East Side Story: A Novelby Louis Auchincloss
How did the families who live on Manhattan's Upper East Side get to
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"Louis Auchincloss has an enveloping story to tell and a perfect, understated knowledge of those who inhabit it," said the New York Times of The Scarlet Letters. The same can be said of Auchincloss's new novel, a tour de force that charts the rise of one uncommon family in America's grand city.
How did the families who live on Manhattan's Upper East Side get to where they are today? As much a penetrating social history as it is engaging fiction, East Side Story tells of the Carnochans, a family whose Scottish forebears establish themselves in New York's textile business during the Civil War. From there they quickly move on to seize prominent positions in the country's top schools and Manhattan's elite firms. As the novel unfolds, family members across the generations recount their stories, illuminating lives steeped in both good fortune and moral jeopardy. From women who outsmart their foolish husbands, to ambitious lawyers who protect the Carnochan name, to the family's artists and writers, all weigh the question that infuses so much of Auchincloss's fiction: what makes for a meaningful life in a family that has so much?
In its starred review, Kirkus Reviews hails Auchincloss for being "once again the master of his craft." East Side Story is both a loving and wicked look at New York's own as only this sublime master of manners can provide.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
To celebrate, next New Year’s Day of the year 1904, the seventy-fifth anniversary of our arrival on this side of the Atlantic, my great-nephew David urged me, as the only published author of the family, to write up a history of the Carnochans to be privately printed and distributed to the many descendants of my father, the original David, who, three quarters of a century ago, emigrated as a young man from Scotland to establish a branch of the family thread business in New York. When I pleaded age and illness as an excuse, he asked me at least to contribute a first chapter about my father, whom I, as the youngest of his offspring, was the sole survivor to remember, pointing out that as the patriarch had left no letters or journal, there would be nothing but account books with which to reconstruct his personality.
But would that be such a bad thing?
Father’s obituary notices in 1869 were fulsome in their pompous tribute, but I always kept in a special file the funeral address of his Presbyterian pastor, which contained this gem:
He was not a man of smooth words, a disguised flatterer, nor a person to seek even good ends by craft and indirectness. Making no pretensions to literary culture, though well instructed in all that belonged to his profession and his church, he dealt more in forcible reasons than in fair speeches, and this in business as in religion. It is just the sort of character which we should lament to see going out of date. Of any man it is sufficient eulogy to say that he so uses his powers as to be virtuously successful in his chosen calling. Such honor belongs to David Carnochan. The judgment of the commercial circle in this city, as uttered in the great centers of business in our emporium, is decisive on this point.
When I suggested to my great-nephew that he use this for his first chapter, he simply said: “Uncle Peter, you’re making fun of me.” Yet every word the pastor had written was true! The New York of that simpler day had at least not been hypocritical. It actually believed those things!
Well, I was not going to let myself sink into the role of crank, so I drafted for David a short, dry, factual account of my father’s business and domestic life, which will constitute the innocuous preface to his little book. Don’t most readers skip prefaces, anyway?
But as I wrote it, I found myself wondering if I shouldn’t try my hand at a few pages on what Father was really like, at least as a father. And then I realized that any such portrait would be just as much a portrait of the son as the father, for each term implied the existence of the other. Well, why not? It would be the portrait of a relationship, and maybe that was as good a way as any to approach truth.
So here it is. David will never print it in his family book, but something tells me he will not throw it away. David is no fool.
We don’t know much about our origins in Paisley. Paisley is an ancient town, set in the plain of the Cart rivers, seven miles west of Glasgow, in Renfrewshire, and a great thread manufacturing center. Some of the family used to take pride in the fact that David the emigrant came of a clan already established in business in the Old World rather than as an adventurous beggar or a refugee from religious persecution or even an ex-convict. But some of our less-reverent youngsters liked to circulate a story about my older brother Douglas my father’s true heir and prosperous business successor when he returned to the homeland in quest of one of those family trees which (the mockers claimed) Edinburgh genealogists produced at so much a head for each Bruce, Stewart, or Wallace added, and happened to hire an ancient caddy (Scots had such then) at a Paisley golf course. “I am here, my man,” Douglas is reputed to have informed the old boy in a lordly tone as they trudged across the green, “to trace my family origins. My name is Carnochan. Perhaps you have heard of it.” “I have indeed!” was the caddy’s enthusiastic rejoinder. “It’s my name! And I do recall that my mither used to say one branch had crossed the ocean and done better!” Despite this suggestion of less than Olympian origin, Douglas returned to New York with a tree bristling with lords and ladies. He always denied the caddy story.
