet of his vocation to become an Episcopal priest, Brian welcomes the prospect of teaching at Justin as an opportunity to test his suitability for the priesthood as well as for teaching, another possibility. Drawn gradually deeper into the affairs of the school and its founder-headmaster, Brian records his observations and experiences in a journal that forms the backbone of the book. Later, as the idea of recording the school’s history begins to take form in his mind, he includes the testimony—both oral and written—of Dr. Prescott’s family, friends, and former students. The result is thus more unified and better organized than Portrait in Brownstone, despite the oldmaidish Brian’s obvious limitations both as narrator and as observer.

By the time of Brian’s arrival, Francis Prescott is nearly eighty years of age and long overdue for retirement; as both founder and headmaster, however, he is such an institution that no one has given serious thought to replacing him. Brian vacillates between admiration and harsh criticism for the old man and his “muscular Christianity.” To Brian’s incredulity, the aging Prescott remains unfailingly democratic in pronouncements both public and private, seemingly unaware of the fact that he and his school have helped to perpetuate an American class system that Prescott personally deplores. This basic irony continues to animate the novel, providing as it does the subject matter for Brian’s continuing research.

Early in the novel, Brian learns that Prescott, as a young man, took pains to examine at close range the British public-school system preparatory to founding a boarding school of his own; at no point does Prescott or anyone near him appear to have considered the difference between British aristocracy and American democracy. In fact, many of the questions raised in Brian’s mind are left hanging, at least for readers, calling attention to the anomalous role of private education in America. Prescott, for his part, continues to deny the existence of an American ruling class even when faced with evidence to the contrary from his own alumni rolls.

Brian’s continuing research gradually uncovers a wealth of conflicting evidence concerning Prescott’s accomplishment. It is clear in any case that the realization of Prescott’s lifelong dream has been achieved only at great personal cost. Brian finds the darker side of Justin’s history in both a document penned by the long-dead son of the school’s charter trustee, on whose behalf Prescott’s efforts failed miserably, and in the spoken recollections of Prescott’s youngest daughter, ironically named Cordelia. When Brian meets her, Cordelia is in her middle forties, an unreconstructed Greenwich Village bohemian with nymphomaniacal tendencies that, on one occasion, send Brian fleeing for his life. Prescott, it seems, did much to ruin not only her early first marriage but also a later liaison with a mortally wounded veteran of World War I. Cordelia ascribes much of her unhappiness to the fact that both men, as “old boys” of Justin Martyr, perceived a higher obligation to her father than to herself.

Ending with Prescott’s death in retirement at the age of eighty-six, The Rector of Justin concludes much as it began, undecided as to the ultimate value of Prescott’s achievement. Brian, however, has made a decision; now a fully ordained priest, he continues as a member of the faculty at Justin Martyr.

Together with The House of Five Talents, The Rector of Justin stands as one of Auchincloss’s more impressive accomplishments; in few of his other novels are the interdependent questions of privilege and responsibility discussed with such thoughtfulness or candor. If the book has a major weakness it is that the characters, especially Prescott himself, are often stretched so flat as to strain the readers’ belief; even then, it is possible to accept flatness in the case of a character who adamantly refuses to admit life’s ambiguities.

The Embezzler

Published two years after The Rector of Justin, The Embezzler builds on the author’s known strengths to provide a strong social satire in the tradition of O’Hara and Marquand, yet it transcends the accomplishments of both authors with its spareness and authority. Recalling in its essentials one of the subplots in The House of Five Talents, wherein Gussie Millinder reluctantly covers the defalcations of a distant relative threatened with exposure, The Embezzler credibly re-creates the heyday of high finance in America before, during, and after the crash of 1929.

The title character and initial narrator of The Embezzler is Guy Prime, writing in 1960 to set straight the record of his notoriety some twenty-five years earlier. His antagonist and eventual successor as narrator is Reginald (Rex) Geer, an erstwhile friend and associate since college days. The gathering tension between the two men, reflected in the conflict between their recollections of the same events, provides the novel with its major human interest. Throughout the novel, it is up to readers to weigh conflicting testimony and to form their own considered judgments.

Grandson of a former Episcopal bishop of New York, Guy Prime has grown up less rich than other of Auchincloss’s main characters. His breeding and Harvard education, however, qualify him to function competently at the upper reaches of Manhattan’s financial establishment. His classmate Rex Geer, like Derrick Hartley the son of a rural New England parson, is perhaps even better suited than Guy to the “art” of making money. Rex is not, however, a social climber; to interpret him as such, as a number of the characters do, is to oversimplify a personality of multiple and often conflicting motivations. Guy, for his part, is hardly less complex, an essentially humane man whose interactions with his fellow mortals are almost inevitably compounded by a flair for the dramatic and a tendency toward hero-worship.

From the start, the friendship of Guy Prime and Rex Geer is complicated by their interlocking relationships with women whom neither man quite understands. The first of these is Guy’s wealthy cousin Alix Prime, a doll-like heir with whom Rex falls suddenly and disastrously in love, quite to his own consternation. Although ambitious and industrious, Rex is immune to the blandishments of inherited wealth and quite undone by the common opinion that he covets Alix for her money. The second woman is Guy’s wife Angelica, reared mainly in Europe by her expatriate mother. An affair in middle life between Rex and Angelica permanently alters the lives of all three characters, serving at least in part as Guy’s justification for his ventures into thievery. To Guy’s way of thinking, the affair between his wife and his best friend suffices to suspend his belief in permanent values; the fact remains, however, that Guy has already begun to borrow large sums of money from Rex to cover high-risk stock market activities.With the increase of risk, Guy “simply” begins to pledge the value of securities that have been left in trust with his firm.

Later testimony supplied by Rex (and by Angelica herself in a short concluding chapter) casts serious doubt upon some of the assertions made by Guy in the brief memoir that has been discovered following his death in 1962. Even so, there are few hard-and-fast answers to the questions that remain in the readers’ mind. Auchincloss does not make any serious attempt to justify the plainly unethical conduct of his principal character; what he seeks, rather, is a credible re-creation of a significant moment in recent American history, leading immediately to the extensive financial reforms implemented by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. To a far greater degree than in his earlier novels, Auchincloss presents characters caught and portrayed in all their understandably human ambiguity. Despite its limited scope and relative brevity, The Embezzler may well be the tightest and finest of Auchincloss’s novels. The House of the Prophet • A prophet, according to Scripture, is not without honor save in his own house. In The House of the Prophet, Auchincloss, drawing from that proverb, has fashioned a novel based loosely on the life of the prominent political journalist Walter Lippmann. The novel’s protagonist, Felix Leitner, a respected attorney, widely read pundit, and adviser to presidents, emerges diminished from the examination of his life undertaken by Roger Cutter, an erstwhile assistant and aspiring biographer. A variety of lesser narrative voices, including those of Leitner’s two former wives, do their best to show the private truth behind the public image.

As in many of his later efforts, Auchincloss in The House of the Prophet returns with diminished success to a number of conventions and devices that have served him well in the past: The basic format of the novel, including the fussy, would-be “historian,” owes much to The Rector of Justin, while Leitner, speaking occasionally in his own voice, recalls both Rex Geer and Guy Prime of The Embezzler. Although the action and characters are both credible and engrossing, The House of the Prophet gives the disturbing impression of a novel that one has already read, in which only the names and certain of the circumstances have been changed.

In its weakest moments, The House of the Prophet borders upon self-parody. Roger Cutter, the “main” narrator whose memories and intentions form the backbone of the novel, often comes across as Brian Aspinwall in caricature: Rendered impotent for life by a diabetic crisis sustained in early adulthood, Roger is (even more obviously than the old-maidish Brian) cast in the role of house eunuch, free to observe and record the master’s movements while remaining immune to any possible entanglement with the numerous female characters. Only in its documentary interest and its plausible interpretations of recent American history does The House of the Prophet bear serious comparison with the strongest of the author’s earlier novels.

Viewed purely as a “political” novel, The House of the Prophet is a creditable example of the genre, showing that Auchincloss, when he chooses, can examine politics with the same shrewd powers of observation that he customarily applies to business and the law. As Leitner the pundit grows increasingly conservative with the onset of old age, his changing opinions are attributed less to the ossification of his mind than to the necessary tension between the “prophet” and his changing times. Toward the end of his life, for example, Leitner prepares a brilliant but outrageous column suggesting that America, through the forced resignation of Richard Nixon, “is engaging in one of the most ancient of tribal rituals: the burial of the fisher king.” Roger Cutter, appalled by the likely consequences should such opinions be allowed to appear in print under Leitner’s respected byline, acts quickly and effectively to have the column suppressed. Leitner’s intelligence, however touched by senility, remains as keen and sensitive as ever; he has simply outlived his own time.

The Lady of Situations 

By entitling his 1990 book The Lady of Situations, Auchincloss points to the fact that his heroine, Natica Chauncey, attains success by treating every difficult situation not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. Her independent spirit and her clear-sightedness qualify Natica for her role as a heroine. However, her life story suggests that a woman such as Natica will often sacrifice others in order to fulfill her own potential.

The Lady of Situations is for the most part narrated by an omniscient author. However, the novel is framed by first-person narratives titled “Ruth’s Memoir,” in which Natica’s aunt, Ruth Felton, reports her observations, thus functioning much like a Greek chorus. A similar passage appears at three other points in the book. The story begins during the 1960’s, with Ruth, now in her seventies, recalling the time three decades before when Natica’s difficulties began. Natica’s bankrupt father spends his time perfecting his fly-fishing technique; her mother refuses to admit that the Chauncey name no longer means anything. She is too obtuse to let Ruth pay Natica’s way through a prestigious private school, where she could make the friendships that would serve her in later life.

The primary narrator now takes up Natica’s story. After graduating from Barnard College, Natica meets and marries Thomas Barnes, an assistant rector at Averhill School. Unlike her naïve husband, Natica sees Averhill as it is, a hotbed of hypocrisy and malice. However, after autocratic headmaster Reverend Rufus Lockwood makes Natica his secretary, she enjoys feeling powerful and is almost happy. Unfortunately, when Lockwood’s wife realizes that Natica has some influence over him, he is forced to fire her.

