There was nothing officially Protestant about my high school, and very few of my classmates identified as WASPs, at least not in the sense written about by the sociologist Digby Baltzell, the culture of
The Preppy Handbook and Trading Places. Nobody wore belts with little embroidered whales on them or ate crustless cucumber sandwiches. Nevertheless, my prep school had a Protestant, old-money ethos, albeit an attenuated, decayed one, as if it had once been more overtly WASP-y and I could still smell the vapors.
My sense of that nebulous, bygone era came less from a true sense of the school’s history and more from books like The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, and Death Be Not Proud, through which I learned what prep school was supposed to be like, what it had been like before all the quotas had been lifted and the student bodies diversified. There has been a resurgence of prep-school literature lately, but though they’ve updated the genre, books like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Taylor Antrim’s The Headmaster Ritual exhibit none of the fetishization of WASP culture, both alluring and baleful, that characterized those earlier novels—and that I loved. Nothing about my actual gentile classmates, many of them close friends and therefore overly familiar to me, was so mesmerizing.
The book that I loved best, precisely for its depiction of this lost world, was Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin. You probably haven’t heard of Auchincloss—Rector was a major best-seller in the 1960s, but Auchincloss’ generation of fans has mostly died off—but he occupies a very special niche in the literary culture. He may not be the best chronicler of the beauties and hypocrisies of Old Money—he’s vastly inferior to Evan S. Connell or Hortense Calisher—but he’s certainly the most committed. His first book, The Indifferent Children, was published in 1947. His latest, The Friend of Women, was published last spring. For 60 years, he has written about how wealthy Protestants treat one another—and, just as notably, how they treat the Other. His 60-odd books constitute a career of social inspection unparalleled in our generation; for those interested in class and ethnicity in America, Auchincloss—elderly, rich, with declining sales and a very indulgent publisher—should matter.
My appreciation for Auchincloss survives despite—not because of—the fact that he’s a writer more interesting than talented. The Friend of Women, a collection of five stories and a one-act play, is not a good book. The play, The Country Cousin, is dramatically inert; nobody would ever perform it. And of the stories only the first, the title story, about a retired bachelor schoolteacher at a girls’ school who for decades meddles in the lives of his favorite graduates, is satisfying. The product of an author whose powers long ago began to fail, The Friend of Women is notable mainly for making it abundantly clear how unimaginative a writer Auchincloss is. He’s hopelessly derivative of himself, even though there are better writers to steal from. His formula has not changed at least since The Rector of Justin was published in 1964. He writes narratives, mostly in the first person, of WASPs who are well aware of their flaws but, contemptuous of Freud and bred not to probe too deeply, never show much movement from the beginning of the book to the end. The wheels of plot turn, and the stories come to satisfying conclusions: an inheritance crisis is resolved, a stockbroker confesses his misdeeds. But at the end the reader feels compelled to ask: If all the characters are so unwise, could there be any wisdom in the writer? Is he chronicling shallowness and snobbery, and perhaps ridiculing it, or is he practicing it?
The answer is a little of both. And that, I will confess, is why I adore him. If Auchincloss were better, he might be psychologically taxing, like James, and thus a bit more like homework. If he were worse, he would be disposably middlebrow. But as it is, he’s the master practitioner of a kind of WASP pornography. Only I can’t figure out if it’s erotica for WASPs themselves, or for Jews and other ethnics, or for lower-caste Protestants, who enjoy gazing pruriently (or perhaps aspirationally) at a defunct tableau. Who’s indulging in nostalgia here? The writer, or his intended audience, whoever that may include? The scion of an old family that once was great, or his Jewish friend who wants to believe in the lost greatness of his friend’s family?
I don’t think I could have enjoyed this fiction were I contemporaneous with it. I probably would have felt it lacked verisimilitude or, if I had not found it lacking, I still would have found it painful—after all, those would have been my Jewish friends and neighbors being excluded from the Ivy League or the country club. But many decades later, reading Auchincloss is something of an education, skewed but wildly entertaining. Like watching Mad Men to learn about Kennedy-era businessmen, or HBO’s Rome to learn about ancient Rome, the more stereotyped the characters, the better; the payoff is not psychological intricacy but rather a kind of romanticized encounter with the past as other. Only it’s the WASP, not the Jew, who is the Other.
Auchincloss has a toolkit full of stock characters: the cuckolded husband, the bohemian daughter in rebellion, the “bachelor” prep school teacher, the crafty Jew. Again, these characters work in his fiction because of the inadequacy of the characterization. It’s difficult to read the lines of Shakespeare’s Shylock, because he is a person, a recognizable one maybe, and so one wants to look away. But I’m not offended by Auchincloss’ Jews, just as I can’t imagine that a gay man would be offended by his homosexuals, for they aren’t the literary production of a man who really knows Jews or homosexuals (or if he knows them, he seems not to understand them). So why take offense? Let them play their parts in the melodramas, which can be tasty indeed.
The major, lasting impression left by the full Auchincloss corpus comes not from the recycled plot, nor from the same character types reappearing in new clothes, but from his signature tone. It’s a tone that would have a certain wondrous, gelid beauty if it weren’t so campy—and if its lack of development, over time, didn’t prove how little Auchincloss developed as a writer. Consider these three passages:
I do not wish to record my impressions of the school in session before, as I have learned to make allowance for the timid and apprehensive side of my nature which has a way, like a ghostly and mischievous extra brush, quite beyond the painter’s control, of dubbing clouds and rain squalls into the sunniest landscape. If I am ever to be a minister, with God’s help, I must learn joy.
