Insights of Yesteryear Show in Monochrome

A CHARACTER in this new collection of stories by Louis Auchincloss reflects on ``the small portion of human society in which his lot had been cast.'' Such reflecting is the author's stock in trade. In ``Tales of Yesteryear,'' as in 35 previous works of fiction and many nonfiction writings, Auchincloss again plumbs the manners, mores, marriages, and inner lives of the men and women in old-money New York and New England.

When, more than 30 years ago, the writer embarked on his career as the Anthony Trollope of America's Mayflower set, the blue-blooded Yankee Establishment was still a conspicuous part of the nation's political, economic, and taste-setting elite.

But in the 1990s, when fortunes are more likely to be made in the Sunbelt than in New York or Boston, when the nation's cultural lodestar is multiculturalism, and when even New England's prestigious colleges and prep schools are racing to achieve ``diversity,'' Auchincloss's privileged, lily-white, and largely static fictional world more than ever before seems anachronistic.

OK, so we don't read Auchincloss for his relevance to contemporary American life. There are other reasons to read him: Such as his urbane, erudite prose (you acquire a taste for the classical allusions and sometimes quaint phrasings), and the careful explorations of his characters' intricate psychological landscapes and of the moral quandaries they face.

These virtues are on display in this volume. The ``yesteryear'' in these stories comprises various dates between the 1930s and 1980s.

Although the tales are not autobiographical, the author seems to be examining the times during which he has lived (World War II and Vietnam are important backdrops in two stories). In some tales, the viewpoint is that of an older person looking back, while in others the perspective is contemporaneous to the action.

Some familiar Auchinclossian themes are present. One is the tension between worldly demands and the yearnings of the spirit. In Auchincloss's moral universe, the latter occur as artistic impulses more than as religious ones. (In his own career, the author was tugged - sometimes unpleasantly - between the yin of literature and the yang of law.)

Thus, in ``The Poetaster,'' the first-person hero is trying to live his life as ``two distinct individuals'': ``One Hugh Hammersly has been a yearning romantic, a dreamer, a would-be poet or artist of some sort. The other has been a hard-headed, practical man of affairs. My preference was to be the first, but life has inexorably molded me into the second.'' The unresolved conflict leads to breakdown and scandal.

As the title of that story implies, Auchincloss - though himself a longtime connoisseur and patron of the arts - seems to regard dilettantism and an overly-refined sensibility as occupational hazards of the upper class.

While many of Auchincloss's characters take wealth and privilege for granted, to others - like Joyce Klein in ``The Lotos Eaters'' (my dictionary says lotus) or Lucy Cross in ``To My Beloved Wife...'' - social responsibility makes insistent appeals. Auchincloss doesn't let even his more virtuous figures grow smug, though: Seth Middleton, the hero of ``The Man of Good Will,'' is left wondering whether even his kindness and disinterestedness aren't, at bottom, self-gratifying.

If in some respects Auchincloss's social-register fiction seems out of place in an ever more populist and meritocratic nation, this writer - with his high intelligence and finely calibrated moral sense - nonetheless offers insightful commentary on the human condition.

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