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The Platypus

A Voice from Old New York

By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin, 2010

After (due to?) writing nearly 50 novels and dozens of nonfiction works, New York estate lawyer and socialite-turned-author Louis Auchincloss died in 2010 at the age of 94. Almost immediately the eulogies for Anthony Trollope began. Journalist and appreciators-on-deadline looked up Auchincloss in their library’s card catalog, gazed upon a sheer aggregation of verbiage the extent of which could only be described as ghastly, an immediately flailed around, panic-stricken, for some, any equivalent – Trollope came to hand. Like Auchincloss, Trollope seemed to write whole novels as easily as other people sneeze (as Mrs. Trollope put it, “He’s always got another one of those damn things in a desk drawer”), so, thought these harried encomiasts, there must be something there, right?

 

Gore Vidal, troublemaker that he is, actually started the ball rolling forty years ago. In a review of Auchincloss’ A Writer’s Capital, Vidal began the game of literary spin-the-bottle, comparing Auchincloss to everybody from Henry James to Theodore Dreiser but making it clear from his descriptions that he had you-know-who in mind:

… Auchincloss writes best in the third person; his kind of revelation demands a certain obliqueness, a moral complexity that cannot be rendered in the confessional tone that marks so much of current American fiction, good and bad. He plays God with his characters, and despite the old-fashionedness of his literary method he is an unusually compelling narrator, telling us things that we don’t know about people we don’t often meet in novels …

No American author, Vidal assures us in that 1974 essay, writes so well about money and the world of money as Auchincloss (Vidal is, as always, excepting himself), and when Auchincloss finally stopped writing, obituary-crafters the nation over dimly recalled somebody or other making the same point about Trollope, and the game was afoot, as John Meacham wrote in his Auchincloss death-essay in Newsweek:

Auchincloss is to New York in the 20th century what Trollope is to English clerical life in the 19th, a writer who must be read in order to understand the ethos of a lost world, but whose essential subject matter – the heart and its discontents – transcends time and place.

But this is far more kind than careful; you no more need to read Auchincloss’ endless novels to understand the ethos of 20th century New York than you need to read the equally endless works of Danielle Steele to crack an ethos of any kind. The more such tributes you read, the more you suspect they’re more inadvertently honest than their authors would admit. Trollope isn’t being invoked here because like him, Auchincloss wrote prolifically about money and status; he’s being invoked because like him, Auchincloss preferred quantity to quality. The reason Meachum and his ilk kept comparing Auchincloss to Trollope is because they knew, in whatever part of their souls journalism had not yet darkened, that they couldn’t compare him to Evelyn Waugh, or Anthony Powell, or even C. P. Snow, let alone James or Wharton. Not because those authors had only written a tenth as much as Auchincloss had, but because they’d written better, and that’s an awkward thing to write in a tribute.

Those tributes are all quiet now, and Auchincloss’ final memoir – A Voice from Old New York – has appeared. It’s slight in length (normal margins and spacing would leave it at no more than 100 pages) and features on its cover a washed sepia photo of the author taken well over half a century ago, as befits a book that purports to be looking back at a youth long ago. Here Auchincloss tells the story of his privileged upbringing on New York’s Upper East Side, with vacations in Maine. He tells of elite Groton and the brutal treatment he received there from the other boys. He sketches Yale and its exclusive ways. He mentions working at a prestigious Wall Street law firm, beginning a second life as a novelist, becoming a partner in a smaller firm, and finally devoting himself to writing his novels.

 

To say this is all familiar territory is not simply to hark back to A Writer’s Capital, although a very large amount of material appears in both books in virtually identical wording. About himself, for instance, in 1974 Auchincloss writes “The fact that I was a Wall Street lawyer, a registered Republican, and a social registrite was quite enough for half the people at any party to cross me off as a kind of duckbill platypus not to be taken seriously,” and here, forty years later, the exact same marsupial simile appears, a distinctive diction caught in amber, untouched by four decades of thought or revision. By the time he got around to penning this memoir, we can guess, he was quite elderly, and fond repetition is a perquisite of age.

