Manhattan Monologues: Stories

Manhattan Monologues: Stories

by Louis Auchincloss
     
 

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He is our sublime master of manners, our "most astute observer of moral paradox among the affluent" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), and "one of the essential American writers" (Kirkus). Now, in his fifty-seventh book, Louis Auchincloss delivers a brilliant collection of ten new, previously unpublished, stories; once again, he unfailingly "voices truths with elegant… See more details below

Overview

He is our sublime master of manners, our "most astute observer of moral paradox among the affluent" (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), and "one of the essential American writers" (Kirkus). Now, in his fifty-seventh book, Louis Auchincloss delivers a brilliant collection of ten new, previously unpublished, stories; once again, he unfailingly "voices truths with elegant precision" (Publishers Weekly).
MANHATTAN MONOLOGUES charts a colorful New York century through a series of personal accounts from the rarefied circle that fills Auchincloss's best short fiction. Here are characters who confidently finesse their way through society's uppermost tiers and yet are just as easily undone by the smallest upset in a day. Like all of Auchincloss's richest creations, they bump up against their consciences, with often surprising results. What, for instance, is a woman to do when she must choose between true love and high society when making a marriage? How can a man stay true to himself, his family, and his country when it goes to war? How can a determined marriage broker salvage matters when the young man she has so painstakingly steered toward a love match becomes charmed by another woman?
These tales, and many more, fashion a glamorous, yet all too human, societal portrait -- from the aristocratic loyalties of the early twentieth century to the complicated twists of modern-day mergers and acquisitions. MANHATTAN MONOLOGUES is Louis Auchincloss at his most clever, his most discerning, his best.

