Auchincloss' latest: The rich are human

November 05, 1995|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Education of Oscar Fairfax," by Louis Auchincloss. Houghton Mifflin. 225 pages. $21.95 Rarely is it possible to single out the stupidest thing ever written about someone, but in the case of Louis Auchincloss, the booby prize undoubtedly goes to a piece published a quarter-century ago in the New York Review of Books. The author, boggling at the undeniable fact that Auchincloss' novels are all about New York's moneyed families, wrote, "I can believe the upper class is human ... but fiction seems the wrong medium for the privileged life, which belongs, if anywhere, in the spreads of Country Life or the New York Times society page, or in the moments of awed intrusion that TV likes to purvey." So long, Henry James! Bye-bye, Marcel Proust!

Needless to say, Auchincloss survived this snobbish review (if you think the rich are snobbish, you don't know any intellectuals), and others like it. Born in 1917, he has just published his fifty-first book, a tale of - what else? - upper-class New York life. And like its predecessors, "The Education of Oscar Fairfax" is an eminently civilized piece of entertainment that sheds considerable light on the manners and morals of the folks who live on Park Avenue.

Oscar Fairfax is not quite Louis Auchincloss: He was born in 1895 and, though he wanted to write books, never quite got around to it. But he went to the same schools and, like Mr. Auchincloss, became a white-shoe lawyer and a discreet observer of the human comedy. "The Education of Oscar Fairfax" is less a novel than a gallery of portraits of various people Fairfax knew, all of whose lives he sought to affect in one way or another.

That we are deep in Auchincloss country is plain from the first sentence of this book: "Sargent's portrait of my father - painted when I was ten, in 1905 - still hanging in the great hall of the Colonial Art Gallery, of which he was for so many years a trustee, might be the image of an American aristocrat of that era - if there had been any." The little details are all there (of course Oscar Fairfax's father was painted by John Singer Sargent), and so is the cool detachment: Leave it to Auchincloss, whose blood is as blue as a Bessie Smith 78, to suggest that the very idea of the existence of an American aristocracy is to be questioned. That, indeed, is the point of his books, which contend that the rich are not only human, but complex and contradictory and unpredictable - and worth writing about.

After reading Carol Gelderman's "Louis Auchincloss: A Writer's Life" (1993), it struck me that he might well have led too happy a life (which is not the same thing as "too privileged a life") to achieve ultimate success as a novelist. Certainly his books do not cut nearly as deep as those of Edith Wharton, the novelist to whom he is most often compared. But this is not to say he is always superficial, or that none of his novels will live. Three or four of them, in particular "Portrait in Brownstone" (1962) and "The Rector of Justin" (1964), seem to me to be of permanent interest, not only as works of literary art but as chronicles of the inner life of America's ruling class.

"The Education of Oscar Fairfax," though not on this exalted level, is nonetheless highly diverting, much in the way second-tier Trollope is diverting. It is, in short, a good read - and a smart one, too.

Terry Teachout is music critic of Commentary. His latest book is "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" (just out in paperback from Vintage). He is writing "H. L. Mencken: A Life."

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