John P. Marquand, once among the most popular novelists in America, is now virtually unknown. Reading Point of No Return, his novel of middle-to-upper class manners in a small New England town, it’s hard to see why. The high-brow critics of his era never had any use for him but the public adored him. He won a Pulitzer Prize and many of his books were Book of the Month Club selections. Nearly all his novels published after 1937’s The Late George Apley were best-sellers. And now he’s virtually unread. Why?
I have a guess as to why, though I welcome other’s ideas. There was once a time in America when there was a ruling middlebrow culture. During the twenty year period after WWII, the exploding demographic of young suburban businessmen and their wives saw themselves as the future. They’d fought in the war, they’d triumphed, and they regarded economic success and personal satisfaction as their reward. They were almost exclusively white and middle-to-upper class and they were centered in the Northeastern part of the country. The men went to work and the women stayed home and raised the children. Unlike their parents, they had money left over after the bills were paid and this afforded them leisure time to explore cultural activities. They played golf, they belonged to the country club and they summered at the shore. They listened to the same songs, went to the same movies, and read the same books. And what were these songs, movies, and books about? Why, themselves, of course. If there was ever a monolithic cultural consensus in America, it was perhaps reflected in this late-1940’s to early-1960’s generation. Call it the Mad Men culture. Marquand might be the post-child of this middlebrow culture for no one reflected it, for better or worse, than he did, and everyone seemed to realize it at the time. Perhaps he has fallen out of favor because his subjects, like John Cheever, are so identified with this particular cultural consensus, one that is long-gone and repudiated. This is my guess as to why Marquand has virtually disappeared. If his subjects were a reflection of the people and attitudes of a bygone era, what could he possibly have to say to us now?
Well, the answer is, plenty. I was a bit dismayed when I first picked up Point of No Return and found it was 550+ pages. Who wants to read a novel of that length about the intricate class structure of pre-war WASP society? I immediately formed a prejudice against it and assumed it would be better if it were shorter. The thought occurred to me that maybe this was the root of Marquand’s problems with the critics, that perhaps he was nothing more than a over-blown dramatist who heaped detail upon detail, who explained every nuance, until there was nothing left to to the reader’s imagination. But this is not the case, not even close. Marquand is certainly no minimalist and his exploration of pre-war WASP society is detailed and meticulous but what makes it work is that it is so true to life. There are no false notes here, nothing that seems even remotely out of place. You always feel like you’re reading something by someone who fully understands his characters and the situations he places them in. The book’s length turns out to be one of its strengths because the story is told at a leisurely pace which allows the reader to clearly understand the everyday rhythms of life in Clyde, Massachusetts (a stand-in for Marquand’s hometown of Newburyport, MA.) Another of the book’s strengths is Marquand’s steady and competent prose. He has little of the charm or style a greater writer might bring to their work but, again, this is a good thing. A more stylistic account would take away from the verisimilitude Marquand achieves.
The story is about the life of Charles Gray, circa 1947, who is married with two children and works as an investment banker at the Stuyvesant Bank in New York City. Charles is being considered for a vice-presidency at the bank, a position he and his wife Nancy want very much. One day he awakes and finds his thoughts on his boyhood home of Clyde, Massachusetts, a place he hasn’t seen in nearly two decades and one he thinks about rarely. By what perhaps is a coincidence he is asked to go back to Clyde to do some research on a business the bank is thinking of investing in. At this point Marquand begins to tell the story of Charles’ time in Clyde through a series of flashbacks in which we trace his boyhood through adolescence and early manhood. One of the main plots in the book has to do with Charles’ father John, a charming, likeable, rogue of a man who has little care for convention, a liability in a town as class-oriented as Clyde. Marquand contrasts the steady and reliable Charles with his charming but reckless father. We see early on that Charles is the antithesis of his father, purposefully. Charles understands early in life that John Gray, for all his good-natured likeability, is a careless and foolhardy man, a man who will inevitably hurt those who love him most. I am not saying I identify with Charles but one of Marquand’s skills is to show us glimpses of ourselves in his characters. While arguing with his father about his reckless investments, which threaten the entire family, John insists to Charles that he’ll be careful, which Charles knows from experience is a lie:
When it came to money, everyone always promised to be careful. In fact, it often seemed to Charles that most of his subsequent life had been spent in a series of timid, hedging precautions, in balancing probable gains and losses in order to keep sums of money intact. The probity, the reliability and the sobriety that such a task demanded were to make his own life dull and careful. Except for a few brief moments, he was to face no danger or uncalculated risk. He was to measure his merriment and hedge on his tragedies. He was to water down elation and mitigate disaster, and to be at the right place at the right time, and to say the right thing with the right emphasis. Yet, whenever he thought of himself as a dull, deluded opportunist, compared with other people, he always remembered the intensity of his own feelings when his father had been speaking. There had been a hideous sense of impending disaster, and no possible way to stop it.
