John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960) was perhaps the last critical chronicler of American respectability; the novelists who followed him had too much contempt for it to analyze it. Marquand wrote about the struggle to do the right thing while appearing to do the right thing. Put less paradoxically, he covered the spread between ideals and appearances, the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a meaningful inner life with expectations of a given social environment. And he presented this struggle in thoroughly American terms. Nowhere else is the tension between the rhetoric of equality and the impact of luck more acute. What's more, by focusing on the upper strata of society, his work offers readers an opportunity to appraise the deep and often ironic complexities of success.
arquand remains a supremely readable writer, at least for this middle-aged reader. His style is distinctive rather than dated, and his tremendous powers of social observation leave the peculiar and the irrelevant untouched. Writing about a very different world, his viewpoint is still so readily intelligible that it teaches us what we didn't know (or reminds us of what we'd forgotten) without cluttering the text with pedantry. Marquand is also a master of suspense; not for nothing was he the author of the eight very popular detective novels featuring Mr Moto. He has a genius for holding our gaze on a character's reaction to some new development while saving the full impact of the development and the complete background of the reaction for later.
And he makes us care about his characters. We may take to them right away, as I think most readers would to Polly Brett, the heroine of B.F.'s Daughter, or they may grow on us, as Charley Gray does in Point of No Return. Even the characters who aren't particularly endearing catch our interest, and weave a rich background for the reflections of the principals.
Here is an eloquent little paragraph from the first part of Point of No Return. Charles Gray, an assistant vice-president on the rise at a blue-chip private bank, the Stuyvesant, is about to pay a call on some anxious, helpless, but very rich clients of the bank's trust department. From the standpoint of most readers, he probably appears to occupy a secure, 'elite,' position. But there is nothing secure about it, and Charles is made to feel anything but elite in the lobby of the clients' Park Avenue apartment house.
The hall attendant was looking now at Charles questioningly, particularly at his worn pigskin brief case. People, of course, who entered from the street with brief cases fell into a dubious professional category and were not always people whom tenants would welcome. No matter how beguiling their superficial appearance might be, a brief case always meant that such individuals were not calling on tenants for purely social purposes. They might be insurance agents or even a Fuller Brush man, or a server with a summons. Charles could understand and even sympathize with the doubt. He himself was like the attendant. He could feel the vague bond of fellowship that came of being an employee.
Charles comes from a good, almost but not quite eminent, family in Clyde, Massachusetts (Marquand's fictionalized Newburyport). Financial uncertainty has clouded every phase of his life, and there has always been the lively danger of slipping down into the middle of the middle class, or even lower. His father, one of those clever men who break themselves trying to 'beat the system,' gambles with investments. After Dartmouth (paid for by an aunt), Charles comes back to Clyde, and falling in love with the town's top girl not only kindles his hitherto dormant ambition but commits him to a lifetime of aspiration. When we meet him, he is living in a suburban house that he can't comfortably afford, and his career is clouded by the possibility that his rival at the Stuyvesant will be promoted over his head. It is no small achievement on the author's part to keep us guessing how this little contest will come out until the 557th of a 559-page novel.
Almost all of Marquand's books are out of print, but the important ones are widely available through Internet sites such as Alibris. Readers of serious (but not unsmiling) mainstream fiction will welcome Marquand. (February 2003)
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