Visions from a Vanishing World

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, February 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Visions from a Vanishing World


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

The death of J. D. Salinger last Wednesday understandably brought a great deal of what Holden Caulfield called "that David Copperfield kind of crap" about the author: "where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me." Salinger himself was a great story: the brilliant young artist who writes a classic and then disappears into the woods of New Hampshire for decades. No more David Copperfield kind of crap for him.

Another literary death last week received less attention, but the life and work of Louis Auchincloss speak as much to us as Salinger's. A lawyer and prolific author, Auchincloss, born in 1917, grew up in houses in Manhattan, on Long Island, and in Bar Harbor, Maine. The family traveled from house to house with its chauffeur (singular) and its servants (very much plural). He studied at Groton and Yale and the University of Virginia law school. I knew him a bit--we lunched on a few occasions and were fellow guests at enough dinners that I noted his fondness for a Stoli (neat, as I recall) rather than wine. He was a wonderful storyteller, but he was the shrewdest of observers and listeners, too. He seemed to know everybody's secrets, or at least the secrets of everybody who lived on the Upper East Side. Tall and forbidding--or forbidding until he cracked a joke, or found something amusing, at which point he would break into a smile of epic proportions--Auchincloss wrote of a vanishing milieu of Eastern privilege: of prep schools and discreet lawyers and quiet clubs where the chairs were comfortable and the martinis cold.

Salinger will endure much longer and will be read more widely than Auchincloss, who will be viewed in death in much the same way he was in life: as an interesting novelist of manners. As Auchincloss himself noted in interviews, he was not remotely as accomplished as Edith Wharton, in whose wake he worked, but he was nevertheless an artist to be taken seriously as a -chronicler of a certain sphere of life at a certain time. Not a bad fate, that: it is, in fact, the most virtually any writer could hope for, and which only a tiny number achieve. Auchincloss is to New York in the 20th century what Trollope is to English clerical life in the 19th: a writer who must be read to understand the ethos of a lost world, but whose essential subject matter--the heart and its discontents--transcends time and place. …

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