Requiem for the Upper Crust

COLLECTED STORIES OF LOUIS AUCHINCLOSS

 

Forty-seven years and 50 books after he published his first novel, “The Indifferent Children,” Louis Auchincloss has yet to receive his full due. Academic critics and editors of anthologies have almost completely ignored him; so have the bestowers of literary awards. (Of all his books, only the splendid 1964 best seller “The Rector of Justin” has been nominated for major prizes.)

Why is this? The complaints are remarkably consistent: Mr. Auchincloss focuses on too tiny a sliver of human society — namely, the world of upper-crust New York WASP’s, especially white-shoe Wall Street lawyers (of which he is one) — and treats his material in an old-fashioned manner that is overly derivative of Edith Wharton and Henry James. But these charges are outrageously unfair.

Yes, Mr. Auchincloss’s social-register characters and stately prose often bring Wharton and James to mind; for some of us, that is not an unpleasant experience. Unfortunately for Mr. Auchincloss, he lives in a time when the protagonists of literary fiction tend to be middle- or lower-class, when the rich and powerful (in the form of movie stars and self-made tycoons) are found mostly in Jackie Collins-style potboilers, and when both popular culture and serious fiction have propagated the notion that Ivy League Episcopalian types are emotionless snobs.

These days the general public, though fascinated by the superficial trappings of privilege, seems to have little interest in the deeper truths with which Mr. Auchincloss is passionately concerned — with, that is, the beliefs, principles, hypocrisies, prejudices and assorted strengths and defects of character that typify the American WASP civilization that produced what was for a long time the country’s undisputed ruling class. Mr. Auchincloss may concentrate on a limited milieu, but it is a milieu whose impact on American society has been immense and whose decline in influence has been intimately connected to some of the most significant social changes of recent decades. It is a milieu, one might add, that Mr. Auchincloss knows intimately, and of which he is at once a sincere eulogist and a trenchant critic.

Few of Mr. Auchincloss’s books demonstrate this fact as surely as “The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss,” his third to be published this year — and one that shows some of Mr. Auchincloss’s best work in his strongest genre. Several of the earliest stories here — there are 19 in all, the oldest dating back to the late 1940’s — view Mr. Auchincloss’s little world through the eyes of characters who inhabit it but who are, in some way, outsiders. Both “Greg’s Peg” and “The Single Reader,” for example, are about friendless bachelors: one finds his niche as the local buffoon in a summer beach town; the other keeps a voluminous diary about the elite circles in which he moves, observing everything but never really participating. Mr. Auchincloss shows off his sense of humor in “The Colonel’s Foundation,” an eminently anthologizable little tale about a misfit lawyer who foolishly leaps at an apparent opportunity that his wiser colleagues would flatly reject, and in “The Mavericks,” wherein an Irish-American lawyer’s bluntness wins him the affection of his boss’s unconventional daughter.

The theme of not belonging figures pivotally in the book’s two most impressive stories, both of which were first collected in “The Romantic Egoists” (1954). “The Gemlike Flame” brilliantly delineates the complex, ambiguous relationship between Clarence, a reclusive American esthete in Venice, and Neddy, a male artist who becomes his protege and (as Clarence puts it) the object of his “pure love.” The situation strongly recalls James’s novel “Roderick Hudson”; the narrator’s description of Clarence as Neddy’s “preceptor,” furthermore, seems calculated to stir memories of James’s story “The Pupil,” in which that word occurs repeatedly.

“Billy and the Gargoyles” relates the quietly disturbing experience of Billy, a popular boarding-school boy who is mercilessly harassed when he violates the unwritten student code by befriending a “new kid.” That new kid, who serves as narrator, recalls how a bully named George Neale initiated Billy’s harassment and notes ironically that while he shared Billy’s distress, he couldn’t share his “attitude of superiority” toward the tormentors, “for I believed, superstitiously, in all the things that he sneered at. I believed, as George believed, in the system, the hazing, in the whole grim division of the school world into those who ‘belonged’ and those who didn’t.” The story’s picture of that brutal school “system” amounts, by extension, to a cogent critique of the grown-up system of blue-blood society, with its careful drawing of lines between those who belong and those who don’t.

Many of Mr. Auchincloss’s later stories, composed in the twilight of that system, contemplate the good and bad aspects of its passing. In “The Prince and the Pauper,” a highborn lawyer drinks himself into obloquy while a worthy, lowborn colleague graduates into the country club set; in “The Prison Window,” a museum curator’s love of beautiful 18th-century objets d’art is clouded by the introduction into her gallery of a rusty prison window, symbolizing the plebeian suffering that made possible these aristocratic pleasures.

Several of Mr. Auchincloss’s stories of recent decades reflect at once a sad acknowledgment of yesterday’s inequities and a disdain for today’s culture, in which, as a character complains in “The Fabbri Tape, “opposition to ethnic and racial discrimination is “the only moral value we have left.” It is also a culture in which, as the Protagonist of a story entitled “The Novelist of Manners” ruefully observes, authors who follow in the footsteps of James and Wharton are doomed to be seen as anachronistic.

This collection asks some weighty questions. What happens to non- WASP’s when they achieve ascendancy in a culture rounded by WASP’s and historically dominated by their rituals, manners and values? What happens to the WASP’s? What happens to the culture, for better and worse? The answers to these questions are important to our understanding of ourselves and our times, but the questions themselves are politically incorrect; they concern social facts that we’re supposed to pretend nowadays not to notice. Among the things for which readers should be grateful to Mr. Auchincloss are his refusal to adhere to this or any other fashion, and the independence and high artistry with which he has, over his prolific decades, persevered in constructing unfaddish novels and stories about unfaddish people. If there is any justice, Mr. Auchincloss’s “Collected Stories” will continue to be read when the work of the trendier talents of our day has long been forgotten.

THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW