A Writer’s Capital
“What a dull and dreary trade is that of critic,” wrote Diderot. “It is so difficult to create a thing, even a mediocre thing; it is so easy to detect mediocrity.” Either the great philosophe was deliberately exaggerating or else Americans have always lived in an entirely different continuum from Europe. For us the making of mediocre things is the rule while the ability to detect mediocrity or anything else is rare. A century ago, E. L. Godkin wrote in The Nation: “The great mischief has always been that whenever our reviewers deviate from the usual and popular course of panegyric, they start from and end in personality, so that the public mind is almost sure to connect unfavorable criticism with personal animosity.
Don’t knock, boost! was the cry of Warren Harding. To which the corollary was plain: anyone who knocks is a bad person with a grudge. As a result, the American has always reacted to the setting of standards rather the way Count Dracula responds to a clove of garlic or a crucifix. Since we are essentially a nation of hustlers rather than makers, any attempt to set limits or goals, rules or standards, is to attack a system of free enterprise where not only does the sucker not deserve that even break but the honest man is simply the one whose cheating goes undetected. Worse, to say that one English sentence might be better made than another is to be a snob, a subverter of the democracy, a Know-Nothing enemy of the late arrivals to our shores and its difficult language.
I doubt if E. L. Godkin would find the American bookchat scene any better today than it was when he and his literary editor Wendell Phillips Garrison did their best to create if not common readers uncommon reviewers. Panegyric is rarer today than it was in the last century but personality is still everything, as the Sunday New York Times Book Review demonstrates each week: who can ever forget the Times’s gorgeous tribute not to the book by Mr. Saul Bellow under review but to its author’s admittedly unusual physical beauty? What matters is not if a book is good or bad (who, after all, would know the difference?) but whether or not the author is a good person or a bad person. It is an article of faith among us that only a good person can write a good book; certainly, a bad person will only write bad books (the continuing Ezra Pound debate is full of fine examples of this popular wisdom).
But then moralizing is as natural to the American bookchat writer as it is to the rest of our countrymen—a sort of national tic. Naturally, there are fashions in goodness owing to changes in the Climate of Opinion (current forecast: Chomsky occluded, low pressure over the black experience, small Stravinsky-Craft warnings). Also, since Godkin’s time, the American university has come into its terrible own. Departments of English now produce by what appears to be parthenogenesis novels intended only for the classroom; my favorite demonstrated that the universe is—what else?—the university. Occasionally a university novel (or U-novel) will be read by the general (and dwindling) public for the novel; and sometimes a novel written for that same public (P-novel) will be absorbed into Academe, but more and more the division between the two realms grows and soon what is written to be taught in class will stay there and what is written to be read outside will stay there, too. On that day the kingdom of prose will end, with an exegesis.
Meanwhile, bookchat, both P and U, buzzes on like some deranged bumblebee with a taste for ragweed; its store of bitter honey periodically collected and offered the public (?) in books with titles like Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction by Granville Hicks, one of the most venerable bees in the business, a nice old thing who likes just about everything that’s “serious” but tends to worry more about the authors than their books. Will X develop? Get past the hurdle of The Second Novel (everyone has One Novel in him, the First) or will fashion destroy him? Drink? Finally, does he deserve to be memorialized in Literary Horizons? Mr. Hicks’s list of approved novelists contains one black, one Catholic, one Southern Wasp, and six Jews. That is the standard mix for the Seventies. The Fifties mix would have been six Southern Wasps, one Jew, no black, etc.
For those who find puzzling the high favor enjoyed by the Jewish novelist in today’s bookchat land, I recommend Mr. Alfred Kazin’s powerful introduction to The Commentary Reader, “The Jew as Modern American Writer.” Mr. Kazin tells us, with pardonable pride, that not only are Jews “the mental elite of the power age” but “definitely it was now  the thing to be Jewish.” As a result, to be a Jew in America is the serious subject for a P or even U novel, while to be a Wasp is to be away from the creative center; the born Catholic (as opposed to a convert like Flannery O’Connor) is thought at best cute (if Irish), at worst silly (if drunken Irish). In the permissive Sixties, Negroes were allowed to pass themselves off as blacks and their books were highly praised for a time but then there was all that trouble in the schools and what with one thing or another the black writers faded away except for James Baldwin, Mr. Hicks’s token nigger. Yet even Mr. Hicks is worried about Mr. Baldwin. Does he really belong on the List? Is it perhaps time for his “funeral service” as a writer? Or will he make one final titanic effort and get it all together and write The Novel?
