In A. R. Gurney’s play The Dining Room, a young man is home from college working on an anthropology project in which he must study and describe a dying culture. His conventional father is startled and disturbed to find out that the dying culture he has chosen to write about is their own: that of country-club WASPs in Buffalo.
If anthropologists a thousand years hence should wish to reconstruct the world of upper-class New Yorkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they could hardly do better than to take the works of Louis Auchincloss as their guide. Auchincloss’s writing career has lasted almost fifty years and produced a total of fifty books (which include works of criticism and biography as well as thirty-seven volumes of fiction); now he has made a selection of the short stories he considers his best, published as The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss. It is an enjoyable but uneven assortment, containing fine stories like “The Wagnerians,” “The Stoic,” and “The Gemlike Flame” alongside not-so-fine ones like “They That Have Power to Hurt,” “Greg’s Peg,” and “Ares.”
Auchincloss is the only writer of his generation to train his sights primarily on the New York aristocracy and so necessarily the last, for by now “old New York” has been reduced to the merest remnants of its former self: the city’s current top folks are, to use Auchincloss’s own phrase, “rich and visible”—as opposed to those of previous generations, who had money and valued it, God knows, but thought it mauvais gout to acknowledge the fact. But though the denizens of Auchincloss’s world, barricaded behind the doors of their brownstones and clubs, may seem old-fashioned, more than a little bit quaint and amusing, their neuroses and preoccupations are not irrelevant to our modern selves. For their values, which are of course the Puritan values, have largely formed our culture for better and for worse, and they are pieties to which even the cynical still pay lip-service. Conscience, self-denial, charity. Hard work, of which the measure is financial success. The belief—by the successful—that effort is inevitably rewarded, and that all failure stems from slackness. The sum total, of course, is a society which measures moral worth in material terms, yet believes in an equally fundamental way that all is vanity.
Their values, which are of course the Puritan values, have largely formed our culture for better and for worse.
Self-righteousness is unavoidable. The bankers and lawyers who form the backbone of old New York must persuade themselves they are of the elect, not mere moneymakers but the very fabric that holds society together, and that there is above all a moral imperative behind the work they do. Thus an upright and serious young man, like Auchincloss’s Stoic in the story of that name, can without irony state that “it’s my one ambition to become a banker.” What a judgment on a culture, that it should foster such ambitions in its elite! Making money is deemed a moral activity, but it is decidedly immoral to flaunt one’s money on personal adornment or frivolity—though acceptable to use it for the purposes of erecting vast piles of masonry for the benefit of posterity. It is also immoral—a sort of insult to one’s ancestors—to spend capital. Charity is, as it should be, an obligation, but it is essential, at least for women, that charity be practiced in a highly visible, active way: as a form of penance, in fact. Simply writing a check won’t do the trick. One of Auchincloss’s heroines, an elderly widow, is perceptive enough to mock her own plight: “Fund raising,” she says, “has swept our world. We dance for cancer; we dine for art; we drink for education.” The New York WASP’s stance vis-à-vis money is in every way a tortured one.
In the anarchic climate of the late twentieth century, it has become a platitude to point out that these ideals are belied by intractable reality. Auchincloss would aver that this conflict is not a product of contemporary life but is inevitable, inscribed within the contradictions of the Puritan ethos. In one story, “In the Beauty of the Lilies Christ Was Born Across the Sea,” a young woman of the 1850s, in an attempt to leave her dry stick of a husband, pleads for understanding from her husband’s cousin. “All those books we discussed together, all those poems and plays~dash\what were they really about? Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter and Madame Bovary? They were about passion! Do you remember when we went to see Rachel in Phèdre?” And the cousin is “sobered by the enormity of her misconstruction”; for he, though more liberal than her husband, is nonetheless a creature of his world, and for him “passion” is a “vulgar word,” literature most decidedly not to be taken seriously outside of the parlor.
The New York WASP’s stance vis-à-vis money is in every way a tortured one.
“God” is another vulgar word here. As the narrator of Auchincloss’s novel The Rector of Justin observes, “God and man meet only in their Sunday best, and one did not talk about Him, any more than one talked about one’s hostess at a party, except in terms of perfunctory respect,” and it is an unspoken given that “most fathers would rather see their sons dead than either cultured or devout.”
Auchincloss’s particular concern is the moments when this moral and aesthetic code is found wanting, the moments when members of this society realize truths beyond what their culture has deemed to be real and earnest. Such moments are dangerous, and those who confront them are faced with a choice: they must either blinker themselves and return to the ethos of the herd, or they must turn their backs on the herd and give up their comfortable place within it.
The artist, or the would-be artist, is inevitably faced with such a decision, and he can only become an artist if he possesses the moral courage to become an outsider. The Collected Stories are rich in characters with artistic leanings, but significantly there is only one “real” artist: Eric Stair, the abstract painter who moonlights as a prep-school teacher in “Portrait of the Artist by Another.” Stair is able to be a great artist because of his absolute detachment from the values represented by St. Lawrence’s School; his foil in the story is his pupil Jamie Abercrombie, who becomes a “boardroom portraitist”—a typical Auchincloss calling, and about the best that can be aspired to by a conformist who fears being cut off from the world of money and influence.
