“When you are dead,” John P. Marquand once said, “you are very dead, intellectually and artistically.” Twenty-seven years after Marquand’s death, he is very dead indeed. His books are neither read nor remembered. Yet at least one critic, Clifton Fadiman, once suggested in all seriousness that “in time . . . he will come to occupy a place in the American novel of the 20th century not too unlike that of Thackeray in the English novel of the 19th,” and Life magazine described him in 1943 as “the most successful novelist in the U.S.”
If these two appraisals seem oddly contradictory, it is because John P. Marquand occupied a place in American literary life which is perhaps less salient than it used to be: that of the serious popular novelist. At the peak of a career spent tailoring slick love stories and espionage serials for the readers of the Saturday Evening Post, Marquand unexpectedly brought out The Late George Apley, a satirical novel of manners about Boston society which won the Pulitzer Prize and eventually led him to curtail his lucrative magazine work in favor of full-length novels. But the new Marquand soon became even more popular than his strictly commercial predecessor. Not only did his novels sell handsomely, but as of 1952 his total book sales outside of regular trade sales, meaning book-club editions and cheap reissues, came to 3,833,840. This figure, impressive enough in 1987, was at the time altogether staggering.
To compare Marquand with someone like, say, John Irving is only to flaunt the absurdity of the juxtaposition. In Marquand’s own time, however, he had a British counterpart with whom comparison is more telling, W. Somerset Maugham. Both men established themselves after long apprenticeships with novels which were subsequently and wrongly regarded as their best work. Both shunned modernism, preferring to write traditional prose narratives with a distinctly sententious streak. Both were fascinated by the Orient. Both dabbled in genre fiction, Marquand with his Mr. Moto serials and Maugham with Ashenden. Both became respected arbiters of middlebrow taste, Marquand as a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, Maugham as an anthologist. Both wrote unashamedly for money, Marquand for the Saturday Evening Post, Maugham for Cosmopolitan and the London stage. Both eventually became millionaires through their writing.
Not surprisingly, both men also suffered from severe cases of critic trouble. While newspaper reviewers and the editors of genteel publications like Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly regularly sang Marquand’s praises, the important critics would have nothing to do with him. Maugham had the same problem, and it is worth noting that both writers eventually found themselves on the receiving end of similar-sounding attacks by that indefatigable enemy of the blockbuster novel, Edmund Wilson. Reviewing Maugham’s Then and Now for the New Yorker in 1946, Wilson claimed that “Mr. Maugham, I cannot help feeling, is not, in the sense of ‘having the métier,’ really a writer at all.” As for Marquand, he got his the preceding year in a New Yorker review by Wilson of his novel, Repent in Haste:
Mr. Marquand hasn’t the literary vocation—or maybe métier is the better word. A novel by Sinclair Lewis, however much it may be open to objection, is at least a book by a writer—that is, a work of the imagination that imposes its atmosphere, a creation that shows the color and modeling of a particular artist’s hand. But a novel by J.P. Marquand is simply a neat pile of typewritten manuscript.
While the likes of Clifton Fadiman may have thought John P. Marquand the American Thackeray, it was the Edmund Wilsons who determined his place in American literary history. Nevertheless there have been occasional posthumous glimmers of interest. Two biographies have appeared since Marquand’s death, one a superficial journalistic job by Stephen Birmingham, the other a long, thoughtful study by Millicent Bell. And a Chicago publishing house, Academy Chicago Publishers, has recently brought out attractive paperback editions of Point of No Return and H. M. Pulham, Esquire,1 with the intention of reprinting the rest of the novels in due course. But the critics have remained silent, and no rush to revaluation seems likely at this late date.