Xenia was a dark, small, silent, rather formidable woman to whom Clyde was ostensibly very devoted, but out of whose presence he seemed sometimes to skip with the bound of a schoolboy leaving his classroom. On the excuse of the lawsuit he lunched frequently with Leslie and took him afterward to private viewings of art shows or to galleries of museums not generally open to the public. He seemed determined to impress the younger man with the full range of his sympathy and wit, and indeed it was a rare performance.
I like to think of myself as l’ami des femmes, although in a longish life—I am now sixty—I have never married, nor even (though I hardly glory in it) had a love affair. . . . Obviously, at least to any devotee of French drama, the name I give myself is taken from the play of Dumas fils in which the protagonist dedicates himself to the task of saving a married woman, trapped in what she has deemed an incompatible union, from taking a lover. He believes, like La Rochefoucauld, that the wife who has taken but one lover in her life is a rare being, and that the first misstep inevitably entails successors.
The first passage—the musings of Brian Aspinwall, the mousy teacher in The Rector of Justin—is from 1964. The next is from The Novelist of Manners, published in 1974. The last is, of course, from the title story in The Friend of Women, published last May. Yet in terms of diction and sensibility, they could all be from 1920, or 1940—some imagined time when sentences had the leisure to amble around, tasting and then regurgitating highbrow references and allusions, not rushing to any forced conclusion. This consistency of tone throughout Auchincloss’ career is a sure marker that he is no artist—for artists do grow, they have to—but it’s also part of Auchincloss’s strange greatness: As in a skin flick, you always know what you’re getting before you get it. Auchincloss fulfills a preconceived fantasy, rather than creating a new one. His characters sound like what WASPs are supposed to sound like, whether or not WASPs ever sounded like that. What’s more, his WASPs still sound like that, in the aughts. Even though feminism and the end of the Jewish quotas have come to the real world, the cadences of an Auchincloss character signify a refusal to accept that anything has changed.
In a very perceptive 1993 essay in The New Republic, Andrew Delbanco parsed the Auchincloss style:
The clearest sign of this bottom-line class solidarity is the very language of his fiction. He populates his novels with blustering men who say “see here” and “I say” and “bully” and “by Jove,” and he writes in a defensively prescriptive style that is never far from schoolmarmishness—full of formal constructions such as “I am become.” . . . “I identify myself,” says one character, “in the plight of Richard Nixon.” This pedantic “in” (the colloquial “with” will just not do) is the stylistic equivalent of an upturned nose.
Delbanco is far more generous than I in praising Auchincloss’ writing, but he seems to take far less pleasure in it. By treating Auchincloss too seriously as an artist, Professor Delbanco misses out on all the fun. This is campy stuff, Herr Doktor, and a lot of it’s quite queeny: boys’ boarding schools, bachelor masters, sexless heterosexual marriages whose husbands sublimate all their aggression into corporate battle. An Auchincloss novel always leaves one’s rugby shirt torn and a little soiled.
In early works such as The Rector of Justin, about the career of a fictional New England headmaster, Jews appear only in absentia, as when the good rector Prescott explains how their numbers must be limited among the student body. In 1997’s “The Atonement,” the title story of a collection by the same name, Sandy Tremain is led to ruin when he becomes a confederate of the immoral stock schemer Lenny Brandt, a Jew. In the story “The Conversion of Fred Coates,” from the new collection, a gentile lawyer shocks his father-in-law by agreeing to represent an old college friend, a Jewish intellectual and leftist who is being persecuted by Senator McCarthy. “What’s got into you, Fred?” his father-in-law asks. “I’ve never seen you worked up like this before. All about some Jewish radical you haven’t seen since college.”
There’s no character in his corpus that can be pointed to as a loathsome stereotype, no evidence that Auchincloss himself is an anti-Semite; there’s nobody like The Great Gatsby’s Meyer Wolfsheim. Rather, Auchincloss just seems to have such painful nostalgia for this world, one in which Jews—along with truly liberated women, proud homosexuals, and laborers of any sort—are best taken in small, colorful doses. One might have had a Jewish friend or a long-forgotten college flirtation with socialism—but neither should make an appearance at the firm’s Christmas party. Intellectually, Auchincloss knows that his heroes, these characters he loves, are morally bad, or at least limited. But he finds them beautiful anyway, and he mourns their passing.
Many of us do, I think. Now that Jews have been admitted to the club, we discover that it’s a rip-off, with bad food and overpriced drinks. There’s a poignant sense that maybe, in another time, it really was glamorous, that once we were being excluded from something worth having. The morality was bad, but the aesthetic was grand. Auchincloss continues to give us the pleasure of the latter without the worries of the former. In his fiction, I can live in the world of Peabody, Saltonstall, Frelinghuysen, and I can do so without having to muck about in the loathsome aspects of their culture. The unthinking anti-Semite of a better author—say, Kazuo Ishiguro’s nobleman in The Remains of the Day—is horrifying, but nothing in Auchincloss is horrifying. His books are fun and competent and evanescent: they have the virtue of all being the same. Soon, there will be no more to come, which would be sad if they had not outlived their world already.