George Apley Lives

No equivocation, then. “The land where the gold grasshopper swings above Faneuil Hall to the bidding of a damp east wind,” in other words Boston, has never been decanted more expertly, into any other novel, than the vintage, silky pages of The Late George Apley. It won the 1938 Pulitzer for fiction. It became a rather dim movie with Claude Rains. And it vaulted author John P. Marquand from the “slicks”–he’d churned out quick fiction for the likes of the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal for 15 years–to the upper ranks of American authors.

For most of his career, Marquand was considered a good middlebrow novelist (he wrote the Mr. Moto spy books), and a chronicler of manners. More astringent than Booth Tarkington, less angry than John O’Hara, sort of an American Trollope. Endearingly, Marquand never thought he was great, and was careful to refer to himself as a craftsman, not an artist. His talents bowed to those more afflict-the-comfortable writers like Sinclair Lewis, as he once said. “But I am working,” he added, “in his vineyard.”

Apley was Marquand’s highest achievement, if only for its sheer stylistic grace, though it wasn’t a thematic breakthrough at all. Marquand’s books are almost always about the defeat of self by society, and his favorite way of depicting such defeat was the fictional biography (i.e. H.M. Pulham, Esquire; Melville Goodwin, USA; Sincerely, Willis Wayde; Women and Thomas Harrow). This format let him flaunt his strong suit–etching the nuances of character and epoch–though it also spotlit his weak side. The man wasn’t much for plot. “One knows a Marquand novel will sag into flashback as surely as a Shakespearean hero will spout blank verse,” as the critic Alfred Kazin once wrote.

The sly thing about The Late George Apley, however, is even though it’s chockablock with flashback, its reigning conceit is so clever, the reader doesn’t miss the missing plot. In Apley, we have a quasi-epistolary tale with the kittenish subtitle “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir,” which is a play on George Santayana’s The Last Puritan, published the year before, and subtitled “A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.” When he wrote the book, Marquand was living on Beacon Hill with his soon-to-be ex-wife Christina Sedgwick, niece of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. He joined the usual clubs, and read a few of the members’ privately published biographies; it was customary, then, for an amateur Boswell-for-hire to compile the life of an upstanding subject now six feet under. Hence the late George Apley, who lived from 1866 to 1933.

An enduring novel, in the form of a memoir.

Marquand gives us such a testament, but with a twist. Not only are we presented with George Apley, but also his biographer, the prissy, slavish, perfectly named Horatio Willing. The book unfolds deliciously as Willing lays out his protagonist’s papers, in chronological order, while adding his unerringly wrong two cents throughout. This framework gives Marquand a chance to write in dozens of voices–Apley himself, plus all the friends and family who corresponded with him, plus Willing. To quote Kazin again: “What makes The Late George Apley so good is the fact that Marquand himself, setting the scenes and pulling the strings, is evident everywhere and visible nowhere; he knows where he stands and his control is perfect.”

It really is. Take these lines, as George reminisces how, in the church of his boyhood, “the silk dresses rustled when everyone stood up with a sound something like the leaves in autumn–without the wildness of the leaves.” Or this pearl, from George to his son John: “Of course I had heard of Cubism before the War and have laughed as heartily as anyone at the Nude Descending a Staircase.” Or consider the tone of this note from John to Willing, at the book’s start: “I did not have time to thank you the other night for the appreciation which you read of my father at the Berkeley Club.” (Did not have time, because evidently its falsity made him bolt at the first chance.) “As I might have expected you did yourself and the old man proud….” (One must flatter one’s elders; that’s the code. Still, note how John puts “yourself” first, before “the old man,” as if to imply Willing’s delivery was self-serving). “I only had this one criticism to offer…You made Father seem like all the others, Mr. Willing.” (Here is the candor of the generation that fought in World War I, as John does, and Marquand did. The trenches smashed convention as nothing else could, and it is the piqued, worldly John Apley who serves as Marquand’s own voice throughout the narrative.)

In his letter, John goes on to list the rougher patches in his father’s life–a thwarted romance with a girl beneath his class, a losing bout with a Mayor Curley-esque figure–and asks Willing to compile an uncharacteristically candid biography, to be circulated only within the family. “My main preoccupation is that this thing should be real,” John concludes. “You know, and I know, that Father had guts.”

To which Willing responds: “I may say frankly that I was challenged by John Apley’s letter, although its style has made me wonder what there is which is wrong with a Harvard and Groton education… It is disconcerting to find John Apley…resorting finally to the monosyllable ‘guts’ in order to define his meaning.” And so we read of Apley’s colonial forebears, the Irish handyman who fought as a substitute for George’s father in the Civil War, and the textile mills which made the family fortune–all the usual earmarks of a quintessential Brahmin. But it’s all so between the lines, one gets eyestrain. Here is George, for instance, in a letter to his daughter Eleanor and John: “There was no such thing as labor trouble in those days at Apley Falls, because there were no such things as unsound ideas, and no desire for shoddy luxuries.”

Patronizing and puritanical, Apley is a quintessential Brahmin. Yet we feel for him.

Ah George Apley, patronizing and puritanical. How Marquand uses this voice to wicked effect! Indeed, as he told a reporter in 1960, The Late George Apley was meant to be “a savage attack on the old water side of Beacon Street.” Why savage? Because JPM knew his own tribe so acutely (the Marquands, of Newburyport, were related to the Hales, the Dudleys and Margaret Fuller), yet felt an outsider. This was because Marquand’s father lost his shirt in the Panic of 1907, thus young Marquand had to attend public high school (where he was the only person in the Social Register) instead of expensive Groton. Though he got into Harvard, it was on scholarship, and he made none of the top clubs. And then there was the matter of his in-laws. The Sedgwicks made Marquand feel slighted; Christina insisted they leave Boston when Apley hit the shelves, and the marriage failed soon after.