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Editorial Reviews

Beth Kephart
Concerned with the moral dilemmas of society's upper crust and blessed with an authoritative command of language, Auchincloss has long written venerable, old-school tales. In this story collection, the fifty-seventh book in the author's oeuvre, inadequate sons, distant or disapproving parents and scheming businessmen come to life. Many of these stories build from the conceit of either memoir or "memorandum," in which narrators feel obliged to record their life stories as a means of explication or defense. In "The Treacherous Age," Alida Schuyler, well-off but nagged by the sense that things might be coming unglued, sets down her biography at the suggestion of her psychiatrist, to devastating effect. In "He Knew He Was Right," a newly divorced man picks up his pen so that his sons might someday understand "that their father was not the moral monster that their mother and her kin have depicted." At times, the stories rely on long stretches of expository writing, and the self-consuming myopia of the characters can feel stifling. But particularly in "All That May Become a Man" and "The Scarlett Letters," Auchincloss digs deep beneath the surface and delivers emotional and memorable portraits.
Publishers Weekly
Auchincloss mines familiar ground-life in New York's financial and cultural top drawer during the 20th century and its accompanying upheavals-in his 57th book, a collection of 10 previously unpublished stories. Nearly every character is the scion of some great banking family or a partner in one of Manhattan's prestigious law firms, and an air of entitlement weighs heavily on each story, though this is balanced with equal parts humor and pathos. The protagonists' world of elite boarding schools and exclusive clubs is redolent of a not-so-distant past of privilege, but the characters remain endearingly human in their foibles and follies. In "Harry's Brother," awkward Charles Pierce Jr. spends his entire life in the shadow of his roguish, popular younger sibling; a woman's efforts to find a suitable bride for her charming but indolent son backfire in "The Marriage Broker." A longing for romantic love shapes much of the book, as in "The Heiress," the reminiscence of a spirited woman drawn to a suitor "different and more interesting" than the "great man of the future" her father demanded that she marry. By setting these stories against the backdrop of a century, the author traces the evolution of Gotham's upper classes, suggesting continuity even as traditional wealth slowly gives way to the twin specters of globalization and new money. Auchincloss favors stylized writing, shot through with dense, sinewy passages, and even when the dialogue leans in the direction of the archaic, he makes it seem effortless and true. Once again, he lives up to his reputation as one of our great men of letters. (July 10) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a renowned and prolific writer, Auchincloss (The Rector of Justin) here offers his 57th book. This collection of previously unpublished short stories is all about the high society denizens of New York City during the 1900s. The trials and tribulations of the very rich in their city, country, business, and prep school settings are carefully crafted to show that human interactions and the problems they cause repeat themselves through time and across all social classes. The loveless marriage, the child who does not measure up to parental expectations, the attempts to manipulate the lives of others, and the confrontation of life's hard realities are all examined. The resolution of the difficulties described are largely dependent on the vagaries of human nature and not on the size of the bank account. Auchincloss is urbane, humorous, and somewhat ironic in his storytelling, making this collection a treat to read. - Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A dry martini of a collection from an author who, in his 57th book, voices his characters with a precision and care almost unheard of in a sloppy age. While the stories here span the better part of the 20th century, they nevertheless hew to Auchincloss's familiar aristocratic settings (Her Infinite Variety, 2000, etc.), generally New York's Knickerbocker elite. "All That May Become a Man" is set in the Vollard clan, who for the most part occupy themselves with living lives-on the hunt or in war-of a dangerousness that would almost make Teddy Roosevelt quake. The narrator, who disappoints his father by avoiding service in WWI, is the sole man of the family without an adventurous spirit. Years later, his mother tells him to have the courage simply to admit that he was afraid to die, and refuses to let him off the hook: "No one is born fearless. Your father made himself a hero by grit and will power. And don't you ever dare to take it from him!" "The Marriage Broker" manages to tell a story of arranged marriage amid the wealthy classes without resorting to the commonplace moral dilemmas. A somewhat more modern piece, "The Justice Clerk," is a recounting of a man's journey from being an enthusiastic clerk for a Supreme Court justice during the New Deal to being a man disgusted with both the right (the justice) and the left (his Stalinist wife); he determines to "lose myself in the blessed impersonality of taxes." Praiseworthy in so delectable a volume are its wit and economy, but equally deserving of mention is Auchincloss's approachability. While his characters dwell in the upper latitudes of wealth and breeding, he doesn't give readers entry to this world in a voyeuristic fashion, sothere's little in the way of breathless recountings of fabulous parties, dinners, and journeys. Telling stories about a privileged world, Auchincloss doesn't belie the intellectual and material luxuriousness his characters live in, but neither does he ever stoop to revel in them.
From the Publisher
Auchincloss is not a cheerleader for his class, but a patient unraveler of problems that are far from class specific.
The Weekly Standard

[Auchingloss's] sense of irony is sharper than ever.
The New York Daily News

...finely etched portraits of the kind of men we've become used to meeting in his fiction.
The New York Times Book Review

...writing with grace and perception... Each story is a mini masterpiece impeccably crafted and imaginatively told.
Amazon.com

...a subtly unified social history.
The Seattle Times

For the sheer elegance of his prose, Louis Auchincloss deserves a large and enthusiastic following.
The Baltimore Sun

...10 highly nuanced portraits...
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"There isn't a dud among the dozen stories..." The Wall Street Journal

Auchincloss is urbane, humourous, and somewhat ironic in his storytelling, making this collection a treat to read.
Library Journal

Auchincloss digs deep below the surface and delivers emotional and memorable portraits.
Book Magazine

Once again, he lives up to his reputation as one of our great men of letters.
Publishers Weekly, Starred

The high society that Louis Auchincloss writes about is Chekhovian...
Los Angeles Times

...readers are drawn along to discover the calculations that are required to maintain the polished surfaces of the characters' lives.
Booklist, ALA

[Auchincloss] voices his characters with a precision and care almost unheard of in a sloppy age.
Kirkus Reviews

"For the sheer elegance of his prose, Louis Auchincloss deserves a large and enthusiastic audience" The Chicago Tribune

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780547790497
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
07/10/2002
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
240
File size:
0 MB

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.

