Books May 2004

“Martini-Age Victorian”

The novelist John P. Marquand was a brilliant satirist with a "dictaphonic ear" for dialogue

In December of 1936, after reading advance proofs of John P. Marquand's novel The Late George Apley, Upton Sinclair wrote to Little, Brown, Marquand's publisher,

I started to read it and it appeared to me to be an exact and very detailed picture of a Boston aristocrat, and as I am not especially interested in this type, I began to wonder why you had sent it to me. But finally I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author's eye ... One can never be sure about Boston, and I hope I am not mistaken in my idea that the author is kidding the Boston idea. It is very subtle and clever, and I am not sure that Boston will get it.

Not all of Boston did get it. "There were some in the Back Bay," Edward Weeks, then the editor of The Atlantic, wrote in 1960, "who accepted it quite literally as a biography and who appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday afternoons asking to be shown the 'Apley Bronzes.'" In general, however, this pseudo memoir was acclaimed for its affectionate send-up of Old Bostonians from "the water side of Beacon Street" as personified by George Apley (1866-1933), whose feeble attempts at rebellion against the society in which he lived were crushed in a vise of snobbery, tradition, and privilege. Apley's "biographer," the pompous, obtuse Horatio Willing, manages to reveal the sad truths of his subject's resigned conformity in the very effort to airbrush them away. Decades after its publication an anonymous writer in The New Yorker called Apley the "best-wrought fictional monument to the nation's Protestant elite that we know of."

For almost twenty years the forty-four-year-old John Marquand had been churning out formulaic stories and serials for mass-circulation magazines. (He had also created Mr. Moto, a scrupulously polite Japanese secret agent, wildly popular in six books and on the screen, where he was played by Peter Lorre in eight movies from 1937 to 1939.) But Apley, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, marked the beginning of his career as a novelist. His next three novels sold so well that in 1944 Life magazine called Marquand "the most successful novelist in the United States." In 1949, after two more, he was featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.

Though in his day Marquand was compared to Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, and his social portrait of twentieth-century America was likened to Balzac's Comédie Humaine, critics rarely took him very seriously. Throughout his career he believed, resentfully, that their lack of regard stemmed from his early success in the "slicks." Nevertheless, for his stylish depiction of the changes in American society over six decades, his humorous if occasionally grim observations on domesticity, and, above all, his sonorous, seductive prose, he deserves to be rediscovered. (Until very recently Marquand's nine major novels were all out of print; now Little, Brown has reissued Apley under its Back Bay Books imprint and plans to bring out his second novel, Wickford Point, in August.)

I first read Marquand's novels twenty-odd years ago. Back then they swept me up in nostalgia for a time I'd never actually known—my parents' youth, hinted at in anecdotes and glimpsed in old photographs. The outdated, elusive glamour of movies from the 1930s and 1940s surrounded his characters, who religiously dress for dinner, keep eccentric retainers, and wait a prescribed amount of time before using one another's first names. Re-reading these books today, I find that the nostalgia and the glamour are undiminished—and that the dialogue occasionally has a cinematic brittleness. But more striking to me now (perhaps for obvious reasons) is the way in which he regularly tapped into the rue and longing of middle age.

Marquand—whom the critic Charles Brady, in a long appraisal published in 1952, called a "Martini-Age Victorian"—wrote primarily about manners, marriage, and money. In a period during which the order and traditions of Apley's world were smashed by two global wars and a depression, he set heroes who are confused, adrift, and searching for new values and meaning to replace the old. These men are invariably at a professional or marital turning point; and just as invariably they are drawn into their pasts by those ribbons of memory that flutter in us all. Marquand became known for his flashbacks, which he seamlessly, beautifully interwove with the narrative present in what one critic called "witchery with time."

Point of No Return (1949)—which, Apley notwithstanding, may be Marquand's best book—opens on a rainy April morning in suburban New York; the hero, Charles Gray, as he stands in his modern bathroom, remembers the family bathroom of his boyhood in Clyde, Massachusetts, where an April rain would be colder, and would beat harder on the windows. Coincidence thereafter conspires with memory to keep Clyde surging in and out of Charles's present, as we learn of the lost love of his youth—another recurring theme in Marquand—and the destruction of his willful, reckless father in the Crash of 1929. The flashbacks in H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941) are generated by Harry Pulham's upcoming twenty-fifth Harvard reunion. In Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. (1951) they flow naturally from intensive magazine interviews with a war hero.

The elegiac strain in Marquand's fiction is offset by good-humored satire and dry one-liners ("The cocktails were a credit to Allen in that they proved conclusively that he seldom drank them"). In So Little Time (1943), which takes place as America prepares to enter World War II, Jeffrey Wilson muses on how the generic foreign correspondent has been elevated in the nation's eyes from "stoop-shouldered man ... living amid the smell of cabbage in some dingy apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain" to "debonair man of the world," to whom heads of state are "familiar and rather amusingly uncomplex figures." Parodying the language of his targets (who ranged from literary agents to contractors to pediatricians) was a common Marquand method: "Your Correspondent brought away something that he would always remember—the sad lilt of a voice, the brave self-confidence of a laugh ... He felt ... great imponderable forces in the making, the tramp of peoples inexorably on the march."

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