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.