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Call Me a Philistine but …

When I was at school, I remember one year when we were about 14 that our set book in English was Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon. It is the story of a small boy living with his aunt who learns to ride and to hunt foxes. There are many humorous episodes including a wonderful cricket match. It ends with the hero joining the regiment and into the First World War. It is part of a trilogy on the War, the other two volumes being Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.

It tells the story of an idyllic childhood that was to end with descent into the trenches, and perhaps it is because of that dreadful juxtaposition that that book has haunted me all of my life. There are events and facts that are as vivid now as they were back when I first read the book in the 1950s.  The aunt, for example, who could play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but only the first two movements. The third was too fast for her.

I thought of this book earlier today when I read of the death of J. D. Salinger, the author of the most famous of all school set books, Catcher in the Rye. I confess that I do not like such books. Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and above all Catcher in the Rye. Whether or not they were written with this intent, they seem to me just too much written with an eye to adolescent essays on the meaning of life and race and sex and religion and whatever it is that kids are forced through. I am sure they are all worthy and all of that, and I whose whole life has been reading and writing am very glad that kids are made to read something as an alternative to watching TV or playing video games. But give me real books like Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man any day of the week. 

I think this rather sour post has really been occasioned not by the death of Salinger but by the death of another author, Louis Auchincloss. He was the very prolific teller of tales about upper-class New Yorkers, the people in the first part of the 20th century who lived in brownstones, the males of the species often working in prestigious law firms, and who had summer places up the coast in Connecticut or Rhode Island. 

I imagine Auchincloss is not very fashionable today. I suppose for the average member of a department of English to admit a liking for his novels would be the equivalent of a philosophy department member admitting to respect for Will Durant, the author of The Story of Philosophy. But I confess that, although it is long since I read any of Auchincloss’s work, there was a time when I read it with eagerness and that I still look back on it with fondness.

Above all I liked what I suppose is his best-known book, The Rector of Justin, about a man who founds a prep school in New England. Narrated supposedly at the beginning of the Second World War by a young teacher, it reveals through the eyes of others — the wife, the successful student, the woman who loved him, and others — the true nature of the founder, both his strengths and his weaknesses. It seemed to me back then both a fascinating psychological portrait of a complex man, and at the same time well written and above all a very good read.

There were other books by Auchincloss that I also read and enjoyed. I guess in retrospect it must have been a limited pleasure because it must be 20 years since I last read one of his books. But tonight, while the rest of you are indulging in an orgy of mourning for Salinger, I shall quietly be shedding a tear and wearing a smile for another author who gave me much pleasure and I think some real insights into human nature. 

 

(New York Times Photo of Louis Auchincloss by Andrea Mohin at nytimes.com)

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