‘A World of Profit’, by Louis Auchincloss

I read a set of short stories by Louis Auchincloss some years ago under the title ‘The Partners’ (publ.1974) and I cannot remember the details of any of them. However, an impression stayed with me of how he described very well the inner workings of ‘the business mind’ and also caught the atmosphere of office life really well. I am qualified to recognise this aspect in his writings because I spent many years behind office desks in various offices under various ‘clerical’ guises.
This quality of getting a grip on the machinations of business entrepreneurial activity also forms part of the appeal of this book, ‘A World of Profit’ (1968). Jay Livingstone is a man on the ‘up’ and thinks mainly in terms of amassing wealth and eventually belonging to the ‘old family’ class of New York. Everything else comes a poor second, even his jewish name which he takes good care to change to something more ‘acceptable’. It is a fairly accurate portrait. Making friends with the members of that class and insinuating himself into its social structure is the best route for this ‘social climbing’ and is only rendered a little unpalatable to him by the fact that Jay, deep down, despises these ‘rich kids’. He also stands out among them as the one with by far the most business acumen. These are indeed the recurring traits of the social interloper and Auchincloss delineates them well.
It’s a good novel of its kind. But I’m not sure it will appeal to many ‘modern’ readers. I say ‘modern’ because there are aspects of Auchincloss’s world which by now, I think, are somewhat out of date– for example, the influence of the ‘old’ New York families and their many ways of keeping their lifestyle exclusive of men like Jay. I put ‘modern’ in inverts because I’ve learned by now that there are other, more subtle ways of exclusion which have replaced the rather overt ones to be found in this novel. Nevertheless, it’s an old-fashioned read, something like the English novelist CP Snow, but without his depth of character and feel for extended family narrative. I don’t think Auchincloss’s novel holds up very well today, forty years after its publication.


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