Nearly a year after his death and almost 50 years since he wrote his best and most celebrated novel, “The Rector of Justin” (1964), Auchincloss remains a difficult writer to get a handle on.
The rap against his work is clear enough. It’s that he wrote too much of it (more than 60 books, while also practicing law) and focused too relentlessly on the insular world he was born into: New York’s elite old families. His great subject was the effect — both warming and warping — of wealth and its neurotic cousin, social class.
Auchincloss fired back, skillfully enough, at the critics who found his work narrow. “That business of objecting to the subject material or the people that an author writes about is purely class prejudice,” he told an interviewer in 1997, “and you will note that it always disappears with an author’s death. Nobody holds it against Henry James or Edith Wharton or Thackeray or Marcel Proust.”
Yet Auchincloss, despite being an acute and feeling observer, isn’t a James or a Wharton. His work lacks electricity and sweep, and his dozens of novels bleed together in the mind. He’s a major minor writer who seems likely to be remembered, when he is, for just a small handful of books.
His posthumous memoir, “A Voice From Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth,” is unlikely to be among those volumes. It’s thin and episodic, and lacks a certain necessary friction. But it does provide a genuine taste of what makes Auchincloss so interesting a writer. It’s plainspoken and pays close attention to a certain disappearing brand of manners and morals. “A Voice From Old New York” is a peek into a rapidly vanishing world and into a determined writer’s coming of age.
Auchincloss writes with good humor about how, as a young American novelist, he rarely fit in. He kept orderly habits, and thus Norman Mailer’s parties, when he was invited to them, started too late for him. He tried to hang out at the White Horse Tavern, the writer’s bar in Greenwich Village, but was marked instantly as an outsider. “A registered Republican who was also listed in the Social Register,” he writes, “was something of a duck-billed platypus.”
Auchincloss’s memoir is discreet, yet bold-face names stride casually across its pages. At a dinner with his relative, the young Jacqueline Bouvier, in the 1950s, she praised his novel “Sybil,” about a dull girl.
“Oh, you’ve written my life,” Bouvier said. “Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.” A week later, Auchincloss writes, she broke her engagement to a man named Husted and a few years later married John F. Kennedy.
He writes that “the brilliant United States Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia” argued in his presence that the true author of Shakespeare’s works was the Earl of Oxford. Auchincloss responds about Shakespeare: “To think his plays were written by Bacon or Oxford is, in my opinion, to show a tin ear.”
Throughout “A Voice from Old New York,” Auchincloss is trenchant about the faults of his class, but more often he defends it. “A common objection to inherited wealth is that it stifles the urge to work,” he writes. “I have not generally observed this to be true.”
He notes that many wealthy men of his acquaintance worked too hard, and should have left their fortunes to be managed by others. He quotes his father as saying about such men, “If they had been beachcombers, they’d be rich men today.”
He takes the measure of elite old families at about the end of the aughts: “It is commonly said that they have been relegated to the past. That is not so. They have simply lost their monopoly; they have had to move over and share their once closely guarded powers with the new rich, who are quite willing to spare the older generation so long as they are allowed to copy, and perhaps enhance, their style. See any Ralph Lauren ad.”
Auchincloss is hardest on himself in “A Voice from Old New York,” so much so that this memoir almost reads like a work of self-criticism that squirted out of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He describes his early narcissism, his neglect of the poor and his casual anti-Semitism. He dabbled in larceny and vandalism, he tells us, and became briefly known at Groton as a snitch. He is quite honest about his fear while serving in the Navy during World War II.
Auchincloss grew up, and grew into himself, however. Some of the best writing in this book is about how he started writing, at Groton and at Yale and during stolen moments while in the military. His mother tried valiantly to stop him.
“She decided not only that I had no outstanding talent,” he writes, “but that my efforts showed a worldly streak that if published would make me look vulgar and hurt me with serious people in any career that I adopted.” Thus Auchincloss published his first novel, “The Indifferent Children,” under a pen name.
Auchincloss’s writing didn’t hurt him during his practice of law. “It was simply regarded as a curiosity,” he writes, “like a fondness for yoga.”
If he never stopped caring about what those in his own world thought of him, he found a deeper kind of true north. “Society matters not so much,” he writes here. “Words are everything.”