I married into a Boston Brahmin family. My parents-in-law and their set have an accent—and a way of life, really—I didn’t know still existed. My wife, although she herself resolutely avoids all Brahmin manners, had for some time been pestering me to read John P. Marquand‘s Pulitzer-Prize-winning satire The Late George Apley, that I might better understand her people, and because she thought I’d like it. As usual I finally gave in to the pestering, and as usual she was right.
The novel is in the form of a biography of George Apley, a recently deceased (recently in 1933), very proper Bostonian. This biography Apley’s son has commissioned Will Willing, an old family friend and distinguished author, to write, based on Apley’s letters and other papers, with special instructions not to produce the usual anodyne eulogy:
How would it be if these letters should tell the truth about him? Not that I insinuate you do not always tell the truth — I mean that on this occasion you may leave matters in the record which your conscience and loyalty might otherwise blot out.
Apley was born in 1867—making him, unbelievably, a contemporary of my grandfather-in-law (they bred very late in that family)—into a family that had made a great deal of money first from clipper ships and then from mills. In a sort of synecdoche for the progression of New England economic life, the family went from daring entrepreneurs to flinty industrialists to—well, not much of anything, really. Apley becomes a lawyer (Harvard-educated, of course) and his father and uncle, finding him too soft for mill management, find him a sinecure at a convenient law firm. Here Apley seems to practice very little actual law, instead leading a life mostly dedicated to fulfilling a myriad of social obligations, attending functions of his many clubs, serving on innumerable committees, and engaging in obscure disputes with family, fellow club members, and in one disastrous case, a wily politician.
The humor—and tragedy—of the novel lies in the fact that Apley really doesn’t want to do anything of the sort. From his youth he finds his family and his society have determined his entire life for him:
He once said of himself: “I am the sort of man I am, because environment prevented my becoming anything else.
After college he travels to Europe and England and finds only Bostonians. Much later he buys a lake island in Maine as a rustic getaway, only to have his wife and sister follow him and establish a set of rules and traditions as ridiculous and annoying as Boston’s social conventions. The only way a proper Bostonian can escape Boston is to leave it physically and never return, and that Apley cannot do.
More seriously Apley is not allowed to marry the only woman he really loves, an Irish—and hence utterly unsuitable—girl he meets at Harvard. Instead he pleases his family by marrying the woman they have long had in mind for him, the daughter of an impeccable (and infuriating) family.
And of course Apley internalizes all of his society’s strictures. In time he becomes one of Boston’s leading men, fighting to preserve the traditions that have so utterly trapped him. He is disappointed in his own son for not having proper respect for Boston society, and for committing the appalling sin of moving to New York.
The novel’s genius lies in the oblique way much of its story is told. Mr. Willing, our narrator, is himself a proper (and pompous) Bostonian, and shares none of Apley’s doubts about society. These he considers deplorable lapses in an otherwise stellar character, and he includes them only reluctantly, at the insistence of Apley’s son. The chapter describing Apley’s college love is subtitled “Dealing with a Subject Which Would Not Ordinarily Be Discussed in a Work of This Nature.” Telling information is revealed only in throwaway sentences. Here is all we ever hear of Catharine Apley’s appearance, in a letter from Apley’s father:
… her position and yours in the scheme of things are such that there will be none of the frictions due to divergent backgrounds, which might occur for instance in a New York and Boston union. You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond of matrimony.
The novel paints a vivid portrait of the early twentieth-century Brahmins, living in shabby grandeur, lamenting and resisting progress at every turn, taking highly principled stands based on principles only they understand. They are utterly convinced of their own superiority that they are genuinely confused and offended if accused of snobbery; the other side of that, though, is that they view themselves as enormously responsible to their community. And above all they are bound to rigid standards of behavior. John Apley laments:
Lord knows there are peculiar enough eccentric types but even these conform to a definite pattern of eccentricity.
For those of us who have lived in Boston, it’s also interesting to see an earlier stage in the city’s physical and cultural evolution. During the course of the book the Charles River Basin is created and the T (not yet called that, of course) is built: “eventually Boston would be twelve minutes, instead of an hour’s distance, from Cambridge.” Culturally this was the era when the political power of the Brahmins waned and that of the Irish Bostonians waxed, when the Cabots and Lodges gave way to the Fitzgeralds and Curleys. This Apley cannot completely understand.
I see that the novel was made into a play and then a movie, starring Ronald Colman. The IMDB gives the movies tagline as “Stop apologizing for sex, George Apley…you didn’t invent it!” It would be difficult to imagine a less relevant tagline for the book. It’s far deeper, and funnier, than that.