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.

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John Willson
John Paul Willson has been a teacher for 48 years, most of them at Hillsdale College. He retired in 2005 (after around 12,500 students, 78,000 papers and exams, and 4000 meetings) but can't seem to get retirement right. He has been the second oldest in a five-generation picture. He still coaches punters and placekickers and plays a lot of golf. One wife, Helen; three daughters and ten grandchildren. Happy Catholic.


  1. Yes, John–well put. One wonders how many like him our cultural soil can sustain.

    Thanks for the short and thoughtful post.


  2. I’ll add my thanks as well. The next (May) issue of The American Conservative is set to include Auchincloss’s story “America First,” from Skinny Island, by the way. (And the current, April issue includes Professor Willson’s review of John Lukacs’s The Legacy of the Second World War)

  3. I just finished The Rector of Justin and was extremely impressed. The faint praise so common in all of these obits really is a shame.

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