George Apley

Marquand, John P. The Late George Apley. Boston: Back Bay Books Reprint, 2004.

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The title of John P. Marquand’s text the Late George Apley may at first seem like an unprepossessing title for a book. Why should a reader choose read a book when it is already quite obvious what will happen at the end of the novel, namely that the main character will die? Furthermore, the subject is not of a famous person, but a fairly undistinguished man, and the book suggests little narrative excitement or suspense about his death or life. According to the first few pages of the text, George Apley is a member of a well-known fictional Boston society family — at least, in Marquand’s created world. Apley is not a particularly well-known figure, either within the context of the book’s fictional universe, and certainly not in the real world of American history. So why should a non-Bostonian of a different class than Apley’s take an interest in the man’s life?

However, Marquand the author (in contrast to the fictional author of Apley’s memoir) argues that it is not that Apley is an especially fascinating subject, rather it is what Apley represents that is so important, and makes him a worthy biographical subject, namely of a bygone era of American urban life. The book highlights an important part of American history, when America was shifting to a more urbanized, industrialized, and socially fluid nation. Although the ostensible author of the piece boasts of his loyalty to the Apley family and says he is an editor of the lives of many prominent Bostonians, many of the details actually selected by the novelist Marquand about Apley’s seem to be a kind of subtle critique of Apley’s social niche.

John P. Marquand wrote the Late George Apley in 1937. The book is set in Boston, and attempts to portray another age, when people like Apley made up a kind of American urban aristocracy, with its own rigid manners, customs, and mores that seem foreign to readers today. George Apley was born in the 19th century and died “on the water side of Beacon Street” only a short distance away from the place of his birth on December 13, 1933 (3). “I am the sort of man I am because my environment prevented my being anything else,” Apley admitted at the end of his life (3).

Apley, in other words, barely traveled outside of the world into which he was born and is a kind of a hothouse product of his very cultivated environment. He lived in age before mass transit made the world a smaller place, and even more importantly, before social mobility made America a more diverse and integrated community of many different classes and persons of geographic origins. The voice of the narrator speaks of this past age with regret, while Marquand seems to regard this era with humor.

Significantly, to talk about Apley, Apley’s biographer begins by writing about the man’s family, rather than Apley himself. This form the real beginning of the narrative. This shows how slow things are to change in Apley’s world. For example, Apley’s Uncle William refuses to install modern plumbing or buy more than one suit a year and lives in a drafty house he could well afford to heat (10). Uncle William lives like a poor man on a point of principle. Apley’s grandfather leaves beloved stately home and his favorite section of Boston because when he saw a man in shirtsleeves, because he decided that the riff-raff were moving into his section of the city (26).

Looking back upon his own life early on in the book, Apley’s fondest memories are of the Harvard-Yale game, not his wedding (5). He expresses amazement that someone could sell cargo for three times its worth, despite not being a “Harvard Business School” graduate and speaks dismissively when he hears a man succeeds in business, even though the man attended Harvard Law, because anyone could see his “true proclivities” were beneath the profession of the law (18;21). In other words, for the elite members of the old money Apleys, actually striving to make money in business is seen lowering one’s self and corrupting the family name.

Apley seems like a snob, and his main redeeming quality is that he eventually realizes the limits of his environment and his emotional makeup. The book raises the question if it is possible to create an effective text about a character that changes very little and lives in a world which changes very little over the course of the book, although the America outside of Apley’s social sphere does alter considerably, especially in the wake of the Great Depression. However, Apley and his social set remain basically the same, as if he were born ‘The Late George Apley’ and true to the old WASP manifesto and intended on making sure that the only publicity about his life was his birth announcement and his death.

Yet the fact that the book is being written suggests a certain uniqueness, or at least the fact that there is some societal change on the horizon, given that Apley’s son requests that his father’s heritage and life be brought into the public gaze. His son was actually the cause of much eventual consternation to his father during his lifetime, as he married a divorced woman and even worse, moved from Boston to New York City. Also, the frequent humor of the book comes from the apparent distinction the author recognizes exists between Apley’s worldview and the reader.

