1938: The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand

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From the Dust Jacket:

In telling the story of the late George Apley of Boston (1866-1933) Mr. Marquand has drawn through Bostonian eyes the portrait of a gentleman of the era and a picture as well of that preposterous facade of manners which a still powerful Puritan influence erected to protect itself from the insidious dangers of inherited wealth; a facade which placed family against humanity, companionship against passion and conventions against reality.

The novel takes the form of a memoir prepared “at the request of the family” by an old and sympathetic friend. At his disposal were placed all of Mr. Apley’s letters and papers. The letter from George Apley’s son making the request was not unusual. It ended, “My main preoccupation is that this thing should be real. You know, and I know, that father he guts.”

“The Late George Apley” is much more than just another move about Boston. Mr. Marquand has created a great character in Apley, and has painted an understanding picture of the short golden age of American security. And yet, by this tender method, Mr. Marquand has also achieved a powerful indictment of a misguided mind, and a bitter satire of a mentally decadent society-a fascinating, effective, and provocative book.

My Thoughts:

I made it about two thirds of the way through this book before things got busy and I’ll admit, it was a very easy book to put down and not pick back up again. Which is exactly what happened for 6 months. And much of the ease I found in putting this book aside can be attributed to the subtlety of the social critique in the book. In fact, it is not until the last third of the book (which I only arrived at after starting over again from the beginning recently), that this critique and satire becomes apparent to someone almost 80 years removed from the novel. And in hindsight, it is a much better book than I initially gave it credit for when I first put it down so many months ago.

The Late George Apley is written in the form of a memoir, compiled through a variety of letters, correspondences, papers, and personal interactions between the fictional composer of said memoir and it’s subject, George Apley. I can only assume this type of memoir was popular in the 30s, among the wealthy families in some of the older, “cultured” cities. The fictional narrator is famous in his older years as one who can adeptly produce such memoirs from the old papers and letters of a recently deceased member of high society.

What sets this fictional memoir apart from the point of view of the narrator and compiler of the memoir is the insistence by the subject’s son, John Apley, that even the embarrassing and occasionally less flattering aspects of his father’s life be included in the memoir, which is slated for private distribution among family members only. George Apley’s son does not want the memoir to be a self-congratulatory, cloyingly positive and unnecessarily simple look at a complex man, but rather something more true to who he was as a person. The narrator, obviously concerned by this request of the son, finds himself a number of times confirming with John, in correspondence reproduced within the novel, that he really and truly does want certain things said about his father.

The effect, which I suspect would have been much more dramatic 80 years ago when this sort of memoir was supposedly in style, can still be quite effective at times, but it so far removed from popular culture today that it can be, at times, difficult to fully engage in, and especially difficult through the beginning of the book to notice the subtleties of some of the social critiques provided. In hindsight, I can see much of the setup that was occurring earlier in the book, but for much of the read, it seemed like the narrator and the subject belonged to a world that was changing so much they were hopeless to remain a part of the world in any significant way. Through later interactions of George Apley and his son near the end of the novel, we find that he is perhaps more open to change and can accept that other people are choosing it, even if he more often remains rooted in his traditions.

The Late George Apley is a novel about a man who lived to see the culture, especially in and around Boston, grow and change and evolve into something vastly different than what he had known it to be growing up. It is a novel about the changing attitudes of younger generations, especially through the 1920s in America, and also about the doubts and worries and suspicions that plague us all as we continue in our lives, the doubts that we have not been good enough, have not done enough, have missed out on something or botched something important.

The novel follows George Apley from his statements on much earlier generations, through childhood, university, marriage, fatherhood, and death, with a variety of social and political and emotional interactions occurring in between. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the book is the open-mindedness with which the author approaches cultural differences, especially between generations. Instead of making the novel a defense of the traditional puritanical values passed down from George Apley’s ancestors through to himself, and instead of a novel which glorifies and exalts the new, more liberal and progressive attitudes of the younger generations, John Marquand is able to hold both ideas and balance them against each other. He does well looking at the different lifestyles and viewpoints from the individual perspectives of their supporters.

And even then he sometimes surprises. For instance, when George Apley visits his son in New York and spends the time visiting speakeasies and clubs and risqué performances, only to take with him on the train a description of all the works of art in one of the museums, so he can speak intelligently with his wife about them as though he had done that instead. Or George’s appreciation of the art in D. H. Lawrences’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or the force and power behind Hemingway’s writing, even if those books might well fall into the list of “obscene” writings as dictated by the society in which he was raised.

The glories and faults of George Apley are presented frankly, and without judgement, though many times, especially as the book goes on, in opposition to the values and morals of his own children, which only reveals his struggle to understand them without condemning them, and to protect them, while being so out of tune with their generation.

The book works on many levels to describe and criticize and glory in the old culture of Boston, which, by the time the novel was published, was already fading. But it also provides satire in a way that can easily be misunderstood as appreciation for a certain way of life. As the book progresses, it becomes increasingly more difficult to acknowledge these things as straight praise, and it eventually becomes obvious that the author is poking fun at, and taking a stand against, certain ways of life, even if the narrator holds fast to the old traditions. But all these things are expressed, like I said, in a way that does not render judgment, but instead holds the differing ideas up to the light so that the reader can make his or her own decision about it all.

Favorite passage:

This material change has made you all materialists, and yet it has rendered your grasp on reality uncertain. It has made you rely on the material gratification of the senses. It has made you worship Mammon and in this new material world everything comes too easily. Heat comes too easily and cold. Money comes too easily. Don’t forget that it will go as easily too. Romance comes too easily, and success. We have all grown soft from this ease. Position changes too easily. Values shift elusively. When everything is totaled up we have evolved a fine variety of flushing toilets but not a very good world, if you will excuse the coarseness of the simile.

Why you should read it:

From the modern perspective, it’s a look at a world that has long since passed, and a subtle satire of traditional values in the face of a rapidly changing society that works well to not discredit either the old traditional ways, or the new, progressive modes of thought, but instead lets them stand equally against each other. An interesting read, even if it feels at times a bit dated.

Currently reading: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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