Louis Auchincloss, a prolific author specializing in elegant and knowing dissections of the moneyed New York class to which he belonged, has passed at age 92. Among his many literary admirers is Gore Vidal, who wrote in his 1974 essay “The Great World and Louis Auchincloss” that “from the beginning Louis was a writer: word-minded, gossip-prone, book-devouring…” and reproduced this quote from him: “The fact that I was a Wall Street lawyer, a registered Republican, and a social registrite was quite enough for half the people of any one party to cross me off as a kind of duckbilled platypus, not to be taken seriously.”
Auchincloss’ novels, stories, biographies, and essays were taken seriously, however, notwithstanding his origins, especially after his great 1964 success, the novel The Rector of Justin.
He attended Groton, Yale, and the University of Virginia Law School, served in the Navy during World War II, and published his first novel under a pseudonym at the request of his mother, who feared it would harm his legal career. (“You would think that a person who was 29 years old and had seen four years’ sea duty in the Navy in the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Caribbean would have had enough guts to resist his mother, but I didn’t.”) For years kept up both writing and a law practice, sometimes taking notes for a book during longueurs at trial.
Auchincloss stood both among and of his class, but in writing about it was, as Bruce Bawer observed, “at once a sincere eulogist and a trenchant critic.” He was attentive to the vagaries of his milieu, and to the lasting values underneath them: “The new rich who go to the Hamptons think the Hamptons are very swell,” he said in a 1997 interview. “Newport is passe; they think it’s rather stuffy. It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference. I can tell the difference. What changes is what is fashionable; what does not change is that fashion remains, snobbishness remains, class-consciousness remains.”
He received the National Medal of Arts in 2005, and continued to write, producing the historical novel Last of the Old Guard in 2008, in which the main character is described as interested “not in money or anything that money could buy (except rare books and art), but in the panorama of a young and greedy country seeking greatness in the seeming infinity of its natural resources. He had as little malevolence as he had pity. He liked to look at the world, and he thought he saw everything.”