Today the fashion has changed, at least in the younger set, and people like to boast that they stem from sturdier stock, from outlaws and sheep stealers and pirates, but I suspect that the truth is that the Carnochans in the Old World were pretty much what they became in the New: good burghers with a sharp eye for a deal. You would not have found one of them risking a copper penny for Mary Stuart or Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The outline of Father’s liffe that I gave to young David was, of course, factually accurate. Father was considered a success at each of the few things he undertook. HHHHHe was a prosperous merchant in a town that boasted dozens of even more prosperous ones; he served a term as president of the American Dry Goods Association; he was a revered elder of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and he enjoyed a seemingly tranquil marriage to the daughter of a fellow Paisley emigrant on whom he sired a multitude of children. I might here note, for whatever significance it may have, that all his many living descendants stem from only one of these, my brother Douglas. The rest died either childless or unwed.
What I have earlier written makes it pretty clear, I guess, that Father was a granite pillar of respectability. He lived simply but well in a big square red-brick house on Great Jones Street and a summer villa on Staten Island, entertaining frugally his carefully chosen few friends, mostly fellow Scots, and punctiliously attending divine services. He never cultivated the society of Gotham, where he would, in any case, have been considered too dour a guest; it was his son Douglas, whose wife, Eliza, was of ancient colonial stock, who went in for that. Father, needless to add, frowned severely on the frivolities of dancing and drinking and general hilarity. He had his own strict views of what such things led to.
But what I want to get at is what Father was to me, his youngest and physically frailest child. He was a tall, lean, gaunt man with large craggy features and thick unkempt gray hair or is that simply the way I see him, looking back, without a trace of nostalgia, at those early years? No doubt I exaggerate his formidability. Neither of my brothers seemed to feel it as I did. And I admit there was a surprising serenity in his pale blue eyes, and that he never lifted a hand to any of us or even lost his temper, and that there was an air of mild benignity in what I could not help feeling was a basic exemption from the usual family attachments. No, he was not a bad man; there was no cruelty in his firmness, or malice, or even ego in his insistence on domestic obedience. What was it about him, then, that filled me with such unutterable dismay?
What it was, I can now only suppose, was that he resolutely denied with the blind faith of a latter-day John Knox that there was anything but potential evil in all the things that to me made life worthwhile: in love and laughter and merry companionship, in sports and theater, and, worst of all, in art. In short: in pleasure. Life to David Carnochan was something simply to be got through by satisfying the fleshly appetites only with such aliments as were necessary to sustain it and only with so much coition as was needed to maintain it for God’s glory on earth. And so he ran a business in thread to shield nudity not only from the cold but from temptation, and used his seed to increase the number of God’s chosen. The deity who insisted on his own daily magnification could be counted on for compensation in a future life that was presumably not devoid of pleasure, though that pleasure would seem to consist primarily in the hallooing of anthems. When I watched Father, stentorianly out of tune, sturdily raising his voice in a hymn in church, I could not but wonder if this to him was the houri promised the deceased Islamite. I could never imagine him in bed with Mother. Was heaven to be a repetition of a Sunday service?
Of course, there are, and perhaps, alas, always will be, persons who hold such tenets, but Father’s power, at least where I was concerned, was in making them seem more real than any other reality that I tried desperately to make out behind them. He simply stripped life of every aspect of color and charm that it might have possessed; he made an arid desert of every fancied oasis. In his flat voice, in the grating of his rare chuckle, in the slight elevation of his bushy eyebrows at any mention of a diversion, he made me wonder if the only feasible thing to do in the world he created was to die. His god may not have been my god, but I believed that his god not only existed but would probably get the better of any god I could conjure up to oppose him.
