Louis Auchincloss’ Historical Covenant

In the late 1980s we corresponded briefly, Mr. Auchincloss kindly answering some questions I had about his writing.  From 1947 to 2010, much of his fiction, literary criticism, and histories deftly chronicled well-heeled residents of the middle and northern part of America’s eastern seaboard.  For his characters, poverty meant hitting principal, while my world was closer to that depicted in Auchincloss’s youth by Booth Tarkington, small towns where, as Tarkington said in Alice Adams (1921), with maples and sycamores lining the streets, people “sat upon verandas and stoops, . . . cheerful as young fishermen along the banks of a stream.”

Critics compare Auchincloss’ novels of manners to the fiction of Henry James and Edith Wharton, the James of Washington Square and the Wharton of The Age of Innocence.  Auchincloss conveyed the reality of Wall Street law firms populated with men who had graduated from New England prep schools and Ivy League universities, men who had served as naval officers during the Second World War; men like Auchincloss himself, but often without his sterling code of ethics.  Adultery, embezzlement, and manipulation are complications some of Auchincloss’ characters choose, while other characters, graced with more integrity, yet constrained by convention, struggle with the fallout.

One critic said of Auchincloss, “his range is narrow, but his pitch is perfect,” and unmatched is Auchincloss’ ability to take the reader inside the rarefied society of Manhattan boardrooms and private clubs, Newport “cottages” and Georgetown townhouses.  Alas, after a while, the array of beautiful, affluent, and often ruthless and narcissistic, American lawyers, brokers, and museum directors, their wives and mistresses, their clients and children, becomes a blur.  Miles of hushed burgundy velvet galleries of gilt-framed masterworks by John Singer Sargent can leave one exhausted.

A prolific writer, Auchincloss turned out at least one book a year, and along with his fictional portrayals of his contemporaries, he wrote historical novels.  His The Cat and the King (1981), is set in the court of King Louis XIV, and his Exit Lady Masham (1983) centers around the court of Queen Anne.  Auchincloss dedicated the former to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to whom he was related by marriage, and he dedicated the latter to Barbara W. Tuchman, saying she “has made history more fascinating than any fiction.”

Whether in fiction or non-fiction, Auchincloss was at his best when writing about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period described in Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966).  Worth re-reading are his Persons of Consequence (1979), elegant and perceptive sketches of Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, and others of that age’s British upper crust, and The Vanderbilt Era (1989), polished cameo profiles of Vanderbilts and Astors and their peers.

In 2002 Auchincloss wrote a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and in 2004 he edited two Library of America volumes of writings by Roosevelt.  In his novel The House of Five Talents (1960), Auchincloss had shown how, after McKinley’s assassination, other refined, brownstone families thought of Roosevelt:  “It was possible for one human being to do all things:  to ride and write, to read and hunt, to be a student of natural history and President of the United States.”

In 1976, coinciding with America’s bicentennial celebrations, Auchincloss published a collection of nine stories linked together by made-up members of one of the country’s oldest families, a family from which Auchincloss himself was descended.  The Winthrop Covenant traces generations of the Winthrop family, from the historical John Winthrop, a colonial governor of Massachusetts, to a fictional expatriate protester of the Vietnam War.  What intrigued Auchincloss was how the Puritan fervor of the first Winthrops developed and dissipated over the centuries.

From a slow beginning, two Puritan men in seventeenth-century England discussing Calvinist theology about predestination, the story proceeds through major phases of American history.  However, Auchincloss really hits his stride with Adam Winthrop, protagonist of the sixth story, “The Arbiter,” and a Gilded Age avatar of the Winthrop line.

It is 1902, and Adam Winthrop presides over the Patroons Club in Manhattan, where his official oil portrait has just been unveiled.  To an uninformed viewer of the painting, “the model might have been a sexagenarian Marcus Aurelius, heir and administrator of a golden empire beset with problems that distressed him.”

Such an interpretation suited Adam Winthrop.  “He preferred to think of himself,” explains the narrator, “as some togaed proconsul, exquisite, cultivated, broad of view, . . . a Marcus Aurelius, turning with a shudder of distaste from that shrill, Semitic sect which saw only sacrilege in beautiful statues and a second coming in every thunderstorm.”  Winthrop’s lofty detachment from the faith of his forefathers was complete, and “he eventually reconciled himself to the absence [of God] by his emulation of the agnostic Roman spirit.”  To him, “the greatest two-volume novel ever written” was “the Gospel according to Saint Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.”

For all his aloof, agnostic Stoicism, Winthrop has subtle tastes, appreciating fine art and architecture, good food and opera.  He would be the sort to approve of Theodore Roosevelt writing books, yet arch an eyebrow at Roosevelt’s hunting.  More in Winthrop’s style would be William Howard Taft, who in 1908 shrugged at voters who objected to his Unitarianism and said, “I am interested in the spread of Christian civilization, but to go into a dogmatic discussion of creed I will not do whether I am defeated or not.”

Near the end of The Winthrop Covenant, some characters discuss President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.  At one point I asked Mr. Auchincloss if another of his characters was based on Dulles.  Auchincloss started practicing law on Wall Street in the firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where the senior partner was Dulles.

In 1974, Auchincloss had written about Dulles in his memoir, A Writer’s Capital, and he would do so again in 2010 in another memoir, A Voice from Old New York.  For me he took the time to use his personal stationary for a hand-written reply, saying that the character did not derive from Dulles, who “had a sly, tricky quality that jarred with his intense religiosity, and he was devoid of the smallest imagination about people—a great egotist.  Yet he was capable of kindness and courage—a strange mixture but utterly unlovable.”  Like the more sympathetic of Tarkington’s Ambersons, the best Auchinclossian characters are both magnificent and admirable.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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