California Literary Review

The Headmaster’s Dilemma by Louis Auchincloss

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November 26th, 2007 at 10:33 am

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The Headmaster’s Dilemma
by Louis Auchincloss
Houghton Mifflin, 180 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★½☆☆

Scandal at a New England Prep School

In The Headmaster’s Dilemma, a student accused of homosexual rape, while defending himself, tells the headmaster: “I was aroused, yes. What man wouldn’t be? I’m only human. I fucked the hell out of the kid. And did he love it!” This statement marks a departure in an otherwise cleanly written novel of manners, populated by the upper class specimens of America.

Michael Sayre is the unwilling headmaster of the Averhill school, an upmarket New England institution, known for its gilded past. He has been having a smooth run at the school, interrupted only by his concern for his wife, who has given up a gifted law profession to accompany her husband to the school. But Donald Spencer, the vile chairman of the Board of Trustees, hates his guts. Nursing an old rivalry with Michael, Spencer is on a continuous lookout for an opportunity to get him evicted. And he gets just such a chance when a sexual scandal threatens to besmirch the the school’s reputation and take down Michael in the maelstrom.

Louis Auchincloss has devoted a lifetime to depicting the high and the mighty, the movers and shakers of the corporate world. Yet, his tales are dipped in a deep morality. In an interview with New York Magazine, he said, “Morals to a great number of people are entirely confined to sex, and that’s a thing I leave out completely. When Martha Stewart comes out of jail, everybody will greet her with kisses and love.” To Auchincloss, New York Magazine adds, “that is a moral failure.”

From the beginning, this stance is in full display in The Headmaster’s Dilemma, and on the sexual front too. When Bobby Caldwell, the student accused of rape, turns his speech into a sort of moral necessity to abide the needs of man, Michael is shown to be deeply disturbed: “Michael…took another look at the Church. Certainly it was more inspiring than the picture in his mind of two naked boys wriggling in a bed. Couldn’t he derive a moral code from towers of ice and infinite blue water? No, he couldn’t. A headmaster had other fish to fry…”

What is interesting is that the sexual encounter is not a case of rape at all. What starts as rape converts into sexual pleasure on the part of the “victim”, Elihu Castor. Castor is depicted as a sissy, mother-fixated boy who manipulates the situation to convince his mother of the purported vastness of the crime perpetrated on him. There are many layers to Auchincloss’s work. Elihu’s mother, Rosina is a hard-hearted woman, too proud of her money. She launches a suit against the school administration, a move to which her husband, the ineffectual Elias, becomes a grudging party. But there is a twist in the tale. Elias, goaded by a past relationship, is able to take a step that alters the course of the case and the novel.

Auchincloss is adept at bringing out prospects of domestic bliss between Michael and Ione, a smart woman who is deeply devoted to her husband. Even so, it is not hard to see why the writer has not been able to achieve the greatness normally reserved for the likes of Norman Mailer and John Updike. While his characterization is nuanced, something seems amiss in most of the narrative. There is too much narration, and not enough scenes. As a story, it flows smoothly, but is it really a novel? Or, at any rate, a good one?

There is another criticism that Auchincloss has had to counter in his long and illustrious career as writer (he also worked as a lawyer). In his books, there is a constant struggle to capture a bygone world — in a nod perhaps to Edith Wharton and Henry James, those other chroniclers of the hypocrisy of the rich and famous. There are also disquisitions into art and its place in the world, loftily handed down from the headmaster to his pupils. All of this pertains to a love for the old school of writing, and there is no doubt that Auchincloss bemoans the rise of such writers as Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer. Howsoever elitist the latter two may be in the contemporary world, their writing is a bravura entry into new styles. Defending his imagining of disappearing places, Auchincloss said in an interview with the Financial Times:

“I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s in a nouveau riche world, where money was spent wildly,” he says, “and I’m still living in one! The private schools are all jammed with long waiting lists; the clubs – all the old clubs – are jammed with long waiting lists today; the harbours are clogged with yachts; there has never been a more material society than the one we live in today. Where is this ‘vanished world’ they talk about? I don’t think the critics have looked out the window!”

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