Like Bouvard, like Pecuchet, like every current bookchatterer, Hicks thinks that there really is something somewhere called The Novel which undergoes periodic and progressive change (for the better—this is America!) through Experiments by Great Masters. Consequently the Task of the Critic is to make up Lists of Contenders, and place his bets accordingly. Not for Mr. Hicks Brigid Brophy’s truism: there is no such thing as The Novel, only novels.
At any given moment the subject or the matter of American fiction is limited by the prevailing moral prejudices and assumptions of the residents in bookchat land. U-novels must always be predictably experimental (I reserve for another occasion a scrutiny of those interesting cacti) while the respectable P-novel is always naturalistic, usually urban, often Jewish, always middle-class, and of course, deeply, sincerely heterosexual.
Conscious of what the matter of fiction ought to be, Mr. Hicks somewhat nervously puts Louis Auchincloss on his list. On the one hand, Auchincloss deals entirely with the American scene, writes in a comfortably conventional manner, and is one of the few intellectuals who writes popular novels. On the other hand, despite virtues, Auchincloss is not much thought of in either the P or the U world and Mr. Hicks is forced to buzz uneasily: “Although I have read and reviewed most of Louis Auchincloss’s work in the past twelve years, I hesitated about including him in this volume.” So the original Debrett must have felt when first called upon to include the Irish peerage. “Certainly he has not been one of the movers and shakers of the postwar period.” As opposed, presumably, to Reynolds Price, Wright Morris, Herbert Gold, Bernard Malamud, and the other powerhouses on Mr. Hicks’s list. Actually, only two or three of Mr. Hicks’s writers could be said to have made any contribution at all to world literature. But that is a matter of taste. After all, what, Pontius, is literature?
Mr. Hicks returns worriedly to the matter of fiction. Apparently Auchincloss “has written for the most part about ‘good’ society, the well-to-do and the well-bred. And he has written about them with authority. What bothers me is not that he writes about this little world but that he seems to be aware of no other. Although he is conscious of its faults, he never questions its values in any serious way.” This is fascinating. I have read all of Auchincloss’s novels and I cannot recall one that did not in a most serious way question the values of his “little world.” Little world!
It is a fascinating tribute to the cunning of our rulers and to the density of our intellectuals (bookchat division, anyway) that the world Auchincloss writes about, the domain of Wall Street bankers and lawyers and stockbrokers, is thought to be irrelevant, a faded and fading genteelgentile enclave when, in actual fact, this little world comprises the altogether too vigorous and self-renewing ruling class of the United States—an oligarchy that is in firm control of the Chase Manhattan Bank, American foreign policy, and the decision-making processes of both divisions of the Property Party; also, most “relevantly,” Auchincloss’s characters set up and administer these various foundations that subsidize those universities where academics may serenely and dully dwell like so many frogs who think their pond the ocean (the universe is the university again).
Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Yet such is the vastness of our society and the remoteness of academics and bookchatterers from actual power that those who should be most in this writer’s debt have no idea what a useful service he renders us by revealing and, in some ways, by betraying his class. But then how can the doings of a banker who is white and gentile and rich be relevant when everyone knows that the only meaningful American experience is to be Jewish, lower-middle-class, and academic? Or (in Mr. Hicks’s words), “As I said a while ago and was scolded for saying, the characteristic hero of our time is a misfit.” Call me Granville.
Ignorance of the real world is not a new thing in our literary life. After the Second World War, a young critic made a splash with a book that attributed the poverty of American fiction to the lack of a class system—a vulgar variation on Henry James’s somewhat similar but usually misunderstood observations about American life. This particular writer came from a small town in the Midwest; from school, he had gone into the service and from there into a university. Since he himself had never seen any sign of a class system, he decided that the United States was a truly egalitarian society. It should be noted that one of the charms of the American arrangement is that a citizen can go through a lifetime and never know his true station or who the rulers are.
Of course our writers know that there are rich people hidden away somewhere (in the columns of Suzy, in the novels of Louis Auchincloss) but since the Depression, the owners of the country have played it cool, kept out of sight, consumed inconspicuously. Finally, no less a P (now P-U) writer than that lifelong little friend of the rich Ernest Hemingway felt obliged to reassure us that the rich are really just folks. For the P-writer the ruling class does not exist as a subject for fiction if only because the rulers are not to be found in his real world of desperate suburbs. The U-writer knows about the Harkness plan—but then what is a harkness? Something to do with horse racing? While the names that the foundations bear do not suggest to him our actual rulers—only their stewards in the bureaucracy of philanthropy: the last stronghold of the great immutable fortunes.
