Manners, Bad and Otherwise, In a Struggle for a WASP Soul

The Scarlet Letters , by Louis Auchincloss. Houghton Mifflin, 177 pages, $24.

“They will come no more, / The old men with beautiful manners.” So said Ezra Pound in 1915, and history has brought us to a point where, one feels, it must really be true. And so-in a post-9/11, BlackBerry-handheld, 1,000-channel, Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicky and Paris Hilton world-what on earth are we to make of Louis Auchincloss?

The much-honored Mr. Auchincloss is 86, for much of his life a distinguished Wall Street attorney and, in his spare time, the author of no fewer than 59 books, 42 of which-including his latest, The Scarlet Letters -are works of fiction. As is the case with many a far less prolific author, Mr. Auchincloss’ fiction is cut from a single piece of cloth-but in his case, what a long, thick and gorgeous bolt of brocade it is! For his subject is nothing less than America’s Manhattan-based WASP ruling elite, an elite which Louis Auchincloss-himself the scion of distinguished Knickerbocker families, a living link to a pre–Gilded Age New York where oil and steel barons were parvenus-knows inside and out.

The Scarlet Letters is his latest meditation on a question he’s been turning over and over at least since The Rector of Justin , in 1964: How can a class of people suckled on the sermons of Cotton Mather have fled so swiftly to the lessons of Jay Gould-not to mention those of T. Boone Pickens? Even if hellfire is no longer at issue-as one of the novel’s characters notes, ” … if God is dead, the devil must be, too”-Mr. Auchincloss remains stubbornly concerned with the souls of his buttoned-up characters.

The soul in question here is that of the piquantly named young attorney Rodman Jessup. In classic Auchinclossian fashion, Rod is well-born (but of modest means), boyishly handsome and preternaturally principled, a rock-ribbed moralist to the core. Having married the daughter of the senior partner of a white-shoe Wall Street law firm, Vollard, Kaye and Duer, Rod quickly rises to prominence by dint of a phenomenal grasp of the subtleties of corporate reorganization, and a character so immaculate that he threatens to quit when his father-in-law proposes to bring in as a client a raffish old Canadian distiller who may once have had some connection with organized crime (anyone come to mind?). Clearly, Rod is cruising for a cosmic bruising, and on this score Mr. Auchincloss doesn’t disappoint. Cleverly, he presents us with Rod’s fall-triggered by flagrant adultery with a society bimbo-in the book’s prologue, and spins out and opens up the action by means of an ever-deepening series of flashbacks.

Is Rodman Jessup merely a star collapsing of its own gravity, “A puritan turned inside out,” as his mother-in-law initially wonders? Nothing so simple could occur in Louis Auchincloss’ elegantly layered world, where good manners inevitably mask bad ones, and bad ones mask worse. The snake in Rod’s Eden is the equally piquantly named Harry Hammersly, an old prep-school classmate who oils his way into Vollard Kaye and hangs his shingle in trusts and estates, where he prospers mightily by sweet-talking credulous widows into making investments which-hey, presto!-help feather his own financial nest. Oh, and along the way, Harry also steals Rod’s wife. And once Rod has left the firm in disgrace over his adultery, the villain sharp-elbows his way to the front of the line for senior partnership. And then takes over the whole damn shop.

Is it any wonder that in the scalded aftermath of his fall, Rod wanders into-and then quickly becomes the reigning expert in-the world of corporate takeovers? It’s not that he’s embraced damnation, but rather that his Manichaean world-view has been brought into the complicated present, a landscape of minutely graded grays. “You forget, my dear,” his infinitely wise mother-in-law tells him, “that I grew up in a time when insider trading was a coveted privilege and not a crime. When the maneuvering of stock prices for the benefit of a favored few was considered good business and not a fraud on the public. And where monopoly was God and the Morgan partners his apostles. I learned that morals change with the weather.”

Lest this all sound too schematic, let it be known that over the brief (177 pages) and fast-moving course of The Scarlet Letters , the distinguished Mr. A. gives us a rollicking good time. True, as always his characters-even in the heat of unseemly passion-deliver themselves of grammatically perfect utterances, sentences with which Samuel Johnson himself would have no quibble. As ever, the narrative is a veritable raisin pudding of distinguished references-to the Ring Cycle, to Kipling and Shakespeare and Milton and Euripides.

Yet a playful light flickers around the serious proceedings. For starters, there are a couple of dollops of quite hot sex, both hetero and homo, along the way. (Not that his characters have ever shied from their innermost urges, but both the novel’s historical period-the early to late 1950’s-and Mr. Auchincloss’ high-toned authorial nimbus give the naughty bits an extra zing.)

And there are touches that hint at an Olympian chuckle behind the aristocratic deadpan of the novelist’s features. What else would possess him to name the firm’s senior partner Ambrose Vollard, a clear nod to the legendary Parisian art dealer whose name differs by but a single letter? What else would cause him to introduce a secondary character named Newbold Armstrong, a patent reference to the novelist of New York manners whose middle name was Newbold and who called her protagonist in The Age of Innocence Newland Archer?

Edith Wharton, of course, is the writer to whom Louis Auchincloss has been most consistently compared. Yet Wharton’s most poignant plots revolved around outsiders whom society rejected or destroyed, while it’s possible to go through any number of Mr. Auchincloss’ novels without ever encountering an outsider. He’s that rarest of tightrope walkers, a certified member of a closed class who has elected both to ennoble it-by chronicling its rich outer life and exquisite manners in loving detail-and to betray it, by revealing its innermost secrets and desires. The betrayal is to our benefit. The sorrow is that when he’s gone, all we’ll have left is the people he wrote about.

James Kaplan, the author of Two Guys from Verona , is at work on a new novel.