Number Three

January 30, 2010

Old wives say death comes in threes. Those old wives who are also students of high-brow American letters will be well-vindicated by the trio which chose this week to shuffle off the mortal coil: Zinn, Salinger, Auchincloss.

Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, a leftist polemic repudiating the idea that our founding fathers were anything but wealthy, white Protestants who hated paying taxes. That is, Republicans. He went on to teach at universities across the country and involved himself vocally in the civil rights struggles of his day. Professor Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

J.D. Salinger was an accomplished author of short stories, once (fleetingly) compared favorably to John Cheever in that genre. His most notable work, though, is The Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age story about precarious innocence and discontent. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became a widely-identified with symbol of youthful rebellion while his creater, Mr. Salinger, became a reclusive eccentric, holed up in the foothills of Cornish, New Hampshire and suing to keep his words out of print. Mr. Salinger also died on Wednesday. He was 91.

More subtle horns announced the passing of Louis Auchincloss, the descendant of wealthy Scots who made a career of profiling, in fiction and memoir, New York’s Patrician class. Mr. Auchincloss wrote nearly 50 books, averaging one per year, each year of his career, a rate of production all the more impressive considering his simultaneous duties as a partner with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, a prominent Wall Street law firm. Mr. Auchincloss was also the president of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. As an older author, he allowed his books to be edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his cousin.

Louis Auchincloss, author and attorney.

“I’m rather inclined to be edgy when I’m not writing,” explained the author, of his reasons for turning out books in such droves. He was certainly as edgy as a man can be, while still starting sentences with the phrase “I’m rather inclined.”

Mr. Auchincloss wrote books about country clubs, boardrooms, summer homes, and dinner parties. Though ridiculed as “America’s foremost author of manners,” Gore Vidal defended Mr. Auchincloss: “Nobody else took those kinds of people, because nobody else understood them, except in the dumbest way.”

Mr. Auchincloss came to writing, and to the law, in the usual way of his generation: preparatory school at Groton, undergraduate work at Yale University, and legal studies at the University of Virginia. He served in the Navy during the second World War and then wrote The Indifferent Children under the name Andrew Lee. It was so well-recieved that he used his real name ever after.

In 1951 Mr. Auchincloss quit the practice of law to devote all his time to writing. Realizing that it wasn’t making any difference, he went back to work in 1954. He was later commissioned to write a short biography of President Theodore Roosevelt for Times Books. He delivered it personally, ahead of schedule, and handed over one he’d written of Calvin Coolidge also. Unfortunately, they told him, Coolidge had been assigned to somebody else.

Mr. Auchincloss died this past Tuesday, January 26. He was 92 years old.