John P. Marquand rode to fame on the coat-tails of a Japanese detective named Mr. Moto. This character, who first appeared in No Hero (1935) and continued his career in such novels as Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936) and Mr. Moto Is So Sorry (1938), achieved yet greater popularity when Peter Lorre portrayed him on film, completing eight movies in two years and confirming Marquand’s success as a crime writer. Today Mr. Moto is all but forgotten. Marquand’s name has faded from sight as well, but he gained lasting critical renown thanks to the Pulitzer Prize he won in 1938—not for Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937) but for The Late George Apley (also 1937), which marked a complete break from Marquand’s earlier writing and heralded his entry into the realm of literary fiction.
Marquand was born in 1893 into relative prosperity in Wilmington, Delaware. His father was a successful engineer, his mother a grandniece of Margaret Fuller; he thus began his life endowed with both wealth and family. But when Marquand was ten years old, his father lost everything in the crash of 1907, and Marquand was sent to Newburyport, Massachusetts, to be cared for by his maternal aunts. For the rest of his life, he mourned his lost birthright to the world of privilege. At Harvard, where he studied on a scholarship, one door after another closed in his face because he had been educated at a public school. At last, still smarting over a rejection from Harvard’s newspaper, The Crimson, he was elected to the editorial board of the university’s humor magazine, The Lampoon. After college, like thousands of his fellow graduates, he went to Europe to fight in World War I, but his Harvard experiences were the ones that remained vivid.
In 1922 Marquand married a socially prominent young woman named Christina Sedgwick, with whom he eventually had two children; that same year he published his first book, a light romantic novel called The Unspeakable Gentleman. Its success ushered him into a career more congenial than the jobs in journalism and advertising that he had tried after the war. He continued to publish popular novels throughout the ’20s and ’30s, and his creation of Mr. Moto established him as one of the foremost mystery writers in America. He soon earned enough money to match his wife’s inheritance, assuaging some of his insecurities. But their marriage failed all the same, in 1935.
Two years later, Marquand published The Late George Apley. In design the novel is a masterful development of a single conceit—fiction as biography. George’s story is told through letters, presented by a stuffy narrator who knew George from boyhood. This narrator is scandalized when George’s son demands that even his father’s most shocking indiscretions be included, but the poignancy of the novel—recognizable not only to the reader but, within the story, to George himself—is that these indiscretions are so far from shocking; George’s hard-earned awareness of this fact gives the novel its power and meaning. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he falls in love with a working-class Irish woman, Mary Monahan, and for a few intoxicating months glimpses freedom from his constrictive upbringing. But his family quells this impulse toward rebellion: George is taken to Europe, renounces Mary, and from then on lives a life of propriety and ineffective yearning. The narrator never understands the futility of George’s life or his lurking dissatisfaction. George’s children don’t agree with the narrator’s tightly laced morals, but they view their father as an incomprehensible bore. By juxtaposing these attitudes, Marquand effectively conveys the suffocating restrictions of upper-class Boston before World War I—its rigid rules, its narrow-minded prejudices, and above all its emptiness. None of the characters from George’s generation come close to happiness, though most believe their lives are worthwhile. George alone, perhaps because of his brush with inter-class romance, sees the pointlessness of their lifestyle, but he embraces convention regardless, finding—if not fulfillment—at least reassurance and stability in its uncompromising standards.
It is significant that Marquand himself never held a secure place in the society he described. Nearly all the protagonists in his literary novels belong to the upper crust from birth, their place in that rarefied world unquestioned. Marquand’s books, therefore, while revealing the discontents of Boston’s high society, also serve as fantasies in which the hero possesses an unassailable entrée to those coveted inner circles. This contradiction adds another layer of poignancy to Marquand’s novels: like his characters, he spent his life trying to gain something he knew was worthless.