Who among us has not had such thoughts about themselves? I certainly have about my own self, along with the same self-justifying rationalization that Charles has. Point of No Return is full of such glimpses into the human condition. We get it (spoiler alerts!!) when Charles, deeply in love with a young lady who, according to Clyde’s intricate class distinctions, is out of his league, convinces himself that everything will turn out fine. His love blinds him to the fact that it could never turn out fine and the reader sees this long before Charles does. The girl is too weak, too much a part of Clyde, to ever go against her father’s wishes. When she finally breaks it off with Charles and lies crumpled at her father’s feet in front of him, the father and daughter are so pathetic we breathe a sigh of relief for Charles – he can get away clean from this situation. From that point it was clear (at least it was to me) that Charles’ personal relationship worked out for the best. Nancy, who would become his wife, is a much more admirable character than the weak, tradition-bound Jessica. Nancy has the traits – good-nature, a sense of humor, compassion and understanding, no illusions, no nonsense - most of us would want in a wife. For those of us long married, we get another glimpse into ourselves in the relationship between Charles and Nancy, in particular the easy comfort which comes from knowing someone so well so long, when you know each other’s thoughts so well that words are often not necessary for communication. We also get a glimpse of reality in the book’s final pages when Charles, having gotten the vice-presidency he so desperately wanted, finds no joy or satisfaction in it. His climb up the corporate ladder will afford him and his family a bigger house in a better neighborhood, perhaps membership in a more upscale country club, perhaps a new sailboat, but that is all. It will not buy happiness, which will still be elusive. His doubts and discontents will still remain. Charles Gray is one of the most fully-realized characters I’ve even encountered in a novel because Marquand has made him fully human. He’s everyman, which is another way of saying he’s you and me.
Read Marquand if you love a story in which you get such glimpses into yourself. When my wife noticed how wrapped up I was in the book she asked me what it was about. Not wanting to stop reading to explain the whole plot, I shrugged and simply said, “It’s about life.”
**spoiler alert** I’m not sure how Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 could be any better. It may seem strang...more**spoiler alert** I’m not sure how Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 could be any better. It may seem strange to call a 750 page history a page-turner but it is. I couldn’t put the thing down. One is always worried when picking up a history of this length that you’ll be confronted with turgid, clunky prose and pedestrian insights, that you’ll have to slog through the thing for weeks to get through it, if you finish at all. That is most definitely not the case here. Wood’s flowing, lucid, prose-style is wonderful. He is also a masterful story-teller, his insights are fresh and fully-reasoned, and he untangles the sometimes contradictory threads of the founding era and weaves them into a comprehensible and satisfying whole. It’s as easy to read as a good novel and just as interesting. The book is a triumph of the historian’s craft.
Having spent a lifetime immersed in research of the founding era, Wood has no problem seeing the men responsible for our beginnings as men, not icons. There is no hero worship here. Wood fully represents the greatness and the genius of the founding generation that we revere today but he also shows us their flaws, their ambition, and their motivations, which were at times base. We get a full sense from Wood of the men and their era.
Washington’s importance as the indispensable founder is recognized, though not dwelled upon. Wood points out that while his two terms as president were important to the stability of the infant nation, in the long run his most important act was stepping away from the presidency. Just as when he laid down his sword after the war when he could easily have become a dictator, his retirement from the office of the presidency which he could have held for life exemplified the Roman ideal of servant government and established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. By these two acts, Washington became a hero of republican liberty all over the world.