I did not, however, stand alone against him. I may not have had an ally in any of my siblings, but I had one, fortunately or not, as a reader of these notes may decide, in my mother. Mother’s outward appearance was that of just such a wife as a man like Father might seem to need and want. She was large, plain, silent, thin-lipped, utterly conventional, an awesomely efficient matron and housekeeper. She appeared to have no difficulty with her spouse’s way of life and gave no hint of not sharing his concept of God and what God expected. As a mother she was always patient with and mildly understanding of the whims and wiles of children, though it was sometimes possible to detect that her slightly tepid maternal feelings were in hidden conflict with a repressed exasperation. Except where the two younger of her three sons were concerned: Andrew and myself. Andrew, handsome, hearty, jovial, and charming, was her obvious favorite. He was everyone’s favorite; even Father’s, whose opaque glance showed almost a twinkle when Andrew smiled at him. The exception granted me was for a very different reason. From childhood I suffered from asthma.
My terrible attacks of breathlessness were allayed only by Mother’s care and embraces. She had given life to my siblings, but I was the only one who seemed to need her to retain it. I think I may have represented to her the one thing in the whole Presbyterian world of her husband that she might call her very own, and she was determined to cling to me with a fierceness, always deep within her but hitherto untapped, before which even Father quailed. She raised a wall around my sickbed against which he would have battered in vain, had he not rather had the sense to wait for the day when I should emerge into more neutral territory.
It was thus that I grew up sheltered, so to speak, like a lion cub against a possibly dangerous sire. Or to use a less violent image, like the young Achilles reared amid the maidens, in my case my older sisters, to shield him from future battles. With the marked difference that Achilles managed still to grow up to be a warrior while I became the very reverse. At twenty, as a day student at Columbia College, I was thin and pale and drawn- looking. My attacks had almost ceased, but I made the most of those that still occurred, knowing that too much of a cure might cost me my exemption from the paternal rites of cold baths, vigorous walks on the hard city pavements, two-hour church services, and other soul-fortifying exercises. To me was permitted, in town, the luxury of long winter afternoons by the parlor fire with a treasury of romantic novels, and, in summer, the delight of not having to plunge into the sea but basking in the sun, daydreaming and watching the others bob in the water.
It was on the tender ears of such a nonparticipant in the bracing life that the angry tumult of pre-secession America fell. At first it sounded far from our quiet household. Father was of the school that found slavery sanctioned in the Bible and that felt, anyway, it was solely the business of the South; he joined my brother Douglas in holding that no compromise of the issue was too great to save a Union that was good for business. Andrew, on the other hand, was a fiery abolitionist and even dared to beard his father at the family board meeting with taunts about his tolerance of “Simon Legrees and women floggers.” But the actual outbreak of war brought about a cautious lineup of the formerly peace-loving Carnochans on the side of “Honest Abe.” My brother Douglas led the way. Bluff and single-minded, he was already Father’s right-hand man in the family business and was beginning to dominate his now aging parent. He had the gift of renewing his native heartiness in the wake of each new change in his point of view; he was able, I believe, quite literally to chase out of his conscious mind any memory of attachment to a superseded cause. New York had plenty of Southern sympathizers in its business community, and our family connection with Scotland might have inclined us at least to tolerate Britain’s initial hostility to the Union side, but Douglas was a shrewd man in his predictions and he had surmised that the future lay with the North. Accordingly, no one was louder now in his denunciations of what were soon to be called “copperheads.” Andrew, who was getting ready to enlist and who was well aware that his embattled older brother had no such military intentions, was more than willing to throw Douglas’s past opinions in his face. I recall in particular one family dispute. Douglas, a recent member of the Union Club his hand was already gripping the upper rings of the social ladder was holding forth on the needed expulsion of certain members who, in his loudly voiced opinion, were no better than traitors.
