Chapter 12: “The Late George Apley” by John P. Marquand (1938)

“Most people in the world don’t know who the Apleys are and they don’t give a damn. I don’t intend this as rudeness, but as a sort of comfort. I know it has been a comfort to me sometimes. Just remember that most people don’t give a damn. When you remember it, you won’t feel the necessity of taking the Apleys so seriously.”

It must be tough being incredibly wealthy and well-off. At least that seems to be the common sentiment of these early Pulitzer-winning novels that focus on High Society. John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, which won the Pulitzer in 1938, is no exception to the rule.

The only difference, however, is that I actually kind of enjoyed this author’s view of High Society. Kind of.

This novel, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and the like, is written in the form of a collection of notes, letters, and journal entries from and to George Apley, the protagonist of the novel. Marquand then intersperses tidbits amongst these entries that inform the reader of the setting, the time, and other unique indicators of what was going on in the lives of Apley’s friends and family from a third person perspective, to make the reader a bit more informed and to paint a fuller picture of the story. The third person in this novel, the narrator, however, is not Marquand—rather it is a college classmate of Apley’s, named Mr. Willing. To once again draw reference from another book, Willing is a lot like Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; Willing is approached by George Apley’s son to write a biography, a tribute, to his late father, mostly for the intention of distributing it amongst family members.

He does so by drawing on a collection of the aforementioned letters et al and organizing them in such a way that Apley’s biography is more like a memoir; The Late George Apley is the result of his work. So, in essence, the reader is reading a work about his work, much like watching a movie about making a movie.

As a result, his book alone is contributing greatly to my existential crisis.

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First of all, this book is a satire of High Society. I found it interesting how Marquand, throughout the novel, seems to be praising High Society, all the while actually poking fun at it. While I legitimately believe that Booth Tarkington really, really wanted me to sympathize with the plights of High Society in The Magnificent Ambersons (which I didn’t), and while I legitimately believe that Louis Bromfield wanted me to take the worries and cares of High Society seriously in Early Autumn (which I really didn’t), it is my belief that Marquand wanted me to view these very same elements which plague George Apley hypercritically. It really didn’t seem to me that Marquand was sympathetic in his treatment of Apley, and it really didn’t seem like he wanted me to be either. In fact, it’s almost as if Marquand wanted me to pity the man simply for the mere sake of his being Apley, not for the overwhelming obstacles he is presented with and is forced to overcome.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

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Just as it was with Georgie in The Magnificent Ambersons, or Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, here is the essential premise of The Late George Apley: George Apley is born into wealth and privilege and spends his life ensconced within that world, struggling to defend it. The trajectory of his life almost seems predetermined: born into wealth, a “proper” upbringing, degrees from Harvard University, travels to Europe, forays into business, philanthropy, and heavy involvement in various social clubs. He despises the changes he sees taking over society and refuses to take part in them, even going so far as to lash out against them (in the form of letters, obviously—a proper gentleman wouldn’t dare challenge the world to a match of fisticuffs). But he is madly in love with the world that he grew up in, he is madly infatuated with High Society and it grieves him so to see it go; in one letter, he writes, “I am quite convinced that we are coming to the end of an era. I don’t know quite what will happen to us, but I have faith in our common sense, just as I have faith in our inheritance.”

He leads such a posh life, that his greatest troubles and worries are, to the reader, far and beyond laughable. You know—here in the real world, we have to worry about really troubling things: losing our jobs, losing our homes, not being able to pay bills, not being able to feed ourselves or our families. Only in Apley’s world, the world of High Society, is the potential removal of some rosebushes enough to prompt an entire series of letters, or the unintentional burial of a distant aunt in the wrong portion of the family plot sufficient to spark a deep and abiding family feud.

These troubles, of course, are utterly alien to a commoner such as I.

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Here’s the kicker, though.

As much of a defender of this world and this life Apley is, it’s ironic that he’s not entirely comfortable with it. Albeit true that he was born into that life, and that it was his choice to maintain that life, there were moments when he really questioned whether or not it was the life for him—most notably during his one attempt at rebellion: a very brief and short-lived love with a middle-class Irishwoman named Mary Monahan. Of course, this affair was intensely frowned upon by his parents, family, and peers; even in today’s culture, with much thanks to movies like The Boondock Saints and The Departed, we are all too familiar with the way Boston’s Irish working-class is viewed; one can only imagine how unfavorably they were viewed by High Society at the turn of the century.

However, as comfortable as his life is, and as much respect/reverence he is shown as a result of that life, it is ultimately a lonely life, completely devoid of happiness and personal pleasure. He is all too aware of this unhappiness, but he is also all too aware of his assumed responsibility to carry on his family’s High Society mantle. This, I feel, is the central conflict of the novel—the tearing of the soul between duty to self and duty to tradition. As George himself reminisced late in his life:

“I have always told the truth. I have never shirked standing for my convictions. I have tried to realize that my position demanded and still demands the giving of help to others. I have tried in my poor way to behave toward all men in a manner which might not disgrace that position. I have not had a very good time doing it. There is a great deal of talk in these days about happiness…Perhaps it would be better if people realized that happiness comes by indirection, that it can never exist by any conscious effort of the will. The world I have lived in may be in a certain sense restricted but it has been a good world and a just world.”

Why, all of a sudden, am I hearing the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory” playing faintly in my mind, and growing ever louder?

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