Old School

Photo: Ann Weathersby

Two things defined the Auchincloss family,” declares Louis Auchincloss—retired lawyer, ancient patrician, prolific novelist of manners—in 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 family’s self-sufficiency. While the Scots are routinely credited these days with inventing America, this particular clan—descended from Paisley native Hugh Auchincloss, who emigrated in 1803—was 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 isn’t a bum in the lot. They’ve always got an eye for the main chance. They’re not romantics; they don’t take chances.”

Nor do the Carnochans—the Scots-American family that inhabits the 87-year-old author’s 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 praised—and as often dismissed—for his chronicles of a ruling class that’s pretty much dead and buried. In response, the novelist is equal parts modesty and defiance, insisting that “when people say your subject is limited, it’s because they don’t 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 don’t think I’m 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 can’t verify. “Wildenstein says it’s authentic,” Auchincloss says, “but I can’t sell it for ten cents.” Up on a sagging shelf are his most personal relics—60-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 wouldn’t have gotten into this.’ But since she died, I’ve continued it myself.”

By any valuation, Auchincloss’s life would seem rich—though, 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 father’s 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 century’s “managerial class”—those dutiful, soft-spoken oarsmen who guided the ships of state and commerce.

“When Martha Stewart gets out of jail, everyone will greet her with kisses and love”—that, to Auchincloss, is a moral failing.

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 David’s 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, Auchincloss’s 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, Auchincloss’s work yields neither the bravura visions of the first nor the incisive characterizations of the second. He’s a dogged realist whose fictional world doesn’t 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 I’d 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, he’s not so far off from John Updike—“He might be writing in 1900”—or even Mailer (“if you leave out the four-letter words”).

Auchincloss’s 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 that’s 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 love”—that, to Auchincloss, is a moral failure.

The author’s lament couldn’t be timelier, of course. Yet even his most rapacious characters are still bound by public virtue. Gordon’s tormentor, David, uses his influence to become a paragon of altruism—leading a legal crusade in defense of Japanese internees during World War II—while 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; he’d 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 haven’t waned,” Auchincloss argues—and the intensity of his manner, his air of conviction, make his words convincing. “They’ve lost their monopoly.” But if Auchincloss insists that little has changed, he does acknowledge that there couldn’t 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 don’t 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 moon.”

Old School