H. M. Pulham, Esquire
By Little, Brown and Company. $2.50.
THE obituary — written, so to speak, by the deceased— which a man contributes to the History of his college class at its reunions is always the same as the other members write: a Who’s Who record of facts, a little polite blowing and bluffing, a sigh of sentimental regard for his Alma Mater. This he calls his ‘life.’ ‘They all seem pretty much like that,’ says Miss Ferncroft, in Chapter II. ‘It’s funny. Most of them have been so busy working that they haven’t had time to do anything.’ In the same chapter Harry Pulham reads a specimen written by a college mate, and at the end of the novel writes one of his own. The pages between contain the life he really lived.
To point the irony, Mr. Marquand has taken a man who conforms to a very sober pattern — one all tied up, in fact, in inherited conformities and observances, school and college loyalties, and temperamental avoidances of bad taste and heretical action. He is a graduate of a select boarding school and of Harvard, who becomes a bond salesman and later a financial consultant, marries a woman as made-to-order as himself, has a town and a country house in properly staid localities, and begets children as ordinary as most. The thoughtless reader may conclude that Harry’s type will soon be as extinct as the Megatherium. But he will be wrong, I think. Harry has never been unknown and never will disappear. His Boston traits are only a form of coloration. He is as universal as Mr. Facing-Both-Ways.
For contrast he is set between Bojo Brown and Bill King, who face one way — Bojo backwards and Bill forwards; but we are not given to understand that these men are either better or happier. Even Marvin Myles (what a terrible name!) marries for money and prestige, just as Kay (Harry’s wife) marries Harry because she cannot marry Bill. Whatever frustration there is is distributed with an even-handed justice.
Now it is true that if Harry had stayed in New York, and had married Marvin, Kay might have married Bill and everything would have been cosy. But Harry had what is called a New England conscience, or perhaps, and more probably, knew by instinct that he was not cut out for adventure. Anyway, he returned to Boston, and his three little flyers in romance — the war, the advertising business, and the affair with Marvin — were only episodes or interludes. Being what he was and educated as he had been, he did what he had to do, and this was probably what he really wanted to do.
On the surface the story is very amusing at times. The accounts of the reunion luncheon, Harry’s adventures in high-pressure advertising, the closing up of the country house, his lunch with his children at the Bob Cratchit Tea Roome — these are really funny. But the general effect is far from being so. The spectacle of people ‘letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”'—when they really should — is never funny, nor is the spectacle of people boring themselves and one another for years on end in the name of propriety and loyalty. Even the laughs one has are wry laughs. The inanity, stupidity, and cowardice of these people are too much like our own. On one side they illustrate the sadness of the reflection that if we had been stronger we would have done differently. And yet, on the other side, they equally well illustrate the truth that we can never know whether it we had done differently we should have done better. The fundamental chords played on these two strings produce some sour discords in our own private thoughts.
Harry is presented as only average, and his friends, except perhaps Marvin and Bill, are so too. They are too busy ever to read, to learn new things, even to live, except hand-to-mouth, day-by-day. And yet we like Harry,’just as everyone in the novel likes him, because he is loyal to his code of good sport and gentleman. When he writes his official autobiography at the end, he has not the slightest idea that he is being ironical when he says, ‘My life outside the usual routine of business must be the same as that of my other classmates-devoted to my family and friends and to everyday activities.’ He is not stupid, but is unimaginative — so unimaginative, in fact, that one sometimes doubts whether he could have written his book without Mr. Marquand’s help.
R. M. GAY
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