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The Education of Oscar Fairfax

The Education of Oscar Fairfax

by Louis Auchincloss

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In this wise and masterly novel, Louis Auchincloss gives us a man who takes the measure of himself - and his times - with the art and insight of a new Henry Adams. Linking three generations of a Wall Street law firm, The Education of Oscar Fairfax provides a revealing portrait of the American upper classes throughout our century. The story opens in 1908, as St. Luke's


In this wise and masterly novel, Louis Auchincloss gives us a man who takes the measure of himself - and his times - with the art and insight of a new Henry Adams. Linking three generations of a Wall Street law firm, The Education of Oscar Fairfax provides a revealing portrait of the American upper classes throughout our century. The story opens in 1908, as St. Luke's Cathedral rises stone by stone on lower Broadway and young Oscar learns a lesson in compromise at the knee of its bishop, his grandfather. His schooling continues at St. Augustine's, where he sees a schoolmaster's high ideals exposed as fantasy, and at Yale, where Oscar's literary ambitions are tempered by a brilliant but ruthless classmate who proves that "the juiciest tidbit for many a writer is the hand that fed him." As an adult, Oscar is one who profoundly affects others, whether he is subtly influencing a Supreme Court justice during the New Deal era, acting as mentor to a talented local boy in a Maine resort town,

Editorial Reviews


A certain irony trails Louis Auchincloss's long career as a writer (he is the author of 50 books, including 36 previous works of fiction). His portraits of the upper reaches of American society, of the old East Coast aristocracy and their haunts and habits, has been so assured -- and, often, so unsparing -- that he has frequently been described as primarily a novelist of manners, and politely dismissed. But as this precise, moving novel reminds us, Mr. Auchincloss is, more importantly, a moralist. He may write about well-heeled attorneys, influential businessmen, aristocratic educators and socialites, but he's after something more than a realistic portrait of that world.

Oscar Fairfax, born in 1895 into "one of the very few American families who descended in the male line from a pre revolutionary British peer," grows up well aware of the "charm of belonging to an establishment." After graduating from Yale he joins his father's Manhattan law firm, and over the span of a lengthy career watches it become one of the largest and most influential firms in the city. But he also grows up with the conviction, impressed on him by his father, that the family's "seemingly impregnable social position was something of a myth, a relic." Goodhearted, liberal, honest, energetic, he sets out to do good, to be of use. More than that, because he nurtures "a hobby of believing in people," Oscar frequently attempts to exercise a benevolent influence on those around him. He becomes the mentor of a bright, penniless young man, seeing him through college, prodding him into becoming a lawyer. During the 1930s he attempts, for the best possible reasons, to convince a Supreme Court Justice to support the New Deal's extraordinary legislation. Misreading his only son's interests and character, he repeatedly presses unfortunate courses of action on him.

None of these efforts turn out well. Oscar's morality, while well-intentioned, is inflexible; it never admits the complexities of human nature. His education, then, is finally in the need for a humane morality, one that is wise enough to accept how varying and surprising human needs can be.

Mr. Auchincloss packs a remarkable amount of incident into a slender narrative, all of it told in the terse, elegant prose that has become one of his trademarks. Once again he is writing about the upper classes, but once again he is dealing, in a highly original and moving manner, with questions that transcend class and time.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this sedate and diverting fictional memoir, novelist-of-manners Auchincloss (Tales of Yesteryear) replays his favored themes: gentlemanly coping in New York society, practicing law, enjoying one's money, inspecting others' foibles. A sense of literary tradition permeates the narrative as characters revel in beloved authors: the Greeks, Wordsworth, Proust, Henry James, Edith Wharton. The title echoes the 1907 classic, The Education of Henry Adams, to point up an uneasy fit between upper-class schooling and the modern world. In chapters doubling as exemplary character studies, Oscar Fairfax, Yale grad and Wall Street attorney, fondly recalls his mentors-his Episcopal bishop grandfather and his academic masters-and how he adapted their quaint lessons to his own needs and passed his own wisdom on to chosen novices of the next generation. In the chapter "My Son, My Son,'' Fairfax fosters his own child's growth from shy boyhood to happy marriage. Another, "A Man's Reach,'' begins in elitist Bar Harbor, Maine, where Fairfax befriends the bright but resentful Max Griswold, teenage son of a hardworking hairdresser, whom he later sends to Yale and guides through life's mazes. Max's story typifies one Auchincloss model, that of the youth who rejects, then appreciates, society's values. "The Unhappy Warrior'' first tracks the rise of the able but philandering lawyer who marries Fairfax's sister, then shows the woman's adjustment. Few surprises are offered here, but much satisfaction is generated as Auchincloss, in his 38th book of fiction, reliably affirms his craft, depicting the maturation of character through time. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Born into privilege at the turn of the century, Oscar Fairfax slides gracefully through life from St. Augustine's (a prestigious Episcopal school for boys) to Yale to Paris, Washington, and New York as a valued member of his father's law firm. True, there are little crises along the way-the friend who betrays a trust, the protg who goes against Oscar's principles, the son who is so principled he almost leaves the firm-but by and large Oscar's "education" is hardly a matter of earth-shattering revelations. It's gently incremental, like the novel itself; Oscar's life proceeds episodically in "chapters" that could almost stand alone as short stories. In the end, Oscar comes off as a man working slightly against the grain of his conservative background, an enlightened snob who takes up good causes for more than glory. "Do I do it to flatter myself that I am at least a good man?" he wonders, and the charm of this character-and of the novel as a whole-is that the answer to that question is not so clear-cut. An urbane, civilized read that Auchincloss fans will enjoy. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/95.]-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Donna Seaman
Auchincloss, that most prolific and polished of authors, has focused on short stories lately, making his new novel especially welcome. True to form (and what a perfect form it is), Auchincloss' magnetic protagonist, Oscar Fairfax, is a blue blood, New York lawyer, but he has a literary bent, makes a hobby of studying people, and has raised listening to a fine art. We first meet Oscar as a young man curious about the divergent views of his skeptical father and his maternal grandfather, the Episcopal bishop. In each succeeding chapter, Oscar reaches a new stage of life and becomes infatuated with a new personality, whether it's a professor overly obsessed with Greek nudes, a princess telling tales about Proust, a fellow attorney, or the promising but penniless son of a hair stylist Oscar befriends while summering in Maine. Each time Oscar gets involved in someone's life, he engages in some elegantly candid conversations, acquires wisdom, and does good deeds. As Auchincloss charts his hero's education, he considers human nature in all its arenas, from religion to law, love, war, and art.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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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