“George William Apley was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, William Leeds Hancock, on the steeper part of Mount Vernon Street, on Beacon Hill, on January 25, 1866.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the opening sentence of 1938’s Pulitzer-winning novel, The Late George Apley: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir, by John P. Marquand, and let’s get this one point out of the way right now: that is the worst opening sentence of any Pulitzer-winner I have yet read.  It beats the previous record-holder, Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, as badly as Secretariat would beat me in a foot-race (this is to say, badly).  Whatever other skills Marquand possesses, we cannot really credit him with knowing how to “hook” an audience—or rather, I cannot.  And if that sentence intrigues you, I hope you’ll say so!  I’m a history buff and a genealogy nut—seemingly the target audience—and it made me laugh out loud, it was so terrible.

I can’t say the rest of the opening chapter gives me a great deal of hope.  The book is narrated (I’m guessing unreliably, although we’ll see about that) by George Apley’s old friend, surnamed “Willing” (his given name is, as yet, a mystery), who has been asked by George’s family to collect the letters and papers associated with George’s life, and compose them in a sort of quasi-narrative memoir of the man out of respect for his memory.  George is, as is probably now clear, already “late” at this point: the novel’s second sentence gives us the date and location of his death (a good candidate for the worst second sentence of any Pulitzer-winning novel, should I ever try to track such a thing).  Willing is unbelievably precious about the whole thing: Chapter 1 is named “A Foreword and Apology” and subtitled “A Necessary Exposition of Circumstances Permitting a Certain Incorrect Liberty in the Penning of This Memoir”.  I get that there’s a sort of fun in the spoof on Victorian fiction, and the sorts of glowing hagiographies that were written about “men of substance” in the late Gilded Age.  And Marquand may have the chops to pull it off, which would be a fun (if perhaps slight) romp, if so.  But what I’ve seen so far plays the situation too straight: Willing is not quite pompous and self-important enough to be a funny sort of Polonius character, but there’s certainly no way to take his seriousness about the subject matter as being warranted.  The whole effort right now seems weighed down by a style that belabors each point, and by a sort of fussiness about details (see that opening sentence again) that are rather trivial.

First impressions are often wrong, of course: I had an equally bad reaction to what I saw as an excessively prim and prissy narrative voice in the opening chapter of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and I misjudged that gorgeous and powerful novel very badly (luckily I had no qualms about admitting my error immediately).  So I’ll continue into this slice of New England respectability with an open mind, and the hope that perhaps some of my bad reaction is just the culture and style shock of sliding from Margaret Mitchell’s fluid page-turning story-telling to this much more controlled and restricted take on a very different society.  We’ll see what I turn up as I go—part of me just wants to rush through and get to The Yearling and The Grapes of Wrath, but I’ll hold back.  Marquand deserves a fair shake as much as any other author, and I’ve been unexpectedly delighted before.  Onwards, into George Apley’s past.

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7 comments on ““George William Apley was born in the house of his maternal grandfather, William Leeds Hancock, on the steeper part of Mount Vernon Street, on Beacon Hill, on January 25, 1866.”

  1. Donna says:

    Now if that sentence had ended with “…which was a dark and stormy night.” it might have been the worst opening in all of literature, not just Pulitzer-prize winners. LOL!!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Haha, you know, I did think of Bulwer-Lytton as I was laughing at the thing, although I’m not sure how to grade opening lines when they fall below a certain threshold. Would “dark and stormy night” have possibly improved this novel’s first line? The mind shudders at the prospect, but I kind of think it would!

  2. Geoff W says:

    I wouldn’t say it excites me or catches my interest but I do find it fascinating. It’s like quite a few I’ve read recently in British classics. Strangely enough I do have to read them multiple times to make sure I don’t miss anything! But it is definitely not a memorable line.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Excellent! Thanks for the perspective, Geoff—I was hoping somebody would like the opener, since it’s more interesting to me to have multiple ways of looking at the thing. I do sense the British classic vibe you’re talking about….in some ways this isn’t very far from David Copperfield’s “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” But for me the precision of the thing is just too much: I needed to be invested in the book somehow before getting some fairly pedestrian details about a character I know nothing about. Still, I’ll mull it over a bit, and see if getting further into the book changes how the first line strikes me.

  3. SilverSeason says:

    I may be a minority opinion here, but I like Marquand who was a best-selling writer in his day and serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. You use the words “slice of New England respectability” and I think that is what you have. Marquand is spoofing all those memoirs/biographies which set out to glorify their subject but by honest inclusion of the facts end up with a less than glorious characterization. The narrator is proceeding cautiously here. Trust him — he has his reasons.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I don’t know that this is a minority opinion at all! I don’t have a set opinion of Marquand yet: just a first impression that isn’t dazzling me, and a fear that my impression will turn out to be accurate. I’m glad to have your endorsement of him, since it’s always a comfort to know there are folks still reading and enjoying an author—whether or not I can manage to enjoy him also, well, we shall see. As I suggested in my post, I can envision where he might be going here, and what I was envisioning more or less matches the idea you’re putting forward: if he can manage it, I’ll be delighted. One of the advantages/disadvantages of the “blog as I go” approach is that I am wrong about as often as I am right—it can be a little disconcerting, I think, to watch me flounder my way into a book, but for me there’s something valuable about having a record of how I took it in. As I noted about Wilder, I didn’t start out with high hopes for him at all, and said so pretty bluntly, and then I gradually became very impressed by his sensitivity and insight: if Marquand manages the same journey, this book will be well worth it, so I’m hoping for that course of events. Thanks again for your comment, and please keep chiming in if you think I’m missing what Marquand is trying to do!

      • SilverSeason says:

        I enjoy your blog-as-you-go approach. It keeps a person honest (and humble?) to look back at earlier statements that now seem less worthy than current mature and well-considered opinions. Even George Apley did not arrive to perfection in one go, as the narrator will probably tell you.

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