The serious P-writer knows that he must reflect the world he lives in: the quotidian of the average man. To look outside that world is to be untrue and, very possibly, undemocratic. To write about the actual movers and shakers of the world we live in (assuming that they exist of course) is to travel in fantasy land. As a result, novels to do with politics, the past, manners, are as irrelevant to the serious P-writer as the breathy commercial fictions of all the Irvingses—so unlike the higher relevancies of all the Normans.
In a society where matters of importance are invariably euphemized (how can an antipersonnel weapon actually kill?) a writer like Louis Auchincloss who writes about the way money is made and spent is going to have a very hard time being taken seriously. For one thing, it is now generally believed in bookchat land that the old rich families haven’t existed since the time of Edith Wharton while the new-rich are better suited for journalistic exposés than for a treatment in the serious P or U novel. It is true that an indiscriminate reading public enjoys reading Auchincloss because, unlike the well-educated, they suspect that the rich are always with us and probably up to no good. But since the much-heralded death of the Wasp establishment, the matter of Auchincloss’s fiction simply cannot be considered important.
This is too bad. After all, he is a good novelist, and a superb short-story writer. More important, he has made a brave effort to create his own literary tradition—a private oasis in the cactus land of American letters. He has written about Shakespeare’s penchant for motiveless malignity (a peculiarly American theme), about Henry James, about our women writers as the custodians and caretakers of the values of that dour European tribe which originally killed the Indians and settled the continent.
Mr. Hicks with his eerie gift for misunderstanding what a writer is writing about thinks that Auchincloss is proudly showing off his class while bemoaning its eclipse by later arrivals. Actually, the eye that Auchincloss casts on his own class is a cold one and he is more tortured than complacent when he records in book after book the collapse of the Puritan ethical system and its replacement by—as far as those of us now living can tell—nothing. As for the ruling class being replaced by later arrivals, he knows (though they, apparently, do not) that regardless of the considerable stir the newcomers have made in the peripheral worlds of the universities, showbiz, and bookchat, they have made almost no impact at all on the actual power structure of the country.
Auchincloss deals with the movers and shakers of the American empire partly because they are the people he knows best and partly, I suspect, because he cannot figure them out to his own satisfaction. Were they better or worse in the last century? What is good, what is bad in business? And business (money) is what our ruling class has always been about; this is particularly obvious now that the evangelical Christian style of the last century has been abandoned by all but the most dull of our rulers’ employees (read any speech by the current president to savor what was once the very sound of Carnegie, of Gould, and of Rockefeller).
Finally, most unfashionably, Auchincloss writes best in the third person; his kind of revelation demands a certain obliqueness, a moral complexity which 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—what other novelist went to school with Bill and McGenghis Bundy? Now, abruptly, he ceases to play God. The third person becomes first person as he describes in A Writer’s Capital the world and the family that produced him, a world and family not supposed either by their own standards or by those of bookchatland to produce an artist of any kind.
I must here confess to an interest. From the time I was ten until I was sixteen years old my stepfather was Hugh D. Auchincloss, recently saluted by a society chronicler as “the first gentleman of the United States”—to the enormous pleasure and true amazement of the family. The Auchinclosses resemble the fictional Primes in The Embezzler, a family that over the years has become extraordinarily distinguished for no discernible reason or, as Louis puts it, “There was never an Auchincloss fortune…each generation of Auchincloss men either made or married its own money.”
Plainly, even sharply, Louis chronicles the family’s history from their arrival in America (1803) to the present day. He is realistic about the family’s pretensions though he does not seem to be aware of the constant chorus of criticism their innumerable in-laws used to (still do?) indulge in. I can recall various quasi-humorous rebellions on the part of the in-laws (once led by Wilmarth Lewis) at the annual clan gathering in New York. What the in-laws could never understand was the source of the family’s self-esteem. After all, what had they ever done? And didn’t they come to America a bit late by true “aristocratic” standards? And hadn’t they been peddlers back in Scotland who had then gone into dry goods in New York? And what was so great about making blue jeans? Besides, weren’t they all a bit too dark? What about “those grave, watery eyes over huge aquiline noses”? And wasn’t there a rumor that they had Italian blood and when you come right down to it didn’t they look (this was only whispered at Bailey’s Beach, muttered in the men’s room of the Knickerbocker) Jewish?
