Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Lawyer-Writers: Louis Auchincloss's Compromise

(Cross-posted from my new blog, law.arts.culture)

The first fiction that I assign in my Law and Literature class each year is a couple of stories by lawyer-writers. I do this partly to provide inspiration to students who are writers and who fear that embarking on a legal career will mean abandoning their literary aspirations. But mostly, because it seems to me that one of the best ways to begin an exploration of the connections and tensions between law and literature is in the company of guides who straddle the boundary. On both counts, Louis Auchincloss fits the bill perfectly.

Auchincloss, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, spent forty years practicing law in a Wall Street firm, and also published more than sixty books in his lifetime, including forty-seven works of fiction. His star has never burned as brightly in the literary firmament as those of fellow New Yorkers Edith Wharton and Henry James, but his work garners sufficient respect that his name is sometimes mentioned alongside theirs.

As he revealed in his 1964 memoir, A Writer’s Capital, by virtue of his family, Auchincloss felt himself situated at the intersection of law and literature almost from birth. His father practiced corporate law at a single New York firm for fifty-seven years, and his mother was “an omnivorous reader” whose “literary opinions were pungent, incisive, always interesting,” and she was a skilled storyteller besides.

That’s not to say that law and literature fell into an easy accord for Auchincloss in adulthood. He spent many years zigzagging between the two pursuits. Initially, he doubted his literary powers, and was all but resigned to the idea that it was his destiny to follow his father into the legal profession: “I believed … that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius, that he should not kick over the traces unless a resounding artistic success, universally recognized, should justify his otherwise ridiculous deviation. The world might need second-class lawyers and doctors; it did not need a second-class artist.” Perhaps it's not surprising then that when his first novel, written as a Yale undergraduate, was rejected, he promptly enrolled in law school.

Auchincloss found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed the study of law: “For what was a case but a short story? What was the law but language?” For a time, his duties on law review served as a satisfying substitute for fiction writing. But once he’d graduated and taken a job in practice, the fiction bug bit again. He spent all his spare time writing and before long he had a couple of published novels under his belt. It didn't interfere with his legal work and the partners at his firm regarded his writing good-naturedly as an interesting quirk. But if the writing didn’t interfere with his legal work, he feared that the same could not be said in reverse: “I was increasingly bothered by a nagging apprehension that I might be slighting my literary muse by not devoting myself full time to her.”

Once again, Auchincloss felt he must choose and this time he chose literature. He resigned from the firm to write full time. But after only a couple of years, he realized that this was a failed experiment: “To sum up the account of my nonlegal years, they added nothing to my stature as a writer. The main thing about them, of course, was to have been time, but even that proved an undependable friend. My writing hours increased, but both the quantity and quality of my writing remained the same.”

Auchincloss continued to write but also returned to practice: “People ask me how I manage to write and practice…. All I can say is that a great step was taken when I ceased to think of myself as a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘writer.’ I simply was doing what I was doing when I did it.” He termed this a “compromise” but it seems to me that it was something more than that. For it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing the two to co-exist, but of recognizing that both were of central importance to him and that, ultimately, they fed each other. He chose to practice in an area of law rich in human drama that offered inspiration for his fiction: "It is probably not a coincidence that my work has been largely with people and personal problems: planning of wills, of estates, setting up trusts, handling marital separations, divorces, as opposed to the more impersonal matters of corporate or municipal financing." And in several of his novels and stories, he shone a light back on his legal milieu, creating incisive portraits of law firms and lawyers.

Much of Auchincloss's fiction has no overt legal content, including the novel that many critics regard as his best, The Rector of Justin. (Although even here there is a legal footnote, as Auchincloss once revealed that he based the main character on Judge Learned Hand⎯yes, he of the formula that still lies at the heart of negligence law.) If you've not yet encountered Auchincloss's work, you may wish to start there. But if you're interested in his legal stories, I recommend the suite of stories in Tales of Manhattan about the firm of Arnold and Degener; the "loose-leaf novel" The Partners; and his final novel, Last of the Old Guard.

* The photograph of Louis Auchincloss that heads this post is taken from the cover of his posthumously published memoir, A Voice From Old New York.


Suko said...

I find it remarkable that lawyers also find the time to write fiction, and are often quite prolific.

Kathleen Jones said...

Very interesting. I was fascinated by what you said about Law and Literature. I read law (for the bar) years ago but abandoned it in favour of writing. It's been the most amazing training - particularly for biographical writing. Analysing material, arguing a case, sifting out what's most important. I hadn't realised that there was such a strong link, or that so many writers were also lawyers.

Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

Enjoyed this post so much on law and literature, a fascinating combo!