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1917-2010

Louis Auchincloss

By Louis Begley

It is a great and unexpected honor to speak about Louis Auchincloss’s work at this institution, which he loved so dearly, and with which he was so closely associated.  A doubly unexpected honor.  There are many here who are better qualified.  And the friendship that Louis generously offered me was in itself both unexpected and surprising.  Our biographies could not have been more different.  As a journalist recently put it, while Louis sailed through Groton and Yale, I was surviving the Holocaust; my early childhood was spent in a small Polish city that is now part of Ukraine, and Louis’s in a brownstone on East 93rd Street and on the South Shore of Long Island.  Finally, our personalities, and indeed the contrasting nature of our novels, seemed to me to create a gulf between us that was too wide to bridge.  Louis didn’t think so.  A couple of years after we met, he presented me with a copy of his Collected Stories, published in 1994, inscribed affectionately “for the other Louis.”  It is a volume I cherish.

Louis’ oeuvre includes thirty-one novels, seventeen collections of short stories, and eighteen works of nonfiction.  It cannot be appraised or even meaningfully described in these brief remarks.  His first novel, The Indifferent Children, was published in 1947 under a pseudonym, in deference to the feelings of his mother.  He would never use a pseudonym again, and his first published story, “Maud,” which is one of his best, appeared in the Atlantic in 1948 under his name.  A collection of short stories, The Injustice Collectors, was published in 1950, by Houghton Mifflin.  That house went on to publish all of Louis’ works of fiction.  A novel, A Law for the Lion, followed in 1953.  From then on, Louis’ novels appeared every two or three years, interspersed with collections of short stories, biographies, and critical and historical studies.  The range of Louis’s interests was prodigious, and one cannot help marveling at the depth of his knowledge and culture, especially if one remembers that, until 1986 when he retired it, he practiced law full time, that he had never done graduate work in literature or history, and that his spare time was taken up by jotting down short stories and writing novel after novel.  A random selection of Louis’s nonfiction subjects will bear out my point: short biographies of Cardinal Richelieu, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson; biographies of Henry Adams and Edith Wharton; a book length study of Henry James and a volume of shorter studies of modern writers including Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gore Vidal; and a wonderfully guileless and charming autobiography, A Writer’s Capital.  The autobiography was published in 1974.  One wishes that Louis had extended it into the nineteen-nineties, if not into the new millennium.  For Louis kept writing until the very end: his most recent novel, The Last of the Old Guard, was published in 2008.  It was preceded in 2007 by The Headmaster’s Dilemma.  I remember being amused by the steady drumbeat of his complaints during the last decade: Houghton Mifflin was holding him back, refusing to release more than one new title a year.  “They don’t understand,” he would inveigh, “I am too old to wait.”

Louis hit his stride as a novelist beginning with The House of Five Talents and Portrait in Brownstone, published in 1960 and 1962, respectively.  During the balance of the nineteen sixties his novels were received well and often enthusiastically by critics.  They became bestsellers.  He reached the apogee of commercial success with The Rector of Justin, published in 1964, which is widely considered his best novel.  It competed for thirty-five weeks with Saul Bellow’s Herzog for the first place on The New York Times’s bestseller list; Houghton Mifflin sold eighty thousand hardcover copies, and by 1966, New American Library had sold more than 2 million copies of its edition.  The Embezzler (published in 1966) was also a best seller and a critical success.  The decade closed for Louis as a novelist with A World of Profit, published in 1968, another commercial success.  Its artistic quality, however, did not in his opinion measure up to that of its predecessors.

Louis wrote about what he knew best: money and honors, and the elite whose natural habitat, since the Golden Age when it moved uptown, has been the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, educated at Groton or one or two schools like it, and Harvard or Yale, it supplied, in Gore Vidal’s words, “the movers and shakers of the American empire.”  More than any other American writer, Louis showed in his novels, to quote Gore Vidal once again, “how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs.”  In Louis’ eyes the imperium of the WASP elite was justified by its adherence to a high code of honor, the infractions of which it sanctioned implacably by disgrace and ostracism, even if they were not punished by criminal laws.  Much of Louis’ fiction is a dirge for his caste: it had opened its doors to new men and eliminated ethnic and religious barriers, which was all to the good, but somehow in the process it lost not only self-confidence and faith in its code of honor but also its good manners; it put itself at risk of becoming déclassé.

Sadly for Louis, writing about the upper set became unfashionable in the second half of the twentieth century and continues to be so, even when the writer was Louis, of whom Ralph Ellison once said that “since Henry James, no American writer has met the challenge of writing ‘novels of manners’ with the success of Louis Auchincloss.”  His subject matter came to be thought of by many as passé and irrelevant, a judgment that Louis contested.  “I grew up in the 1920s and the 1930s,” he said, “in a nouveau riche world, when money was spent wildly, and I’m still living in one.  The private schools are all jammed with long waiting lists, the clubs…are jammed with long waiting lists…, the harbors are clogged with yachts.  Where is the ‘vanished world’ they talk about?  I don’t think the critics have looked out the window.”

On their way through hell, Dante asks Virgil to tell him who is famed Fortune that makes a mockery of the goods for which humans contend.  One of the roadside seminars of which there are so many in the Commedia ensues, and Virgil explains to his pupil that Fortune is immortal, and, while she lies hidden like a serpent in the grass, her swift judgments hoist one people up to command, and doom another to languish.  Her inscrutable judgments are as swift to elevate and to demote writers.  Louis was not alone among great novelists and short story writers who were his contemporaries to suffer Fortune’s sting: the same revolution in the taste of critics has doomed John O’Hara, John Marquand, and John Cheever to languish, and threatens others, living and dead, whom I will not name.  But according to Dante’s Virgil, Fortune’s judgments know no rest.  Tomorrow they may put in question novels that are in vogue today, and lift on high authors deprecated by fashion.  Thus was Louis’ beloved Trollope restored to fame; a similar vindication may await Louis.

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