Read an Excerpt

All That May Become a Man

I have never dropped the junior from my name, Ambrose Vollard, even after my father’s death, because I always felt that the important thing about me was that I was his son. It was not that he was a distinguished historical figure—he wasn’t. He lived the life, as my mother once put it, of a “charming idler,” the adequately endowed New York gentleman of Knickerbocker forebears who had dedicated his existence to sport and adventure. But he was also a hero— that was the real point — to his non-heroic only son. As a Rough Rider he had charged up San Juan Hill after his beloved leader, the future President; he had slaughtered dozens of the most dangerous beasts of the globe; and he had attended expeditions to freezing and tropical uncharted lands for museums and zoos.
As a child I was obsessed with the notion that youth was only a preparation for the rigors of manhood. I was fourteen when the battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, and I could never forget the noisy reaction of Father and his two brothers at the family board in Washington Square or their enthusiastic welcome of the prospect of war. They actually hoped to see New York under fire from the Spanish fleet, and America awakened from its slothful torpor and materialism by the clarion call to arms! The Vollard brothers were all tall bony men, with fine knobbly aristocratic features, who spoke in decibels higher than anyone else’s, dominating every conversation with their loud mocking laughs, never guilty of any “business” but zestfully using the remnants of an old real estate fortune in pursuit of the fox, the grizzly bear or the lion, while not neglecting — for no Philistines they!— the reading of great books or the viewing of great pictures or even, if they could be silent long enough, the hearing of great music. I used to think of Father as a kind of amiable Cesare Borgia. I looked at him with an awe sandwiched between two dreads: the dread of never being able to emulate him and the dread of his finding this out.
Colonel Roosevelt, as he was always referred to in the family, even after he had received higher titles, was Father’s god as well as friend. This great man, for all his multiple interests, had time in his life for men like the Vollards, whose zeal and courage and love of violent action made up, to his mind anyway, for their social inutility. I was introduced early, not only to the Colonel but to his books, and was indoctrinated in the creed that bravery was the sovereign virtue in a man, that a “splendid little war” like the Spanish one had been a blessing in disguise to preserve our national virility and that a coward was not a man at all.
And women? What of them? Well, their role was simpler: to inspire men and to bear children. Why, I sometimes agonized, in the deep, dark, deluding safety of the night, had I not been born a woman? And I knew, I always knew, that the mere presence of this evil wish, even in the innermost recesses of my mind, damned me forever. At least with men. Was there any hope of redemption in the eyes of women? Did Mother suspect what I was going through? I sometimes wondered.
Leonie Vollard was as small and white and quiet as her husband was big and brown and noisy, but she was in no way subservient. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, they nonetheless preserved inviolate their respective and distinctly separate “spheres of interest.” She never protested against his long absences on hunting and exploratory expeditions, nor did he ever interfere with her exquisite housekeeping in the lovely red-brick early Federal house in Washington Square. She sat silently through the spirited, even raucous arguments of the Vollard clan at her dinner table, and he was a subdued guest at the readings of her poetry club. In his den he was allowed any number of animal trophies, but no claw, hoof, horn or antler was permitted in her chaste blue- and-yellow parlor. Similarly, the children were divided; my two younger sisters were left largely to their mother’s care and supervision, while my guidance and training were Father’s primary responsibilities. Yet Mother never conveyed any impression that she was unconcerned with my welfare. Quiet and reserved as she was, she managed to radiate the feeling that every unit of her family was equally important to her.
