Louis Auchincloss

Louis Auchincloss (1917-2010) at Dostoyevsky’s writing desk, Dostoyevsky House Museum, Leningrad, November 30, 1985 – Photograph by Allen Ginsberg – © The Estate of Allen Ginsberg

Five years gone by now since the death of the mandarin lawyer-novelist-historian Louis Auchincloss (“New York lawyer, thoughtful high society belleletteriste biographer, aristocratic novelist, member of American Institute of Arts and Letters”). Auchincloss was among the company in 1985 in a PEN-sponsored delegation of American writers visiting the Soviet Union.

Here’s Philip Taubman’s contemporary account in the New York Times:

Moscow, December 2nd – A group of American writers left Moscow today after talks with Soviet authors that touched on the role of homosexuality in literature and other subjects normally considered taboo in the Soviet Union.
The discussions, which involved formal talks in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and informal meetings in other cities, were the seventh in a series of exchanges between American and Soviet writers that began in 1976.
Several of the Americans said they received a cool response from their hosts in the Writers Union when they raised issues such as the Government’s treatment of authors who fail to follow the political line enforced by the Kremlin.
The American group, which was led by Norman Cousins, also included Arthur Miller, William Gass, Louis Auchincloss, Allen Ginsberg [sic], William Gaddis, Charles Fuller, the author of A Soldier’s Story, Harrison E Salisbury and Dr. M Norvel Young, the chancellor emeritus of Pepperdine University in Los Angeles.”

The piece continues, under the sub-header “Ginsberg Sets Off Debate”:

“Mr Ginsberg touched off a series of sharp exchanges when he declared that writers everywhere should strive to reflect a broader range of human passions, including homosexual love, in their work, several of the Americabs reported.
“Allen was very direct in his discussion of homosexuality,” Mr Salisbury said.
Mr Salisbury added, “The Soviet bureaucrats, but interestingly not the writers, immediately responded by talking about the perversion and pornography that they believe permeates Western culture.”
Mr Ginsberg said in an interview, “I was trying to make the subject fit for discussion. My main proposition was that we should all try to break down the barriers between our private thoughts and our public expression.”
“I mentioned my own homosexuality in passing,” Mr Ginsberg went on, “and I said I didn’t mean to offend them. But some of what they said sounded like the Moral Majority.”
Mr Ginsberg said today that Soviet authorities had turned down his request to extend his visit for several weeks.”

Auchincloss, looking back, (in a piece published in the New York Times, two years later), recalled, with a wry smile, the distinct contrast between Allen and at least one of his fellow delegates:

William Gass, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, outside Dostoevsky’s apartment house in St Petersburg, 1985

“Perhaps the most amusing contrast in our group was (that) between (the novelist, William Gass) and Allen Ginsberg. Allen, shaggy and bearded, chanted his verse in loud, emotional tones as he pounded a species of accordion [a harmonium] that he always carried with him. Will, on the other hand, reserved and quiet, impeccably clad, with the patient composure of a man of the world and the piercing eye of a wit, spoke in measure tones of the small sales that the serious novelist might expect. If Danielle Steel counted her sales in the millions while he had to make do with a few thousands, he said, it was because she wrote books and he wrote “literature”. Asked for pointers as to future conferences, he glanced obliquely down the table at Allen and suggested that the novelists and poets be separated, so that the accordion would be heard only “down a long corridor, through a closed door”

Auchincloss and Allen, fellow-members of the American Institute of Arts and Letters, got on well, even if, as he told one journalist (in 1986), he had to “chide” Allen sometimes, “in a friendly way”, reminding the poet how “disgusting” and “revolting” Allen could be at times.
Restraint and reserve were more the manners of Auchincloss – WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) manners. As his obituary in the London Daily Telegraph pointed out, “he was both inhabitant and observer of the world about which he wrote”. The London Independent headed its obituary notice – “Louis Auchincloss – Writer who chronicled lives and times of America’s WASP elite“. George Plimpton‘s 1994 Paris Review interview with him may be read here . A later interview (three years later, with Bomb magazine) may be read here. Here’s Auchincloss on C-Span in 2005. Here’s his obituary notice as it appeared in the New York Times.

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