John Phillips Marquand (November 10, 1893 – July 16, 1960) was a 20th-century American novelist. He achieved popular success and critical respect, winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Late George Apley in 1938, and creating the Mr. Moto spy series. One of his abiding themes was the confining nature of life in America's upper class and among those who aspired to join it. Marquand treated those whose lives were bound by these unwritten codes with a characteristic mix of respect and satire.
Marquand attended Newburyport High School, where he won a scholarship that enabled him to attend Harvard. As an impecunious public school graduate in the heyday of Harvard's "Gold Coast," he was an unclubbable outsider. Though turned down by the college newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, Marquand succeeded in being elected to the editorial board of the humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. He graduated from Harvard University in 1915. Like many of his classmates, he served in the First World War.
A prolific and successful writer of fiction for slick magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, in the mid-1930s, Marquand began producing a series of novels on the dilemmas of class, most centered on New England. The first of these, The Late George Apley (1937), a satire of Boston's upper class, won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1938. Other Marquand novels exploring New England and class themes include Wickford Point (1939), H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), and Point of No Return (1949). The latter is especially notable for its satirical portrayal of Harvard anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, whose Yankee City study attempted (and in Marquand's view, dismally failed) to describe and analyze the manners and mores of Marquand's Newburyport.
Numerous Marquand novels became Hollywood films, but several bore little resemblance to the books. Mr. Moto, a tough-minded spy in Marquand's novels, became a genial police agent in the Peter Lorre films of the 1930s. The final Mr. Moto novel, in the 1950s, was filmed as a spy story, but Moto's character was eliminated.
Marquand's 1951 novel, Melville Goodwin, USA, was unrecognizable in the 1958 motion picture A Top-Secret Affair. The book was a satire about publicists trying to cover up a general's adultery, but movie writers transformed the general into a bachelor. According to Marquand's biographers, he took these Hollywood liberties in stride.
In his later years, Marquand also contributed an occasional satiric short story to Sports Illustrated. A collection was later published as a book, with the title "Life at Happy Knoll." The stories humorously dealt with the problems of an "old-line" country club as it tried to adjust to changing times and a competing "upstart" country club located near by.
Marquand died in Newburyport in 1960. Although his major work is largely out of print, his spy fiction remains in print. Like his contemporary John O'Hara (and with a lighter touch), Marquand addressed issue of privilege and inequality. Marquand's financial success and seeming veneration for the upper classes, like O'Hara's, was sufficient to cause academia to ignore him. Marquand was unsparing in his own scorn for academics, notably in Point of No Return (in which he lampoons anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner) and Wickford Point (in which he mocks a prominent member of Harvard's English Department).
Although currently in eclipse, Marquand's reputation may be poised for a revival. Jonathan Yardley, in a 2003 Washington Post column entitled "Zinging WASPs With a Smooth Sting" says Marquand's contemporaries "found [his] satires of that world both hilarious and accurate, and so do I. That Marquand has almost vanished from the literary landscape is to me an unfathomable mystery. From ... 1937 ... until 1960, Marquand was one of the most popular novelists in the country. The literati turned up their noses at him (as they do to this day) because he had done a fair amount of hackwork in his early career and continued to write, unashamedly, for popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post."
Critic Martha Spaulding, writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 2004, noted that "in his day Marquand was compared to Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, and his social portrait of twentieth-century America was likened to Balzac's Comédie Humaine, [but] critics rarely took him very seriously. Throughout his career he believed, resentfully, that their lack of regard stemmed from his early success in the "slicks". Praising his "seductive, sonorous prose", she states that he "deserves to be rediscovered."
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