But it’s not a perquisite of art, and if Grandpa charged $25 every time he told that old chestnut about shooting a Jap in an orange grove, he’d be telling it to an empty room in about five seconds flat. An echo here and there is probably unavoidable in a writing life that’s coincided so interminably with a personal life, but it’s not as if Auchincloss’ literary corpus needed beefing up; if Houghton Mifflin didn’t have something more substantial than A Voice From Old New York to offer, they should have done what Auchincloss never did: exercised restraint so as not to dilute a literary legacy.

Instead, what we get is an echo chamber, and not just from the earlier memoir. Anyone who’s read Auchincloss’ fiction over the decades (and many of us have – Vidal was hardly his only fan) will quickly begin stumbling over all the disquieting echoes in this memoir. In the short story “The Young Apollo,” a character says, “People who think Shakespeare must have been depressed when he wrote King Lear have it all wrong. He probably kicked up his heels when he saw what he’d done.” In this 2010 memoir, Auchincloss says, “And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I believe that Shakespeare was in exuberantly high spirits when he finished King Lear” (that “as I’ve noted elsewhere” is a depressing little key note we’ll return to in a bit). In the 1996 story “Other Times, Other Ways,” a rich widow reflects:

The first category contained the rich old virgins of New York and Newport, a strictly American phenomenon, as in Europe they would have been married off no matter what their disqualifications or reluctance. These included Miss Anne Morgan, Miss Annie Jennings, Miss Julia Berwind, Miss Ruth Twombly, and the Misses Wetmore …

In A Voice from Old New York the widow has become Auchincloss:

A Frenchman visiting New York was supposed to have observed that it contained so many rich old maids who in Paris would have been simply married by force. And indeed, he had quite a list: the Misses Anne Morgan, Ruth Twombly, Julia Berwind, Anne Jennings, Helen Frick, Edith and Maud Wetmore …

Apart from the odd Frick or two, the list is identical, despite being separated by ten years and one whole genre, and it’s the latter detail that jars: a moment’s research instructs the reader that all of those names belonged to genuine once-living New York society matrons, and that’s just fine for fiction, where the writer is trying to ballast his invention with some bricks of verisimilitude. But finding that same list reproduced virtually word-for-word years later in a memoir (after having been parroted at God knows how many airless soirees) is as weirdly disappointing as if we were to open a memoir by Patrick O’Brian and find him woolgathering about Heneas Dundage or Lord Keith or dear Queeny. It flushes all kinds of unsettling questions into motion, foremost of which must be: is A Voice from Old New York telling us things about how Auchincloss thought of fiction and fiction-writing? New things, and perhaps unwanted things?

Because the foremost impression given by A Voice from Old New York is not that Auchincloss was not all that perceptive a reader of life or literature. He gives us page after page of gossip, almost all of it recycled from novels, short stories, or that earlier memoir, but he never seems to rise above the level of mere chatter; he himself never seems to understand the full meaning of what he tells us. The summations he provides at the conclusion of some anecdote seem biased, or overly judicious, or just plain wrong, and this has an eroding effect.

This pattern starts early, as when Auchincloss un-ironically refers to “the brilliant US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia,” and it’s only seldom mitigated, as when Auchincloss goes to the head of SUNY and proposes that he be allowed to teach a course in Shakespeare, producing this playful exchange:

“Well, what are your qualifications, then?”

“I’m a doctor of letters at NYU.”

There was a moment of surprised silence before the dean recovered himself. “But that was honorary.”

“You should be more careful in handing those things out.”

That same exchange occurs almost verbatim in “The Headmaster’s Dilemma,” but it’s entertaining even so. Such mitigation, however, isn’t strong enough to offset the queasy feeling brought on by the memoir as a whole, the suspicion that perhaps the last laugh will be on us, for making all those comparisons to Trollope. Auchincloss doesn’t make that comparison himself, thankfully, but he does enthuse in its general vicinity:

Trollope, whose important position in the post office carried him to all parts of the empire, was certainly one of the great reporters of his day. In his numberless novels he invariably defines the exact social class of every character, supplies his income and the origin of his family, and even lets us know if he is content with his position in life or hankers to improve it. Class is never neglected.