Madison gets his due, which pleased me. Many don’t realize how important Mr. Madison was to the founding moment but we see it clearly in Woods’ account. Even more important was Alexander Hamilton, whose economic program allowed for the stability and remarkable growth of the early republic. He may have been the most intelligent of the founders but he was also the most reviled. Jefferson, who could hate with the best of them, never hated anyone more than Alexander Hamilton. Even Adams, a fellow Federalist, despised Hamilton, calling him “the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar.” It had always puzzled me that Madison had split so clearly with Hamilton during the first Washington administration. The two had been allies during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and ratification period of 1788-89, collaborating on the Federalist Papers in support of the new constitution. But within months of Washington taking office with Hamilton as his Treasure secretary, Madison became the leader of the opposition. I’d always attributed this to Jefferson inordinate influence over Madison. Jefferson had been abroad in France during the Convention period so Madison was free of his influence. Upon Jefferson return to serve as Washington’s Secretary of State, he and Madison resumed their close friendship. And I’d been of the opinion that it was solely Jefferson’s sway over his younger colleague that caused Madison’s split with Hamilton. But Wood shows that this was not the case. Certainly Madison took Jefferson’s views into account. But it was more often Madison temporizing his more radical friend than the other way around. Where it came to Hamilton, Madison’s opposition was not the result of a weakness of character that caused him to defer to Jefferson but instead one of philosophical principal. As Hamilton began introducing his economic programs Madison realized that Hamilton’s idea of a vigorous national government differed greatly from his own. Madison objected vehemently to the federal assumption of the states’ Revolutionary War debt and to the introduction of a national bank, both of which he believed would elevate the federal government far above that of the states. He objected further to Hamilton’s creation of a permanent and consolidated national debt, ala Great Britain, which in Hamilton’s view would spur economic progress. And indeed it did. While instrumental to the early republic’s economic success, these moves were the beginning of the opposition’s fear that Hamilton and his fellow Federalist were monarchists.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is the discussion over many chapters of the rise of the Republican party and the demise of the Federalists during the 1790s. Wood explains how the Federalists, while believing in the equality of men under the law, also believed there was a natural aristocracy among men, an aristocracy which had the right and duty to rule over the masses. Washington believed it, Hamilton believed it, Adams believed it. As the self-made men coming out of the 1790’s economic success began to proliferate, the Federalist vision came under attack. These “middling sorts” believed they had as much right to governance as the self-appointed aristocratic class, indeed even more so since they understood and could represent the interests of the common man better than the elites ever could. The Federalist were appalled by these men, considering them to be nothing more than low-lifes and demagogues with little understanding of society and how it should be governed. Each side saw the other as a threat to the liberty that had been won during the revolution. The Republicans saw the Federalists as monarchists, while the Federalists saw the Republicans as “democrats” a pejorative term at the beginning of the 1790’s. By the end of the decade the term began to loose its negative connotations as many of the new merchant class began to embrace the banner. In the end, the Federalists never had a chance. The sheer number of new men coming out of the economic success of the 1790’s overwhelmed the Federalists, who over the following twenty years became progressively extinct as a political class. This rise of Jeffersonian republicanism was nothing short of a second American revolution, one that many felt finally completed what had begun in 1776. The irony that it was Hamilton’s economic programs that gave rise to the men who would replace him and his class would not be lost on Hamilton. After Jefferson’s election in 1800 he knew his time was through and he feared that everything he and the other revolutionaries had fought for had been subverted: “This American world was not meant for me.”
Who won, in the long run? Do we now live in a Jeffersonian or a Hamiltonian world? Books could be written on this question alone and I myself could argue the question from both sides. But in the end, in regards to the leviathan federal government of modern day America (one that would most likely horrify even Hamilton and would certainly send Jefferson into fits of outrage and despair) I believe we live more in a Hamiltonian world, one in which government coercion is everywhere, in which we are ruled by a small group of elites interested primarily in their own survival. With his support for a strong and energetic executive and for the primacy of the federal government over the states, this is certainly not what Hamilton intended. But it is perhaps the inevitable result of the Hamiltonian vision. We have now what Jefferson continually warned about: the tyranny of the few over the masses. So while we live in a Hamiltonian world I believe Jefferson won the argument.
Jefferson is the winner in another sense also. As Wood points out, Jefferson:
"…personified this revolutionary transformation. His ideas about liberty and democracy left such a deep imprint on the future of his country that, despite persistent attempts to discredit his reputation, as long as their is a United States he will remain the supreme spokesman for the nation’s noblest ideals and highest aspirations."
Wood does not flinch from the fact that Jefferson, while embodying for all time our most cherished vision of ourselves, was himself a member of the elite:
"[Jefferson:] was a well-connected and highly cultivated Southern landowner who never had to scramble for his position in Virginia. The wealth and leisure that made possible his great contributions to liberty and democracy were supported by the labor of hundreds of slaves."
That Hamilton, the self-made man, would represent the rejected aristocratic vision while Jefferson, an aristocrat to his bones, would represent the adopted democratic vision, is one of the strange ironies of American history.
Also at play during the 1790’s was the effect the French revolution had on the country. I’d always known it was an issue but I didn’t realize how much until I read Wood’s book. Virtually everyone in the United States supported the French revolutionaries in 1789 believing, correctly, that their own revolution had inspired the French. However, as word spread about the appalling activities going on in France circa 1792-93, the Federalists began to have doubts about the true nature of the new French government. On the other hand, Jefferson, who was blindly pro-French, and many fellow Republicans were always ready to excuse away any French democrats atrocities under the reasoning that you need to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet. To the Federalists it appeared that France’s revolution had devolved into nothing more than anarchy and terror, and given the rise of the democratic notions of the new merchant class, feared the same might happen here at home. The issue fueled the mistrust between the two sides and colored virtually every public debate of the decade.
