Louis Auchincloss, RIPBy John Willson for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Louis Auchincloss died January 26, 2010, aged 92. Most of the obits talk about his prolific writing career while working as a serious attorney until age 87. They also emphasize his concern for “eastern elites” and forgotten WASP culture. Most of them give a somewhat respectful nod to the quality of his prose, reminiscent not so much of Henry James as of Edith Wharton, whose biography he wrote. All finally dismiss him with faint praise, giving the impression that he wrote about things that don’t much matter anymore, and about people who once ruled a country we are best rid of. In fact, Mr. Auchincloss was one of the very best writers of the 20th century. His “novels of manners” (whatever that means) were indeed about the New York and New England elite, and rooted in place as surely as Wendell Berry is rooted in Kentucky. Auchincloss’s place is greater brownstone New York City and the New England institutions that have historically fed it. He expresses the limits of human social engineering in the law, the world of art and education and occasionally politics, and insists on a human nature that is real, never cynical or sentimental. He does it without pandering to the culture of sex and death. His “The Winthrop Covenant” (1976) is the most powerful fictional presentation of American History (told in a series of interconnected stories about the Winthrop family and the Puritan heritage) written during my lifetime. That he was at times very popular is a tribute to the instincts of American readers; that he was never fashionable is an indictment of our literary elites. All Porchers should know at least some of his work.