There is only one socially acceptable outlet for an Auchincloss character with artistic leanings, and that is to become a collector. Is it possible for collecting to be an art as well as a vocation? To what extent is a collection a metaphor for a personality? These are questions Auchincloss specifically addressed in the stories that make up the “Memories of an Auctioneer” section of Tales of Manhattan (one of which, “The Money Juggler,” is included in this volume). It is also the theme of one of the collection’s better stories, “The Reckoning.” Rosa Kingsland is an appreciator of art, the perfect receptive instrument for the abstract works she buys. As a collector she complements the artist and her gift is so instinctive as almost to qualify as art in its own right. But because in the end she sticks by the code of her class, she is compelled to abjure her only real passion and sell off her collection for the benefit of her worthless son.
“The Wagnerians,” in my opinion the gem of the collection, deals with much the same theme. Edward Stillman is a rich, dandyish dilettante who unexpectedly finds a vocation when, in 1890, his cousin lands him a job in opera administration. Edward eventually becomes director of the opera and, as a crusading producer intent on introducing Wagner to America, a revolutionary of sorts. As such he comes inevitably into conflict with the opera’s patrons, the rich, middlebrow boxholders made up of Edward’s own circle and led by his redoubtable mother, the narrator’s grandmother. Things come to a head at the New York opening of Tristan und Isolde, when the boxholders’ incessant chatter during the opera becomes so distracting that Edward is goaded into halting the performance until the talking stops.
Henry James was willing to detach himself from his caste and become an outsider; Auchincloss has been reluctant to do so.
“I am sure,” says the narrator, “that that was the most terrible moment of Granny’s long life.” Auchincloss is always at his best when he allows grim humor to get the better of pathos, and he does so wonderfully in this story, with his understanding of the very real horror of social humiliation for a certain generation and social stratum. The upshot of this moment of truth is that Edward Stillman, who like other men of his class is trained to defer to the all-powerful matriarchy, unfailingly makes the wrong decision.
The narrator intuits the real reason for the boxholders’ stubborn chatter.
I remember thinking that it was ironical that Granny and Aunt Rosalie’s world should be most bored when Wagner was speaking most directly to them. For Mark sings of the day, which in Tristan is always compared unfavorably to the night. The day is reality: it is harsh and bright and garish. It is full of things that boxholders like to talk about: honor, loyalty, ties of blood. But the night, which to the lovers has become the only truth, is dark and lush and sleep-inducing. The night is death and love.
All of this leads to Auchincloss’s own weakness: his unwillingness, like that of so many of his characters, to be a professional artist. For in spite of the fact that he is a fantastically prolific author (a good WASP works hard when he really sets his mind to something), Auchincloss has spent some forty-five years as a lawyer, and has practiced trusts and estates law at the firm of Hawkins, Delafield & Wood since 1954. He has long been comfortable with the simultaneous identities of lawyer and writer, but his ease was hard won: the two professions seemed contradictory in his youth, and he left the law for several years in the early Fifties to be a full-time writer, a move which he found so stressful that he underwent psychoanalysis in order to reconcile the two aspects of his character, the “male” side that loved the law and the “female” side that was drawn to the arts.
Auchincloss’s idol is Henry James, whose leadership as a short-story writer he claims to follow. Such a claim invites unfair comparisons, unfair because James was a genius, of a sort, and Auchincloss is not. But Auchincloss’s artistic relation to James is not simply a matter of talent. James was willing to detach himself from his caste and become an outsider; Auchincloss has been reluctant to do so.
Whether from insufficient sense of vocation or as a result of his extremely high output, Auchincloss is prone to a very un-Jamesian carelessness. Structure and story-telling devices are often primitive, more reminiscent of O. Henry and John Buchan than of the more subtle masters Auchincloss admires. Dialogue tends to be colorless, with one character’s speech indistinguishable from another’s: Auchincloss’s wonderful sensitivity to the nuances of behavior does not extend to an ear for the nuances of speech. Sometimes the talk is downright bad, as in this passage from “The Stoic”:
“Well, if that isn’t the limit! Splashing about in the dirty puddle of your mother’s dishonor! Honestly, George, I never thought even you’d be such a creep.”
“Can the big talk. What are you doing but sitting on your backside in that same puddle until some fool of a guy is crazy enough to pick you out of it?”
… “You crummy little bastard!” she almost shrieked.
The truth is that, as each of these stories in its own way indicates, Auchincloss is a little in love with his own milieu. He is not a traitor to his class, as some have claimed; he is an astute and observant but finally affectionate member of it. The fact that it is dying only deepens his affection, and his warmth toward his subject has an unfortunate tendency to turn to sentiment. Perhaps his fatal flaw is simply that he is too clearly a good and humane man who lacks the requisite ruthlessness of the major artist.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 4, on page 67
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com