In the various peregrinations of the branch of the family that I was attached to (I almost wrote “assigned to”: sooner or later the Auchinclosses pick up one of everything, including the chicest of the presidents), I never came across Louis, who was, in any case, eight years older than I. Right after the war when I was told that a Louis Auchincloss had written a novel, I said: Not possible. No Auchincloss could write a book. Banking and law, power and money—that was their category.
From reading Louis’s memoir I gather that that was rather his own view of the matter. He had a good deal to overcome and this is reflected in the curiously tense tone of his narrative. He had the bad luck, for a writer, to come from a happy family, and there is no leveler as great as a family’s love. Hatred of one parent or the other can make an Ivan the Terrible or a Hemingway; the protective love, however, of two devoted parents can absolutely destroy him. This seems to have been particularly true in the case of Louis’s mother. For one thing she knew a good deal about literature (unlike every other American writer’s mother) and so hoped that he would not turn out to be second-rate, and wretched.
From the beginning, Louis was a writer: word-minded, gossip-prone, book-devouring. In other words, a sissy by the standards of the continuing heterosexual dictatorship that has so perfectly perverted in one way or another just about every male in the country. The sensitive, plump, small boy like Louis has a particularly grim time of it but, happily, as the memoir shows, he was able eventually to come to grips with himself and society in a way that many of the other sensitive, plump boys never could. A somber constant of just about every American literary gathering is the drunk, soft, aging writer who bobs and weaves and jabs pathetically at real and imagined enemies, happy in his ginny madness that he is demonstrating for all the world to see his manliness.
By loving both parents more or less equally, Auchincloss saw through the manly world of law and finance; saw what it did to his father who suffered, at one point, a nervous breakdown. Not illogically, “I came to think of women as a privileged happy lot. With the right to sit home all day on sofas and telephone, and of men as poor slaves doomed to go downtown and do dull, soul-breaking things to support their families.” As for Wall Street, “never shall I forget the horror inspired in me by those narrow dark streets and those tall sooty towers….” The story of Auchincloss’s life is how he reconciled the world of father with that of mother; how he became a lawyer and a novelist; how the practice of law nourished his art and, presumably, the other way around, though I’m not so sure that I would want such a good novelist creating a trust for me.
Groton, Yale, Virginia Law School, the Navy during World War II, then a Manhattan law firm, psychoanalysis, marriage, children, two dozen books. Now from the vantage point of middle age, the author looks back at himself and our time, holding the mirror this way and that, wondering why, all in all, he lacked the talent early on for being happy, for being himself. With characteristic modesty, he underplays his own struggle to reconcile two worlds, not to mention the duality of his own nature. Yet I suspect that having made himself a writer, he must have found demoralizing the fact that the sort of writing he was interested in doing was, simply, not acceptable to the serious U or even the serious P-chatterers.
The literary line to which he belongs was never vigorous in the United States—as demonstrated by its master Henry James’s wise removal to England. Edith Wharton remained an American; yet to this day she is regarded as no more than pale James. Since Mrs. Wharton, the novel of manners has been pretty much in the hands of commercialites. But of the lot neither the insider Marquand nor the outsider O’Hara is taken seriously in U-land while in P-land they were particularly downgraded after the war when bookchat was no longer written by newspapermen who were given books to review because they were not good enough to write about games but by young men and women who had gone to universities where the modern tradition (sic) was entirely exotic: Joyce and Lawrence, Proust and Kafka were solemnly presented to them as the models worth honoring or emulating. It is true that right after the war James made a comeback, but only as an elaborate maker of patterns: what Maisie knew was not so important as her way of telling what she knew.
The early Fifties was not a good time for a writer like Louis Auchincloss. But it could have been worse: at least he did not have to apologize for his class because, pre-Camelot, no American writer had a clue who or what an Auchincloss was. Yet even then his novels never much interested his fellow writers or those who chatted them up because he did not appear to deal with anything that really mattered, like the recent war, or being Jewish/academic/middle-class/heterosexual in a world of ballcutters. No one was prepared for dry ironic novels about the ruling class—not even those social scientists who are forever searching for the actual bill of sale for the United States.