To some extent, revaluation is unnecessary. Marquand’s early potboilers are hardly worth saving, while most of his later novels, despite their glossy finish and good intentions, are precisely what Diana Trilling said they were in her 1946 review of Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter: well-made literary commodities for the busy housewife. (“Without transcending the high-grade commodity level, he has done a great deal to raise our standards of what a literary commodity can be.”) But The Late George Apley, Wickford Point, and H. M. Pulham, Esquire are certainly more than mere commodities, and Marquand’s 1949 novel, Point of No Return, easily ranks with the best work of James Gould Cozzens, the American novelist whom he most resembles. Yet this book, the most completely realized product of Marquand’s maturity, was widely dismissed, even by some of the reviewers who had previously been his staunchest supporters, as an overlong bore.
By 1949, of course, to praise John P. Marquand in print was decidedly infra dig. Still, such unanimity invariably justifies extreme suspicion. Was there something about Marquand’s work that the critics found fundamentally unsympathetic? The answer to this question, not surprisingly, turns out to be rooted in matters of class and taste. Precisely the stuff, in fact, of a John P. Marquand novel.
Newburyport, a Massachusetts seaport town which, renamed “Clyde,” is the setting of several of Marquand’s novels, was the home of the Marquand family as early as 1732. The Marquands were well-to-do shipowners and bankers. John Phillips Marquand’s mother was the niece and namesake of Margaret Fuller, to whom her son would later refer with unconcealed tartness as “that extraordinary Dorothy Thompson of the Transcendentalists.” Marquand’s father was a civil engineer turned stockbroker, and Philip Marquand’s business led the family from Newburyport to Wilmington, Delaware, where John was born in 1893, and eventually to Rye, Connecticut, where the Marquands lived for several years in the comforting lap of upper-middle-class luxury.
The poet and critic Randall Jarrell once called John Marquand “a reporter, a good reporter, with troubles of his own, bad troubles.” Marquand’s troubles began when the panic of 1907 wiped his father out. Philip Marquand went to California with his wife in search of work, and young John was pulled out of the stylish private school he attended in Rye and sent to Newburyport to live with his father’s two maiden sisters at Curzon’s Mill, the family homestead.
The doors to Eden abruptly slammed shut on Marquand. Instead of going to Groton or Exeter, he attended Newburyport High. Instead of sailing through Harvard with a comfortable allowance and an active social life, he scraped his way through on a chemistry scholarship. “He was one of the boys,” Marquand would write of the similarly situated hero of So Little Time, “who wore celluloid collars which you could wash off in your room, and who used the reading room in the library as a resting place because there was no other place to go, and who ate a sandwich there for lunch, and to whom no one spoke unless it was absolutely necessary.”
The kind of social limbo into which Marquand was thrust by sudden poverty affects different people in different ways. Some put it behind them easily and get on with their lives. Others, stung to the quick by the experience of snobbish exclusion, devote all of their adult energies to the quest for belonging, whether by insinuation or by sheer force of will. Still others spend their lives in active, sometimes violent, rejection of the social world from which they were excluded. Marquand’s own response was far more ambiguous. Unable to shake the passionate conviction that he should have been a St. Grottlesex boy and a member of Porcellian, he resented his father for having gone broke. Unwilling to reject the values of Harvard, he spent the rest of his life trying, with considerable success, to become an insider. Too intelligent finally to accept these values, he bought his way into society with money made by writing stories and novels satirizing the world which had initially spurned him.
John P. Marquand would return to the splendors and miseries of his youth in book after book, and he would order his personal life with similar compulsiveness, eventually becoming a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers and the Newburyport Tuesday Night Club. Needless to say, this was a recipe for unhappiness, and Marquand appears to have been a surprisingly unhappy man, unable to turn his back on Boston and escape the slights of the past. (“The hardest thing to live down,” Marquand wrote in Wickford Point, “is some ancient affront to vanity.”) But it is also a recipe for a very subtle and interesting novelist, which is what he would become.
As soon as Marquand graduated from Harvard, he shook the dust of the laboratory from his feet forever and got a job at the Boston Evening Transcript, the paper celebrated by T.S. Eliot for having a readership which swayed in the wind like a field of ripe corn. He left the Transcript in 1917 to serve in World War I as a first lieutenant. He fought at Château-Thierry with the 77th Regiment Field Artillery. After the war he worked at the New York Tribune and as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson.
