Meacham: Visions From a Vanishing World

The death of J. D. Salinger last Wednesday understandably brought a great deal of what Holden Caulfield called "that David Copperfield kind of crap" about the author: "where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me." Salinger himself was a great story: the brilliant young artist who writes a classic and then disappears into the woods of New Hampshire for decades. No more David Copperfield kind of crap for him.

Another literary death last week received less attention, but the life and work of Louis Auchincloss speak as much to us as Salinger's. A lawyer and prolific author, Auchincloss, born in 1917, grew up in houses in Manhattan, on Long Island, and in Bar Harbor, Maine. The family traveled from house to house with its chauffeur (singular) and its servants (very much plural). He studied at Groton and Yale and the University of Virginia law school. I knew him a bit—we lunched on a few occasions and were fellow guests at enough dinners that I noted his fondness for a Stoli (neat, as I recall) rather than wine. He was a wonderful storyteller, but he was the shrewdest of observers and listeners, too. He seemed to know everybody's secrets, or at least the secrets of everybody who lived on the Upper East Side. Tall and forbidding—or forbidding until he cracked a joke, or found something amusing, at which point he would break into a smile of epic proportions—Auchincloss wrote of a vanishing milieu of Eastern privilege: of prep schools and discreet lawyers and quiet clubs where the chairs were comfortable and the martinis cold.

Salinger will endure much longer and will be read more widely than Auchincloss, who will be viewed in death in much the same way he was in life: as an interesting novelist of manners. As Auchincloss himself noted in interviews, he was not remotely as accomplished as Edith Wharton, in whose wake he worked, but he was nevertheless an artist to be taken seriously as a -chronicler of a certain sphere of life at a certain time. Not a bad fate, that: it is, in fact, the most virtually any writer could hope for, and which only a tiny number achieve. 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 to understand the ethos of a lost world, but whose essential subject matter—the heart and its discontents—transcends time and place.

What is most interesting about Auchincloss, is not the elegance of the lives he chronicled but the complexities, the unfulfilled ambitions, the restless hearts of his characters. In Auchincloss's novels (and in The Catcher in the Rye), little is what it seems to be. The exterior appears solid and secure. But the interior is a constantly roiling emotional battlefield. Glib analysis was insufficient to the problems of the heart Auchincloss was surveying. His 1974 memoir, A Writer's Capital, should be required reading for anyone interested in the craft. It is a book that manages to be honest and personal without being self-indulgent. He writes of his mother's anxiety about breaking the conventions of her caste, a reluctance dictated by fear. "Fear of what?" Auchincloss recalled. "It is hard to describe. Fear of a grading system in which one started with a handicap. Fear of not coming up to some kind of scratch. Fear of being measured in the balance and found wanting."

The Rector of Justin , about the fictional Rev. Francis Prescott, is perhaps his best-known novel (my favorite is The House of the Prophet, which is essentially the story of Walter Lippmann). The rector is a legendary schoolmaster, but a complex one. "He is an artist as well as a preacher, an intellectual as well as a man of God," says one of the book's narrators. "He probably adores Swinburne and forces himself not to read him." The rector's admonitions about education apply even now. "The older I get the more I realize that the only thing a teacher has to go on is that rare spark in a boy's eye," says Prescott. "And when you see that…you're an ass if you worry where it comes from. Whether it's an ode of Horace or an Icelandic saga or something that goes bang in a laboratory."

Like many of his works, Auchincloss's Rector is in part about the tragic nature of lives that at first glance appear immune to tragedy. Who can feel sorry for a headmaster who laments that his school produces more stockbrokers than priests or public servants? Auchincloss's answer is that his readers should care, for the specialized disappointments and frustrations of the well established are particular expressions of the universal truth that life is never precisely what we want it to be, no matter how many houses one has.