A friend of mine asked if I had read Stoner, which caused me to look back at some John Williams lit rambles I took a few years ago. I remember Stoner fondly as the best neglected/recovered novel (thanks, NYRB) I had read since Revolutionary Road. Somehow the fates conspired for me to plunge into a very satisfying, similar book the next day, John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley. Apley and Marquand present some intriguing issues, many of them falling on the same ground where Williams and Yates were lying fallow through the end of the last century.
TLGA was a dark horse bestseller, I believe, and won the Pulitzer in 1938, sandwiched between Gone With The Wind and The Yearling, which was followed by The Grapes of Wrath. Marquand was a successful working writer in his mid-40s when he wrote the book–but he wasn’t yet exactly a novelist. He was the creator, we’ll call it, of the Mr. Moto series, a Charlie Chan knock-off that ultimately stretched to 6 books and spawned 8 serial B-movies starring Peter Lorre from 1937-39, just as Apley was composed and published. More significantly, Marquand was a steady practitioner of the glossy short story through the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post and its ilk. Many of us probably think of this genre, if that’s what it is, as the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald supported himself as he failed to write novels for so many years, but of course it was an entire literary industrial complex with formulas and nuances, widely varying degrees of ambition and quality, and a history of its own that would repay study. An understanding of that machine and its evolution a hundred years ago could be especially enlightening now, as publishing and reading habits go through another new century paradigm shift. Marquand was part of a relatively satisfied herd–if writers are ever satisfied–, and it would be useful to have a sense of his beginnings, standing, and accomplishments as he scribbled out a living through the jazz age and the depression, up to the publication of this book.
Apley serves lots of purposes as a literary creation, but it seems like it must have been hard to imagine it would be a bestseller and major prize-winner. Sometimes the best way to write something honest and unique is to focus on the thing itself, and not worry about its reception. But Marquand was deeply experienced with engaging an audience, and he must have trusted his honed instincts. A big part of the accomplishment of Apley is its mastery of form and easy style, the product of a rather brilliant conceit. One version of the bottom line in Apley is that it is a study of the older generation and its prejudices, blind spots, and failings, working from the same cues that prompted Eminent Victorians, To The Lighthouse, and the Modernist revolution against 19th century culture and assumptions. But Apley is a mature, measured work, covering the full lifespan of one of the last of the old guard, and conceived by the younger generation in its own middle age. This maturity is perhaps the ultimate source of its power and success.
The conceit in the novel, one that makes it especially appealing to this blog and its interests, is that it is a faux biography. It purports to be a piece of necessary yet welcome desk work in the later career of a fictional dean of New England letters, Will Willing, Apley’s contemporary who is asked by the family to pen his life story, and urged to go beyond the platitudes of the standard memorial of a pillar of the community. Willing–whose name is as heavy-handed as his approach–is an old, close friend of Apley’s from college days at Harvard, and he presents himself as an ideal biographer. And that’s the brilliance of the book: Willing is elderly, conservative, and close-minded, and he’s deeply invested in the proprieties that have stultified, frustrated, and ensnared George Apley his entire life. The satire here runs both extraordinarily deep, with layers upon layers, and quite smoothly at the same time. This placid-seeming text is actually a bold Late Modernist generational critique in its measured way, perhaps an important part of the progress from Orlando (1928) to Pale Fire (1962). I’m not sure about other novels in the faux biography genre–that could take some digging. But what’s striking here is the misguided, deeply prejudiced biographer, and the way that Marquand manages somehow to tell a touching and poignant story, with great subdued emotion, romance and sympathy, of the dark underside of the American experience. It’s the rotten growth from New England’s puritanical roots, in this case a snapshot from the late 30s, one that is worthy of Hawthorne’s original conception.
Biographer Willing (catchy, no?) is more determined than anyone to prevent the real life of George Apley from seeing the light. As he plugs Apley’s movements and attitudes into all the right boxes, beginning with respect for his Victorian parents and the family’s notable accomplishments–barely mentioning a sister Madwoman in the Attic–, the social substructure gets bigger and stronger and his subject, Apley, is slowly and steadily crushed by its weight. Willing unwittingly celebrates the individualism of Apley’s seafaring forebears and his capitalist, stern father, Thomas, who is quietly successful at virtual robber baron levels, creating vast Apley wealth while at the same time severely constricting his children’s sphere of endeavor. George Apley goes to Harvard and the Law School and joins a firm, but there seems to be nothing for him to do besides sit on charity boards, attend events, and be a club man, all of which add up to an exhausting and meaningless occupation and existence. He works extremely hard at doing nothing, his whole life long.
George Apley’s son John, a World War 1 vet and Jazz Age rebel of sorts (he lives and works in New York, until shortly before his father’s death) who is a member of Marquand’s own generation, having enlisted Willing to the task, insists that the biographer include “incidental” materials from his father’s life. Willing is most reluctant, and does so under a graceful but firm literary protest. And it’s in these materials that George Apley’s story of love and despair and the cost of familial duty is told, most oblquely. He has a college romance with a beautiful and thoroughly unsuitable Irish girl, Mary Monahan, and he’s sent away to Europe after graduation to forget and recover his severely damaged spirits. He becomes, briefly, a Jamesian disaffected flaneur, always surrounded by family and friends, who bring Boston to Europe wherever he goes. Biographer Willing makes it clear that he firmly believes that any mention of Apley’s romance and passion is a dark blot on his text, only included because of the (misguided) wishes of Apley’s children, who will be its only readers. The privacy of the text is reminscent of Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (which contains no such romantic subtext, however), and this novel is thoroughly engaging for a student of Stephen and Woolf and Strachey and biography, like myself. Apley returns to Boston and marries his completely suitable childhood playmate Catherine, and his father writes that “You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond ofmatrimony.” The stage is thus set for Apley to be properly cowed through an entire adult lifetime by a spouse concerned only by society and propriety. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book, althought a great many sneak through, is when George’s dictatorial, unbending father utters a single instance of reflection just before going up to lay down on his deathbed, saying “I wonder if it would have been better if George had married that little Irish girl.”
The scale of this squelched romance is amplified when Apley absurdly crusades against the corruption of the vice squad late in life, is ensnared and his reputation blotted–his bad faith towards himself means he can’t even succeed in his life’s work of exemplary propriety–, and Mary Monahan appears and persuades him to give up his quixotic campaign. The tender sense of completion Apley achieves in this most benighted sequence is effective, despite being veiled by Willing, who seems unable to suppress the truth that once again George Apley’s unbearably thin sustenance of love provides the only meaningful element of his life. In these spring days of Gatsby (big movie version; remarkable takedown of the novel by Kathryn Schulz), at the end of this novel we realize that Goerge Apley had his own Daisy, here a raven-haired, blue-eyed Irish Mary. Schulz’ insightful diatribe (“cranking up the symbol machine”) points to the restraint and magnificent subtlety of Marquand’s highly successful formal exercise and his unlikely bestselling text. Yes, this book is both a satisfying and accomplished aesthetic experiment and also a prescient extended portrait of American existentialist ennui and despair, one that put me very much in mind of the desiccated lifespan of William Stoner.
Did I mention that this book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, as I was guided to it by my earlier literary Boston efforts, and I read it because I plan to spend a big chunk of the summer in Boston? Yes, this book is a Boston classic and there’s a lot to say about that aspect of things–another time.