One day Marquand sat down and wrote a short story about a boxer called “The Right That Failed” which he took to Carl Brandt, one of New York’s top literary agents. Brandt sent it to George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, who promptly scooped it up and paid Marquand $500. (Within a couple of years he was getting $3,000 a story.) Marquand had rung the gong of commercial success on his first try, and he would keep on ringing it with awesome regularity for the rest of his life, writing nearly a hundred more stories and serials for the Saturday Evening Post before turning to serious fiction in 1937 with The Late George Apley.
A simpler man might at this point have abandoned New England once and for all. Instead, Marquand showed his true masochistic colors by marrying into the Sedgwick family. Christina Sedgwick was the niece of Ellery Sedgwick, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and a member of a well-bred family closely identified with intellectual Boston. Beautiful, fragile, and unworldly, Christina was the very image of what had proved inaccessible to the young Marquand. Her family looked down on her husband-to-be from the greatest of heights. Had Marquand deliberately set out to make a bad marriage, he couldn’t have been more successful. For the rest of his life he would tell bitter stories about the Sedgwicks, and this one, recounted by Philip Hamburger in his 1952 New Yorker profile of Marquand, is typical:
One winter, he and his wife stayed with the Sedgwicks in Stock-bridge. . . . Marquand was working in one room off the hall, and Christina’s brother, A. C. Sedgwick, was working in another, directly opposite. Marquand was applying himself to a serial, Sedgwick to a novel called Wind Without Rain. Mrs. Sedgwick rapped on Marquand’s door one afternoon and asked him if he would mind stopping work and taking her son’s dog, Choufleur, out for its midafternoon walk. “He’s writing, you know,” she said.
By the time Marquand finally gave up on this preposterous marriage in 1935, he was firmly established as one of the top magazine writers of the day. The artistic limits within which he worked, of course, were extremely narrow. To be sure, it was possible to do serious work in the Saturday Evening Post.(F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, published “Babylon Revisted” in the Post during Marquand’s heyday.) But Marquand’s artistic ambitions were more modest. His stories and serials paid unswerving homage to what Clifton Fadiman would call “the bright tin divinity of the Happy Ending.” Still, as his first full-length novel would show, he had mastered his craft, and his life, however exasperating, had given him a rich set of materials about which to write, as well as an intensely personal point of view from which to write about them.
Subtitled “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir,” The Late George Apley is actually a parody of an old-fashioned life-and-letters biography. We learn in the foreword that “Horatio Willing,” the ostensible author of the book, has undertaken the task of writing a memoir of his old friend George Apley. “It has been my privilege many times in the past to edit the notes and letters of other prominent Bostonians under the advice of the family,” Willing announces at the outset. “In this case, as is usual in such matters, the advice of the family stands first. In this case, however, the advice is not usual.” For John Apley, George’s son, has asked Willing to write a more “distinctive” memoir than usual, one intended only for private circulation.
By using the character of Horatio Willing as an alter ego, Marquand is able to shed most of the techniques and mannerisms of the commercial writer and submerge himself completely in his material. (Marquand at one point even considered bringing out the first edition of The Late George Apley under “Willing” ‘s name.)
George Apley, like the hero of Henry James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle,” is the man to whom, despite his best efforts, nothing happens. As a senior at Harvard, he falls in love with an Irish girl named Mary Monahan. His imperious father breaks up the romance and drags George off to Europe for a grand tour. As a law student, he is found wanting in business sense by his father and uncle. (“As a cotton buyer he has not the shrewdness of soul, and when he sells he lacks the pliability, so necessary.”) He is shunted off into a small legal practice of his own, his substantial inheritance placed in trust. He marries a plain blueblood who runs his life with an iron hand from dawn to dusk. He fritters his days away in board meetings. When he becomes involved in the “Save Boston Movement,” he is framed by an unscrupulous Irishman and quickly retires from public life, living just long enough to see his son marry a divorcée and his daughter, still worse, a reporter.
