Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pulitzer Project: The Late George Apley

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. -- Henry David Thoreau
The Late George Apley, which won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for best novel, takes satirical aim at upper-crust Boston by profiling a character who embodies Back Bay Brahmins at their most convention-bound and stuffiest. The novel is written in the form of a memoir, a remembrance of the late George Apley being assembled by a long-time friend of the deceased who also happens to be a writer. The writer's task is to put together a history of George's life using materials provided by his son: letters to and from George, beginning with brief notes he wrote to his parents as a child in the 1870s and continuing right up until just before his death in 1933. The writer's purported goal is to paint a portrait of George Apley that will show him as the wonderful person he was: kind, thoughtful, a good friend, a loving husband and father, a pillar of the community. What emerges instead is a man trapped by convention, stifled in a loveless marriage, scorned by his father as a mediocrity, and ignored and laughed at by his children. 

As the scion of a wealthy Boston family, one whose fortune was made through shipping back before the slave trade became illegal and then diversified into textile mills, poor George follows a highly predictable path: a private grammar school and then Harvard, because there have always been Apleys at Harvard. His father suggests various clubs and charities that George should become involved with, and George allows himself to be steered that way. The few times George comes close to deviating from his expected path, like when he begins seeing an Irish girl from a working class family, his parents intervene. They do the classic rich person's escape route: ship the poor sap off to Europe for a few months and hope he forgets her.

George does what he's told, returns home, marries a girl from his own social set, and goes from having his parents run his life to having his wife call the shots. He does everything he's supposed to do, including starting a collection of antique Chinese bronzes -- not because he likes them (he admits some are remarkably ugly), but because he's got to collect something that can be donated to a museum in the Apley name when George finally shuffles off this mortal coil. The bronzes don't qualify as a fun hobby analogous to a poorer person's baseball cards or souvenir spoons; they're a burden, an obligation that comes with having money.

In fact, everything poor George does he seems to do not because he wants to, but because he's expected to. He really is the embodiment of "quiet desperation." The few times he does seem about to find an escape, his wife steps in to make sure he remains stifled. (He buys an island in Maine to use as a hunting camp that will be "just the fellows," but in short order his wife and his sister push their way in and turn it into something that sounded suspiciously close to Baptist Bible camp, right down to reveille and prayers at 6 a.m. and no booze or tobacco allowed). 

Fortunately for the reader, however, Marquand has a deft touch with words so while poor George is suffering, the reader is snickering at images such as George panicking when he learns his adult daughter and a male companion stopped at a roadhouse, a speakeasy frequented by -- horrors! -- stenographers. He's convinced she'll be ruined for life, that no man will ever want to marry her -- and that is the important thing, that she marry someone from her own social set and carry on in Brahmin society the way Apleys have for generations. (The daughter has different ideas.) He worries about his son spending too much time in New York, because everyone knows New York is one step away from Sodom and Gomorrah and life there could ruin the young Apley for Boston society.

The Late George Apley is a book that some readers might have trouble with. It's almost too easy to read. It's subtle, so an unsophisticated reader could take it at face value and miss the satirical elements. It reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse's jabs at the British upper classes, but where Wodehouse might have pratfalls and broad comedy, Marquand is smoother so the jokes are not as obvious.

The format of this book struck me as an interesting choice, one that gave the writer a lot of freedom to ignore the usual narrative structure of a novel. It was similar to an epistlatory work, but not as formal as most -- and it is much, much better than the one other Pulitzer winner I've read (Gilead) that used a similar technique.
I'm not sure where I'd rank this book in the list of ones I've read so far. It was definitely better than average, but not the best. If I used a 5-star rating system, it would probably get 4 stars.

Next up on the list is The Yearling for 1939. I've already read it, so I'm skipping over it to 1940 and (sometime this summer) The Grapes of Wrath.


  1. Thank you for a great book review. I read The Yearling centuries ago. Started The Grapes of Wrath but couldn't finish. I get so emotionally involved in certain kinds of books that my guts just can't take it. Gulag Archipelago was another I could not read.


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