For Louis Auchincloss, life and letters are not two things but one. It therefore comes as no surprise that when he writes about writers, their lives are considered as closely as 'their works. He takes what today is a refreshingly unpopular position: that the artist and his art carinot be teased apart, that biography fe criticism and criticism biography. For Mr. Auchincloss, it all boils down to that maxim of Buffon's: "the style's the man," the man behind the book.
The twenty-three writers discussed here are a mixed lot — English, American, and French; novelists, poets, and playwrights; Jacobeans, Victorians, and moderns — yet each has meant a great deal to Mr. Auchincloss as a reader and a writer. Some of them are classics, and familiar Auchincloss subjects: Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, Ivy Compton-Burnett. Others, among them Prosper Merimee, Harold Frederic, and Amy Lowell, were famous once but are now obscure. In their cases it is Mr. Auchincloss's self-described task "to explore the reasons for their fall from grace," reasons that prove to be unfailingly personal as well as artistic. But as Mr. Auchincloss would rather praise and share than damn and dismiss, it is also his task "to seek the portions of their work that may still merit attention."
Alfred Kazin once noted that Mr. Auchincloss's essays are marked by "perfect literary grace and wit." These qualities have never been so evident as in this volume, an informal study of some of the author's favorite books and the fascinating artists behind them.