And this only covers half the book though the idea that Wood concentrates on in the first half – that of the Jeffersonian revolution of the common man - infuses everything that comes later, for instance the furious rush westward, one that the federal government only could hope to control:
"The carefully drawn plans of the 1780s for the orderly surveying and settlement of the West were simply overwhelmed by the massive and chaotic movement of the people….[m:]any settlers ignored land ordinances and titles, squatted on the land, and claimed preemptive rights to it. From 1800 on Congress steadily lowered the price of Western land, reduced the size of purchasable tracts, and relaxed the terms of credit for settlers in ever more desperate efforts to bring the land laws into line with the speed with which the lands were being settled."
If you ever need evidence of the American propensity for liberty and individual initiative free from government coercion, read Wood’s chapter on the push westward.
This push, however, was disastrous for the American Indian. (It would also set the stage for the argument about slavery in the Western territories, which set the stage for the Civil War.) Jefferson and other leaders of the time held what they considered to be the enlightened view on the Indian issue: the civilization and assimilation of the Indian into white society. This view:
"…gave no recognition whatsoever to the worth or integrity of the Indians’ own existing culture. In the minds of many early nineteenth-century whites, enlightened civilization was still too recent, too precarious, for them to treat it as simply an alternative culture of lifestyle. Only later, only when the Indian culture had been virtually destroyed, could white Americans begin to try to redeem the tragedy that had occurred."
There is more, much more, to talk about in this wonderful book but I’ll leave it to you to explore the rest. I’ll just end by saying simply that I loved this book. It taught me much, explained a lot, and it made me think hard about the American character, the one that emerged during the Jeffersonian revolution of the '”middling sorts.” Their confidence, initiative, and determination for self-improvement became instilled in the American persona, the idea of what it is to be an American. Their demand for liberty became our birthright. In the Age of Obama, do we still retain these characteristics? I think so. The push back against the statist, European vision of the Obama administration is heartening to see. While I am certain that the elites in Congress don’t give a damn what ordinary Americans think, they do take public opinion into account when it comes to their reelection. If there are enough of us “middling sorts” left out there, we may be able to defeat their collectivist vision and continue this Empire of Liberty with which we’ve been blessed. (less)
My wife tells me she can always tell when I'm reading Peter DeVries because it's the only time I continually laugh out loud while reading. It only too...moreMy wife tells me she can always tell when I'm reading Peter DeVries because it's the only time I continually laugh out loud while reading. It only took the first sentence of "Into Your Tent I'll Creep" for her to know this time: "It wasn't until I had become engaged to Miss Piano that I began avoiding her." What man doesn't understand that impulse?
Actually I read this book for the first time close to twenty years ago, as I did most of DeVries' books. This was a reread but I had forgotten the marvelous first sentence. For some, the 1960's suburban situations and attitudes of DeVries' books may seem dated, but to others (like me) they may be a breath of fresh air. But it doesn't really matter what DeVries' books are about. What matters are his unique prose style, his wit, and his humanity, i.e. his understanding of human nature and his compassion for human failings. And of course, his riotous humor. Sometimes he goes way out of his way to set up the gag but the payoff is worth it. He also may be the most epigrammatic writer of the past fifty years: every page seems to have something quotable, something the reader can steal (guilty, your honor) and use as his own. For instance, when his lover, an amateur painter in the modern style, presents Al Banghart (the hero of the book in whose voice the story is told) with some of her "art", we get this:
"I want to look at paintings. I don't want to look at paint. Which is what I mean by color arrangements that have made no progression from the lumps of pigment they originally were on the artist's mortarboard, like those musical compositions that are indistinguishable from the orchestra tuning up to play them."
I've used the "I want to look at paintings. I don't want to look at paint," line as an indictment of modern art. I've also used the modified "the composition was indistiguishable from the orchestra tuning up to play it. I couldn't tell when the one ended and the other began," line at a concert I attended as a judgement on modern orchestral music. Okay, I fessed up afterwards that I stole the lines from DeVries but that made them no less enjoyable.
DeVries, who died in 1993, was once very popular during the late 1950's through the 1970's. Now, he is barely read and it's a shame. Only a few of his books are still in print but if you can get your hands on any of them the read will be worth it. "Madder Music," "Consenting Adults," "Peckham's Marbles," "Slouching Towards Kalamazoo," and "The Mackeral Plaza" are probably my favorites but they are all wonderful.
One last note. DeVries wrote 23 novels, 22 of which can be considered comic novels. The other, "The Blood of the Lamb," is probably considered his finest book. DeVries lost a daughter to leukemia at the age of ten and "The Blood of the Lamb" is the novel that came out of that ordeal. Be forewarned, it'll rip your heart out. (less)