The note struck in that “class is never neglected” is anything but neutral – it’s unspoken rejoinder is, “See? I, too, have never neglected class; we are akin.” It seems a simply sensible assertion, in a book as crammed full of high society details as this memoir is. City mansions, summer palaces, treasured servants, the moneyed elites of Groton, Yale, Bar Harbor, and Wall Street, the people who sailed through the Great Depression without sacrifice – these are the almost exclusive inhabitants of the world in A Voice from Old New York, a book whose author actually says the line “of course, that was back when one hundred thousand dollars was a lot of money” and expects us to nod in sympathy. Then we come to the epilogue, and another well-worn story:

 

Brendan Gill wrote a memorable story about him [idiosyncratic Yale professor Chauncey B. Tinker], where the young protagonist at Yale, snobbishly ambitious to join the “right” undergraduate circles, ignores his father’s advice to cultivate an old professor and paternal friend who strikes the son as a social dead end, and wastes his time rapping on doors that remain closed. Admitting his failure as graduation nears, he calls in a fit of repentance on the paternal friend whom he has neglected and finds there all the men who have snubbed him! He has missed his golden chance.

To which is appended the motto: “I will leave you with that. Society matters not so much. Words are everything.” At which point our smiles of gentle agreement vanish and we chorus “What the?” Society matters not so much, words are everything? Safe to say no reader of the above anecdote derived either of those two conclusions from it, especially since the anecdote itself blatantly contradicts them. The discrepancy casts up two possible explanations, the second even less savory than the first. Either our memoirist’s faculties were deserting him in his 90s, or they were never all that sharp to begin with. If the former, we must again cast a reproachful eye on a venerable publishing house. But if the latter, the reproach is all our own, for gathering together some dead limbs of Trollope and using them to create a shambling simulacrum to walk in his footsteps. We must not forget what Auchincloss forgot: that class or no class, everything Trollope wrote possesses at least a certain amount of heart, and that’s the single quality entirely missing from the vast life’s work of Louis Auchincloss. Without that heart, there can be no understanding, of others or one’s self.

It seems a dreadfully plausible explanation for why there’s so little understanding on display in A Voice from Old New York, why so often we find ourselves in the awkward position of disagreeing with a memoirist about his own memories. We read his glowing portrait of his saintly mother, and we see a controlling harpy. We read his brotherly-kind accounts of his colleagues in his successive law firms, and we see a sorry collection of soulless, vindictive assholes exactly like the ones (indeed, the exact same ones) who came a whisker away from wrecking the world economy through sheer greed in 2008. We read his rare reserved tributes to his wife Adele alongside both his adoring descriptions of all the bronzed golden boys from his youth and his own oft-repeated assurances that he himself is not gay (“There were enough hurdles in life without that one”). We read his long description of Endicott Peabody, the legendary Rector of Groton during his school days there, and when he later tells us his inspiration for his most memorable character, the Rector of Justin, was Judge Learned Hand, not Peabody, we simply don’t believe him. Or rather we know he believes what he’s saying, but we’re certain he’s simply wrong.

It’s impossible not to turn that awkward feeling back on all those novels we’ve read over the decades, and to sense that all the encomiums were wrong. The strongest impression given by A Voice from Old New York is that we’ve been paying this platypus too much even middling praise. The volume, the repetition, and now the certainty that it was all just indifferent burbling, not even caring whether it was cast as fiction or fact, perhaps not even understanding the difference … it all yields the uncomfortable conclusion that it’s not a Trollopian reporter we’ve been dealing with all along but a stenographer.

____
Liz Satterwaite is an ex-Bostonian living and working in DeKalb, Illinois as a freelance writer and part-time substitute teacher. This is her first full-length piece for Open Letters.

One Comment »

  • I enjoyed this piece a lot. But I detect one too many “nots” in this sentence: “Because the foremost impression given by A Voice from Old New York is not that Auchincloss was not all that perceptive a reader of life or literature.”

    Isn’t “… that Auchincloss was not all that perceptive a reader of life or literature” exactly the “foremost impression” this writer got from the book? Isn’t that another way of saying he was a stenographer and not a writer or even reporter? Or am I dumb?

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