These events are described through the pompous, frequently disapproving voice of Horatio Willing and the well-meaning, bewildered voice of Apley himself, who has left behind a diverse assortment of letters, papers, and memoirs which are quoted from at length. This narrative device permits Marquand to bring off his best effects entirely through indirection, often irresistibly sly, as when Apley discovers Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“At first I was stunned but now, in my opinion, this book is a work of art”) or goes a few fast rounds with John L. Sullivan as an undergraduate. But the overall effect is in the end quite grim, for George Apley is a man doomed by inheritance to lead an ineffectual, unsatisfactory life. “I am the sort of man I am,” Apley says, “because environment prevented my being anything else.” Horatio Willing quotes this remark with smug satisfaction on the first page of The Late George Apley, but the remainder of the book makes it perfectly clear that this is a confession not of aristocratic repose but of barely controlled despair.
Apley has its weaknesses. Marquand, to begin with, is not quite free of his old magazine tricks. (Mary Monahan reappears toward the end of the novel in true-blue Saturday Evening Post style to get Apley out of a scrape.) And the book’s larger limitations are suggested by George Santayana, whose The Last Puritan, “a memoir in the form of a novel,” provided the subtitle for Apley. Santayana received his advance copy in Rome, prompting these typically shrewd remarks:
In comparing this picture with my memory of Boston society, it seems to me not so much exaggerated as too external, too verbal. Nice Boston people often talked like this, but they had more sense and more heart; they knew and understood everything, while keeping themselves under conventional restraints. Mr. Marquand’s hero seems to me not so much Bostonian as provincial.
The externality of The Late George Apley, of course, is an inescapable function of Marquand’s method. But there is nothing at all “external” about the ambivalence with which Marquand regards his hero. George Apley may be a useless man, but his life has a dignity that cannot be ignored. “I have always told the truth,” Apley writes at the end of his life in a letter to his son. “I have never shirked standing by my convictions. I have tried to realize that my position demanded and still demands the giving of help to others. I have tried in my poor way to behave toward all men in a manner which might not disgrace that position. Now I can feel a humble sense of pride that I have done so.” For all the malicious pleasure that The Late George Apley provides the reader at the expense of its helpless hero, one cannot begrudge Apley this calm acceptance of his destiny.
Marquand’s irony thus acquires the additional tang of ambiguity, an ambiguity which directly reflects his own unsettled feelings about the Boston of his youth and adulthood, and no one who reads Apley at all attentively can possibly come away from it with the idea that Marquand was simply dismissing the “cold roast type” of Bostonian as unworthy.
The Late George Apley was received with enthusiasm by the reviewers, many of whom recognized and were impressed by the double edge of Marquand’s satire. The book, in a particularly pleasing stroke of irony, was bought by the Post for serialization. Not only did it sell well, but it received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and though Marquand continued to write for the mass-magazine market, it quickly became clear that he would be able to earn a living as a serious writer.
Marquand symbolically reaffirmed his commitment to New England shortly after the publication of The Late George Apley by marrying another Boston blue-blood, Adelaide Hooker. (This marriage turned out to be even more disastrous than Marquand’s first one, and he finally fled with relief to Reno in 1958.) Not surprisingly, Marquand returned in his next two novels to the narrow world of Boston and its environs. Wick ford Point (1939), which borrows from Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale the flashback technique that would subsequently become a Marquand trademark, is a maliciously funny tale of the New England aristocracy in vertiginous decline, while H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), sends up Harvard with equal flair.
