DESPITE his considerable accomplishments, Louis Auchincloss continues to be one of the most consistently underrated writers on the current American literary scene. This is the central theme of Louis Auchincloss: A Writer's Life (Crown, 287 pp., $25), Carol Gelderman's biography of the elegant patrician author who, until his recent retirement from legal practice, divided his professional life between literature and law.
Ironically, critics who have welcomed novels depicting life in every kind of little world, from small Southern hamlets and isolated prairie farms to crowded urban tenements and deceptively quiet suburban neighborhoods, have declared Auchincloss's particular world of upper-class life unworthy of attention.
Not that Auchincloss has not been honored: His achievements won him election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1965 and the National Arts Club's "First Gold Medal" in 1968. His biographer claims he is the author of "a handful of books that rank among the best in American literature," including three - "The House of Five Talents" (1960), "Portrait in Brownstone" (1962), and "The Rector of Justin" (1964) - that she considers "as great or greater than the best of Edith Wharton...."
Gelderman's frank partisanship for her subject does not, however, lead her to abandon her critical judgment in evaluating the relative merits of his many works, not all of which, in her opinion, measure up to the standard of the distinguished "handful." Although she is not a particularly acute critic, she demonstrates sound judgment and provides intriguing examples of ways in which Auchincloss's legal experience influenced his literary work and his literary talent helped him in his law career.
In portraying the man himself, Gelderman, author of a biography of Mary McCarthy written under similar circumstances, operates under the tacit, hazy constraints on a biographer tackling the life of someone who is still alive. Gelderman had Auchincloss's cooperation in researching her book, but not, she hastens to add, his "approval." There is certainly no feeling of deference or major self-censorship in her account of his life and character, but there are times when the reader may sense that the biograph er is being a little too tactful out of a quite natural respect and liking for her subject.
While one reads Gelderman's life of Auchincloss unable to escape the suspicion that a more complete, searching, and analytical biography will - or, at least, should - someday be written, one also reads it with great interest and satisfaction. The narrative moves swiftly, it's full of fascinating people and illuminating anecdotes, and the biographer maintains a fine balance between portraying her subject's social background as a member of the WASP elite and delineating the specific traits of his personali ty.
Auchincloss's productivity (he has averaged a book a year for the past half century) may be another factor that, like his "elitist" subject matter, has alienated some critics in the short run, but will probably emerge as a strength in the long run. If some of his fiction seems a little too glib and neatly turned out, there are other occasions when it manages to incorporate a great deal of complexity within its classically simple outlines.
The three novellas collected in Auchincloss's latest offering, Three Lives (Houghton Mifflin, 213 pp., $21.95), exemplify his ability to portray complicated characters facing difficult choices. He presents the nuances and undercurrents of their lives with a brilliant clarity that belies the intricacy of the social, psychological, and moral factors influencing them.
Nat Chisholm in "The Epicurean" grows up adoring his graceful, vivacious mother and deploring his dour, old-fashioned father, who wants him to carry on the family's failing ironworks. But Nat also comes to recognize his father's deeply buried love for him, and the rather mercenary streak in his mother's makeup. ("Mother would never let me want for anything, but, like many heiresses of her generation, she hung back from sizable settlements on male offspring," he notes. ) His decision to avoid his father's
mistakes, to dedicate his own life to the pursuit of happiness, leads to some unexpectedly altruistic results, because "pleasure," in Nat's view, "is vitiated by total selfishness."
Alida Vermeule, "The Realist," opens her memoir in response to her daughter's accusation that she and other women of the past generation allowed themselves to be little more than appendages of their husbands. Defending her role as a society matron who wielded power and influence through clubs, charities, and other institutions, she asks "should I have lived my life as if the future had been then? Should I have studied law and slaved in a firm that would never have considered making me a partner? Or shoul d I, as I did, have taken up the really very interesting opportunities which then existed for the wives of the men downtown?"
Alida's story goes beyond this initial feminist issue to examine questions of love, art, ethics, marriage, and family loyalty.
Cold-blooded, calculating George Manville, "The Stoic" of the concluding novella, poses a different question: "To have or not to have a loving heart is not a matter of choice but of birth. Yet people tend to applaud `warmth' and to condemn `coldness as if such things were matters of merit. But merit ... should attach only to what a man contributes usefully to the welfare of his fellow beings." George's history, as he recounts it, provides support for his contention, but also reveals evidence much to the contrary. Each of the three novellas subtly reflects and contrasts with the other two, forming a memorable triptych that admirably demonstrates why Auchincloss is a writer to be reckoned with.