Friday, April 22, 2011

A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth by Louis Auchincloss

With Endpoint and Other Poems, John Updike said goodbye to his readers through poems of reflection and old age. Louis Auchincloss was not so overt in A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth, but like Updike, he was obviously saying things he felt needed saying before he ran out of time. Unlike Updike, he focused more on his youth instead of his old age in his final statements. He was especially concerned about memories of his family. He wanted to express his love for his mother, sister, and childhood maid, each of whom were hurt by the narrow-minded following of social conventions and ideas about what was proper for women. His eloquently expressive mother, who enjoyed literature, felt that she had no right to write. Letters and pieces written for the family showed Auchincloss her natural writing talent. His sister Priscilla was hidden away during her bouts of severe depression. She received what was considered the best and most expensive care of the time, but the author regrets how unsympathetic he was. She recovered enough to rejoin society, but Auchincloss never was as close with her as he felt he should have been. Finally, near the end of the book, he tells about Maggie, the Irish maid assigned to watch him and his sister. Maggie spent a couple of decades in service to the family, treated as almost family but paid poorly for her work. Once the children were grown, she simply disappeared without a pension. Auchincloss never found her.

Auchincloss also wanted readers to know that he felt some depictions of early 20th century New York misrepresented the old New York families from which he came. While they lacked understanding of anyone who was not "one of them," they were not crass and uncaring. They just failed to see outside their circle. It was partly a lack of imagination. They also failed to see the end of their economic and political prominence.

Being from a well-connected family and attending exclusive schools, Auchincloss crossed paths with many men and a few women who distinguished themselves in business, politics, and literature. As he grew, he seemed to retain a conservative political viewpoint but seemed to be quite open socially to mix with people who came from outside the city and even the country. His network peaked during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations when his former classmates were diplomats and national security advisors (making terrible mistakes) and his aunt's daughter by a previous marriage, Jackie Bouvier, was married to the president.

At the time of his death in January 2010, Auchincloss had written over sixty books. Most were fiction, but he also wrote history, biography, and literary criticism. He had quite a career for a son whose mother thought he had no writing talent. A Voice from Old New York is a graceful and intimate goodbye, which should interest anyone who enjoys reading about bygone days.

Auchincloss, Louis. A Voice from Old New York: A Memoir of My Youth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. ISBN 9780547341538.

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