Marquand is fully aware of the fact that there is a world outside of Boston and Harvard. Even though the fictional, first-person narrator praises Apley, there is a distinctly ironic presentation of the information the narrator uncovers, such as when Apley speaks of the “laudable similarity of ideas,” he found in college, rather than upon anything he actually learned from his fellow students, and the necessity that his son join the same club, the right club, as he did when he went to Harvard (42). Apley is more concerned about his son joining the right club, than about anything his son is learning in school.

The narrative conceit of the book is that the author is telling the stories of George Apley after reading letters that Apley’s father wrote to him while he was growing up, to show him how a proper Bostonian of a higher class should behave, and the letters Apley wrote to his own children to do the same. Apley’s willingness to become public after death stems from his son’s desire to commemorate his father’s life, despite his troubled relationship with the man. But rather than commemorate his father’s existence, the reader is forced to judge Apley and to reflect, with some relief, on how much society has moved forward, and how different the world is, since Apley was born and died.

Over and over again, the reader is struck by the smallness of Apley’s universe. For example, the reader learns that on Apley’s honeymoon in Portsmouth, another New England, although rather “swell” was reproached by Apley for being a long way from Boston and not so “closely knit” (124). In other words, nothing was as good as Boston, nor could be. Of course, back in the days when marriage and courtship was more elaborate than it is in the reader’s day (as the author assures us) Apley married an “eminently suitable match,” a girl of “sense and sensibility” although the marriage seems fairly dispassionate (119;87). This is one reason why he judges his own son’s later romantic adventures so harshly. In Apley’s view, marriage is described as a “responsibility” rather than a pleasure (129).

The WASP distrust of pleasure, fostered by the old uncle who gave away his beloved paintings and lived in an unheated, worn-out house despite his wealth carries through into Apley’s generation. “Is true happiness derived from work rather than from play?” is the heading of one ladies’ discussion meeting quoted in the book, and the answer according to the Apley mindset is obvious (352). When Apley has a son, he affectionately describes the boy as a “wizened old man” and says that Apley now understands his father that he has a son himself, and that is one of the most important aspects of having children (149). He also says the baby “belongs to everyone,” in other words, belongs to the family, as a representative of the next generation that will carry on and on into the future. There is much debate between him and his wife as to who the baby resembles, not in terms of their own faces, but in terms of their ancestors, as continuity is the most important thing to both Bostonians.

True to the austere credo of his family, Apley does not live a life of leisure. Instead, he works as a lawyer, for Apley and Ried, and entirely on “trust work,” rather than upon any potentially contentious legal issues (307). Although he does travel, he is careful to stay at all of the ‘right’ hotels when he does leave Boston or go abroad, and that means the hotels where all of the other elite families from Boston stay, so he can recreate his social world even when he is not in what to him is the nexus of the universe. The point of travel is not to see other cultures or to learn new things, but to keep things as they are, and one only goes on vacation to see one’s friends, and experience a little bit of Boston in Paris, London, or New York City.

As he grows older, Apley does have a sense that his life may not be completely fulfilled, simply living how his ancestors lived. He reads Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a banned book by DH Lawrence, and exhibits enough “breadth of vision” to deem it to be a good book (337). However, he only reads it because he heard members of his club call it an indecent book, although he wants to judge it for himself. Finally, Apley financially helps many of his old friends who are destroyed by the Great Crash of 1929, which wins him the respect of the reader. Sadly, as Apley is dying, he says to his son in a letter that everything he did in his life “has amounted almost to nothing,” and overall in his life he did not have “very good time” because of the tyranny of “tradition,” and “the obligation of convention…made by others…designed to promote stability and inheritance” (344-345).

Although this is a moving statement, at times, when reading the book, it is hard not to wonder why the reader should care about a man who was committed not to changing things, but to keeping things the same. Apley says he was a victim of his environment, a victim of the pleasureless, aristocratic atmosphere where he was brought up. This sounds like a self-serving excuse, although it may also be the product of our own era which sees human life as full of possibilities rather than limitations. Still, the story of Apley’s life and death is a compelling introduction to the turn of the century America, and its customs and cultural assumptions, regardless of whether the reader agrees with Apley that he had no choice but to obey the customs and conventions of his parents and social ‘equals.’

Works Cited

Marquand, John P. The Late George Apley. Boston: Back Bay, 2004.