Andrew went right for the jugular. “It seems to me, Douglas, that you take a pretty strong line for a man who only yesterday was supporting the Fugitive Slave Law.” “That was a simple question of law, Andy. A slave was private property, and strayed property had to be returned to its owner. My attitude did not for a minute imply that I was ever in favor of slavery. I respected the Constitution, that was all.” “You didn’t think the law of God was superior to that of the Constitution?” “Boys, boys,” came Father’s gravelly voice. “Will you kindly leave the name of the Almighty out of your political discussions. We have had no divine guidance as to which side, if either, He would favor in this unhappy conflict. There are men of undoubted faith among our foes. We can only pray that what we are doing is God’s will.” A short, respectful, but perfunctory silence followed the paternal admonition, but the brothers were soon at it again.
“Slavery was the price we paid for our Union,” Douglas continued. “It was a bitter price, but we paid it. But now that the rebels have gone back on their word, we have every legal and moral right to free their slaves and force them back into the Union. They have torn up the Constitution. There is nothing inconsistent between my pre- and postwar thinking.” “Only between your pre- and postwar heart,” Andrew sneered. “We remember how sweetly you used to cultivate all those rich planters who came North to spend their summers in Newport!” But this was nothing compared to the bitterness between the two much later in the war when the draft was passed. Andrew, a twice-wounded army captain was fighting in Virginia when he got word from Father that Douglas, who had never left the family office, had purchased a substitute for $300. Father’s letter mentioned this as if it had been the only thing that his much-needed assistant could do, but he may have anticipated something of his second son’s reaction when he added a note of the connection between the thread business and the army’s need of uniforms. But Andrew was not impressed. His stinging answer to Father’s letter was that the family had been disgraced.
There had never been any question of my enlisting. I had felt an obligation to utter some murmurs about joining the colors, but Mother’s indignant protests, backed by those of our kindly old family physician, Dr. Findlay, whom she had, so to speak, in her pocket, allowed me to retreat from glory behind my noticeably diminishing asthmatic at- tacks. The only slight shame that I felt was in the hearty endorsement of the maternal attitude taken by my war-minded brother Andrew, whose ever-generous nature ascribed to me a genuine disappointment at missing combat and who assured me, placing a friendly arm around my shoulders, that if I would be good about staying home, he would fight hard enough for two. I could not but blush at the thought of my own hidden relief at my nonenlistment, but I solaced myself with counting up how many of my contemporaries remained out of uniform and with the hope, soon to be dashed, that the war would be a short one.
The disasters that followed Bull Run darkened the next two years and ultimately necessitated the draft, which brought on the major decision of my life. For my health had gone as well as the war had gone badly; my asthma attacks had virtually ceased. It was evident that if I were to avoid military service, it would have to be through an official exemption, for I knew that I would rather die than submit my heroic brother Andrew, who had been severely wounded but had rejoined his regiment, to the humiliation of having two brothers who bought substitutes.
Of course, Mother and Dr. Findlay were vigorously of the opinion that there could be no question of the army’s sending a sick “boy” (I was twenty) to perish on some freezing winter night in a Virginia campaign. If there was any question of my exemption not being promptly granted, they were prepared to appeal to the Secretary of the Army. But what attitude was I to take? For weeks I hovered miserably in indecision. And then something happened that induced me to request the exemption. I had another attack.
Was it that? How the question agonized me! Even now, decades later, it hurts me to write it. But I have long faced the truth. There was an element of the willed in it. I was so familiar with the nature of such attacks that it could not have been difficult for my psyche to simulate one, particularly if so much as the ghost of a former onslaught were to assail me. I made the most of my symptoms, and so convinced Dr. Findlay, who accompanied me to my examination by the draft board, that he lost his temper at one of its members who questioned his diagnosis. The board accorded me the requested status, but I saw in the expression of the doubting member that he, for one, had not been convinced, and I hated him, for I knew in my heart that he was right.
Anyway, it was done, and I pleased Father by telling him that I was now willing to enter Columbia Law School, from which I had so far been protected by Mother’s fearing that the hard dry study of the law might not sit with my nervous disposition. Father, counting on his two older sons to succeed him in his business, thought it would be well for them to have a family lawyer, and although his hopes for me were slender, he thought that my effete taste for literature might be strengthened by a dose of the cod-liver oil of law.
