Upon reading an advanced copy of The Late George Apley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Sinclair Lewis wrote the following message: “I started to read it and it appeared to me to be an exact and very detailed picture of a Boston aristocrat… One can never be sure about Boston, and I hope I am not mistaken in my idea that the author is kidding the Boston idea. It is very subtle and clever, and I am not sure that Boston will get it.”
A mirror of the author’s own life, The Late George Apley offers a charming but satirical portrait of an upper-crust Boston Brahmin from birth until death. It is epistolary in style, not unlike a later Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) —click here to read my reflections on Gilead. The Late George Apley employs a sense of realism, akin to an earlier Pulitzer Prize winner The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) —click here to read my reflections on The Bridge of San Luis Rey— as we are offered a variety of fragmentary letters representing key moments in the life of the recently deceased George Apley (1866-1933). His fictional biography is presented to us by George Apley’s friend, Horatio Willing, Boston’s Dean of Letters and an amusing gentleman in his own right with experiencing compiling other notes and letters of prominent Bostonians. Why write a book about George Apley? Mr. Willing was apparently spurred to edit the biography at the insistence of Mr. Apley’s somewhat rebellious son, John. According to Mr. Willing “At no time in the history of the world have such material changes occurred as those in George Apley’s life span” (29). The novel asks us to piece together George Apley’s life through the writings of various people who knew him, perhaps not unlike the biographical interviews presented in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).
The story, at least insofar as there exists a narrative, guides us through the history of the Apley family from their place of origin in Sussex, England before emigrating to the United States and embarking on various businesses ventures including in the slave trade, but the true source of their wealth comes several generations later via enterprises in the Boston shipping industry. George Apley is raised alongside the Charles River at his family’s home on Beacon Street in Boston as well as the family’s country estate at Hillcrest. He attends Mr. Hobson’s school as a boy, and then Harvard where he participates in many clubs, student government, and so on. He is often found quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson in his “quiet world of mind and order” (41).
George Apley’s father Thomas is a stuffy conservative textile businessman who favors protectionism for his industry, while his mother is something of a socialite. We learn of an incident in George Apley’s life –an incident which he wanted removed from his own biography but which was included anyway at his son John Apley’s request– an incident in which he falls in love with a demure but respectable young woman named Mary Monahan. At any rate, his time at Harvard is followed by a sailing trip to Europe before Mr. Apley again returns to Boston to attend Harvard Law School. He then becomes engaged to a young woman named Catharine Bosworth and their marriage is “in every way an eminently suitable match” (119). George Apley spends his days at various clubs and philanthropic organizations and he writes a paper called “Jonas Good of Cow Corner” a scholarly paper tracing the characteristics of the many owners of a particular parcel in North East Boston which he presents to the gentleman’ club, the Browsers’ Club in Boston. Presently the parcel is occupied by restaurant and laundry. This was a fascinating little interlude in my view, but all of it remains mostly superficial without much depth (and I think this is a key point of the novel –superficiality). As time goes by, marital discord ensues when they are unable to decide on a name for their firstborn. We learn of the passing of Mr. Apley’s father and thus George becomes leader of the prominent Apley family. As the years go by he becomes a grandfather, and begins to experience failing health while traveling through Rome. He founds a nature camp retreat for men in Maine called the Pequod Island Camp. We learn of his support for World War I, even though he cannot personally serve himself and he expresses disappointment toward a reluctant nation for the war effort, so he demands for moral action. As a much older man he becomes active in efforts to preserve the old, high-brow Puritan and Protestant associations in Boston. In the end, George Apley dies in 1933.
The Late George Apley, which 1930s writer Percy Hutchison of the The New York Times called “a finely perceptive novel” is a celebration of the Bostonian spirit as we watch George Apley transformed into a high-minded gentleman. In fact George Apley says of himself “I am the sort of man I am, because environment prevented my being anything else” (3). He is a reflection of the all-encompassing ethos of Boston, by the end of the novel he claims the following: “And indeed… it is a good place to live in, taken all in all. Probably the best place in this neurotic world, with the possible exception of London, although I am not even sure about this. At any rate, it is the only place I care to live in” (323).
The central question of the novel concerns George Apley’s character and whether or not he resigns himself to an elite world of conformity. Is he a courageous gentleman, as our narrator would have us believe? Or is he instead a mere frivolous trust-fund recipient, devoid of honor and lacking in substance? Personally, I am inclined to find Mr. Apley somewhere in the middle. The Late George Apley is mostly a winking lampoon of the decaying Bostonian aristocracy, but there is nevertheless an air of quiet virtue about the late George Apley.
The following are some key quotations I found while reading along:
“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” (3 -opening lines).
