Forgotten Writers: The Novels of John P. Marquand

If there are no second acts in American lives, then John P. Marquand’s straying bankers and layabout lawyers certainly pine for a turning point.

Marquand, who won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for his satirical masterpiece, The Late George Apley, has remained a remarkably overlooked author despite his midcentury accolades. Martha Spaulding, Terry Teachout, and Jonathan Yardley have all made valiant critical efforts to restore Marquand’s reputation, but, today, many of his novels remain out of print. This dropoff is astonishing, considering that Marquand once graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. But the Harvard-educated author’s razor-sharp examinations of upward mobility and class trappings also appealed to a mass audience, not unlike the weekly wistfulness of Dunder Mifflin workers depicted in the television comedy The Office. His rudderless protagonists are overly concerned with how they appear to others. They pine for the next rung on the corporate ladder, even as eidetic recall from the past freezes their possibilities in the present.

Marquand cut his teeth writing slick stories for The Saturday Evening Post, not unlike the early potboilers written by his satirical contemporary Sinclair Lewis. He found additional commercial success with a Charlie Chan knockoff named Mr. Moto, whose adventures were serialized in the Post before being published as books. And while this generated money, Marquand soon revolted against his agent’s hopes for steady lucre with an epistolary novel featuring a belated Boston aristocrat named George Apley, whose letters were organized by a fictitious biographer (and family friend) to reveal “the spirit of the man and his influence on the life around him.” While the novel found some Post supporters, more than a few editors felt it necessary to stick with the foundation. Unlike Marquand’s previous novels, only four excerpts from Apley were published. But to everyone’s surprise, including the author himself, Apley was a critical and commercial hit.

In Apley, it is the biographer’s voice, frequently proffering lofty context (“It would be a slur upon George Apley’s integrity to doubt the absolute sincerity of his statement”), that reveals a kind yet bumbling upper-class man attempting to be true to his inner ingenuousness while running afoul of societal expectations. A private matter of baby naming becomes a needless tempest with the in-laws (“It has been the custom in our family…to give the first son of a new generation one of the Apley names”). Apley takes up Saturday morning birdwatching with an “old playmate and lifetime friend, Mrs. Clara Goodrich.” Yet even this quiet moment cannot escape scrutiny. A reverend, also an old friend of Apley’s mother, fires off a letter: “Could you not arrange to see a little less of Clara Goodrich, or at any rate to visit her in the company of others?”

Marquand’s unique satirical approach involved skewering folkways, institutions, and other assorted tableaux while remaining sincere to his characters, even when his characters could not perceive their own telltale follies. In H. M. Pulham, Esquire, the eponymous attorney, Harry, attempts to read his way through The Education of Henry Adams for personal enlightenment, but he cannot discern that his wife is carrying on an affair with his best friend. Later in the book, Harry sees the two sitting in the dining room, but the ethereal affair has drifted into uncomfortable territory: “Bill must have been telling Kay again what a good time he had had, because they were both sitting saying nothing. Whatever it was that Bill said, it made Kay look awfully sad.”

Many of Marquand’s unhappy marriages are, like George Babbitt’s, founded and maintained on an almost conformist common ground. In Pulham, Harry reports of his marriage: “The best part of it was that Kay and I seemed to have a good many of the same ideas — the same tastes in furniture, the same ways of spending our time.” Marquand’s remarkably bitter final novel, Women and Thomas Harrow, offers what may be the author’s worst nightmare: a man defined almost exclusively by his relationships to wives and mistresses.

It is this juxtaposition between marriage and identity that likewise presents a troubling dilemma for Point of No Return‘s Charles Gray. Charles is a banker who commutes from his suburban “thirty-thousand-dollar house — not including extras” to his New York job on an 8:30 train “designed for the executive aristocracy.” Not having graduated from Harvard or Yale, he is sometimes embarrassed because “the New York banks he dealt with most were full of Harvard and Yale men.” He does not know if he will get a coveted promotion to vice president. But his wife Nancy coaches him on what he needs to do and how he needs to act, urging him as she does to turn out the downstairs light — because the neighbors might think they’re having a fight. And he certainly doesn’t want to remember Clyde, Massachusetts — the hamlet where he grew up and fell in love with a young woman from an affluent family. (Just as Lewis set many of his novels in the fictitious state of Winnemac, many of Marquand’s novels take place in the fictitious Clyde.)

Upon the 1949 publication of Point of No Return, Marquand’s six previous novels had sold nearly three million copies; three were turned into movies and three selected for the Book-of-the-Month Club. Some highbrow critics furrowed with suspicion. Edmund Wilson once wrote of Marquand, “We have plenty of novelists in America who make Mr. Marquand’s abilities seem as modest as his pretensions.” In the same essay, Wilson pardoned Sinclair Lewis for similar sins, suggesting that a Lewis novel was “a work of the imagination that imposes its atmosphere, a creation that shows the color and modeling of a particular artist’s hand.”

Wilson, however, overlooked the plain fact that Marquand not only got through to his audience, but embedded much beneath his seemingly slick formalism. Marquand’s characters frequently received the short end of the stick, but he was the very rare novelist to make domestic heartache both enthralling and entertaining. If Marquand gave into the demands of his audience, it was precisely because he hoped to impart his own particular atmosphere, conjured from careful observation with an abundance of Morris and Windsor chairs hiding in studies and lonely rooms, but without Sinclair’s smoky bluntness.