But I had a different reason for choosing law. In a world at war the mood was masculine, and I had a nervous desire to merge myself as much as possible with a generation of young heroes, or at least not to stand out too harshly as not belonging to it. I think I was obsessed with the silly idea that lawyers were somehow more men than readers or writers, that I would, as a student of the profession, be more qualified to join in the brave chorus of “Glory, glory, alleluia!,” that I would be, despite my shameful civilian garb, more a part of the general uplift, which could be very contagious. Was law to me a kind of protective coloration? But from what was I really protecting myself? From myself, of course. For I didn’t really believe for a minute that anyone would see me as even remotely comparable to my gallantly fighting brother.
My defenses may have been artificial, and indeed, they were not to last, but for a year they brought me the greatest, and perhaps the only real, happiness of my life. It was certainly not the law that brought this about. I attended the lectures and skimmed the cases, but without any real attention or without the least anticipation of ever being admitted to the bar. My big brown notebook was filled not with summaries of statutes and court decisions but with the scribbled manuscript of the romantic historical novel of the American Revolution that I was intent on composing, whose hero, of course, was a fervid Yankee and whose heroine a haughty Brit. When I opened its pages, the terrible Battle of the Wilderness would fade away into a gray distance.
But oh, the joy of that time, of those months, of those long, delectable afternoons when I was shut up in the dark, half-empty, overheated law school library, which excluded not only the war but my family: Father and Douglas and the sisters and even Mother, who in her daily tortured anxiety about Andrew had almost ceased to be concerned about my now quite sturdy health. I was alone, blessedly alone, accountable to no one, and I could hug to my heart my own little genius and cultivate the wild illusion that one day it might startle the literary world. For as I read over and over the seemingly mellifluous passages that flowed from my active pen, I treasured the notion that I was husbanding a talent of which future generations would have need, and that it would have been a sorry waste to let it perish with its possessor in the red dirt of Virginia. If I had done a wrong to myself and to my country in abstaining from battle, was I not making up for it in giving what I could to the future? The Carnochans would have produced more than just Father and Douglas; they would have produced me!
My dreams were shattered by the news of Andrew’s death in the Wilderness Campaign, only months before Appomatox. Reading over the manuscript of my novel in the shadow of the shining monument that my agonized imagination immediately raised to his glory, I saw unmistakably what feeble stuff it was. And the gray shattered countenance of my mortally stricken mother, and even the new lines of sorrow on my father’s craggy features, convinced me that it was, after all, a world of men which had little but a mild pity for and, at best, a mild tolerance of such weaklings as myself. I suffered what would later be called a nervous breakdown, quit law school, abandoned my novel, and moped at home. Mother was almost lost to me in the deep night of her mourning, and Father treated me with an almost kindly acceptance, which was intended to disguise, I had little doubt, an essential indifference to a son who was evidently to be of little further use to him or his business, but who, like his several unmarried daughters, was as permanent a part of his home as the chairs and tables and prints of biblical scenes. He never said a word about my draft exemption, but I suspected that he smelled the fraud. It was devastating, and it remained so until he died, which both he and Mother did, within months of each other, in the year 1869.
Their estates were divided evenly among their many offspring, and my share was just enough to maintain a decent bachelor’s existence. Eventually I resumed my writing and produced the three light historical romances whose small but steady sale through the years has given me the faintest trickle of literary renown. It will soon enough dry up. And the brave Andrew is quite forgotten. It is only through Douglas and his posterity that we survive. That would not in the least have surprised my eldest brother.
Well, there it is. I leave this memorandum to young David in the mild hope that it may help him to understand the past. He is clever enough to glean what profit he can from its few pages without irritating the family by publishing them.
Copyright © 2004 by Louis Auchincloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Meet the Author
Louis Auchincloss was honored in the year 2000 as a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. During his long career he wrote more than sixty books, including the story collection Manhattan Monologues and the novel The Rector of Justin. The former president of the Academy of Arts and Letters, he resided in New York City until his death in January 2010.
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