Mary Therese McCarthy
| March 8, 2000
"Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy" by Frances Kiernan
A host of gossips weighs in on the left-wing scrapper and wickedly erotic novelist.
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By Pam Rosenthal
The world of the novel, Mary McCarthy wrote, is the world according to the village gossip. Try it with your own favorites:
"Well, I always thought old Karamazov had it coming."
"Hey, is the Caulfields' second kid giving them trouble again?"
"Sweetie, you've got to get a look at the gorgeous man who rented Charlotte Haze's spare bedroom."
"Did you hear that Dottie got a diaphragm? At the Margaret Sanger Clinic? And she used her own name."
You may not understand the last example, because Mary McCarthy is not much read these days; it's from her 1963 novel, "The Group." Wickedly compounded of its characters' youthful cluelessness and haute-bourgeois snobbery and its author's touching, fragile faith in human progress, "The Group" speaks its gossip in the composite voice of Vassar 1933, channeled through its most famous graduate.
So it makes perfect sense that Frances Kiernan's big new biography of McCarthy is an upscale gabfest, a chorale of gossip culled from its subject's intimates and acquaintances, friends and enemies. Rivaling for heft, "Seeing Mary Plain" ends with a 16-page alphabetical cast of characters, a "Who's Who" of midcentury American letters that includes the Vassar classmates who were McCarthy's first eager readers. "I learned from her short stories that devilled ham was fatal to a proper orgasm and that lettuce was a powerful aphrodisiac," says one Lucille Fletcher Wallop. "I had never heard of orgasms or aphrodisiacs, but I lapped up her descriptions as did the rest of the class, who often lined up in a long queue waiting for the folder."
Over a 50-year career, McCarthy wrote about politics, literature, theater, art. She defended Leon Trotsky against the literary Stalinists of the '30s, organized left-wing anti-Communist writers during the Cold War, covered Vietnam and Watergate. And she created a mordant fiction of ideas and their seductions, a stylish erotics of class, power and the intellect.
Beautiful, witty and infinitely contentious, she was called "the dark lady of American letters," as though American letters needed to contain a woman so dangerous by means of a nervous epithet.
"Mary was beautiful," literary critic Lionel Abel tells Kiernan. "A real beauty. You don't expect that in someone so bright." And Isaiah Berlin seems to be giving himself points for judiciousness when he confides that "Mary wasn't the cleverest woman I ever met. I think the cleverest woman I ever met was ... Elizabeth Hardwick." Who was the cleverest man Berlin ever met? He doubtless never thought to ask.
Still, it's maddening quotations like these that give this biography its shape and flavor. Knitted together by Kiernan's thoughtful and effortless-seeming summaries, it's a surprisingly quick, enjoyable and enlightening read, suggesting -- as more heavy-handed biographies do not -- the dailiness of a life in process. "From start to finish," Kiernan says, "Mary McCarthy wrote sentences that were clear and lucid and altogether beguiling." "Seeing Mary Plain" maintains a lightness, balance and buoyancy worthy of its subject.
"Anecdotes tend to cut their subjects down to size," Kiernan points out, and here, too, the biography's anecdotal form seems particularly apposite for a woman who wielded such a mean and gleeful scalpel. She used it most famously in her 1979 assessment of Lillian Hellman on late-night TV: "Every word she writes," McCarthy told host Dick Cavett, "is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"
But what's more interesting is McCarthy's way of cutting herself down to size. In the first and best of her memoirs, "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" (1957), she inserts several pages of italicized commentary between the essays. "There are several dubious points in this memoir," she tells us, as though (as Jean Strouse points out) she were simultaneously defendant and prosecuting attorney in some court of her own convening.
"When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about," she wrote in "How I Grew" (1987), "make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over." Her own unbearable -- often sexual -- actions revealed a need for attention and admiration, as well as a guilty desperation engendered, perhaps, by winning too cheaply. "The men she had known ... had been, when you faced it, too easily pleased: her success had been gratifying but hollow. It was not difficult, after all, to be the prettiest girl at the party for the sharecroppers."
All this often works brilliantly on the page -- most particularly, I think, in her first novel, "The Company She Keeps" (1942), from which that passage is taken. (Start with it rather than "The Group" if you want to read McCarthy.) But though every "and" and "the" rings with intelligence and authenticity, it's ultimately still (as writing always is) self-justification. Nobody ever really gets to be both judge and defendant at her own trial.
The jury of scolds and gossips that Kiernan has
convened is a loving corrective -- because they do not finally cut McCarthy down
to size at all but, rather, allow her to expand into a space that's roomier than
any one writer's beguiling sentences or carefully qualified memoirs could allow.
"Preserve me in disunity," the heroine of "The Company She Keeps" prays on the
last page of the novel. And so her creator is preserved in this fine biography.
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About the writer
Pam Rosenthal has previously written for Salon under the pseudonym Molly Weatherfield. A portion of her (pseudonymous) novel "Safe Word" appears in "The Best American Erotica 2000" (Touchstone)
Frances Kiernan explores the life of Mary McCarthy through the opinions of friends and enemies.
