Louis Auchincloss was the author of more than sixty books of fiction in a writing career that spanned the second half of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first. He was also an estate lawyer for a sizable portion of that time and a denizen of a privileged sphere of New York society. Not surprisingly his work trades heavily on those experiences. The result is a body of work that prompted Gore Vidal to write that, “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs. Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.” There’s also the fact that he wrote much of this work during years when that particular milieu wasn’t at the forefront of the American literary imagination. Yet among his extensive body of work there remain standout performances. Auchincloss himself told George Plimpton that he would like to be remembered on the strength of three books, Portrait in Brownstone, House of Five Talents, and The Rector of Justin, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1965. It lost out, deservedly, to Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
The rector of Justin is Reverend Francis Prescott, D.D., founder and headmaster of Justin Martyr, a school modeled on Auchincloss’s years as a student at Groton. He is a great man in the eyes of his new hire, a young master by the name of Brian Aspinwall, who provides early impressions via his journal. Aspinwall is undeniably callow, and wracked with self-doubt, but he views Prescott as a pole star of sorts, a man whose example he will never be able to credibly follow, but whose very existence justifies his own efforts to live as a man of faith and guide his young charges as ably as possible. It quickly develops that Aspinwall is not alone in his reverence for Prescott. The most credible explanation for this – Prescott never rises to a level that inspires anything more than ordinary respect from the reader – is that those who so admire him form their impressions in youth, amid the school’s isolated surroundings and sheer force of presence on the headmaster’s part. Charley Strong, a former Justin Martyr who eventually ends up in a romantic relationship with Prescott’s daughter, writes in the aftermath of his World War I service that,
Hope for redemption can lie only in casting myself at the feet of him whom I have betrayed. For it is he, I know, who made me senior prefect; the upper school’s election is merely advisory, and by no means is it clear that I had a majority…He it was who baptized and confirmed me, he who talked to me of my doubts and miseries, he who gave me a love that made the shallow, prattling love of shallow, prattling parents seem like the spray on one’s face in a speedboat at sea.
Aspinwall is relatively older than Charley Strong when he encounters Prescott, twenty-seven and taking his first proper job. That he is so awed by the headmaster makes him seem weak and sheltered at times, but it also places the skepticism and contrary views of others who have known Prescott in a clearer light.
Early on, Aspinwall notes that he would like to use his newly started journal to keep a record of Prescott’s last years at Justin Martyr. Gradually the idea emerges – not of his own accord – that he should write Prescott’s life. He consults Horace Havistock’s account of a youth spent as Prescott’s great friend, but this is prior to David Griscam’s conclusion that, since Prescott won’t cooperate with his idea to write the headmaster’s life, Aspinwall should do so. Aspinwall is less taken with Griscam, a man who has achieved considerable success in the business world. He observes that “Everything about him, however, suggests to me the small man who would like to seem larger, the guest who is trying to look like one of the portraits in the club.” Griscam gets in a slight rejoinder when Aspinwall expresses surprise that he enjoys the novels of Samuel Richardson: “English teachers are always shocked to find that Wall Street can be literate. You think of us as bullying sparrows who peck canaries to death because we cannot sing. As men who may collect but who never read.” Indeed Griscam emerges as a generous and well-meaning man, albeit one with a conflicted relationship to Prescott, and whose endeavors are perhaps never properly appreciated by the great man. It’s also with Griscam that Auchincloss really shines. He shows a sense of ease at evoking Griscam’s life of power and means, as well as his discomfort attempting to bridge the gap between what has brought him success in the world and what Prescott values.
Once Aspinwall commits, however tentatively, to writing Prescott’s life, the design Auchnicloss opts for is almost immediately evident. It’s ingenious in its simplicity – it’s apparent early on how Dr. Prescott’s character will emerge, via the written or transcribed recollections of various people who have known him – but Auchincloss fends off any sense of gimmickry through his firm control of each voice, each highly distinct point of view on Prescott’s character. His daughter Cordelia, for example, notes that,
For all Pa’s faith and for all his accomplishments there was a side of him that tended to identify the priest’s cassock with a woman’s skirt and to sneer at the world of education as an ivory tower. He was in it himself, to be sure, but he had the vanity to want you to know that, unlike most of the inmates, he had not fled to it for refuge.
A more direct rejection comes from David Griscam’s late son, Jules, who writes of seeing through Prescott. “And when you saw through me, what did you see?” Prescott asks.
“I saw you weren’t God. I saw that you don’t even believe in God. Even in yourself as God. I saw you were only a cardboard dragon.”
Eventually Prescott steps down from his position as headmaster. He remains close to the school, geographically and otherwise, and is resistant to any substantial change in its makeup, physically or academically, though he does give in when David Griscam arranges for a sizable expansion of the campus. Prescott the idealist lives on until the bitter end, though the value of his idealism, in practical terms, is increasingly unclear. The Rector of Justin is among the best-loved work Auchincloss produced. It was acclaimed by critics, and the author himself considered it a hallmark. It’s easy enough to see why; Justin Martyr is appealing as a sort of elite, closed world, as is the question of what makes Frank Prescott so outsized an influence on so many young men who pass through that world. I am yet unqualified to say that this is the finest of Auchincloss. Aside from a handful of short stories, I have nothing to which I can compare The Rector of Justin. In time I will, though, and that’s an endorsement in its own right.
– John McIntyre