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Books : Bittersweet Thoughts on a Vanished Era

Our Kind of People: The Story of an American Family by Jonathan Yardley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $21.95; 306 pages)

One sure sign that the so-called Baby Boomers are moving into middle age is the steady output of books by authors in their 40s about their own aging parents. Some of the books are merely sentimental and celebratory; some are vicious and vituperative. A few are truly heartfelt and endearing, and among these is “Our Kind of People"--Jonathan Yardley’s biography of his parents, his saga of an American family that traces its history back to the signers of the Magna Charta, and his bittersweet musings on the lost gentility of American life.

William Yardley was the schoolmaster of a couple of second-rank private schools, first in Tuxedo Park, N. Y., and later in Chatham, Va.; Helen Yardley, nee Gregory, was his dutiful wife and helpmate. As Yardley reveals in “Our Kind of People,” the 50-year marriage of his late parents can be seen as a reflection of a certain kind of manners and morals, a certain era in our culture and civilization, which are now mostly gone. “Has any generation, in any time or place, ever undergone greater or more traumatic change,” Yardley asks, “than that of which my parents were beneficiaries, victims and witness?”

The Yardley and the Gregory families are descended from the earliest pioneers of colonial America--the first Yardley arrived in 1682 with a land grant from William Penn, and an ancestor of Helen Gregory Yardley fought at the Battle of Bennington. By the early 20th Century, however, the blue blood had thinned out, and the prospects were much diminished; Bill and Helen Yardley, as schoolmaster and wife, raised their children in enclaves of wealth and power, but Jonathan Yardley allows us to understand that they “had been granted admission . . . as members of the servant class: as providers of a service, in their case education, that the rich and privileged required.”

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Reconciled to Eccentricities

Yardley has studied his family history, mused over it, and reconciled himself to its eccentricities: “What a strange lot (the Yardleys) are, with their overdeveloped sense of familial identity, their ambivalence toward power and status, their longing for the past, their passionate regard for books and words, their oddly mingled principles and affectations, their loving attachment to pictures and chairs and silverware and things , their obsessive fascination with ancestry.”

Yardley includes the odd detail that is intended, I think, to show that these WASPish folk were not a collection of empty cliches. He reveals that his mother, as a Bennington undergraduate, brought back an illicit copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” from a trip to Mexico. His father’s first presidential vote was cast for Norman Thomas. And Bill Yardley may have proclaimed Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” as “the greatest novel ever written"--but Jonathan Yardley points out that the family library included such “surprises” as Faulker’s “Sanctuary,” Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Yardley comments: “Considering that they were children of the Anglo-Saxon middle-class, their tastes were refreshingly varied, undogmatic and imaginative.”

Apologetic Nostalgia

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But I also detected an almost apologetic sense of nostalgia in Yardley’s work, an insistence on explaining the insularity of his family by portraying their lives and times as kinder and gentler than our own benighted era. Thus, for example, Yardley concedes that one of his maternal forebears was an early developer of Maplewood, N.J., but he is quick to insist that “the word in its modern definition--with its connotations of venal profiteering and environmental despoliation--is anything but appropriate to this gentle, nature-loving man.” And, when describing how his parents furnished their home, he allows that “it is quite impossible to realize how easily and cheaply good furniture could be obtained in those days.”

The latter portions of the book include generous passages of autobiography, with Jonathan Yardley reproducing his early efforts at sportswriting (“The Chatham Tigers finished second in the county race”) and revealing that he did not send his own children to Groton, his alma mater, because he could not afford to. (Later, Yardley depicts himself as a commencement speaker at the exclusive private school, where he insists on quoting Mao Tse-tung.) Still, the focus of Yardley’s book--and, in a way, of his life--remains the mother and father whom Yardley finds so compelling and so vivid. When we witness their failing health and strength--and, at last, their deaths, the pain and the loss are palpable.

Explaining a Way of Life

“Our Kind of People” is a book that began with a simple inspiration--a tribute to the author’s beloved parents--but the work reflects a great and driving ambition: to capture the sweep of history and the detail of memory, and to thereby justify and explain a way of life.

Yardley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic of the Washington Post, has conducted his researches with care and compassion, and he reveals what he has learned about his family, about himself and about the richness and resonance of his own history, with both charm and urgency. In that sense, “Our Kind of People” is a book that had to be written, which is perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to any book.


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