October 15, 1997
Writing about the prolific novelist Louis Auchincloss in the July 18, 1974, issue of The New York Review of Books, Gore Vidal commented, "He is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs ... things that we don't often meet in fiction." Auchincloss's new short-story collection, The Atonement and Other Stories -- published on September 27 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of his first book and the eightieth anniversary of his birth -- carries on his life-long tradition of exploring the world and moral lives of America's moneyed class. His devotion to this milieu has earned him a reputation among many critics as America's foremost living novelist of manners.
Although he has throughout his life kept up a practice as a lawyer, Auchincloss has also to date managed to write fifty-four books, among them such novels as The House of Five Talents (1960), Portrait in Brownstone (1962), and The Rector of Justin (1964), such short story collections as Tales of Manhattan (1967), The Romantic Egoists (1970), and Skinny Island (1987), biographies of Edith Wharton, Cardinal Richelieu, and Queen Victoria, and works of criticism on Henry James and American women writers. Auchincloss's first published short story, "Maud," appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in two parts (December, 1949, and January, 1950). Auchincloss has since written two more short stories for The Atlantic: "Finish, Good Lady" (October, 1950) and "The Seagull" (May, 1979).
The former board chairman of the Museum of the City of New York, Auchincloss currently serves as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which he has been a member since 1965. He lives in New York City.
Auchincloss recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally.
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The short stories in The Atonement and Other Stories cover a range of situations and time periods: the turn-of-the-century London stage, the Hamptons in the 1930s, Wall Street in the 1980s. Yet they all deal in some way with the upper class, which most surely constitutes the central theme of your literary career. Why the prolonged fascination?
If you look through the literature of the ages you will find that ninety-five percent of it deals with the so-called "upper class," from The Iliad and The Odyssey through to Shakespeare with his kings and queens. If you go through the nineteenth-century novelists you will find much the same thing. Take a novel like War and Peace -- the characters are taken not only from the upper class but from the very small upper-upper class that ruled Russia at the time. And yet Tolstoy is given credit for having written a "world" novel. It's as if Norman Mailer had written The Naked and the Dead and made every Marine or Army man on that island a graduate of a New England private school. That would be quite a shocker to people, yet that is War and Peace.
As the classes in modern life come together, we have become much more intensely class conscious. It's a very curious thing. But I deal with human beings with whom I've come in contact and have had a chance to closely observe. Their upper-classness is not a matter of particular fascination for me.
The idea of "atonement" pops up repeatedly in your new book. Is this something you were conscious of as you wrote?
Definitely. I'm very interested in moral values -- not only emotionally but intellectually -- and the fact that they concern people so strongly. The main character of the title story, "The Atonement," is a man engaged in a crime. He feels and knows it's a crime. But his real sin is not so much what he does on the market; it's his wish to be punished. Through being punished he wants to avoid the responsibilities of social and family life. He'd rather go into exile in Europe than deal with his problems in Manhattan.
Do you think there was anything specific in your childhood that triggered your desire to become a writer?
You don't know the things in your childhood that influence you. You can't possibly know them. People today try to analyze the early environment and the reasons for something that happened, but if you look at children of the same family -- children who have identical parents, go to identical schools, have an almost identical upbringing, and yet who have totally different experiences and neuroses -- you realize that what influences the children is not so much the obvious externals as their emotional experiences. Of course any psychiatrist knows that.
You end your 1974 autobiography, A Writer's Capital, by stating, "So often men are born with all the tools they need, but are blocked by the simple fear of using them." With fifty-four books under your belt and counting, you certainly haven't had this problem. Is there a secret to your being so prolific?
I don't think there's any particular secret, except that because I've done different things I've had to make use of odd bits and stretches of time. A lot of writers don't do that because they don't have to. They can sit in a log cabin by the lake and put their feet up by the fire in the silence and write. If you can have that that's all very well, but the true writer will learn to write anywhere -- even in prison.
I've always had to use bits of time. For example, I would have little notebooks with me in court, and if I was waiting for something I might write a few paragraphs at a time. By mastering the ability to use five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I picked up a great deal of time that most people allow to drift away.
I remember seeing an opera rehearsal once in which the conductor put down the baton, the singers stopped, and then he picked it up to go again. If I was singing I'd have to go back to the beginning. But no! They picked up right on the particular note they left off on. That's what I've learned to do with my writing.
Your writing has often been associated with that of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Was there a time you decided to focus on the so-called "novel of manners" or was it something that came naturally?
I think it simply came naturally. I went through a period when I liked to pick themes that I thought were important in American cultural life and that I had had a chance to observe. For example, the crime of Richard Whitney in The Embezzler , the saga of the New England private schools in The Rector of Justin, and the life of Walter Lippman in The House of the Prophet . I observed those people and things firsthand and crafted novels of manners dealing with them and our times. In each case the critics invariably said that I was just exploring a small upper-class Eastern-seaboard aristocratic life.
I've always been cursed with that sort of thing. I sometimes blame my publishers, who always advertise that on the jackets of my books (which are sometimes half of what critics read). We all fight against being unjustly labeled.
Do you ever find comparisons with the likes of James and Wharton burdensome?
I don't think I share any resemblance -- in my writing or my thinking or my design of fiction -- with the great Henry James. It seems to me that I'm a similar writer to Edith Wharton, although not at her level. We write very much the same kind of fiction, in terms of the kind of moral problems that interest us. I don't think that's the case with Henry James. I admire his writing enormously but I don't emulate his style in the least.
How has being a lawyer affected your writing?
I don't think it has affected my writing at all. Except insofar as the practice of law has provided me with a number of subjects that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to. One thing that amused me very much was an event surrounding a brief that I had filed in the New York Court of Appeals, at the time that Mario Cuomo was a law clerk to Judge Adrian Burke. Cuomo, a young man then, read over my brief, tossed it to the judge's desk, and said, "The guy who wrote this ought to be a novelist!" It's frequently been a joke between Governor Cuomo and me since.
Much has been written on the general decline of civic culture in America today. With your ties to such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, you are eminently qualified to speak on the state of literature and the arts in America today. In your opinion, are things as bad as many say?
It seems to me that the arts are rather flourishing. There's an awful lot of bad art about because of this, but that's true of every great era. I'm sure there was a lot dreadful art in the Renaissance that we fortunately don't see today -- although there is a museum in Vicenza, Italy, where you can see a lot of very bad Renaissance painting. But, basically, I think the more the merrier. The greatest threat to the arts these days is the cost. The person who used to carry a pike in the grand march in Aida for a buck now has to have medical insurance and everything else under the sun, which means that the Opera has to be supported by enormous outside funding. But I don't think things are as bad as they say. Decent artists go through bad times but eventually they do get recognized. It's by no means a battle lost. Yet.
Do you have any thoughts on contemporary American literature? Do you even read it?
I go through times reading it -- for example, on the jury of the Academy of American Arts and Letters I've had to read fifty modern novels and so on. Because of my teaching at New York University in recent years -- and, of course, the specialized reading I do for my nonfiction writing -- I haven't been able to keep as abreast of modern literature as I would like. Of course, the major authors of my era, such as William Styron, Norman Mailer, and John Updike, I keep abreast of, but there are a lot of very good up-and-coming authors that I just haven't had the time to get into.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.