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.