MARQUAND: An American Life by Millicent Bell

MARQUAND: An American Life

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Bell begins this massively conscientious and thunderingly dull biography with a resounding claim: novelist John P. Marquand's life, she says, was ""so representative in its essentials as to constitute a kind of metonymy for all our lives, a work of the personal will and imagination collaborating with fate to produce an artistic fable of the general experience."" What follows, however, despite Bell's stolid efforts to trace themes between life and work, is a meticulously fact-filled, quotation-choked study that neither invests this ""profoundly American life"" with drama nor offers much basis for a reassessment of Marquand's oeuvre. True, Bell quickly fastens on the one resonant Marquand moment: his old-family, rich father lost all in the crash of 1907, forcing 14-year-old John to go to public school, creating a sense of ""unjust displacement"" that resulted in a lifelong urge to belong, to restore the family grandeur, to rise above the Groton snobs. But this essentially petty trauma is then draped in rhetoric (""a life-obsession that made out of the amorphous romance of boyhood the man's recurring dream"") and asked to support Bell's relentless detailing of Marquand's career and private life: Harvard, advertising, journalism, short-story hackwork, novel-writing burdened by the ""stigma of popularity,"" dealings, war work, travel; two lousy marriages to unstable, toney women; and the production of assorted unloving children. There's some pathos in unlikable Marquand's selfish, vacant relationships -- but little psychological insight. And Bell's efficient analyses of the writings really only confirm their modest virtues, giving no sense that Marquand's conflicts (art vs. money, etc.) kept him from producing more important work. Certainly anyone seriously interested in George Apley or the other novels will want to turn here rather than to Stephen Birmingham's gossipy, far less flattering The Late John Marquand (1972). But mostly this is a sad, thick example of what happens when the academic apparatus designed to study literary genius is doggedly applied to a man of minor talent.

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1979
Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown