Louis Auchincloss

(Jump down to read a review of The Scarlet Letters)

"East Side Story"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 19, 2004)

"One particular characteristic seemed to attach itself to most of the [Carnochan family] members, and perhaps to account for why so large a percentage of them succeeded either in retaining the social status to which they were born or in improving it. The males, and there was an unusual predominance of them, were all able either to make money or to marry it…. If there were no criminals, neither were there any saints. The Carnochans seemed dedicated to their own permanence."

East Side Story by Louis Auchincloss

In his fifty-ninth novel in fifty-seven years, Louis Auchincloss continues his thematic focus on the socially prominent families of New York and how they achieved their status. Beginning with David Carnochan, an immigrant from Scotland, a "good burgher with a sharp eye for a deal," who was "a granite pillar of respectability," Auchincloss traces the family through four generations, as they successively increase their fortunes and cement their places in the higher echelons of New York society.

Telling the story at the beginning is David's now-elderly son Peter, a published author, who, as the sole surviving child of David, is asked by the family at the turn of the twentieth century to record for posterity what he remembers of his father and his brothers. Peter characterizes his father David, his business-minded older brother Douglas, responsible for all of the descendants, and his abolitionist brother Andrew, who participated in the Civil War, and sets the tone for a clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis of the family. His grand-niece Loulou succeeds him as family historian and traces the family through the remaining generations of the twentieth century.

Auchincloss wisely presents a genealogical diagram at the beginning of the novel, so that the reader can keep track of the generations and the relationships among the characters, focusing on ten members of the family whose individual histories resemble interconnected short stories. In each of these stories, an individual character's own personality is obvious through Auchincloss's effective changes in tone and conversational styles, and while the characters may not be fully rounded, they are individualized enough that the reader will remember them. The author's primary thematic focus is on the family as a whole, and as each character sheds light on the total family and its preoccupations and behaviors in the context of history, we are led to believe that this family is also similar to other prominent families in New York (and, peripherally, Boston).

Through Peter we learn that his brother Andrew was a passionate abolitionist who volunteered to fight in the Civil War, was wounded, and then returned to action, while his brother Douglas, by contrast, hired a substitute for $300, using his family's thread business to justify his avoidance of service. Since the patriarch David was a dour man who "stripped life of every aspect of color and charm," itw falls to Douglas's wife Eliza to bring some humanity to the family. She is a "gentle reminder of the necessity of preserving some minimum of standards in manners and morals." The story of their son Bruce shows how the family negotiates marriage to a wealthier family when their own business is in trouble, and the story of Gordon, his nephew, shows how the family regards its group interests as paramount, sometimes to the detriment of individuals, such as Gordon. It is his cousin Estelle who comments that "the secret to the upperclass…is that they never for a moment admit…that they are not the nicest people on the globe.."

Auchincloss's eye for the behavior of these families shows his familiarity with them as a group, and his insights are revealed in each of the characters' stories. Many seem especially pre-occupied with issues of (Protestant) religion, while at the same time being quite pragmatic in their conduct of business. Here the characters' public and private moralities are sometimes shown to be at odds, with an individual's corporate interests often taking precedence over what one would consider to be morally "right" behavior toward others.

The family's most idealistic members are shown to be those who are most vulnerable in issues of family in-fighting, and pressure is often exerted on them to remember the interests of the family and its businesses as a whole--to ignore the sometimes unethical behavior of their relatives. Even the family's penchant for attending the same elite schools is put under the microscope, as is the tendency to keep the wealth in the family by intermarrying with distant cousins. One member is virtually amoral, a person who believes only in himself and in his own pleasure, a belief which Auchincloss illustrates as possible for someone whose future is guaranteed by the family wealth and position.

Auchincloss's novel is astute in its depiction of a prominent New York family as it, first, makes its fortune, then tries to build on it and protect it in perpetuity. It is a fascinating sociological study which shows Auchincloss's own closeness to the social milieu that he is depicting—a closely observed, honest depiction, without a shred of satire. As Auchincloss's final narrator Loulou Carnochan points out, her family had "none of the social dropouts or exiled remittance men that plagued so many families listed in the Social Register. The family instinct for survival was strong indeed. On the other hand, its contribution to the arts, to politics, to teaching, to any occupation that involved giving out rather than taking in, was minimal."