By now, Natica is so bored with her husband and the school that she embarks upon an affair with a new teacher, the wealthy, charming Stephen Hill. After she becomes pregnant, Hill insists on her divorcing Barnes and marrying him. Ever the pragmatist, Natica agrees. Though he is the innocent party, Barnes is dismissed from Averhill, becomes a military chaplain, and is later killed in wartime.

Meanwhile, Natica has miscarried. She is somewhat relieved, however, because she feared that the child would resemble Barnes, who was probably his father. Back in the United States, Hill’s mother, who adores Natica, arranges for her to be accepted by society. However, Hill proves to be lazy and moody. Realizing that he resents her success in business, Natica quits her job and persuades Hill’s mother to buy them a bookstore. When he learns from Barnes that he was not the father of the child Natica lost, Hill shoots himself.

Again, Natica makes the best of things. She persuades Hill’s mother to pay her way through law school and then joins a law firm, where she finally meets a man she can both love and respect. When she appears in the final “Memoir,” set in 1966, Natica is happily married and has three children, as well as a flourishing law practice.

Ruth points out, however, that Natica has made her way to success by manipulating some people and destroying others, notably two husbands. Natica just laughs, but Ruth muses that she would rather be an old maid than have Natica’s memories. Ruth fulfills the role of the Greek chorus, raising the moral questions that Natica does not choose to ask.

Honorable Men

Political controversy provoked by the Vietnam War is an important issue in Honorable Men, but this novel remains primarily a treatment of personal and family crises. Spanning four decades (the 1930’s through the 1960’s), the book displays the troubled lives of Chip Benedict and his wife Alida. Sections of the novel focusing on Chip use third-person narration, but Alida’s sections use first-person and thereby elicit more sympathy.

As a young woman, Alida Struthers dabbles in adolescent rebellion but eventually re-creates herself as the most famous debutante in America. By this means she escapes the genteel poverty into which her family has fallen and marries the rich and handsome Chip.

Chip is the only male descendant in a New England family who has become wealthy from manufacturing glass, a commodity as fragile as many relationships in the novel. Born with great privileges but also burdened by family expectations, Chip displays both self-righteous hypocrisy and guilt at his own inadequacies. He continually searches for Puritanical moral certainty as a buttress against his own less honorable impulses. As his name implies, he can scarcely define himself except as a chip off the family block. In a key episode that echoes the novel’s title, Chip forces his best friend to resign from law school for presumably violating the honor code. Chip’s action shows that he can adhere rigidly to the rules but has no larger faith that might give real meaning to the code of honor.

Chip’s actions always appear good, but eventually his active support of the Vietnam War shatters his family. Alida leaves him, his daughter becomes an antiwar activist, and his son goes to Sweden to escape the draft. In an ending that some readers may find too facile, Chip finally receives assurance of his mother’s unqualified love and apparently finds happiness by marrying his adoring secretary.

The Education of Oscar Fairfax 

In The Education of Oscar Fairfax Auchincloss revisitsmuch of the territory explored in Honorable Men and other novels. Spanning seventy years, the narrative takes Oscar through a New England boys’ school, on to Yale University, and eventually to a partnership in the Wall Street law firm founded by his grandfather. The chapters are loosely linked, but each episode provides an opportunity for Oscar’s further enlightenment.

At St. Augustine’s School, for example, he learns the possible dangers of close male relationships and saves a senior master from damaging accusations. At Yale he regretfully acknowledges the limits of his own literary talents but heartily condemns the ruthless tactics of a more brilliant classmate. As a wealthy and successful lawyer, Oscar repeatedly ponders the appropriate use of his power—in influencing the opinion of a Supreme Court justice regarding New Deal legislation, in introducing an idealistic young man from Maine into his own jaded social and professional realm, in meddling with his son’s rigorous ethics. Early in the novel Oscar’s future wife accuses him of caring more for art than for people. Throughout the book, however, Oscar is a keen observer of all those around him. In keeping his eyes open and exercising subtle power, he also manages to change the lives of many for the better.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

Principal Long Fiction

The Indifferent Children, 1947 (as Andrew Lee); Sybil, 1951; A Law for the Lion, 1953; The Great World and Timothy Colt, 1956; Venus in Sparta, 1958; Pursuit of the Prodigal, 1959; The House of Five Talents, 1960; Portrait in Brownstone, 1962; The Rector of Justin, 1964; The Embezzler, 1966; A World of Profit, 1968; I Come as a Thief, 1972; The Partners, 1974; The Dark Lady, 1977; The Country Cousin, 1978; The House of the Prophet, 1980; The Cat and the King, 1981; Watchfires, 1982; Exit Lady Masham, 1983; The Book Class, 1984; Honorable Men, 1985; Diary of a Yuppie, 1986; The Golden Calves, 1988; Fellow Passengers, 1989; The Lady of Situations, 1990; Three Lives, 1993 (novellas); The Education of Oscar Fairfax, 1995; Her Infinite Variety, 2001; The Scarlet Letters, 2003; East Side Story, 2004.

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Categories: American Literature, Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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