Certainly the thing that confused me most in my relationship with Father was that he was the most amiable, the most enchanting parent one could imagine. Of course, that had to be because he had no conception of what was going on inside me. His patient joviality in teaching me to ride, to jump, to shoot and to hunt, first the pheasant and tthen the fox, on our Long Island estate was never marred by reprehension of my ineptitudes, but loudly expressed by applause at my every successfulllll effort. And in due time I learned to conduct myself with some competence in riding and shooting, aided by my earnest desire to accomplish the seemingly hopeless task of becoming the youth Father cheerfully insisted on believing I was. To follow his graceful figure across the fields after the hounds was indeed a pleasure, but I never lost sight of what to me were the inevitable future tests of manhood that I believed awaited me as the real justification for my training: that war where I would have to fight an enemy, perhaps hand to hand, in mud and horror, or the African safari where I would be obliged to stand rigid before a charging rhino.
At Saint Jude’s, the boys’ boarding school in Massachusetts to which I was sent, I was slightly more relaxed, relieved as I was, except on parents’ weekends, of Father’s pushing-me-on presence, although the academy heartily endorsed his athletic enthusiasms, including football, a game I particularly detested. Father went so far as to say that he would be ashamed of any son or nephew who didn’t go in for the game. I was tall for my age but slender, and I got knocked about on the field quite painfully, yet I survived, and not too discreditably. Father, who came up to school frequently to view the Saturday afternoon games, was aware of my difficulty and did his best to reassure me. Walking back to the gymnasium after a match, he put an arm around my shoulders and said: “You mustn’t mind, dear boy, if you don’t make the school varsity team. A man can do just so much with the physique God has given him, and you’ve done everything that could be expected of a boy with your muscular equipment. I am very proud of you. In a couple of years you may become heftier, but it doesn’t matter, because you’ll always do the best with what you’ve got, and that’s all that can be expected of any man.” Oh, yes, he made allowances; he always did for me. He was determined to squeeze me somehow into his male heaven. But in the fall of my next-to-last year at the school I came close, for the first time in my life, to something faintly resembling an outer protest against Saint Jude’s echo of Father’s principles. This new little spurt of defiance was no doubt fostered by Father’s absence, not only from the school but the country on an extended expedition to the Antarctic.
I began, at first surreptitiously, to skip the near compulsory attendance at the Saturday afternoon football matches between Saint Jude’s and visiting teams. This was considered a serious breach of the required “school spirit,” and when it became known that I had been caught in the library during our match with Chelton, the supreme athletic contest of the school year, I was shocked to find myself condemned to the humiliation of being “pumped.” This grave punishment of a graver offense consisted of being ordered to stand up before the whole school at roll call to be berated by the senior monitor (no faculty being present, as if to emphasize the hors la loi aspect of the proceeding) and then to be hustled by six sturdy members of the senior class down to the cellar to be half-drowned in the laundry wash basin.
The actual experience was soon over, but the shame was supposed to be deep and lasting. Yet I was oddly unmindful of the social ostracism that followed the event. It was something of a relief to be known at last for the poor thing I was. My only real concern was what Father would think. Would he even hear of it? I madly hoped not.
Of course he did, and from the headmaster himself in a special report to my parents. Home from the South Pole, he came right up to the school and took me for a Sunday afternoon walk through the woods to the river. It was a gloomy day, cold and cloudy, and I felt as bare as the stripped November trees. But the pain and concern on poor Father’s face and the gentleness of his tone took me at last out of myself, and my mind turned over feverishly, seeking a way to spare his feelings.