Poor George Apley and Horatio Willing, it seems, must pay for all this. Marquand grenades the book with indicting dialogue, like these lines from George to his son, then living in New York: “We have our Irish and you your Jews, and both of them are crosses to bear.” On another occasion, George frets that his daughter has been to a club which is “frequented by stenographers and worse.” On a trip to Europe, he refers to museum founder Isabella Stuart Gardner: “It seems to me that Mrs. Gardner has brought back to us all that is really best of Rome and Italy and has considerately left the rest behind.”

ut Apley, the father, the public man, is not all there is. Which is what gives the book its richness, its prismatic arc. (Sinclair Lewis hardly sympathizes with the prigs of Gopher Prairie, but Marquand cannot dismiss anyone as mere type. So who’s in whose vineyard?) As Marquand once admitted, George Apley “amounted to more than I intended.” Indeed, Marquand casts much November in his character’s soul, and it is Apley’s awareness of his own despair–Willing cluelessly dubs this “his moods”–which gives the book its weight. Its import. Here is the kind of man who is spawned in “a backwater in which the greatest activity is the conserving of wealth,” as John Apley (that is, John Marquand) says of Boston. Condemn him, condemn his class, condemn his city. But feel for him too. As Eleanor says to Willing, “Dad doesn’t mean half what he says; half the time he’s trying to be somebody else.”

George Apley knows this in his bones. “I wish I was not always resting beneath the umbrella of my own personality,” as he puts it. Here he is, flush out of college, writing to his friend Schuy in New York: “I have had family dinned into my ears since I have been able to think. My life has been governed by the rigours of blue-nosed bigots who have been in their graves for a century.” It is this George who falls for one Mary Monahan, and his love letters to her give the book its most painful moments–for we know the age-old outcome. “I believe in fate now, I believe in destiny,” the smitten George writes to his love. “Why should I have been in Cambridge Port, and why should you have been there?…I remember every shade of violet in your eyes and every light in the black of your hair. You called me a ‘Back Bay dude!’ Do you remember? You make me see things as I have never seen them.”

Of course Apley pere et mere quash the affair, and later George marries properly. Willing attended the wedding, and recalls that George said “‘Has it ever occurred to you that marriage is an accident?’ And finally he added, ‘Well, this is the end.’ This perturbation and bewilderment left him when he stepped before the altar to meet his bride.” Fat chance, Willing, for George’s marriage is a pinched one, with overweening in-laws to salt the wound. (One of the most wincingly funny passages in the book concerns the popping argument, between the sets of grandparents, over what ancestral name to bestow on their first grandchild. A jab at the Sedgwicks? You make the call).

As for George’s life outside his family, “I seem to be busy all the time, but I don’t seem to be doing anything,” he laments to a friend. Louis Auchincloss compasses Apley’s fate as “a life of bird watching, civic duties and the arid satisfaction of denouncing a new world.” Indeed, Apley takes on the causes of his time and class, fighting against “Our Badge of Shame” (electric lighting on the Common), researching the family’s genealogy, overseeing the Apley Sailor’s Home, and laboring for the Save Boston Association. This last is a sort of public morals crusade which George’s Uncle William begs him to steer clear of: “I am pretty familiar with the type of person you are trying to attack…” Uncle admonishes. “You do not understand him; he is too much for you…He doesn’t care a button for what you think.”

“He doesn’t care a button for what you think.”

In time, admirably honest and perilously naive Apley finds himself entangled with this “type of person.” It is nearly his downfall. These scenes presage The Last Hurrah, which wouldn’t come out until 1956, and give us the archetype O’Reilly, the pol who frames the meddlesome Brahmin when he gets too close. One of O’Reilly’s cronies arranges a meeting, and when Apley shows up, the fellow is nowhere in sight, and instead, Apley finds himself “facing a woman whom I had never seen before, quite patently in negligee.” The next thing he knows, a few flatfoots rush in, and our knight is himself arrested on a public morals charge. George shows his mettle (“Father had guts”), but to little avail; his kind is bronzing under the twilight of irrelevance.

The pull of the past, the tug of class. Once they constituted the “miasma,” to quote Auchincloss, which spread over all Boston and barely hovers today. “Memory and tradition are the tyrants of our environment,” admits George to his son, not long before his death. Interesting thing is, Marquand knew social station was slackening its grip on Boston–and on the modern world altogether–and he both cheers this development and regrets it. For Bostonians like Apley were, in some ways, “splendid,” as Eleanor Apley puts it. Seemingly incorruptible, ever-conscious of duty, disdainful of materialism–rich, yes, but not idle rich. As such, Marquand cannot write off Apley’s ilk, and will not, though he endlessly, tortuously chafes at their ebbing rule.

Critics have faulted him for this ambivalence; look at what Dreiser was saying about the rich back then, or Hemingway. Marquand wasn’t coming down hard enough. Reviewers almost seem irritated by his superior talents; his prose style was so supple, perhaps it was guilty, also, of glistering over the harshness of aristocracy within democracy. “Mr. Marquand knows all the little answers,” sniffed the critic Maxwell Geismar. “He avoids the larger questions.”

Meet the Author
Sixty years later, though, one feels so grateful for these “little answers.” Because 354 pages of them have managed to recreate–dolefully, anthropologically, beautifully–the Boston that was. Contrary to all reports, The Late George Apley is quite alive.

Katharine Whittemore lives in Cambridge and is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.