“And now arises a final question and one which has perplexed many another biographer. What is truth in a life? In order to delineate character there must be an artistic stressing of certain qualities –but are these the vital qualities? Who has the right to say?” (7-8).
“To a casual observer, from another section than our own, these works my not seem worth preserving. Taken individually this may be so, but collectively they reveal the spirit of the man and his influence on the life around him. They reveal too, I think, the true spirit of our city and of our time, since Apley was so essentially a part of both” (8).
“Biography, like every other branch of art, must have its form and its conventions” (9).
“Pride in family, place, and tradition were inherent within the man; his realization of their importance grew with the years, until many of his activities became centered about genealogical research” (27).
“There is no doubt that in the broader sense Apley was a man beloved by all” (321).
The Late George Apley was made into a Broadway Play in 1944. A film version was also made in 1947 directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Ronald Colman as George Apley. This was followed by a television program from 1955-1957.
On The 1938 Pulitzer Decision
For the first time since 1929, the Novel Jury was slightly changed following the death of multi-year Juror in 1937 Albert B. Paine, notable Mark Twain biographer. He was replaced by a new Chairman, Joseph W. Krutch, a theater critic for The Nation and Columbia University professor with a focus on ecology and pantheistic naturalism. His book entitled The Measure of Man (1954) won the National Book Award. He was joined by returning Jurors and fellow Columbia professors, Jefferson B. Fletcher and Robert M. Lovett
- Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970) was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and studied at the University of Tennessee and Columbia University. After serving in the army, he traveled throughout Europe with a friend, poet and critic Mark Van Doren. He taught composition at Brooklyn Polytechnic and became a theater critic at The Nation where he worked for many years. Something of a pantheist, mystic, and naturalist –he penned widely read biographies of Henry David Thoreau and Samuel Johnson.
- Jefferson Butler Fletcher (1865-1946) was born in Chicago, served in the American Field Ambulance Services during World War I, and educated at Harvard and Bowdoin College. He was a long-serving professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University (from 1904-1939). He was considered a foremost expert on the Italian Renaissance and Dante, and in his obituary in The New York Times, it was noted that he served on the Pulitzer Novel Jury for “several years.” Sadly, his son died in an automobile accident in 1926, and Fletcher also had a daughter.
- Robert Morss Lovett (1870-1956) was a Bostonian who studied at Harvard. He taught literature at the University of Chicago for many years, he was associate editor of The New Republic, served as governor secretary of the Virgin Islands, and was a political activist –he was accused of being a communist by the Dies Committee which forced him out of his secretary position. He was often on the frontlines of left-leaning picket lines, and helped launch the careers of several young writers, including John Dos Passos. In later years, his wife became a close friend and associate of Jane Addams and the couple lived at Hull House for a spell.
The Late George Apley was unanimously selected by the Jury along with two possible runners-up: The Sound of Running Feet by Josephine Lawrence, and Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts. With the benefit of hindsight it quite astounding that neither John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, nor Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, nor the collected U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos made the cut for the Novel Jury in 1937 (and to a lesser extent, both John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and Ernest Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not were also overlooked that year).
Who Is John P. Marquand?
John Phillips Marquand (1893-1960) was once was hailed as “the most successful novelist in the United States” by Life Magazine in 1944. Like the protagonist of his most famous novel (George Apley), Mr. Marquand was a descendent of the early governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as of prosperous shipping magnates but his family lost all their wealth in the Panic of 1907. He was a Harvard alumnus and later became a part-time war correspondent.
During the 1930s, Marquand was a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post, where he debuted the character of Mr. Moto, a Japanese secret agent. This led to a series of popular novels. Three years later, Marquand won the Pulitzer Prize for The Late George Apley. Its critical success led to his appearance on the cover of both Time Magazine as well as Newsweek. Several more novels followed in the proceeding years: H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), So Little Time (1943), B.F.’s Daughter (1946), Point of No Return (1949), Melvin Goodwin, USA (1952), Sincerely, Willis Wayde (1955), and Women and Thomas Harrow (1959), each of them chronicling life in early 20th century New England for which John Marquand was dubbed a ‘Martini Age Victorian” by the critic Charles Brady in 1952.
Mr. Marquand was married twice, both of them ending in divorce, and produced a total of five children. He died of a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 66 in 1960 at his home in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Marquand, John. The Late George Apley. Little Brown and Company, Boston, 1936.
Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.
It sounds like one of those books that meant something at the time but which may have lost its relevance. Like those chronicles of the English aristocracy in which there are neither people prancing about in armour or getting their heads chopped off, nor universal truths which might apply to the rest of us. But maybe that’s unduly harsh
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