Sinclair Lewis, who was greatly impressed by these three books, suggested that Little, Brown bring them out as an omnibus and provided the perfect title, “North of Grand Central.” Most of Marquand’s other contemporaries, following Lewis’s lead, pegged him early on as a social satirist in the Babbitt vein. But while Apley and Wick ford Point comfortably fit the comic mold, H. M. Pulham, Esquire is something more. Harry Pulham, the first-person narrator, is a Boston Babbitt who, like George Apley, is married to a rather plain and distinctly domineering woman, and his impervious earnestness is used to maximum comic effect. The chapter-by-chapter flashbacks of the earlier novel are adroitly consolidated into a single, central excursion into the past, and the theme of determinism is similarly encapsulated in the story of Pulham’s inability to abandon Boston and marry Marvin Myles, the smart New York career woman he loves.
H.M. Pulham, Esquire was followed by a bad patch in Marquand’s output for which World War II was at least partly to blame. Marquand had heretofore made little fictional use of his own wartime experiences, and he was too old to serve in this new war, making it impossible for him to write effectively about it from the inside. One feels that Marquand was fumbling for a new subject in the three novels he published during this period, So Little Time (1943), Repent in Haste (1945), and B.F.’s Daughter (1946). Here the narrative grip is less sure, the flashbacks clumsily negotiated, the satirical passages inconsistently integrated with the general flow. These are the novels for which Randall Jarrell’s shrewd indictment of Marquand rings truest:
Most of his books . . . seem versions of the same subjective fable, one designed to say to him and also to us: “You were right to do as you did; or if not right, still, you had no choice; or if you had a choice, still, it’s the choice all of us necessarily make wrong: life’s life. If only—but it doesn’t matter. And . . . and it was all so long ago.” The fable is told in a series of flashbacks, of sighs as elegiac, nostalgic, and wistfully submissive—as mannered and unvarying—as a Puccini opera. These flashbacks are not optional technique, but compulsory content: because of them the hero never has to make, in close-up, a clear choice to kiss or kill.
“I think it would be a good idea if you wrote a play,” the dramatist Edward Sheldon wrote Marquand after the publication of So Little Time in 1943. “That medium would force you to feel acutely responsible for movement, climax, and drama.” What Sheldon no doubt had in mind was a “well-made” play, and Marquand took his advice literally, teaming up with George S. Kaufman in 1944 to adapt The Late George Apley for the stage. The result, not surprisingly, was an uninspired piece of straight commercial theater. But Marquand seems to have benefited from the effort all the same, for his next novel, B.F.’s Daughter, is a good deal more neatly assembled than the sprawling So Little Time. And in 1949, with the war finally behind him, Marquand would finally bring his technique under complete control and discover the new subject which would decisively replace the Boston of his youth and early adulthood.
John Marquand’s novels, as Millicent Bell’s Marquand: An American Life demonstrates at length, are largely woven out of explicitly autobiographical material, so much so that they frequently caused friends, relatives, and acquaintances considerable embarrassment, more than a little of which was probably intended by the author. Moving systematically through his own chronology, Marquand had by 1949 arrived at the period of his own triumphs as a writer. But it is impossible to imagine him writing ornately Jamesian tales of the literary life, and what he did instead was both characteristic and highly original: he took as the subject matter of his later novels the theme of success itself.
Serious American novelists have had relatively little to say about the corporate world, and they typically shun the successful businessman altogether except in caricatures of the utmost lasciviousness, Theodore Dreiser being an obvious case in point. One notable exception to this rule, however, was James Gould Cozzens, who by 1949 had produced three major novels dealing with American professions, Men and Brethren, The Just and the Unjust, and Guard of Honor. Marquand reviewed Guard of Honor for the Book-of-the-Month Club News in 1948, describing it as the work of “a born writer.” He was probably also aware of Cozzens’s earlier books, if only through Brandt & Brandt, his literary agency. (Bernice Baumgarten, Cozzens’s wife, was head of the book department at Brandt & Brandt from 1926 to 1957, and Carol Brandt, Carl Brandt’s wife, was Marquand’s lover for many years.)