After winning the Pulitzer, Marquand saw his road stretching clearly ahead of him. Over the next twenty-five years he published eight more literary novels, each offering a variation on themes introduced in The Late George Apley. Though they are enjoyable individually—especially Wickford Point (1938), H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), and Point of No Return (1949)—their repetitive nature can become tedious. Had he not continued to write crime novels, Marquand would have been vulnerable to the old accusation that every author has only one story to tell. His obsession with Boston’s elite continued to influence his life as well as his writing: two years after his divorce from Christina, he married Adelaide Hooker, another socialite whose connections assured Marquand’s membership in the exclusive clubs of New England. The couple had three children, but this marriage too ended in divorce, two years before Marquand’s death in 1960. Marquand never found a way to connect with his five children, and he spent much of his life plagued by loneliness and uncertainty, a man unable to escape from his own conditioning.
Though The Late George Apley is Marquand’s most impressive work in its design and execution, his most emotionally engaging novel is H. M. Pulham, Esquire. In this book, as in its precursor, Wickford Point, he transplants the George Apley template to his own time and, abandoning the biographical conceit, employs a first-person narrative, thus giving the reader more direct access to the protagonist’s personality. Harry Pulham starts telling his story as a grown man and flashes back to episodes in his past. From the beginning, his voice appeals to the reader. Indeed, the narrative tone is arguably Marquand’s greatest achievement, for he achieves an unwavering verisimilitude, a sense that Harry is talking to the reader as off-handedly as he would have spoken in real life—and this casual tone slowly builds up the novel’s pathos: ultimately the reader grasps with more insight than Harry himself the complexities of his marriage, his friends, and his long-lost chance at happiness.
Unlike George Apley, Harry does break free from the repressive strictures of his upbringing—for a time. After a strictly regulated but privileged youth, which thoroughly enmeshes him in his class, Harry heads off to World War I, an experience that opens his eyes to the largeness of the world. His contact with people different from himself awakens for the first time a curiosity about life beyond Boston. Upon his return, this tentative interest receives further encouragement from his college friend Bill King, who is the odd man out in Harry’s world thanks to his poor origins and who, throughout the novel, provides the voice of reason and reality—though Bill’s kindness also contains deep selfishness and insecurity. To the dismay of his family, Harry moves to New York, where Bill hires him as his assistant in an advertising firm. It is obvious that Bill takes great pleasure in having Harry work under him, but Harry modestly accepts Bill’s intellect as superior to his own: he may be a snobby milquetoast, but he is humble when it comes to his personal worth.
Soon Harry finds himself working with Marvin Myles, a talented, street-smart young woman who has worked her way up from nothing. Because of the novel’s non-chronological structure, the reader already knows that Marvin is enormously significant to Harry but that they each end up marrying someone else. When she at last arrives in Harry’s extended flashback, she doesn’t disappoint. Their romance is gloriously liberating both for Harry and for the reader, who by this time has slogged through Harry’s airless childhood, his stultifying prep-school experiences, and his oppressively uproarious college years—not to mention the endless bickering between him and his wife that punctuates his flashbacks. The set-up, however, is fully paid off by the joy of Harry’s affair with Marvin. The reader’s knowledge that his happiness is doomed makes it all the more moving. One cannot help hoping that somehow, after all, Harry’s car will swerve before the crash.
Two thirds of the way through the novel, the affair ends. Harry feels the Boston chain tugging at his neck, and like a helpless dog he returns to his native milieu. He and Marvin acknowledge that he cannot leave his roots and that Marvin will never fit in there; reluctantly, half disbelievingly, they part ways. In reaction Harry marries Kay Motford, a girl he has known all his life. Neither is enthusiastic about the other, but for both the marriage means stability and social acceptance: it is the easy way out, and they take it. Where, the reader wonders, can the novel go from here? Yet the final third gives the book its lasting emotional weight. One of Marquand’s recurring themes is that no matter how miserable people are or how much they yearn for the past, they must go onward, day after day—and that ultimately this accumulation of days is in itself rewarding, if only for the knowledge garnered, slowly and imperfectly, from experience.
