[Paleopsych] New York: Louis Auchincloss, the Last of the Gentlemen Novelists

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Louis Auchincloss, the Last of the Gentlemen Novelists 

    Old School
    Meet Louis Auchincloss, the last of the gentlemen novelists. What
    happens to a moral realist when the world alters around him?

    By [33]Boris Kachka

    Two things defined the Auchincloss family, declares Louis
    Auchinclossretired lawyer, ancient patrician, prolific novelist of
    mannersin a perfect mid-Atlantic accent. One is that they ran to a
    very high degree in the male line. Most families disappear through the
    distaff side.

    The other signature Auchincloss trait is the familys self-sufficiency.
    While the Scots are routinely credited these days with inventing
    America, this particular clandescended from Paisley native Hugh
    Auchincloss, who emigrated in 1803was carefully preoccupied with
    burnishing its own wealth and reputation. There was no Auchincloss
    fortune, says the writer dryly as we sit together on overstuffed
    sofas. Each generation either made or married its own money. There
    isnt a bum in the lot. Theyve always got an eye for the main chance.
    Theyre not romantics; they dont take chances.

    Nor do the Carnochansthe Scots-American family that inhabits the
    87-year-old authors 60th (and most genealogically themed) book, East
    Side Story. Instead, they make teeth-gritting sacrifices in the face
    of moral and familial dilemmas in scenes that stretch across five
    generations. Over his long writing life, Auchincloss has been
    praisedand as often dismissedfor his chronicles of a ruling class
    thats pretty much dead and buried. In response, the novelist is equal
    parts modesty and defiance, insisting that when people say your
    subject is limited, its because they dont like it. Unless, of course,
    the writing is transcendent. A lot of people had it in for Proust
    because he wrote about dukes and duchesses, says Auchincloss. But
    Proust was a great writer, for all his faults, and I dont think Im
    that. I know a great writer when I see one.

    The Manhattan native (always the Upper East Side) lives alone in a
    Park Avenue top-floor three-bedroom apartment. He shows me various
    artistic heirlooms: an original Audubon acquired for $100 in his Yale
    days (now worth several thousand); a portrait of his great-grandfather
    Charles H. Russell, president of the long-gone Bank of Commerce, by
    realist William Sidney Mount; a painting, probably a Jean-Marc
    Nattier, that could be worth a hundred thousand but that the Met cant
    verify. Wildenstein says its authentic, Auchincloss says, but I cant
    sell it for ten cents. Up on a sagging shelf are his most personal
    relics60-odd books in a row, which his wife had bound in olive-green
    leather. She said, If I had known you were going to write so many, I
    wouldnt have gotten into this. But since she died, Ive continued it

    By any valuation, Auchinclosss life would seem richthough, like the
    lives of his characters, riddled with compromises. Having attended
    Groton and Yale, he hastily entered law school after his first
    manuscript was rejected. When he finally published a novel, it was
    under a pseudonym at his embarrassed fathers insistence. Besides his
    law career (he retired sixteen years ago as a partner in Hawkins
    Delafield & Wood), Auchincloss has served terms as chairman of the
    board at the Museum of the City of New York and president of the
    Academy of Arts and Letters (which, like any organization you run,
    usually rolls along unless you hit a snag or a crisis). His strongest
    works of fiction, which critics interpreted as modeled on such figures
    as columnist Walter Lippmann and Groton headmaster the Reverend
    Endicott Peabody, go some distance toward bolstering his claim to be
    examining not just a diminished ethnic group but the crucial role of
    the twentieth centurys managerial classthose dutiful, soft-spoken
    oarsmen who guided the ships of state and commerce.

    Consider Gordon, one of the several beta Carnochans in the book
    casting about for a clear aim in life. In childhood, he takes the fall
    for his deceitful cousin David over a broken toy. Accepting his lot,
    Gordon spends the rest of his life loyally following David through
    Yale and Skull and Bones to a prestigious law firm. We expect judgment
    to come down on David; instead, Gordon is professionally ruined by
    depressive episodes compounded by Davids betrayals. It seemed a final
    and conclusive answer to what the world was really like, Auchincloss
    writes of Gordon. He could only live with it.

    The resignation that courses through East Side Story seems earned. But
    where Gordon flamed out, Auchinclosss star has gradually faded. In
    1965, his novel The Rector of Justin was nominated for both a Pulitzer
    and a National Book Award. Yet even as the plaudits piled up, the
    moralizing novelist was being overtaken by peers like Norman Mailer,
    Philip Roth, and Vladimir Nabokov. Four decades later, the literary
    canon seems divided between the hefty books of these writers macho
    descendants and small-scale psychosexual dramas of the American
    domestic scene. For all its characters noble struggles, Auchinclosss
    work yields neither the bravura visions of the first nor the incisive
    characterizations of the second. Hes a dogged realist whose fictional
    world doesnt seem so real anymore.

    Auchincloss allows that on some fronts, his critics have a point. I
    think I have a tendency to publish too soon, he muses. Some of them
    could have been quite improved if Id held them up for a year. Still,
    the novelist bristles at the notion that he and his kin are obsolete.
    Subject matter aside, he argues, hes not so far off from John UpdikeHe
    might be writing in 1900or even Mailer (if you leave out the
    four-letter words).

    Auchinclosss great subject is bygone morality, but not as the red
    states would have it. Morals to a great number of people are entirely
    confined to sex, and thats a thing I leave out completely, he says.
    Professional morality is what he mourns: in colleges, in law firms, on
    Wall Street. When Martha Stewart comes out of jail, everybody will
    greet her with kisses and lovethat, to Auchincloss, is a moral

    The authors lament couldnt be timelier, of course. Yet even his most
    rapacious characters are still bound by public virtue. Gordons
    tormentor, David, uses his influence to become a paragon of
    altruismleading a legal crusade in defense of Japanese internees
    during World War IIwhile his son Ronny hews to the (shifting) middle
    ground between hippies and Red-baiters. In his morality, Ronny is a
    strikingly contemporary character for Auchincloss, but as a noble
    lawyer and a representative of the Golden Mean, he still seems like a
    throwback; hed have little to say about the status-seekers and
    swingers so darkly drawn in the work of Wasp colleagues like Tom Wolfe
    and Rick Moody.

    The Wasps havent waned, Auchincloss arguesand the intensity of his
    manner, his air of conviction, make his words convincing. Theyve lost
    their monopoly. But if Auchincloss insists that little has changed, he
    does acknowledge that there couldnt be another writer like him today.
    The author would scribble novels into his notebook in his white-shoe
    office or while waiting for the judge to call out orders. I dont think
    I could do that if I were practicing today, he says, noting that his
    lawyer-son could no more write a novel than he could climb to the

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