“But what was your point, dear boy, in absenting yourself from the games? Was it to have more time to study?” “Oh, no.” “Was it possibly to be alone to do something that was prohibited? Like smoking or drinking? You needn’t be afraid that your old father will give you away. I’m just trying to understand; that’s all.” And then I had it! It was a desperate try, but it was all I had. “I wanted to test my courage! I wanted to see if I could stand up to the worst thing that could happen to me in school! I wanted to be pumped!” Of course, this was a bare-faced lie. I had had no notion that I would be caught or, if caught, that I would be so severely punished. But Father’s face, though bewildered, was clearing, and I hurried on. “Boys my age haven’t had the chance to prove themselves the way you did in the Spanish war! I wanted to see how I would stand up in a crisis. And I did! I did!” Father had tears in his eyes as he turned to hug me. “Oh, my dear fellow, you went much too far! I’m afraid I’ve done too much bragging about my own tiny feats. What have I ever done but kill a few animals?” “And men,” I added stoutly.
“Well, we have to do that in war, regrettably. But, dear son, you must learn to moderate yourself. You have to live in this world, and that involves a certain amount of compromise. Not of your honor, of course, but in small social matters such as attending popular events, even if they bore you. One mustn’t let oneself get too prickly. And as for courage, dear boy, you have as much of it as any proud father could wish!” My next real nervous crisis was delayed by four years. After my sophomore year at Harvard, Father took me along on what I had always regarded as the inevitable test—a hunting safari in Kenya. Mother and my sisters, of course, were left behind in the enviable security of New York; it was only I who had to be exposed to what Father gleefully assured me would be the thrill of my lifetime.
We set forth into the veldt with one of my uncles and a couple of enthusiastic young male cousins, a white hunter and some thirty bearers (the Vollard men always did things poshly). I had, reluctantly, to admit that I liked the countryside. It rolled away romantically and awesomely to the horizon on all sides, and had it been stripped of animal and insect life, I could have imagined enjoying myself. But of course it fairly teemed with both, and my relatives were intent on seeking the largest and most dangerous of the fauna. They soon found them.
The days were bad enough, with a charging elephant or Cape buffalo or lion brought down by Vollard fire two or three times a week, but the nights were worse. Our white hunter assured me that the great beasts that wandered through our camp at night would never break into a tent, but how could I be sure of that? Why would the mate of an elephant slaughtered in daylight not take revenge on its helpless murderers in the dark? I would toss on my cot for hours until sheer exhaustion robbed me of consciousness. And the huge bugs! Ugh!
Father noticed that I was tired, and sometimes he mercifully left me in camp to rest while the others were out shooting. But even then I would be nervous, left alone with a few unarmed bearers while animals prowled around and the guns were away. When I went out with them, Father usually kept me at his side, and he was noisily congratulatory when I shot and killed an oryx and then an eland. Neither of the poor beasts had tried to do anything but get away from us. And we were blessedly approaching the end of our terrible safari when the moment that I had dreaded burst upon me. Our hunter had spotted a huge old tuskless—and hence dangerously malevolent —bull elephant, exiled from the herd and surly, and Father suggested that he and I should, without the others, have the glory of bringing it down.
As we cautiously approached the monster, it picked up our scent and turned to us, raising its trunk formidably and flapping its great ears. Even Father seemed to have a second thought.
“Ambrose, quick! Run back to the others; I can handle this.” And I would have done so! I would! But I was literally paralyzed with panic. My legs were two stone pillars; I couldn’t even raise my rifle. The bull was charging now, a thundering black cloud of terror, and I knew my end had come.
I heard the crack of Father’s gun, and the huge beast went down, a rolling mass of agony, then suddenly still.
“By God, you’re a cool one!” Father cried. “You stood there without blinking. And you were a gentleman, too. You let me have the first go at him when there mightn’t have been a second!” “Oh, I knew you’d bring him down,” I heard myself say.
That night I was struck with a fever, which nobody attributed to my trauma, and I was sent back to the base camp. By the time I had recuperated, the safari was over.