Unable to curry favor with a literati set demanding a refined spice, Marquand spent many of his years serving as a Book-of-the-Month Club judge, sticking his neck out for such titles as Animal Farm and Aurora Dawn for an appreciative populist audience. While Lewis tackled prejudice and a fascist president in his later novels, Marquand confined his narratives to domestic environments. And while this insular territory accounted for some of his limitations, Marquand recirculated his keen insight into the class aspirations that inhabited this modest sphere. It’s a literary injustice that this intriguing comic tension between the twain is now almost forgotten.

The Novels of John P. Marquand

This morning, at the Barnes & Noble Review, you’ll find my essay on John P. Marquand. Several critics, including Martha Spaulding, Terry Teachout, and Jonathan Yardley, have attempted to revive Marquand’s flagging reputation. I reread six of Marquand’s novels for this piece, as well as Millicent Bell’s biography, and I was surprised to discover that they spoke more to me this time around than when I first read the books in my twenties. A Marquand novel may present a narrative not dissimilar to another Marquand novel, but it can always be counted upon for a veritable codex of human behavior. (And, incidentally, Marquand is very much an influence on Humanity Unlimited. The rereading here helped me very much to tighten a few places in the novel.)

Missing Audio Recording of John P. Marquand?

New York Times (December 13, 1981): “J.P. Marquand contributes one of his studies of Brahmin snobbery in a two-record tale about the exclusivist, mean-minded members of a Bahamian country club in ”Sun, Sea and Sand’ (CMS 575-76).”

This is rather interesting, considering that Marquand had been dead for twenty-one years when this was reported. Or perhaps reporter Paul Kresh simply didn’t know who Marquand was.

Whatever It Takes, Apparently

Not so many years ago a teacher of the art of writing began the advertisement of his services with the announcement that millions of people can write fiction without knowing it. He would have been safer had he said that millions of people are certain that they can write fiction a great deal better than those engaged in the profession. Even so, it is my belief that the consistent craftsman of fiction is very rare. His talent, which is in no sense admirable, is intuitive. In spite of the dictum of Stevenson on playing the sedulous ape to the great masters, it has never been my observation that education helps this talent. On the contrary, undue familiarity with other writers is too apt to sap the courage and to destroy essential self-belief, through the realization of personal inadequacy. It encourages a care and a style that confuse the subject, and the net result is nothing.

Instead, a writer of fiction is usually the happier for his ignorance, and better for having played ducks and drakes with his cultural opportunities. All that he really requires is a dramatic sense and a peculiar eye for detail which he can distort convincingly. He must be an untrustworthy mendacious fellow who can tell a good story and make it stick. It is safer for him to be a self-censored egotist than to have a broad interest in life. He must take in more than he gives out. He must never be complacent, he must never be at peace; in other words, he is a difficult individual and the divorce rate among contemporary literati tells as much.

— John P. Marquand, Wickford Point

Entertainment, Not Literature

Two Blowhards has a very interesting post up about the differences between book people and movie people. The book world’s inability to appreciate or understand the craftsmanship of writing a popular novel is what continues to keep John P. Marquand’s name (for one) from being celebrated as a great writer. As I’ve said more than once, Marquand, winner of the Pulitzer in 1937, is , for the most part, out-of-print today. His books, which offered a grand mix of satire and entertainment, were extremely popular during his time and still hold up well today in their careful observations of middle-class life.

But because Marquand could not find universal acceptance among critics who were quick to condemn him because he was a solid storyteller, because he dared to put his name on the popular Mr. Moto books rather than hide behind a Starkian non de plume, if you find his paperbacks at all, you’ll find them housed within trashy covers that make Marquand come off as a sensationalist (“One woman’s climb to the top!”), which undervalue his abilities as a stylist or a satirist. Or you’ll find the covers for the later books, which desperately try to plug Marquand as the greatest American novelist since Sinclair Lewis. And who wants to fall prey to that kind of marketing? For later generations who know nothing of Marquand, this paperback cover Lamarckism has pretty much killed Marquand’s shot at surviving the fray or being remembered. It was only the Pulitzer and the resultant curiosity about The Late George Apley‘s narrative structure that drew me to the book and allowed me to discover him. Otherwise, I might never have heard of the guy. And yet how often are we attracted to a ribald movie poster or a DVD cover that isn’t too far removed from Harlequin romances?

How many of us are willing to enjoy a well-made monster movie like The Thing from Another World or even a not-so-well-made monster movie like The Blob? We have no problem intellectualizing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines or even the three Matrices, which are, let’s face it, enjoyable crap. But confess that you like even a handful of Stephen Kings (full confession: I like King) or that you liked Elmore Leonard’s novels more than Salman Rushdie’s post-Satanic Verses work to a roomful of literary snobs and you’ll either be led to the door or dismissed as a hopeless case. John Updike declared Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as “entertainment, not literature.” But as far as I’m concerned, A Man in Full or Bonfire of the Vanities are gripping reads laced with honed prose and careful observations. I would kill to have had the skills to write either of these. But I have known intelligent people to put these labels aside and enjoy half-baked crap like Zoolander or the last two Austin Powers movies.

Where Howard Hawks can be extolled beyond measure as a consummate artist of grand entertainment, years after Rio Bravo was panned on its release, by the same measure, Marquand still falls by the wayside in the book world. While the auteur theory can be applied across the board to an artist like Stanley Kubrick and an entertainment-oriented director like Michael Curtiz, in the medium guided more explicitly by “one voice,” the auteur is doomed upon even a casual embrace of the page-turner.