John P. Marquand


John Phillips Marquand (November 10, 1893July 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.

Youth and early adulthood

Marquand was a scion of an old Newburyport, Massachusetts, family. He was a great-nephew of 19th-century writer Margaret Fuller and a cousin of Buckminster Fuller, who gained fame in the 20th century as the inventor of the geodesic dome. Marquand was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and grew up in the New York suburbs. When financial reverses broke up the family's comfortable household, he was sent to Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he was raised by his eccentric aunts, who lived in a crumbling Federal Period mansion, surrounded by remnants of the family's vanished glory. (Marquand's ancestors had been successful merchants in the Revolutionary period; Margaret Fuller and other aunts had been actively involved with the Transcendentalist and Abolitionist movements.)

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.

Sociological themes

Marquand's life and work reflected his ambivalence about American society -- and, in particular, the power of its old line elites. Being rebuffed by fashionable Harvard did not discourage his social aspirations. In 1922, he married Christina Sedgwick, niece of The Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick. (The Sedgwicks were a prominent and well-connected family; The Atlantic Monthly was one of the country's most prestigious periodicals). In 1925, Marquand published his first important book, Lord Timothy Dexter, an exploration of the life and legend of eighteenth century Newburyport eccentric Timothy Dexter (1763-1806).

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.

Popular fiction

Before gaining acclaim for his serious novels, Marquand achieved great popular and commercial success with a series of formulaic spy novels about the fictional Mr. Moto. The first, Your Turn, Mr. Moto appeared in 1935; the last, Right You Are, Mr. Moto, in 1957. The series inspired eight films, starring Peter Lorre, which are only very loosely based on the novels. James S. Koga states that Moto is not a proper Japanese surname. He notes that "[Mr. Moto] is never the main protagonist of the story—rather he appears at strategic points in the story, a catalyst for action." "The typical storyline," he says, "involves an American male, somewhat tarnished by past experiences in the U.S., who finds himself in the Orient ... overwhelmed by the foreignness of Asia. This protagonist gets involved in some international intrigue by happenstance, usually coinciding with meeting Mr. Moto, ... falls deeper into the plot and then finds himself in deadly peril. Along the way, he meets an attractive American woman who also becomes entangled, and by resourcefulness (and not a little help from Mr. Moto) overcomes the peril and then gets the girl."

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's social network and reputation

For all of his ambivalence about America's elite, Marquand ultimately succeeded not only in joining it, but in embodying its characteristics. He forgave the upper crust classmates who had snubbed him in college (relationships he satirized in H.M. Pulham, Esq). He was invited to join all the right social clubs in Boston (Tavern, Somerset) and New York (Century Association, University). Through his second marriage to Adelaide Ferry Hooker, he became linked to the Rockefeller family (her sister, Blanchette, was married to John D. Rockefeller III). He maintained luxury homes in Newburyport and in the Caribbean.

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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