The next decade brought great changes and something like peace to my life. In the first place, Father lost the greater part of his by then diminished fortune when the Knickerbocker Trust Company closed its doors in the panic of 1907. There was no longer the possibility of my leading the economically carefree life that he and his brothers had enjoyed; it was now incumbent upon me to earn my own living, which fortunately I was not only happy but relieved to do. After Harvard College, I attended Harvard Law and then secured a good position as a clerk in a leading Wall Street firm.
Father was constantly apologetic that his poor management had condemned me to what he downrated as the passive life of a desk grub. But to me it was the pleasant calm of a dull gray restful heaven after the flickering red of adventure. I believed that my fears and anticipations were over, that I had been tested, after all, and not found wanting as a man, and that I could now look forward, like millions of other males, to the routine of a mild usefulness. To cap it all, I married a girl who had the same ambition—or lack of it, as the Vollards undoubtedly would have put it.
Ellen, the child of Long Island neighbors whom I had known and liked since childhood, had always been a quiet little girl, sober and serious, who from her earliest days had known exactly what she wanted from life: a faithful loving husband with a steady job and a nursery full of children. Both of us tended to look at passion and excitement as picturesque storms to be viewed from behind securely closed windows. Ellen got on well with my parents, though I suspect she regarded Father as a little cracked. However, she never said so, and he became very fond of her and doted on the three little children who were born to us in the first five years of our marriage.
The opening of the Great War in 1914 sounded as the knell to bring me back from a decade of illusion to the grim standards of virility. Of course, in the three years of our national neutrality, I was always aware of the chorus of voices in favor of our nonparticipation in the conflict and prayed that they would prevail, but I never doubted that we would ultimately be drawn in. I knew again what I had earlier known: that it was part of my doom.
Needless to say, Father, like his god the Colonel, was howling for war, and he took for granted that I was on his side, nor did I seek for a moment to disillusion him. I accepted my fate with the passivity of despair and could only shrug when Ellen pointed out that if we did go to war, I would surely be exempted as a married man with a family to support.
“Father has received an inheritance from Uncle Tom,” I reminded her. “He has already undertaken to support you and the children if I should sign up.” “And leave me with three infants and one of them an asthmatic! If you do that, my love, you’ll find the Germans easier to face than the spouse you return to!” I was beginning to learn that Father was not the only force in my life. And as the carnage in Europe became more and more appalling, with each side sacrificing untold thousands of young men to capture or recapture a few yards of barbed wire, I started to wonder whether I might not one day rather face Father’s wrath than expose myself to it. At night, while Ellen snored mildly at my side, I lay awake, feverishly picturing the mud, the rats, the horrible dawn attacks after an overhead deafening barrage, the stooping rush over barbed wire to bayonet some poor German lad in the guts, or, more likely, to be bayoneted by him, the endless terror and the damp dark waiting, waiting, waiting. And when I slept at last my nightmares were worse. It was almost a relief when we heard the asthmatic gasping of our youngest and had to rise and rush to alleviate his pain.
As soon as Congress had declared war on the central powers, Colonel Roosevelt applied to President Wilson for permission to form his own regiment, in which Father naturally clamored to be included. Of course, the wild offer was turned down, but Father informed me that the Colonel was writing to General Pershing to take his sons Ted and Archie in the first shipments to France and that it might be possible to include me. I had, despite Ellen’s first objections, had some military training with Father at the camp at Plattsburg (I had put it to her on the grounds of simple preparedness for any eventuality), and I was now, in a grim mood of acceptance of my destiny, ready to give in to the paternal expectations.
But I faced a kitten who had turned into a tigress.
“Your father and his Colonel make me sick! I wish the President had sent both their superannuated carcasses to France to rot, instead of all the young men on whom our future depends! I’m telling you, Ambrose Vollard, that you are going to apply for exemption from the draft on the perfectly sound and valid ground that you have a large family and a sick baby to support. And that exemption will be granted without question. And not a single solitary soul, except for a couple of crazy Vollards, will either criticize you or think one jot the less of you!” And that was it. I did what she told me to do. I had become a virtual automaton. My will was crushed.
If that was the ultimate act of cowardice, perhaps the ultimate act of courage lay in my telling Father to his face what I had done.
He said nothing, but his features turned to stone.
Mother intervened. “I think Ambrose is the only person who can be the judge of what he has done, my dear. His decision cannot have been an easy one.” Father closed his eyes and bowed his head. There was another long silence. Finally he made the only comment on the matter he would make to me, then or thereafter.
