“He had said that most people saw only the “brownstone front” side of his nature, the austere, stiff conservative side, but that there was another, a truer side, a romantic, loyal, idealistic one. This is what he meant when he quoted Walter Pater…”
“The Gemlike Flame.” The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss. Houghton Mifflin: Boston. 1994. p. 150.
Most newspapers on January 27, 2010 announced the death of J.D. Salinger on their first page and relegated the news of Auchincloss’s death to the back pages in double digits. Nobody disputes Salinger’s cultural influence with Catcher in the Rye, while Louis Auchincloss’s death seems to provoke the whisper that asks, “Who?”
Auchincloss, the author of 60 novels and numerous short-story collections, a trusts and will attorney by profession, was a scion and intimate of both the New York and New England patrician classes. Salinger, for his time, was grunge urban to Auchincloss’s genteel brownstone. I believe Auchincloss has received scant attention for three reasons.
1. We live in a society that says that we do not have social classes; and those who are upper-class have made it a point to be invisible.
2. American literature, if it deals with class consciousness and distinction, has been predominantly concerned with lower-to-middle-class concerns and themes. In other words: the wealthy as a subject cannot “speak” to us as readers.
3. Stylistic “taste” has moved from the demanding Jamesian sentences with their longer and longer corridors of subordinating clauses to the short and bullet-like rat-tat-tat sentences. This aesthetic shift may imply an intolerance for the sustained demand on the reader’s attention span and knowledge of grammar of the former, while the latter suggests the deadly influence of Hammett (1894-1961) and Hemingway (1899-1961).
The very young Auchincloss remembered summering and sitting with Edith Wharton. It may surprise readers to know that he shared the same privileges of class and education with Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957). Auchincloss knew the world of Henry James (1843-1916) and his prose shows all the elegance and polish, from diction to subject matter. “Gemlike Flame” owes a debt to James’s short story “The Pupil” (1891) and his first novel Roderick Hudson (1876). Auchincloss alludes to both of these works in “Gemlike Flame” with his use of the word “preceptor.”
The Walter Pater quote belongs to the controversial “Conclusion” to an essay on William Morris (1834-1896): “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
Young Peter Westcott is abroad in Venice, rounding off his education on the Continent as young men and women did in those days, when he calls upon his older cousin Clarence “Clarry” McClintock who is abroad as an erstwhile painter and esthete, enjoying his family money and privacy. Their meeting is interrupted by the near penniless Neddy Bane, also abroad but for different reasons: he has fled his responsibilities, which include a wife in New York. Neddy is an opportunist and talks big about being an artist. Clarence is smitten and offers to “preceptor” Neddy. Peter knows Neddy’s character and watches the “affair” run its course. There is a brief interlude, both comic and painful, of dealing with Clarence’s mother, who uses men to sustain her lifestyle. The mother-son exchange is caustic and pointed. All throughout the narrative the prose is meticulous and to a high standard that shows Auchincloss can tell a story in lapidary language without diluting content or lessening the demands on the reader.
“Gemlike Flame” (1953) cannot avoid invoking that other great story in Venice. Where Thomas Mann has his Gustav Aschenbach fixated on a young boy, Auchincloss shows Clarence’s desperation and resignation of his impossible love with dignity, where Mann has Aschenbach write within the novella imitative Mann sentences, Auchincloss seems to incriminate himself in the confrontational conversations between Peter and Clarence with Peter as Auchincloss. An angry and heartbroken Clarry says, “You pretend to be on the side of the angels..but I wonder if you’re not really the worst of all bigots.” p.165.
Louis Auchincloss like John Updike wrote about WASPs, acknowledging how they, for better or worse, shaped American society and thought. He cautiously celebrates his class and does not refrain from criticizing them. While he does not apologize for them, neither does he offers up his exemplary language to say that Americans do have culture, taste, and refinement. His good manners tell him that he should not have to announce it with fanfare, but rather that discerning readers will find the gems.