Whatever the source of his interest, Marquand took up the subject of professional success to persuasive effect in his 1949 novel Point of No Return. The framing action of the story occurs during four days in mid-April, 1947. Charles Gray, an ambitious young junior officer at the Stuyvesant Bank in New York, is competing with another officer for a coveted vice-presidency which has opened up at the bank. We see Charles at work during a typical Tuesday. The next day he travels on business for the bank to Clyde, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised. On Friday Charles finally learns that the promotion is his.
A long flashback reveals that Charles is the oldest son of a middle-class Clyde family. His father, John Gray, was an ineffectual, frustrated man who frittered away thousands of dollars in foolish investments. After graduating from Dartmouth and returning to Clyde to work, Charles fell in love with Jessica Lovell, the only daughter of one of Clyde’s most prestigious citizens. The match was socially impossible. But instead of meekly accepting his place in Clyde society, Charles quit his job in town and went to work at a bond house in Boston with the sole intention of earning enough money to marry Jessica. At the same time his father came into a substantial inheritance and began playing the stock market in earnest. The year was 1929. The inevitable took place. Charles’s father committed suicide, and the money Charles had earned in Boston went into the Gray estate to prevent a public scandal. His engagement to Jessica was broken, and he left Clyde forever, resolved to succeed in the larger world of New York.
Walker Percy has argued that the opening section of Point of No Return merits comparison with Kafka as a study of alienation. The comparison, though inappropriately extravagant, is not without meaning. Marquand’s heroes are invariably men who have become profoundly alienated from their pasts, their inheritances, their occupations. Charles Gray is no exception. A man of obvious intelligence and sensitivity, he realizes at the beginning of the novel that the values by which he lives are “contrived,” that his suburban neighborhood and his prestigious job and his struggles for success are all in some unexplainable way unsatisfactory.
Charles’s alienation is so profound, in fact, that at the very end of Point of No Return, when he is temporarily misled into thinking that the promotion will not go to him, his sensation is one of great relief. When, a few pages later, his actual destiny is revealed, his alienation becomes even more complete:
There was a weight on Charles again, the same old weight, and it was heavier after that brief moment of freedom. In spite of all those years, in spite of all his striving, it was remarkable how little pleasure he took in final fulfillment. He was a vice-president of the Stuyvesant Bank. It was what he had dreamed of long-ago and yet it was not the true texture of early dreams. . . . It had obviously been written in the stars, bound to happen, and he could not have changed a line of it, being what he was, and Nancy would be pleased, but it was not what he had dreamed.
Viewed from a technical standpoint, Point of No Return is quite impeccable. The satirical scenes are for the first time in Marquand’s work wholly integrated into the overall texture of the novel. The framing action has the economy of a short story, while the long central flashback is handled with cinematic fluidity. Moreover, Point of No Return is one of the few genuinely convincing treatments of the business world to appear in fiction. Anyone who has traveled the long road that leads from a small-town childhood to an urban career will immediately appreciate the sympathetic accuracy with which Marquand has portrayed Charles Gray’s transformation into a polished banker.
The central flashback, Marquand’s most elaborately romantic exercise in nostalgia, perhaps leaves too little to the imagination. There is none of the sly indirection of The Late George Apley in Point of No Return. But explanation is, after all, the raison d’être of this novel, and Marquand’s thoroughness eventually pays great dividends. For the first time in a Marquand novel the alienation of the protagonist is fully plumbed, the denouement wholly compelling. The central flashback demonstrates with absolute precision that there is no real opportunity to “kiss or kill,” that Charles Gray had already traveled well beyond the point of no return by the time he fell in love with Jessica Lovell.
Point of No Return should have been recognized as the climax of John P. Marquand’s career. But Marquand’s critical stock had been on the decline ever since Edmund Wilson’s 1945 attack on Repent in Haste, and his association with the Book-of-the-Month Club reinforced the growing assumption that his novels were simply not to be taken seriously. Even the newspaper reviews were uneven, and no important critic had anything to say, good or bad, about the book.
