It’s the birthday of American novelist John Phillips Marquand (books by this author), born in Wilmington, Delaware (1893). He came from a distinguished family of governors, shipbuilders, and sea captains. He said, “It is worthwhile for anyone to have behind him a few generations of honest, hardworking ancestry.” As a boy, his father was a wealthy stockbroker, but the panic of 1907 bankrupted him. Marquand was sent to live with his aunts, and he was the first member of his family to go to public instead of private school.
He got into Harvard on a scholarship, but he was always ashamed of his family’s financial troubles, and it made him acutely aware of the struggle for social status among the upper class. After college he got a job at a newspaper, but he decided that he would never be able to support a family with his meager newspaper wages, so he switched to advertising. For several years, he wrote ad copy about soap and underwear and rubber-heeled shoes, until he had saved up enough money to take a year off to write a novel. The result was a historical novel called The Unspeakable Gentleman (1922), which he sold as a serial to the Ladies’ Home Journal. He later said, “When I reread my first novel I almost lost my lunch,” but the book launched his career as one of the most successful writers of his day.
At the time, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country was the fiction published in magazines, and between 1921 and 1931, John P. Marquand published five serial novels and 59 short stories in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. Most of the stories were about romantic adventures in distant foreign countries, and they were so popular that Marquand became the most highly paid author in the country.
Marquand’s most popular novels of the 1930s were those featuring a Japanese agent named Mr. Moto, who speaks perfect English, has gold fillings in his teeth, is proficient with firearms and jujitsu, but whose most formidable weapon is his unfailing politeness. Marquand wrote six Moto novels, including Thank You, Mr. Moto (1936), Think Fast, Mr. Moto (1937), and Mr. Moto Is So Sorry (1938), but the character lost much of his appeal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
At the same time that Marquand was cranking out his novels of adventure and intrigue, he became fascinated by a series of biographies of supposedly prominent New England men that were quite popular at the time. Marquand thought these boring biographies of self-important upper-class New Englanders were absurd, so he decided to write a satirical fictionalized version. The result was his book The Late George Apley (1937), narrated by the smug and evasive fictional biographer Horatio Willing.
The book so resembled the biographies it was meant to parody that some people in Boston thought it was nonfiction. Critics and other writers were amazed that Marquand the spy novelist could write such an accurate and scathing portrait of a New England aristocrat. It was Marquand’s first serious novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He followed it with several more novels of manners, including Wickford Point (1939) and Point of No Return (1949).
Marquand went on publishing best-sellers for the rest of his life, but in part because his literary reputation was damaged by the popularity of his adventure novels, Marquand’s work was almost completely forgotten after his death. All his books had gone out of print by the end of the 20th century, although in 2004, Little, Brown and Company republished The Late George Apley and Wickford Point.