Post Road Magazine #22

"A Loud, Lonely Cry for Happiness": THE LATE GEORGE APLEY by John P. Marquand

Sarah Braunstein

George Apley is dead and gone. And he's taken his self-described "fogey" ways with him — his puritanical strivings, his elitism, his xenophobia, his rigidity, his repression: all gone. But gone also is his curiosity, his shame,

his broken heart, his tenderness, his brazen musings, and his striking capacity to bridge old and new eras.

The Late George Apley — "A Novel in the Form of a Memoir" — was published in 1937 and won the Pulitzer Prize the next year. The novel holds up in 2011, offering the best kind of satire, merging often hilarious social critique with true compassion for its characters. Marquand trained a clear eye on Apley and his circle of upper-crust Boston WASPs in the years between 1866 and the early 1930s, finding in these people not only gross hypocrisy and wrongdoing but also guilelessness, love, and surprising social and spiritual elasticity.

The book begins immediately following the death of the eponymous old New England social scion. In the first chapter — "A Forward and an Apology" — our narrator/biographer, Mr. Willing, a contemporary of Apley's, has been asked by the family to "depict the life of this valued friend of mine through his own writings." Willing is "Boston's Dean of Letters," and so of course the ideal man to furnish us with an account of Apley's excellent and important life.

The complication is that Willing has received a letter from Apley's only son, John, who makes an odd request: John wants Willing to "tell the truth" about his father. He grants Willing access to a pile of private correspondence. "My main preoccupation is that this thing should be real," John writes, to Willing's bafflement.

The book that follows is real indeed. In Willing's hands, in Apley's hands, in John's hands — in (oh, right) Marquand's hands — we are carried into parlors, into Harvard clubs, into the country estates of Boston society; we are given such a direct, vivid view that the medium itself, in its notable formality and staunchness, seems to dissolve. Here I am, in the front room of a townhouse on Beacon Street. Here I am, watching the wives in their Sewing Circle. Through meticulously rendered correspondences, through the biographer's own lofty expository interjections, we see petty feuds, political rifts, familial negotiations. Most of all, we see George Apley working terribly hard to ensure that the moral and social order are upheld. We see him, for the most part, failing.

As Apley's two children enter adolescence, it becomes clear they're not going to help their father's cause. And as Apley himself ages, he

begins to behave in ways that do not always serve his own (or his class's) interests. Thus arrives the exhilarating central tension of the novel. Willing tries to claim Apley for his camp — interpreting Apley's life in the terms of a fading moral order. And yet Willing must defer to the request of Apley's son, who has demanded the inclusion of certain indecorous events which Willing assures us do not belong in the formal record. So, in deference to the son, and with profuse apologies, Willing tells the full story: a lost love, the intermingling with members of other classes, various scandals, and Apley's own sense of having "done nothing except develop a few convictions." For although the community tells him how critically important he is, Apley possesses the self-perception to suspect this might not be entirely true. As a result, we see a biographer at odds with his own material, presenting scenario after scenario in which Apley behaved strangely. We see a biographer working tirelessly to defend his friend (and, in effect, the broader social order), to minimize the significance of unseemly events. The irony, of course, is that the very things Willing works so hard to downplay are what make Apley so interesting, sympathetic, even visionary. It is this counter-narrative that electrifies George Apley's life and legacy. The psychological tension generated here, the pathos and humor we find in the reluctant, unreliable, but loving narrator, is simply wonderful.

Also wonderful is the relationship between Apley and his son, rendered primarily in letters from Apley to John. To his father's great joy, John serves on the front in WWI (a "soul-purifying" event, says Willing). Apley writes to an old friend:

It is hell to be old in these days and to be able to do so little. I should be glad to be where John is and so would you. In some sense it would allow me to vindicate myself. This has been denied us and instead we find ourselves with the women and children indulging in the trivialities of meatless days and gasoline-less Sundays.

Imagine, then, his surprise and grief when John returns from the war injured, disaffected, expressing no patriotism, refusing to be paraded from Boston club to club in his uniform. His parents are shocked.

Their shock grows when they learn John will move to New York City. (New York City! Bastion of depravity! — the book's treatment of New York as Boston's foil is terrific.) And yet as the years pass, as John seems to find a rich life there, including a connection to the Algonquin Circle, the letters between father and son grow more understanding and complex, showing George Apley's multifaceted, flawed humanity — and his son's growing empathy.

I must emphasize how funny this book is. Here is Apley to his son, writing about his adolescent daughter's discovery of Sigmund Freud:

Have you heard of this man? I believe I recall over-hearing some of your friends mention his name in New York. I am writing by this same mail to the trustees of the Athenaeum asking that all works by Freud be put into a locked room.

And later:

You and I both know that all this idea of sex is largely "bosh." I can frankly say that sex has not played a dominant part in my life, and I trust that it has not in yours. No right-thinking man permits his mind to dwell upon such things, and the same must be true of women. And now this is enough of this unsavory subject.

But the unsavory won't go away. The unsavory is everywhere (despite Willing's certitude that it's merely a phase). This novel is at its most stirring when Apley forces himself to make sense of new views on sex, art, and politics. His observations are often reactionary, sometimes silly — but they're also startlingly astute and progressive.

George Apley is many people. (At one point his daughter says of her father, "Half the time he's trying to be someone else." And his son, after a particularly tender exchange, writes, "He seemed to step out of the frame of his Sergeant portrait.") As the book concludes, we see that despite his great and unspoken grief, despite profound confusion, George Apley has done perhaps the bravest thing with his life: kept his eyes open. He has allowed himself, finally, to find some beauty in the unsavory. And he gets a taste of real joy, even as it breaks his heart.

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