Friday, January 29, 2010

Two New York Writers

For two straight days this week Charles McGrath, once of the New Yorker and now the resident litterateur at the Times, was summoned to provide obits for two significant literary figures--both of whom focused mostly on New York in their work. They, of course, were Louis Auchincloss and J.D. Salinger. Our literary horizon is lessened by their demise but both had reached quite advanced ages and in the notorious case of Salinger, no work had emerged from him for more than 40 years.

Yet to read the fascinating stories of these writers made their prime periods seem like yesterday. To whom is The Catcher in the Rye not the greatest modern coming-of-age novel? Holden Caulfield has become part of our continuing culture, most ironically for his rebellious self because his story is often assigned reading in school today. The novel seems to have survived the army of censors who cited its sometimes rough language as an excuse for barring it from school libraries or English reading lists. It's an even wilder sign of our polarized, dotty scene today that this morning's Washington Post told of a school district in Virginia yanking The Diary of Anne Frank from a school reading list because of too much sex, fantasies in this case. The story made me think that Holden Caulfield and Anne Frank probably stand out as the leading teenaged literary figures in the post-World War II world.

As much as I enjoyed Catcher and the short stories, I and many others realized that Salinger had gone off in a crazy direction as his mind became engrossed with the Glass family. Maybe I still know too little of Eastern religions to appreciate where he was going, but it all got a bit, oh, more than a bit, weird, ending with the whimper of his last published story, the maunderings of Seymour Glass at age seven.

There were moments of the old Salinger touch--the one that produced that fantastic simile in Catcher when Holden says one school roommate was "about as sensitive as a toilet seat." For example, the story of Seymour's on-again, off-again wedding in Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters contained, beside its main themes, a delightfully descriptive picture of Manhattan in the '40s. But as in the great story Bananafish, Salinger's "phonies" here--Seymour's in-laws-to-be, including his bride, and her Matron of Honor, for that matter--are relatively obvious targets for Salinger's disdain.

Quite a different New Yorker was the aristocratic attorney, Louis Auchincloss. Yes, he got inside many of the old reigning culture's grand institutions--the scenes with the lawyers set at the mid-20th century reminded me of the grand meeting rooms at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, where you always met for dinner with your committee and the man came round with the cigars.

He's often compared with Edith Wharton and that's where I find his limitations more obvious. Her characters surmount the settings; if you've read the novels, you have trouble getting Lily Bart or Undine Spragg (despite her ridiculous name) out of your mind, and the whole group in The Age of Innocence. Auchincloss, to me, had one such character--the title character in The Rector of Justin--oft supposed to be Rev. Endicott Peabody of Groton, but probably encompassing more than one of those fabled headmasters of that time.

But he did present a nice view into those bow windows of the brownstones. And there is something to his being described as a novelist of ethics rather than manners. Frankly, that aspect of his work amuses me now, because of how ethics have vanished from Wall Street and the legal profession. Even Auchincloss, whose work reflected a genuine yet subdued sorrow for the passing of some of the better values of his class and profession, probably could not have predicted how far things would decline in this regard.

Auchincloss usually was a good read and his status to me was as the last man alive who knew the ins and outs of the world in which Edith Wharton and earlier writers had been immersed. It's also more than amazing that he emerged from many years at the Wall Street echt-Establishment emporium of Sullivan & Cromwell with his writing style intact. He managed too to combine his practice and his writing while a partner in estates at another firm. To me, he was a good not great writer. As a social analyst, he was second to the outsider John O'Hara, who really yearned for the glittering prizes that were denied him by the literary establishment. Auchincloss already belonged to one Establishment, which apparently was enough for him.

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