Introduction to Louis Auchincloss, 92nd Street Y, New York, November 1, 2004
Louis Auchincloss once described Henry Adams as representing "a summit in American prose" because, as he put it, "I can think of no other books where the sentences are so hard and clear and yet so deeply embedded with emotion." He might well have been describing his own work. In more than fifty books, published over a period of more than fifty years, Auchincloss has written a uniformly hard, clear prose that pulsates with feeling but that skillfully skirts both sentimentality and cynicism. His very first novel was likened by a reviewer to the work of Henry James, and throughout his career the comparisons to James and to Edith Wharton, as well, have kept on coming. The connections are, of course, obvious: as the critic Thomas DePietro has noted, Auchincloss's "very real distinction... is his unique insight into the American aristocracy." Indeed, for a guide to the beliefs, principles, hypocrisies, prejudices, and assorted strengths and defects of character of the moneyed and pedigreed Episcopalians who once formed this nation's undisputed ruling class, one cannot do better than Auchincloss, who is a product of that class and at once its most authoritative eulogist and most trenchant critic.
Yet I daresay that Auchincloss would have been a great writer no matter what environment he had been born into. For all the echoes of James and Wharton, he also has a certain affinity to writers as diverse as Flannery O'Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and R.K. Narayan. Geographically, theologically, and socioeconomically, those writers' fictional worlds are far removed from that of Auchincloss, but, like them, he knows his world inside and out, he knows what makes people tick, and he communicates what he knows in lucid, unpretentious prose.
Like those writers, moreover, Auchincloss does not draw attention to himself. He is not in the business of confession. He eschews grandiose pyrotechnical displays. He rejects every opportunity to preach or posture. And he recognizes, scandalously enough, that a novelist's job is not only to feel but also to think. Another Episcopalian who has graced this stage once stated that in the writing of poetry, "there is no method but to be very intelligent." To read Auchincloss is to be reminded that this is a pretty good rule for fiction, too. To read him is to benefit from the clinical observations of a masterly diagnostician of morals and manners, motives and machinations - a man who, free of piety about received opinions of any sort, trains a cold and unblinking eye upon the heart of human character, that creature whose coloring changes dramatically with its surroundings but which, in its essence, remains from age to age the same. And in an age when morality is often defined in narrow, superficial ways - a practice that is especially in evidence, needless to say, during campaign seasons - to read him is to encounter a moral vision truly worthy of the name: a thoroughgoing attentiveness to the ethics of friendship and kinship, marriage and money.
Anyone who knows anything about American literature knows that serious American writers are not supposed to be reliable. They are supposed to be gloriously uneven, taking disastrous, ill-advised turns and once or twice, perhaps, shooting briefly and brightly into the sky before fizzling out. They are not supposed to produce, over a period of many decades, a long shelfful of books whose unwavering intelligence and insight consistently satisfy the expectations of discriminating readers. But why, we may ask, shouldn't a first-rate novelist be as dependable as a first-rate trust attorney? Ladies and gentlemen, Louis Auchincloss.