Auchincloss himself was no help. He refused to advertise himself. If the bookchatterers had no idea what Sullivan and Cromwell was he wasn’t going to tell them: he just showed the firm in action. He also knew, from the beginning, what he was doing: “I can truly say that I was never ‘disillusioned’ by society. I was perfectly clear from the beginning that I was interested in the story of money: how it was made, inherited, lost, spent.” Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives. In fascinating detail, he shows how generations of lawyers have kept intact the great fortunes of the last century. With Pharaonic single-mindedness they have filled the American social landscape with pyramids of tax-exempt money, for the eternal glory of Rockefeller, Ford, et al. As a result, every American’s life has been affected by the people Auchincloss writes so well about.
I cannot recall where or when I first met Louis. He lists me among a dozen writers he met twenty years ago at the Greenwich Village flat of the amiable Vance Bourjaily and his wife. I do recall the curiosity I had about him: how on earth was he going to be both a lawyer and a writer (a question entirely subjective: how could I write what I did and be an effective politician? Answer: forget it). I can’t remember how he answered the question or if he did. I was amused by the reaction of other writers to him. They knew—particularly the wives or girlfriends—that there was something “social” about him but that was neither a plus nor a minus in the Eisenhower era. Earlier it would have been a considerable handicap. In my first years as a writer, I was often pleased to be identified with the protagonist of The City and the Pillar—a male prostitute. After all, that was a real identity, I thought, sharing the collective innocence.
Louis moved through these affairs with considerable charm and he exaggerates when he 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 one party to cross me off as a kind of duckbill platypus not to be taken seriously.” Rather wistfully, he observes: “I am sure I had read more books by more of the guests at any one party than anyone else.” I am sure that he had. But then it has always been true that in the United States the people who ought to read books write them. Poor Louis who knew French and American literature, who “kept up” with what was going on, now found himself in a literary society of illiterate young play-actors; overexcited by the publicity surrounding Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they decided to imitate these “old masters.” At least a dozen were playing Hemingway—several grizzled survivors still are. Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner were also popular archetypes. No one was himself—but then selves are hard to come by in America. So, in a way, Louis was indeed like a platypus in that farmyard of imitation roosters. After all, he didn’t resemble any famous writer we had ever heard of. He was simply himself, and so odd man out to the young counterfeiters.
Since then, Auchincloss has learned (through psychoanalysis, he tells us) that “a man’s background is largely of his own creating.” Yet pondering the response to this discovery as expressed in his work, he writes,
American critics still place a great emphasis on the fact of background on character, and by background they mean something absolute which is the same for all those in the foreground. Furthermore, they tend to assume that the effect of any class privilege in a background must be deleterious to a character and that the author has introduced such a background only to explain the harm done. Now the truth is that the background to most of my characters has been selected simply because it is a familiar one to me and is hence more available as a model…. I cannot but surmise that the stubborn refusal on the part of many critics to see this is evidence of a resentment on their part against the rich, a resentment sometimes carried to the point of denying that a rich man can be a valid subject for fiction…. Such a point of view would have been, of course, ridiculous in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries when the great bulk of the characters of fiction came from the upper or upper middle class. Critics did not resent Anna Karenina or Colonel Newcome.
Louis Auchincloss’s latest book, The Partners, is a collection of related short stories set in a New York law firm. A merger has been proposed between the demure firm of the partners and a larger, flashier firm. Old values (but are they really values?) combat new forces. Invariably those who do the right self-sacrificing thing end up echoing Mrs. Lee in Henry Adams’s Democracy: “The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of your countrymen would say I have made a mistake.”
The author’s virtues are well displayed: almost alone among our writers he is able to show in a convincing way men at work—men at work discreetly managing the nation’s money, selecting its governors, creating the American empire. Present, too, are his vices. Narrative is sometimes forced too rapidly, causing characters to etiolate while the profound literariness of the author keeps leaking into the oddest characters. I am sure that not even the most civilized of these Wall Street types is given to quoting King Lear and Saint-Simon quite as often as their author has him do. Also, there are the stagy bits of writing that recur from book to book—hands are always “flung up” by Auchincloss characters; something I have never seen done in real life west of Naples.
One small advance: in each of Auchincloss’s previous books sooner or later the author’s Jacobite fascination with the theater intrudes and, when it does, I know with terrible foreboding that I shall presently see upon the page that somber ugly word “scrim.” I am happy to report that in The Partners there is no scrim, only the author’s elegant proscenium arch framing our proud, savage rulers as they go singlemindedly about their principal task: the preserving of fortunes that ought to be broken up.