Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Thirty Years'The dust jacket of Marquand’s Thirty Years provides this unimpressive description of the book’s contents: “A collection of stories, articles and essays which have not previously appeared in book form.” Plenty of such collections have been published, but perhaps none other has been so honest in acknowledging the flimsy rationale for its existence. Little, Brown, Marquand’s publisher, needed some content to put out “in book form.” So Marquand gathered up an assortment of material that hadn’t previous appeared in book form, and hey presto: a book. He was also honest enough to admit in his foreword that the book makes “no pretense at being a prize collection.”

In his introduction to the book, Clifton Fadiman calls Marquand “the best novelist of social comedy now [1954] at work in our country” and predicts that he will be considered the American Thackeray of the 20th century. Fadiman attributes Marquand’s success to his being “at once outsider and insider.” From the distance of over a half century later, I think it’s become clear that Marquand was far more insider than outsider. And despite recent attempts to prop up the place of rich East Cost white men as its pinnacle, it’s probably also safe to conclude that the role of Boston and New York clubmen in the American Establishment mostly of historical and anthropological interest today.

So why bother with Thirty Years? Well, unless you do find historical and anthropological interest in the heyday of the American Establishment, there isn’t any reason to. A fair amount of the book’s content is just as slapdash as the dust jacket’s disclaimer suggests. Is anyone still interested in Marquand’s stories from the Mulligatawny Club, a mocking version of the various yacht clubs–or societies for the preservation of the prejudices of rich retired white men–he encountered along the shores Long Island Sound? Or his stories of the “strenuous life” of rich young white men in East Coast private schools and Hahvuhd?

Marquand includes a long story, “The End Game,” which Herbert Mayes, editor at Good Housekeeping in the 1940s and 1950s, “once thought highly of.” In it, Marquand attempts to weave a narrative out of various threads he was familiar with: China in the years before the Communist revolution; the culture of American Army life; New York City in the 1940s; and chess. He notes that the story is roughly equal in length to Henry James’ Daisy Miller and that he found it a “dangerous” form to work with: “Such a fictional form can fall over itself more readily than any other I have ever known.” And so “The End Game” does.

The story is told by Henry Ide, an American businessman taking one of his periodic breaks in New York City from time working in trade in China. There is something I always find interesting about stories that grow out of characters who find themselves in such “in between times.” Wandering around midtown Manhattan one evening, he enters a penny arcade and finds in its basement a room where you can play chess or checkers against the house masters. Ide sits down to play chess with a scruffy-looking man who introduces himself as Joe, and over the course of the next few evenings, he draws out pieces of Joe’s story. Marquand proves an effective Scheherezade for most of the tale, drawing the reader along through its pages. And then he blows it. In his foreword, Marquand notes that many of his magazine stories “lack depth and significance, qualities popular periodicals customarily avoid, and almost inevitably they reach a happy ending.” Let’s just say that “The End Game” features one of the most abrupt and unbelievable happy endings ever written. And reason enough not to read it: I wish I hadn’t.

Most of Marquand’s serious novels are well over 400 pages long, and he was often accused of putting far more material into them than was necessary. And he committed the same sin with Thirty Years. Of its 466 pages, only the 120-some pages in the section “The Wars: Men and Places” are of more than passing interest, and fifty of those are taken up by the unsatisfying “The End Game.” What’s left are a handful of pieces–a mix of fiction and reporting–that stem from Marquand’s stints working for the War Department during World War Two.

The best of these, “Ascension Island,” is taken from a trip Marquand took in mid-1943 in the company of Brigadier General James S. Simmons, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health assigned to survey the potential for disease outbreaks at U. S. Army bases everywhere from the Caribbean and Brazil to North Africa, Sicily, the Middle East, India, and China. Simmons was given priority over air transport “that could bump off anyone except the President, the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and General Marshall and Admiral King.”

On the returning leg of the trip, Simmons and Marquand stopped at Ascension Island, a British protectorate in the middle of the South Atlantic that had been transformed into a refueling and patrol base for the U. S. military. There, he finds a resounding demonstration of the power of production and logistics that underlay the American effort in World War Two (and went on to constitute of core of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, which is still on display at places like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan):

Whenever I hear someone say that there is no unified national spirit and no culture in the United States, I think of our airports in Africa, India and the Pacific. It may be true that the Englishman far from home dresses for dinner and has his Number One Boy bring in his gin and tonic, but in all his centuries of colonizing he has never brought his civilization with him wholesale, as our armed forces have brought theirs in this war. Machine shops, plumbing, air conditioning, outdoor movies, ping-pong tables, boxing rings, Time, Newsweek, the weekly comics, Pocket Books, Gillette razors, Williams’ Aqua Velva, Rheingold beer, Johnson’s baby powder, Spam and Planters’ peanuts, all followed our army to the war for the edification of dark-skinned men in G-strings and for the shocked amazement of the French and British.

In this piece and in “Iwo Jima before H-Hour”, Marquand provides–perhaps unconsciously–some of the rare reporting from World War Two that stresses the extent to which the American effort depended on materiel and masses of personnel. It was an approach that would soon take over many other aspects of American life and push into obsolescence Marquand’s “timeless” world, where “The Boston pigeons are exactly the same as they were fifty years ago, and so are the old ladies and gentlemen who feed them, and so are the newspaper readers on the Common benches and the amorous couples who walk the shady paths.” Which is one reason why Thirty Years is now more of an anthropological artifact than a relevant work of literature.


Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand
Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1954