Friday, February 26, 2010

Brief Review: "Auntie Mame" by Patrick Dennis

Auntie Mame (An Irreverent Escapade) by Patrick Dennis, 1955

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale" Auntie Mame.

After 55 years, what is there to say that hasn't already been said? Very little if anything, I suspect, so I won't even try; I'll just state categorically that Auntie Mame may well be the funniest comic novel ever written by an American, or, if not that, still one of a very tiny handful which head any list of the funniest and best. Mame Dennis (later Burnside), woman of exquisite modern tastes and cultural refinement, strong liberal inclinations and fierce opposition to hypocrisy in all its forms, almost boundless optimism even if not always the most profound insight into others' characters, is one of the great comic creations of the 20th century who throws herself without hesitation or restraint into experiencing life and who is essentially unflappable even when things go seriously awry, as they sometimes do. I have the feeling that, were Mame seriously religious, she would undoubtedly choose to be Lutheran just so she could adopt as her own motto Martin Luther's dictum pecca fortiter -- "sin bravely," not because she's particularly a sinner, but because she commits herself totally to whatever she undertakes, without reservation (and sometimes without forethought).

The novel in fact focuses on the relation that develops between Mame and her nephew -- one Patrick Dennis -- who is committed to her keeping as his legal guardian when Patrick becomes an orphan at the age of 10 in 1928 and follows them and their adventures up until 1955. That relationship, as one might imagine, has its ups and downs, with Patrick at moments passionately idolizing his Aunt while at others driven entirely to distraction by her behavior; it's at those latter moments he is fully convinced that he is actually her guardian or at least has to act as if he were. But the very real love between the two never falters, not even when, on the eve of his high school graduation from a strict, stuffy private school, she imperils him by showing up with a young pregnant woman she's taken under her wing, insists that he sneak off campus twice a day to shop and take the mother-to-be for long walks, and registers her in the local hotel as -- of course -- Mrs. Patrick Dennis, a situation naturally discovered by the primmest and stuffiest of prim and stuffy headmasters.

The humor derives not only from the plotting and the complex, problematical situations which Mame (and sometimes Patrick) create but also from the writing itself, which is lively, witty, and masterful. When the newly-arrived Patrick informs Mame that he doesn't understand many of the words she uses, she's delighted at the opportunity of "molding a little new life!" and hands him a pencil and pad which he's to keep at all times and write down any words she uses he doesn't understand so she can explain them to him, thereby developing his vocabulary. Of course, she hands him the pad with her usual grand sweeping gesture which knocks over the coffee pot, whereupon "I immediately wrote down six new words which Auntie Mame said to scratch out and forget."

Auntie Mame is a work that comes the closest of any American novel I can recall having read to the work of P. G. Wodehouse; Wodehouse's intricate plotting, his ability to characterize stereotypical characters as individuals, and the wonderful humor of his prose are all attributes one also finds in Dennis's work. But Dennis differs from Wodehouse, as well, in his forthrightness in dealing at times with what were very controversial (and generally not publicly addressed) issues at the time the book was published; Mame's relentless and remorseless taking on of the antisemitism and racial bigotry of Patrick's prospective father-in-law at one point is one instance. Dennis, in fact, deserves recognition for his willingness to address such issues in the mid-1950s; he was one of the few writers at the time who did so.

But it is most as comedy that Auntie Mame stands out from so much other work, and it is as a -- possibly the -- superb American comic novel that it deserves to be remembered. And read.


Blogger Mary O. Paddock said...

I have to admit, I did not know the movie (very much an old favorite) was based on a book. I will look for it the next time I'm in the library.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Hedgie said...

There's also a sequel, Around the World with Auntie Mame, which I haven't read yet.

4:33 PM  

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