A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth

Image of A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth
Release Date: 
December 1, 2010
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Louis Auchincloss published his first novel in 1947, when he was 30, and his last in 2006, when he was 88. In the 33 novels (and 17 short story collections) that fill those six decades, Mr. Auchincloss examined in lapidary prose the fortunes, foibles, and failings of his native tribe, the patrician families of upper bourgeois New York.

This posthumous memoir, appearing nearly a year after Mr. Auchincloss’ death at the age of 92, explores the sources of his fiction in equally elegant form, evoking the early 20th century New York of beplumed society matrons and capacious brownstones staffed by Irish maids. Among Mr. Auchincloss’ relatives during his youth was an uncle who sent his shirts to Europe for proper laundering.

Cascades of distinguished names flow through these pages, often attached to the same person, as when Mr. Auchincloss writes of a weekend visit to the Long Island estate of his wife’s grandmother. “I happened to overhear a conversation between her uncle, Douglas Burden, and his elderly mother, Adele Sloan Burden, who was, at the time, more often referred to as Mrs. Richard Tobin,” Mr. Auchincloss wants us to know. The family tree of his own generation includes Gore Vidal and Jackie Kennedy.

Mr. Auchincloss managed to produce most of those 33 novels during an equally long career as a trust and estate lawyer for an old-line, white-shoe law firm, dutifully following in his father’s footsteps. But his heart was set on literature, a love of words drawn from voracious reading in younger years of nineteenth-century writers, with an especial soft spot for Trollope. “We were then living in an age where many believed that Galsworthy was the greatest writer in English and Anatole France the greatest in French,” Mr. Auchincloss writes of his private school instruction at Groton Academy in the early decades of the last century.

Later in life, he moved on to contemporary American writers, including Norman Mailer, whose The Naked and The Dead Mr. Auchincloss particularly admired. Mailer returned the compliment (sort of) with the observation of Mr. Auchincloss’ short story, “The Gemlike Flame,” that he wouldn’t have minded writing it himself.

Among the chief delights of A Voice From Old New York is Mr. Auchincloss’ self-examination of his creative process. While most of his fictional characters may be drawn from actual personalities, he observes, they grew and changed into something quite different on the page as he wrote, sometimes even changing sex. “One thing a writer must learn is not to be surprised by the curious identifications that readers constantly make,” Mr. Auchincloss remarks, taking as an example his best-known creation, the headmaster of his bestselling The Rector of Justin, usually taken to be a portrait of Endicott Peabody, Groton’s illustrious headmaster during Mr. Auchincloss’ years there. Dismissing the identification, Mr. Auchincloss delights in the irony that his famous rector was, more than any other of his fictional creations, actually based on a real person—in this case, Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand, “the greatest man I ever knew.”

Mr. Auchincloss’ class at Groton included McGeorge Bundy, who would years later become National Security Advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam War. Recalling Bundy’s passion for school sports and dedication to Groton’s “We must not lose” motto, Mr. Auchincloss wonders about such influences on Bundy’s later role in promoting America’s most fruitless war. Mr. Auchincloss remembers Bundy’s devotion to Henry V, passages from which he would quote to Johnson as American losses mounted.

Mr. Auchincloss’ memories are recorded in a much more informal style than his fiction, a chatty if well-constructed tour of a world and a society he outlived by many decades. But Mr. Auchincloss’ lifelong affection for the crafting of words into stories shines just as brilliantly in these pages.

“Society matters not so much,” Mr. Auchincloss tell us as he nods goodbye. “Words are everything.”