Marquand wrote about the upper classes, and his insistence on their unhappiness may strike some readers as ludicrous: his characters have unlimited money and therefore unlimited luxury; employment, if they want it, is assured, as is education, culture, and every material advantage. Their misery might seem paltry compared to their possessions. But through his novels Marquand argued eloquently that money can’t buy love. An individual’s happiness does not depend on what he owns but on how he feels, and thus a rich man’s sadness, if it is a product of self-assessment and reflection, can be as affecting and meaningful as anyone else’s. H. M. Pulham, Esquire takes place in the opening months of the Second World War, and while Harry’s growing awareness of the suffering masses doesn’t quite ring true, his fear and dislocation—his sense that nothing is certain any longer—are emotions that all humans experience: they are an unavoidable part of growing up.
Here are the opening paragraphs of H. M. Pulham, Esquire, in which Harry, with characteristic deference, introduces two very different men, the loathsome Bo-jo Brown and the outsider Bill King:
Ever since Bo-jo Brown and I had gone to one of those country day schools for little boys, Bo-jo had possessed what are known as “qualities of leadership”; that is to say, he had what it takes to be the Head Boy of the School. Thus when we went on to St. Swithin’s it was almost inevitable that Bo-jo should end up in his last year as Head Warden, whose duty it was to administer the rough-and-ready justice of that period. They say that they don’t paddle recalcitrant boys as hard as they used to in our day, but then perhaps the younger generation doesn’t turn out such strong boys as Bo-jo.I heard him make some such remark himself on one of those numerous occasions when our college football team was not doing as well as one might have hoped.“The trouble with kids now is,” Bo-jo said, “they suffer from moral and mental hebetude.”Of course he knew perfectly well that none of us knew what “hebetude” meant—Bo-jo always had some trick like that up his sleeve.“My God,” Bo-jo said, “don’t you know what ‘hebetude’ means? You took English, didn’t you? If you don’t know, look it up in the dictionary.”It was safe to assume that Bo-jo hadn’t known what “hebetude” meant either, until he had read it somewhere a night or two before; but Bo-jo always had a way of using everything, because he had the qualities of leadership. That was why he became one of the marshals of the Class at Harvard and why he married one of the Paisley girls—and of course he didn’t have to worry much after that. He naturally became the president of the Paisley Mills in time.Some of the boys used to say Bo-jo was conceited, but Bo-jo was always able to do everything he said he could. He could walk up and down stairs on his hands, for instance, and he could memorize whole pages out of the telephone directory. It was only natural that he should have had his name on the Humphrey I. Walker silver cup for The Boy Who Most Nearly Typifies the Ideals of St. Swithin’s—and he could have had his name on other cups in later life, if they had given cups like that.I wondered occasionally why it was, as time went on, that there seemed to be quite a clique that did not like him. It certainly is a fact that when Bo-jo used to come around, five or six of us would always get into a corner and say things about him. Bill King, for instance, always used to say that Bo-jo was a bastard, a big bastard. Perhaps he meant that Bo-jo sometimes threw his weight around.“Some day,” Bill said, “someone is going to stop that bastard.” But then Bill never did like Bo-jo and Bo-jo never liked him either.I remember when Bill discussed him once at a big dinner party where everybody got swept together from odd corners and all the men were in the library and didn’t seem anxious to join the ladies. Bo-jo was telling what was the matter with the football team and what was going to happen to Electric Bond and Share, so you can guess the date, and I was sitting next to Bill, listening to Bo-jo’s voice.“My God,” said Bill, “I don’t see how you stand him.”“Bo-jo is all right,” I said.“Well,” Bill said, “it’s my personal opinion he’s a bastard.”“You said that before,” I said. “As a matter of fact, there’re lots of nice things about Bo-jo.”“The trouble with you is,” Bill said, “you always play the game.”“Well, what’s wrong with playing the game?” I asked.“Because you’re old enough not to be playing it,” Bill said.
Harry Pulham and Bill King may well represent two warring elements of Marquand’s personality—certainly he possessed both Harry’s fondness for Boston society and Bill’s disdain for its childish customs. Whatever their origins, the important thing about these characters is that they come alive on the page. The prose is so natural—Harry’s narrative so persuasive, the dialogue so refreshingly direct—that the reader can forget Marquand’s hang-ups and instead concentrate on the disarming and multi-faceted character of H. M. Pulham himself.