Particularly striking is the failure of the critics to read Point of No Return as a compelling indictment of the business world. Not only does the book seemingly argue for the ultimate emptiness of corporate success, it suggests that even an American businessman is capable of genuine alienation. But Marquand’s ambivalence, once again, confounds the picture. For Charles Gray, like George Apley and Harry Pulham, comes across as an admirable man. His values may be “contrived,” but they are meaningful ones all the same.
To be sure, Marquand has here played a telling joke on “the tin divinity of the Happy Ending.” Charles Gray’s happy ending proves to be almost tragic in its flatness. Nevertheless, the author of Point of No Return has taken all the “wrong” things seriously: work, class, material success, the corporate world itself. This is probably why so many critics so unhesitatingly rejected his claims to artistic seriousness. The narrowness of sympathy that made this rejection possible is also implicit in Randall Jarrell’s “kiss-or-kill” dichotomy. A novel in which the protagonist had so clear a choice would have been less true to life, no matter which option was taken. Marquand argued instead that Charles Gray’s choice was made for him by circumstances and that his resigned acceptance of the choice was an act of wisdom. It is this profoundly conservative vision of life that his critics must have found most obnoxious of all.
Though Marquand had three more novels left in him, none would achieve the artistic success of Point of No Return. Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. (1951) returns unconvincingly to World War II and to the chapter-by-chapter flashbacks which had given Marquand such trouble in the past. In Sincerely, Willis Wayde (1955), which abandons flashback altogether for straight chronological narrative, the principal character is a ruthless businessman who, unlike Charles Gray, has no insight into his alienated condition, a promising idea which is fatally undermined by the caricature-like portrayal of the title character. And Women and Thomas Harrow (1958) is an accomplished but noticeably less compelling variation on Point of No Return in which the thematic material is more explicitly autobiographical and the treatment harsher, even misogynistic.
John P. Marquand died in 1960. The usual encomiums followed his death: the front-page obituary in the New York Times, the graceful tribute (by John Updike) in the “Notes and Comment” section of the New Yorker. But the long, virtually unbroken critical silence that followed suggested that posterity’s view of his achievement would be far more jaundiced.
In retrospect, Marquand’s artistic deficiencies are clear. His prose style is smooth but ultimately undistinguished, his unevenness conspicuous. These defects once again suggest Maugham, and the comparison bears taking a step further. Marquand, trying to persuade his eldest son not to adopt the expatriate’s life after World War II, wrote in a letter as follows:
Of all the people I know, only Americans, because of some sort of inferiority complex, keep attempting the impossible and keep trying to get away from their environment. This seems particularly true with women, not to mention lesbians and homosexuals. The American colony in Paris, Rome, and Peking, and anywhere else, is a pretty sad group on the whole.
One wonders if Marquand realized that he was echoing George Apley, who was what he was “because environment prevented my being anything else.” For if Marquand is the American Maugham, then he is a Maugham who never left home. While Maugham’s homosexuality obliged him to leave England and become a cool, detached observer, Marquand stayed in Boston, immersed in an environment he never fully accepted, unable in the end either to kiss or kill. While this immersion gives Marquand’s fiction its distinctive tone, it also removes from it much of the tartness which is Maugham’s most characteristic and satisfying quality.
On the other hand, Edmund Wilson notwithstanding, Marquand was clearly a novelist de métier. Nor did the author of The Late George Apley ever find it necessary, as Maugham did, to search for “anecdotes” and “material.” His material was all around him. “I have,” Marquand said in 1954, “written about a galerie of which I know, and I wish that all writers young and old would do the same.” By staying home to face his compulsions, Marquand achieved a remarkable understanding of the narrow but intriguing society in which he moved and about which he wrote so penetratingly.
Will his work last? The Late George Apley, Wickford Point, and H.M. Pulham, Esquire, all deft and amusing books about American society, certainly deserve to be kept alive. And so does Point of No Return, that remarkable, undervalued novel of postwar manners. Ten tries, four hits. Not a bad average for a poor boy from Newburyport High.
1 Point of No Return, 559 pp., $11.95; H.M. Pulham, Esquire, 432 pp., $9.95.