The trouble with Apley, as I’ve already chronicled in some detail in my reflections along the way, is that I don’t feel John Marquand successfully negotiated the fuzzy boundary between fiction and non-fiction that he took on in this novel, which presents the character of George Apley over the course of his whole life, through the eyes of a close friend and the documentary bric-a-brac he left behind him. Marquand isn’t ambitious enough with the fictional details to turn the story into something just slightly larger-than-life, more vivid than what ordinary biography can provide. But he wasn’t energetic enough to pitch the idea of fiction altogether, and research an actual figure—I understand why that seemed daunting, but it would have had the advantage of being genuine, which Apley in its current state does not earn. As it is, I feel I am getting a very incomplete picture of a man not quite real. As I’ve mentioned earlier, even when George takes interesting actions, there is no means by which to examine his motives, to consider what may be happening inside George (or any other character). The format precludes any kind of engagement with the cardboard cut-outs that comprise the dramatis personæ. What few insights Marquand has to offer seem to me very pedestrian—yes, fathers are often overbearing and ungentle to their promising young sons; yes, the strictures of upper-class American society cause some people to reach the end of their lives and find that, to borrow from Thoreau, they had not truly lived; yes, on some level the older generation never does understand the younger generation, or the world in which they live. Did it really take a novel to accomplish that kind of trite epiphany?
The problems are not devastating, in one sense—the book is rarely offensive, its characters occasionally turn a phrase worth pausing over, there are times when it glimpses something about human lives that I was not quite expecting. But in another sense this is really damning, because Marquand is so tentative with the premise and so bound by the rules he establishes that the book isn’t worth getting excited about on any level. The Pulitzers’ more wretched fare—Scarlet Sister Mary, to take but one example—at least has the merit of exuberance and almost cheekiness in its failure. I really disliked that book, but I remember it. I doubt very much that I will remember Marquand’s little story. Devoid of meaningful conflict (it’s hard to be interested in the lives of people you never meet), reined in by an insufferable narrator character who can’t even manage to be boring enough to be funny, walled in by a strict chronological march of decades that saps the energy (or at least it did mine)—the novel is really a strange little work. That this effort beats out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a bafflement.
I’d go on at more length—this review’s a bit shorter than usual—but I’ve rung the changes on this book every way I know how in my previous posts. Unlike many of the other novels I’ve encountered on the journey so far, this one’s like plain oatmeal, and I’m out of adjectives to describe how it fails to inspire much in me. Some folks like Marquand, I know, and they’re welcome to him.
To the extent that the novel is a successful experience for me—which is to say, not very—it’s the fact that Marquand does explore some interesting New England (especially Bostonian) upper class phenomena. The gentlemen’s club dinners, the ladies’ sewing circles, the family plots in ancient graveyards, the Copley portraits hanging in the hall and Revere silver on the dining room table, etc., etc. I didn’t really feel I was breaking a lot of ground that I hadn’t already covered in a slightly more rural high-income old New England family in Early Autumn, or in a more or less equally high-income old family in New York in The Age of Innocence, but there were certainly a few new glimpses of that world, which I found useful. I liked the fact that we get a little idea of how Harvard University changes over time (and how its alumni see it, in this period), and I think there were some nice things done with World War I and Prohibition. But all of this is very slight—because I never really connect to the characters, these little pieces of trivia about the time and place are never quite as real as I want them to be. It’s a bit sad, since I think “historical insight” is really Marquand’s motivation for writing the novel—it’s the only sense I can make of why he wrote what he did. But he never gets there as successfully as I would have wanted, and in trying for it he loses too much.
My thoroughly unscientific ranking scale being what it is, I can only give The Late George Apley a “pass this by, as it fails to be interestingly bad”. It’s by no means the worst of the Pulitzers. Certainly it has its defenders, who I hope will speak for it (either here in the comments, or in other venues), since I feel no particular animosity towards the book. But by virtually every measure I can come up with, this book generally failed to get my attention or to do anything worthwhile with it, when it did. It might be fun to read a really bad novel and have a nice loud banter-filled conversation about it with a friend. This novel won’t give you that experience (or much of any other kind of experience, either), so given the world of books and your limited free time, just keep on walking.
The Last Word:
To finish, as usual, with the author getting the final say, I’m going with one of George Apley’s last letters to his son, in which he comments on an essay by Emerson that he’d been reading, and applies some of it to his life. If this grabs you, maybe you ought to give the book a try. It comes closer to working for me than most of the rest of the book, and I can’t say it works, even then. At any rate, here it is—the words of the late George Apley (though the ellipsis is mine):
“I have been amusing myself to-day by reading Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance. There is a brave ring to the words. There is a courage about them which I like to think that Emerson and the rest of us, in a lesser measure, have drawn from the rocky soil and from this harsh climate. I like to think we are all self-reliant in a way, but sometimes Emerson leads one’s thoughts along disturbing channels. Emerson disturbed me this afternoon.
He made me do something which I have never really done. He made me examine my life objectively, and I cannot say that I liked it very much; however, I could see myself as perhaps you and some others see me. It seems to me that, although I have tried, I have achieved surprisingly little compared with my own father and his father, for instance. I repeat that this negative result has not been for want of trying. The difficulty seems to have been that something has always stepped in the way to prevent me. I have always been faced from childhood by the obligation of convention, and all of these conventions have been made by others, formed from the fabric of the past. In some way these have stepped in between me and life. I had to realize that they were designed to do just that. They were designed to promote stability and inheritance. Perhaps they have gone a little bit too far. . . .
I have known the satisfaction of accomplishing something on which I have centred all my energies and hopes. I have known the feeling of warm earth. I have heard sleigh bells in winter. All this has been very good. Yet somehow I seem to have enjoyed very little of these pleasures, for I have never seemed to have had the time to enjoy them. More than this, I will tell you frankly I have sometimes deliberately tried not to enjoy them. I have turned away from them because I have believed that most of these were pleasures of the senses rather than of the intellect. I have been taught since boyhood not to give way to sensuality. I think this afternoon, now that it is almost too late, that this viewpoint may be a little wrong. There has been too much talk in my life. There has been too little action.”