Examining the Radiant Center, Louis Auchincloss’ Ruling Class

Her Infinite Variety , by Louis Auchincloss. Houghton Mifflin, 224 pages, $25.

Louis Auchincloss has always made his readers vaguely uncomfortable. Americans, raised on great national myths like egalitarianism and the meritocracy, prefer not to believe that vast concentrations of power reside in the hands of Eastern bankers and corporate chieftains, who conduct the business of the country from their elegant brownstones, country homes, wood-paneled boardrooms and exclusive clubs. But Mr. Auchincloss takes this situation for granted, and in his books–58 of them in all–he has studied the ruling classes in detail, reporting candidly on their appetites and concerns, their wheeling and dealing, their familial and social pressures.

Mr. Auchincloss belongs to an old New York family. After graduating from Groton and Yale University, he spent most of his life as a Wall Street lawyer, first with Sullivan & Cromwell, then with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood. His fiction deals with what he knows best: that segment of society which Thorstein Veblen memorably called “the radiant center.” In many ways, his vantage has been enviable, and he has used it to produce a range of good novels, many fine stories, and at least one certifiable masterpiece, The Rector of Justin , a fictionalized biography of a headmaster, the Reverend Francis Prescott–a figure not unlike the famous Endicott Peabody of Groton. Prescott’s dilemma was the hypocritical distance he sensed between his own Christian ideals and the crass ambitions of his clientele. It’s a blistering portrait of a class that has not, since Henry James, been properly observed–a novel of unswerving moral scrutiny that should sit on the shelf of any serious reader of American fiction.

Her Infinite Variety is the author’s latest, a breezy tour of New York’s business and publishing aristocracy during the middle decades of the 20th century. At 82, Mr. Auchincloss is writing rather well, even showing signs of development as he tracks the upward spiral through society and the publishing world of Clara Longcope Hoyt Tyler. The feisty daughter of a rumpled Yale professor and a mother keen to climb the social hierarchy, Clara fairly bursts with ambition. “The great thing is not to be ordinary,” Violet Longcope tells her daughter at the novel’s outset, but Clara is the last person in the world to need this advice.

The novel gets underway swiftly as Violet surveys the field and considers her daughter’s prospects. The beautiful young Vassar graduate puts a wrong foot forward by getting engaged to Bobbie Lester, a “handsome and athletic and cheerful and idealistic” young man who is obviously destined for the faculty of a second-rate prep school in rural New England. This will not do for Violet, and Clara gets the message. She jettisons poor Bobbie for Trevor Hoyt, the glistening heir of a New York banking fortune. Given her attributes, Clara is welcomed into the Hoyt fold. Mr. Auchincloss writes of Trevor’s parents: “They evidently wanted to get their boy settled, and wasn’t the lovely Miss Longcope with her bright eyes and bright mind and unimpeachable academic background just what the doctor ordered?”

Two years later, Clara is settled in a lovely Park Avenue duplex and “the weekend mistress of the tastefully redecorated red brick gatehouse of her parents-in-law’s Georgian mansion on Long Island’s north shore.” At times, one winces a bit as Mr. Auchincloss describes the architectural wonders of the upper classes. At their worst, these passages read like excerpts from House and Garden , as when Clara goes over to the “big house” to consult with her mother-in-law. She waits to speak to the formidable Mrs. Hoyt “in the big formal drawing room that looked out over a wide terrace to a lawn watered by twirling sprinklers. The high-ceilinged chamber, with its fine English eighteenth-century furniture and large family portraits, just escaped, as did the square Georgian mansion itself, being pompous.”

Quickly tired of life as a rich man’s doll, Clara takes a job at a woman’s magazine called “Style,” one of many publications in the portfolio of Eric Tyler, an old-fashioned media mogul. The reader is swept by Mr. Auchincloss from scene to scene, decade to decade, with amazing speed; in fact, Her Infinite Variety often feels sketchy, an outline for a much longer and more detailed (and more fully dramatized) novel. One never really gets to know anyone except Clara very well, and even she is puzzling in her way: Though she retains many of the traditional values that typically constitute an Auchincloss heroine, Clara’s ambitions for herself are nothing less than ruthless, and she is capable of Machiavellian callousness in the cause of her own social and economic advancement. In many ways, Clara has simply appropriated the questionable values usually ascribed to men (in novels as well as “real” life) in the pursuit of power.

Mr. Auchincloss has always been good on women. One thinks immediately of Augusta (Gussie) Millinder, the cultured narrator of his remarkable early work, The House of Five Talents (1960); Gussie displays a sharp eye for art and architecture as she describes the houses and gardens around her, but she is also an astute observer of society at large. Two years later Mr. Auchincloss published Portrait in Brownstone , a strong novel that features Ida Denison, a stalwart heroine whose loyalty to clan and class remain unshakable in the face of a hideous marriage and other disastrous circumstances. For the most part, Mr. Auchincloss’ women resemble Gussie and Ida: proud of their families, loyal to their class, idealistic in an innocent way. The men, by contrast, are deal-makers, guided by expedience; they feign “family values” in the presence of their women, but they are quite unfazed by the double standard that lets them roam the field into their dotage, if they so wish.

Hence the “development” mentioned above. Mr. Auchincloss attacks that double standard head-on in Her Infinite Variety , showing poignantly that his heroine, Clara, is unfairly called onto the carpet for having a brief affair during the war while her husband, in London, feels perfectly free to behave as he pleases, leaping from bed to bed with impunity. But Clara is no doormat. If anything, she is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to win, and Mr. Auchincloss seems to admire her opportunism as she marries Eric Tyler, the mogul, then fends off Tyler’s son to win ultimate control of the publishing empire, which she uses to further her political and social ambitions. Is the transformation of Clara–achieved in just over 200 pages–believable? I think not. But I confess to reading her story with delight, and to admiring the skill with which her world is conjured.

It would be easy to call Mr. Auchincloss a kind of poor man’s Henry James. He loves James, of course, and has published a wonderful little book called Reading Henry James (1975)–the sort of casual, clear-eyed criticism one longs for in this age of poststructuralist jabberwocky. Like James, his fiction concentrates on wealthy and influential people, and he is fascinated by society. But James usually took his rich Americans off to Europe; he made it possible to draw comparisons between the New World and the Old–the great Jamesian theme. James’ prose is bizarrely original and ornate, and he probes the inner consciousness of his characters in astonishing depth. Mr. Auchincloss, by contrast, allows his wealthy Americans to stay at home, where he examines their lives with a shrewd, often bemused, objectivity. Though eloquent, he is finally a plain stylist whose characterizations rarely move beyond the external. He remains, however, a natural storyteller and an artful historian of New York’s ruling class.

In his lovely memoir, A Writer’s Capital (1974), he describes the origins of his art quite frankly: “I observed that often the only interesting thing about some of the families near whom we lived was their wealth.” From this initial wry observation, many volumes of amplification have unfolded–a remarkable shelf of books by one of our most useful and intelligent writers.

Jay Parini teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Robert Frost: A Life ( Henry Holt). Examining the Radiant Center, Louis Auchincloss’ Ruling Class