Auchincloss shows this family, warts and all, not as enviable because of the opportunities that their wealth has given them, but as sometimes pitiable because of their limited outlooks and lack of connection to the outside world and the people who make their lifestyles possible. It's a fascinating study of four generations over the span of a hundred years. One wonders what the future holds in store for such families.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

(back to top)

"The Scarlet Letters"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 14, 2003)

Mother: "You've always had the things that mattered: a good home, good teachers, good friends and all the comforts a girl could need. Don't always be looking up, my dear. Look down and see the millions who haven't a fraction of what you've had!"

Daughter: "What can you gain by looking down? You might even drop! But looking up, you might find a ladder somewhere."

The Scarlet Letters by Louis Auchincloss

Louis Auchincloss, who has published fifty-nine books in fifty-six years, scrutinizes once again the mores of New York society and those who would aspire to it. Loosely paralleling Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with its themes of love and betrayal, honor and adultery, this novel of manners is also a morality tale in which Auchincloss shines the spotlight on a prestigious law firm in 1953, its internal workings, and the families which run it, and then asks the big questions: What, exactly, is justice, and on what inalienable truths, if any, does it rest? Can our concept of what is right change with the times without betraying core values? Is idealism possible in a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts world?

With his smoothly elegant style, Auchincloss traces the history of the law firm of Vollard, Kaye, and Duer, meticulously recreating the pedigrees and family connections of his characters-who is married to whom, which families have merged through which marriages, and whose fortunes are rising and whose are falling. Ultimately, the reader observes that marriage between families at this level of society resembles a merger and acquisition deal between two well-off companies, more than it does an irresistible romantic attraction. As the marriages of the principals of Vollard, Kaye are negotiated, consummated, and/or dissolved, the reader is brought into living rooms and board rooms to watch as the characters wrestle with their overlapping family responsibilities, business obligations, and personal moralities.

Ambrose Vollard, the patriarch of the family and founder of Vollard, Kaye and Duer, dotes on his daughter Lavinia, "Vinnie," and when she marries Rod Jessup, the brightest star in the law firm, and has two daughters, he is ecstatic. Finding in Rod the son he never had, Ambrose admires Rod for his stern morality, his uncompromising Puritan ethic. He is stunned when Rod and Lavinia suddenly separate, and Rod is seen publicly squiring a "loose woman," his photograph in the newspaper creating a public humiliation for Vinnie. Why Rod has acted this way is an aberration Ambrose is never able to comprehend, though the reader soon discovers his motivation. When Lavinia then marries Harry Hammersly, another bright star at Vollard Kaye, soon after her very public divorce, Harry quickly replaces Rod as Ambrose's heir apparent, though he never gains Ambrose's affection. The fortunes of the law firm and its families are inextricably tied, and as the members deal with personal and professional crises, the reader is able to observe them acting out the modern morality play which underpins this novel, a human drama remarkably similar to that of The Scarlet Letter.

Auchincloss's style is formal and elegant, with sentences which never lose their way, even when the sentence structure itself is convoluted. Old-fashioned in his respect for his characters, even his villain, Auchincloss conveys the impression that he does not want to invade their privacy by showing them in their weakest moments. This is a buttoned-up sort of characterization, one which is appropriate to a novel in which ideas are more important than the uniquenesses of character. It does, however, lead to characters which are somewhat wooden and illustrative of traits, rather then real, breathing humans, and their actions are sometimes hard to fathom.

The author enjoys epigrams. "The warrior class is bound eventually to be replaced by the usurer," he says. Sentences such as "It's not what you do that counts, it's how you do it," and "Helping oneself can often be the surest way of helping others," also illustrate the author's tendency to announce, rather than show through the actions of the characters the points he wants the reader to notice.

Auchincloss is a confident and practiced story-teller, however, with a clear belief that fiction is capable of conveying ideas at the same time that it is entertaining. His themes are clearly illustrated, and his characters, with their foibles and worries, share many of the same concerns as the rest of us, despite their elevated social status. Though the ending is a bit melodramatic, the story is fun to read-a fascinating reflection of life and mores of just fifty years ago.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Short Story Collections:

Biographies and other writings:

*This is a complicated bibliography and certainly contains errors and incompleteness.


(back to top)

Book Marks:


(back to top)

About the Author:

Louis AuchinclossLouis Auchincloss [o´kinklos] was born in New York in 1917; he attended Yale University from 1935-1938 and the University of Virginia Law School in 1941. He was honored in the year 2000 as a "Living Landmark" by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Although he practiced law full time until 1987, Auchincloss also managed to write over fifty books.

The former board chairman of the Museum of the City of New York, Auchincloss served as the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, of which had been a member since 1965. He resided in New York City until his death on June 26, 2010.

MostlyFiction.com About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014 MostlyFiction.com