In the latest Old Navy commercial, Julia Dreyfus-Louis (Veep, Seinfeld) plays a posh mom picking up her son, Hunter, at prep school. There is a big sign above the door: Class Picture Day. When she asks how Picture Day went, Hunter, who is dressed in a suit, complains that he looks like his dad.
Dreyfus-Louis has perfect zingy timing.
“Well, that’s DNA, darling.”
This is very much how things are for Harry in Pulitzer Prize-winner John P. Marquand’s sad, satiric novel, H. M. Pulham, Esquire, which the critic Jonathan Yardley praised highly in his collection of columns, Second Reading. This 1940 novel is in print as an e-book (Open Road Media).
Harry does not have many choices. It’s not that he is ever inappropriately dressed, it’s that he is always perfectly dressed as the scion of an upper-class Boston family He has always done the expected thing: he went to prep school at St. Swithin’s, graduated from Harvard, and immediately went to work as a bonds salesman at his father’s firm. All of the Harvard men seem to have gone to St. Swithin’s, with the exception of the brilliant Bill King from New Jersey.
Harry earnestly wishes that Bill had gone to school with him. The radical Bill is very glad he didn’t.
Don’t get mad, Harry. You couldn’t help it….The only thing you can do is to try to snap out of it. Good-bye, Mr. Chips.”
Harry is a bit of a stick, but there is something sad about his sentimental conventionality. He muses,
If you have not prepared for college at one of the older and larger schools, with traditions and a recognized headmaster, you have missed a great experience. You have missed something fine in intimate companionship. You have missed that indefinable thing known as school spirit, which is more important than books or teaching, because it lasts when physics and algebra and Latin are forgotten. The other day I tried to read a page of Cicero, and I could not get through a single line…but I can still remember the school hymn word for word.
When his rah-rah former football player friend Bojo, the organizer of their 25th Harvard reunion, coerces Harry into collecting classmates’ life stories, he starts to think about his life. Looking over one of the dull forms completed by a classmate for this project, Harry realizes, startled, that his life is the same as everyone else’s. His class consists mainly of lawyers and financiers.
Harry had only one period where he “broke out”: he was traumatized at the front during World War I. He was briefly in charge of a group of men who all died after he refused to surrender to the Germans. And then he got a medal for it. No wonder he has a breakdown at the Waldorf in New York.
He doesn’t want to go home to Boston.
Bill King saves him, and gets him a job in advertising in New York. Harry loves doing research and gathering stats, and he falls in love with Marvin Myles, a copywriter, who is a charming and fashionable woman who went to the University of Chicago. (I love her, too.) They work together on a soap campaign, and go door to door washing people’s socks. But Marvin doesn’t fit in at the Harvard football game, or with his family, and when he goes back to Boston after his father’s death, she says he must come back to New York if he wants to marry her. Eventually, Harry marries Kay, a woman who, ironically, was in love with Bill King. Both longed for someone outside of their narrow group.
And so the years pass. Very dully. He goes back to the bond department at Smith and Wilding, and eventually starts is own consulting firm.
Harry’s dullness is poignant. He has no real relationships. He golfs, sails, plays tennis, rides–all those expensive WASP things. The novel is slightly satirical, but it is also serious.
And poor Kay.
Harry is an upper-class Babbitt.
Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt is the better book of the two, because Lewis is a tougher writer than Marquand. Marquand meanders, and his style is plainer. But Lewis’s Babbitt, a middle-class businessman in a Midwestern town called Zenith City, is just as conventional as Harry. If I were teaching a class about class in America (and thank God I’m not), I would assign both of these . I would also throw in Ruth Suckow’s New Hope, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and and something by John O’Hara.
Marquand won the Pulitzer for The Late George Apley in 1938. That’s next on my Marquand list.
H. M. Pulham, Esquire isn’t a great book, but it is a very good one.
If you would like to read Jonathan Yardley’s column, here it is.