The Headmaster's Dilemma
By Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin / 178 pages / $25
When Louis Auchincloss describes the fictional New England private school that is the focus of his new book as "a stalwart fortress against the creeping vulgarity of the day," he might be describing his own elevated rank in American letters.
At age 89, and after writing more than 60 books, the fact that Auchincloss is still producing new work may seem remarkable in itself. In 2000, the New York Landmarks Conservancy was inspired to designate him as a "Living Landmark," which suggests that Auchincloss is more like a shuttered edifice than a working writer. But The Headmaster's Dilemma can hardly be called his last gasp. Since the year he achieved landmark status, Auchincloss has published nine books, including three novels, several short-story collections and biographies of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.
With The Headmaster's Dilemma, he returns to a setting (and some of the themes) reminiscent of his most enduring book, The Rector of Justin. Published in 1964, the earlier book focuses on the New England private school as a bastion of traditional values awash in the rising tide of social and cultural change in America.
"Poise and taste and intelligence strike one on every page," wrote a critic in The New Yorker, an entirely fitting way of describing a writer who was born into the privileged world of which he writes. An alumnus of Groton and Yale, he managed to maintain two careers, writing books as he was drafting legal documents for the clients of a Wall Street firm with a 150-year-old pedigree.
Auchincloss' new book is set in the 1970s in precisely the same cultural precincts he explored in The Rector of Justin. The headmaster of Averhill, Michael Sayre, is a principled molder of young minds who aspires to meritocracy and diversity; his nemesis is a wealthy benefactor and school trustee, Donald Spencer. Once classmates at Averhill, they now are at odds in determining the school's fate.
Auchincloss acknowledges that wealth and privilege are not always attractive gifts. Thus, Sayre is shown to be a man of liberal sensibilities who values intelligence over affluence and frets that the ever-rising tuition at Averhill may "reach a point where we will have to confine our student body to the Forbes list of America's wealthiest." To which Spencer, a banker by profession and a robber baron by nature, replies: "You talk about the Forbes list as if it were a catalogue of America's most wanted." The conflict driving the short novel is Spencer's insistence on endowing a new gymnasium, which Sayre regards as a "vulgar sports plaza" that will announce to the world that the school is "fundamentally anti-intellectual." The high-minded headmaster would rather build a less extravagant gym and use the rest of the money to promote social and cultural diversity in the student body.
Auchincloss is unsubtle when it comes to signifying his attitude toward his characters. Sayre is a former Vietnam War protester, "effective and fearless in dealing with mobs and the police," but also a Vietnam War veteran, "for he had refused to reject the draft and had been decorated for valor." By contrast, we are told that Spencer "suffered at school from a cruel nickname derived from the fact that he had been endowed, at least in his early teens, with a smaller-than-usual penis."
So slimy is Spencer that he reacts with delight when a lawsuit is filed against the school on the grounds that a student had been the victim of "a homosexual rape," and he vows to use the suit to embarrass his adversary. "Sexuality was the gift of an inscrutable god, accorded to man for his damnation as well as his reproduction," muses Spencer. "Many a great man had stubbed a fatal toe on it. Why should Michael Sayre not be another?"
The boy who brings the charge of rape is "a black-haired, chubby lad of a lounging physical attitude ... the pampered only child of a rich, stout, opinionated mother who had been married solely for her money." (Ouch!) When Auchincloss introduces a character with such a list of particulars, is there any doubt about the authenticity of his cry of rape and the grounds for uttering it? But Auchincloss adheres to an iron rule: If a character is meant to be a villain, he will also be physically flawed and sexually confused.
Auchincloss wants us to regard the frictions between the good and evil characters as symbolic of something deeper, a struggle to decide whether Averhill will be maintained as "a citadel of virtue where the carnal appetites of the world were kept outside the firmly closed gates" or a place where gays, Jews, Asians and other outsiders are not permitted to sit side by side with what history had seen as the rightful members of the American aristocracy. Viewed from the hard realities of America in the third millennium, the struggle seems very much like a tempest in a teapot.
Still, Auchincloss deftly manages the whole complicated affair - including the incidents of legal confrontation, mysterious disappearance and romantic manipulation that figure in the denouement - and he brings his tale to a crisp and complete resolution. The reader will not be much surprised to discover that right wins out in the end: "You really are the perfect husband," announces Sayre's long-suffering wife.
Jonathan Kirsch is the author of, most recently, "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization." A version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Times.