The Late George Apley is a nicely nuanced and sophisticated novel of social criticism which uses a microscope rather than a bludgeon. Written by John P. Marquand in 1937 and winning the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1938, I would certainly call it a minor-major American classic. Or possible a major-minor American classic.
In fiction I like well-wrought characterization much more than eventful plot lines. I like the plot failures to be things like an unsuccessfully brewed cup of tea and the triumphs to be the sighting of an unusual bird. The Late George Apley is a chronological biography/memoir. The novel’s subtitle is “A Novel in the Form of a Memoir.” George Apley is born to an extremely patrician Boston family in 1866 and dies in 1933, having resided in Beacon Hill on Mount Vernon Street. Isn’t that where Silas Lapham lived? Certainly the Apley family (who are entirely fictional) would have snubbed the Laphams.
According to an article in The New Yorker called “Martini-Age Victorian,” the great American firebrand, Upton Sinclair wrote of Apley that “I began to catch what I thought was a twinkle in the author’s eye…” And indeed there is although it might take you some pages to find the twinkle after the dutiful list of the great achievements of the Apley family. Their manners and money have proceeded in an orderly way for centuries. They relax by belonging to the correct clubs. George Apley is a bird-watcher, a collector of bronzes, and a lover of ceremony and charity of the right sorts. He worries about the squirrels who live in his attic but he does not want to kill them.
Stylistically, Marquand’s style here reminds me of Edith Wharton, who almost always had her tongue firmly in cheek. He is Anthony Trollope’s American cousin. His humor is subtle, however. Here is George Apley quoting the lessons from his mother about reading: “Distrust the book which reads too easily because such writing appeals more to the senses than to the intellect. Hard reading exercises the mind.”
Apley has two sisters. One, Jane, is “wrong”—and we don’t know why. Is she too feisty? Is she deranged? Is she a rebel? She is kept offstage with only rare mentions in the novel—perhaps a “madwoman in the attic”. Apley marries decorously and has a son and a daughter. Apley gives fifteen thousand dollars a year to the Waif’s Society and his eleemosynary instincts are broad. Yet at home, he lives modestly. He writes to his son: “It is the small things in life which count the most. There is nothing which pains me more than your jesting about small sums of money. I learned their importance very early from your Great-Uncle William. You must learn that there is a zest and genuine satisfaction in spending money properly as your Uncle William spent his. There is not much place in this world for personal gratification, nor is this particularly becoming to people of our position.”
On the other hand, his wife “has been collecting butter knives and she now has one of the best collections in the country.” “Quite remarkable,” Apley adds.
And yet—Apley marries not the young woman he loves, but a young woman from one of the best Back Bay families. Yet he is not quite as imperious as his own parents and barely protests when his son marries a divorcée and his daughter marries a journalist—from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
When Apley’s son is an infant, his own father writes in praise: “He has everyone of your grandfather’s features and his manner of holding himself in his bassinet needs no comment from an unprejudiced observer.”
As George Apley makes his decorous progress through middle age, I found I liked him. He wore his stuffed shirt rumpled a bit and Marquand’s prose rolls about majestically with touches of humor. Apley, near death, writes to his son:
“Values shift elusively. When everything is totaled up we have evolved a fine variety of flushing toilets but not a very good world.”
Apley does read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and is impressed with its literary quality, but locks it away in a safe so his daughter will not see it.
I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to those who like gentle humor, those who like character studies, those who like a finely nuanced dissection of society, those who like good writing. If you like Trollope, Edith Wharton, Barbara Pym, John Cheever, or Anne Tyler you might also enjoy this novel. If you like to read about a way of life that now seems remote or if you like to read about Boston, this will be a fine choice for you. I read this as part of the Classics Club Spin, but it had been on my list of Pulitzer Winners for some time.