“I don’t know how I am to face the Colonel.” The year that followed, the last of the war, as it turned out, was for me quiet and dull. I was busy at an office badly depleted by men called to the service, and Ellen was, as usual, much occupied with the children, particularly with our asthmatic son, who fortunately was much improved. I was in no way criticized by friends for not being in uniform—there were too many in the same boat—but Ellen and I nonetheless rarely went out at night, content to spend our evenings reading or listening to the radio. Yet my underlying mood was one of consistent if mild depression.
Father treated me, when, as before, Ellen and I dined with him and Mother on Sunday nights, with the same gruff politeness he would have exhibited to any guest at his table. He inquired sympathetically about his grandchildren, sought my opinion politely about the wine he offered, inquired perfunctorily about my law practice, but it was noticeable that he never discussed the war with me. I had wanted no part in it; very well, I would hear nothing of it from him. In a way I was no longer his son. When word came of Quentin Roosevelt’s death, his plane shot down behind German lines, he mourned as if Quentin had been his son.
And, of course, I hated it. I may not have been given the white feather by the world, but I knew I deserved it in Father’s eyes, and was it not in Father’s eyes that I had my real existence? Could I never be free of my obsession? For what reason, now that I had become, inside his mind as well as outside it, the poor creature he had long denied I was, could I not be at liberty to go my own benighted way in peace?
Perhaps I would have, had he not died, shortly after the death of his beloved hero, the great Theodore, in 1919. Both men were worn and prematurely old at only sixty-one. The shock to me was such as to throw me into a kind of nervous breakdown, which might have necessitated my going for a time to a sanatorium, had not a stern talk with my mother formed the beginning of what looked to be a cure, or at least an alleviation.
As I have said, Mother had left my training largely to Father, but I had always known that she still kept an eye on me. Although she never openly challenged her husband’s standards, she seemed to live, resolutely if quietly, distinctly apart from them. Of course, the difference in gender explained some of this but not all. She represented to me, when I seemed to be swimming beyond my power of return, the fine, level, sandy beach to which I would be welcome if I could only get back to it.
One evening, calling on her alone, I felt impelled to confide in her all my misery. When I had finished and she gave me a long close look, I realized that I had broken a barrier.
“I have been waiting for you to tell me all this, my child. I haven’t ventured to talk basic truths with you until I was sure you were ready to listen. I have always known that you found your father’s principles hard to live up to, but I hesitated to interfere, because you acted so determined to work out your problem your own way, and how was I to know that it wasn’t the right way? For a man, anyhow. And besides, you seemed to be succeeding, and your father was always so proud of you, and you appeared so devoted to him. Was it a woman’s role to barge in and break this up? Mightn’t you both have resented it? And rightly, too? But now you present me with a different case. Your father preached one kind of courage. Maybe I can preach another.” “Courage? Oh, not more of that, please, Mother!” “Just listen, my dear. We can’t get around courage. It’s at the root of what’s wrong with you. Shall I go ahead?” “Go ahead.” “I warn you. This is going to hurt.” “I’m ready. Shoot.” “You avoided the draft for a perfectly valid reason. You were over thirty, with a family to support and a sick child. Very good. Nobody had a word to say against you, except, of course, your father. That’s the given, the donnée, as the French critics say.” “And that is correct.” “Except for one thing. Your family wasn’t your real reason. Your real reason was that you were afraid to go to war.” I felt like a piece of ice under a steaming hot faucet. Soon there would be nothing left of me. It was all over. At last.
Mother waited for me to speak, but I didn’t, so she went on.
“And now comes the real lesson in courage. You must face the fact that you are a man who was afraid to go to war. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t mean that you’re afraid of everything. You have been brave enough in other things. It means that you were afraid to be killed or mutilated in the most hideous carnage the world has ever seen. You shared that fear with countless others. Some overcame it; some didn’t. The world is made up of heroes and non-heroes. They are equally real. Go back, my son, to your real life and your real family, and live!” I felt so immediately lifted up by this clear solution to the problem of a lifetime that I became greedy. How is it that, with salvation in sight, we double our demands for entry? “Of course, it was easier for Father, wasn’t it?” “What was easier?” “Why, being brave. He was born brave, wasn’t he? He never knew fear. And if you don’t know what fear is, is it really so brave to face dragons? Mightn’t one be like Siegfried and even like it?” Mother became very grave at this. “Oh, my Ambrose, lay not that flattering unction to your soul! No one is born fearless. Your father made himself a hero by grit and will power. And don’t you ever dare to take it from him!” I bowed my head in bitter but accepting silence. It was not only myself that I should have to accept; it was she as well. The man she really admired, the man she would always admire, was Father. That was what I would have to live with: that I could never compete in a woman’s eyes with a hero. Was I even sure that Ellen, deep down, didn’t share that feeling? No, I was not sure.

Copyright © 2002 by Louis Auchincloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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