By LARISSA MacFARQUHAR
Upon the publication of this book, Frances Kiernan's ''Seeing Mary Plain,'' the third substantial biography of Mary McCarthy in 12 years, the question must be asked: is McCarthy -- a viperously clever but minor writer, much admired, much detested -- now less read than read about? Was her life more alluring than her work? She was, no doubt about it, eminently biographable. She conducted messy and indiscreet affairs with dozens of people (good), several of them celebrities (very good). She lived in New York and Paris (Parisian street names are to prose what morels are to food). She was gloriously stylish: traveling as a reporter to Hanoi in 1968, she brought eight suitcases and a collection of exquisite lingerie. She had a famous smile. ''Torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile,'' Randall Jarrell wrote of Gertrude Johnson, his caricature of McCarthy in his 1952 novel, ''Pictures From an Institution.'' Dwight Macdonald told an interviewer, ''When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.''
Her writing regularly created scandals -- both her eviscerations of such sacred cows as Salinger and O'Neill, and the bleak, comical treatment of sex in her fiction. (Every literary person of her generation, it seems, remembers reading with shocked delight -- in 1954! -about a McCarthy character's humiliation in getting fitted for a diaphragm.) She was a celebrated bitch. Some of her enemies sued or threatened to sue, the best known case being that of Lillian Hellman, of whom McCarthy said on the Dick Cavett show, ''Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' ''Others wreaked a quieter but nastier revenge by concocting delicious tributes in her honor. Alfred Kazin, who couldn't stand her, wrote that she had ''a wholly destructive critical mind, shown in her unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure -- surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity.''
One of McCarthy's most cited claims to historical interest, though, seems misplaced. She is frequently written about because of her association with the New York intellectuals of the 1930's, particularly those -- Philip Rahv, William Phillips and Delmore Schwartz, among others -- around Partisan Review. But except in a social sense, she was never really one of them. ''I was a source of uneasiness and potential embarrassment to the magazine,'' she admitted in an essay. ''I was not a Marxist; I should have liked, rather, to be one, but I did not know the language. . . . All my habits of mind were bourgeois, my fellow editors used to tell me.'' They were ideological, she was personal; they were political, she was moral; they took their politics seriously, while she could quip of Hitler in 1944 (horrifying her future friend Hannah Arendt, who had escaped from a concentration camp) that she felt sorry for him because all he really wanted was to be loved. They saw reality in large systems; she saw it in intimate possessions and social habits.
McCarthy began writing fiction in 1938, at 26, when the second of her four husbands, Edmund Wilson, deciding she had a talent for it, shut her in a room and forbade her to come out until she had finished a story. Her first effort, ''Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,'' which she wrote -- because of these conditions -- in one sitting, is one of her best. Consisting of a young woman's musings on the protocols of her extramarital affair, it charts the devolution of vanity and self-indulgence with the precision of an algorithm. (''It was not, in the end, enough,'' the young woman sighs, tiring of the private nature of her drama, ''to be a Woman With a Secret, if to one's friends one appeared to be a woman without a secret.'') In her later fiction, though, especially in her best-known novels, ''The Groves of Academe'' (1952) and her only best seller, ''The Group'' (1963), the scorching McCarthy had applied so delicately in her first book -- a torch adding bite to a crème brûlée -- grew fiercer and less controlled. She once said in a speech that she admired Michelangelo's sculptures because he left ''some mark of the tools on the marble rather than have a smooth, polished surface. I think it has something to do with truth,'' and indeed, it seemed that for her truth had more to do with the work of hacking than with any particular result. She detected its presence by the smell of blood.
McCarthy loathed the weak, middle-class virtues: moderation, tolerance, irony, the idealization of progress. Her later fiction (she died in 1989) became almost Dostoyevskian in the mood it cultivated of the ax hanging over, in its whiff of damnation, but with no representatives of the saved and no possibility of redemption. All of which sounds terribly dark and moody, except that, unlike Dostoyevsky's, McCarthy's characters are shallow, cartoonish figures -- brilliantly, cuttingly sketched, but sadly incapable of bearing the weight of the grave vices of which she held them guilty. Because of this, her treatment of her characters seems strange and unsporting -- almost an error of genre. ''The Groves of Academe,'' in particular, reads like a bizarre hybrid, as though ''School for Scandal'' had been crossed with ''Crime and Punishment.'' You have the sense, reading McCarthy, of a delightfully vicious and lighthearted 18th-century satirist of manners who has, through some dreadful mixup at the heavenly registrar, found herself raised in a religious Roman Catholic household and writing in a world preoccupied with Stalin, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War.In a 1960 essay titled ''The Fact in Fiction,'' McCarthy complained that recent novelists had lost interest in facts. ''Most of the great novels,'' she wrote nostalgically, ''contain blocks and lumps of fact -- refractory lumps in the porridge of the story.'' (She was thinking, for instance, of the encyclopedic treatment of whaling in ''Moby-Dick'' and the military bits in ''War and Peace.'') This was, of course, another difference between her and the Partisan Review crowd: they were committed to modernism, but she considered the novel to have withered as a form around 1920 -- once, as she saw it, novelists threw over the stuff of daily life for sensibility and sensation.
''The trouble with the art-novel (most of Virginia Woolf, for instance),'' McCarthy proclaimed in the same essay, is that ''it does not stoop to gossip.'' Perhaps in this complaint lies the key to the strange failures of her novels: if they do not work as fiction, they work better as fact. They are, indeed, notoriously close to fact -- many of the exploits in the stories in her first book, ''The Company She Keeps,'' were McCarthy's own, and many of her characters were drawn, cruelly, from life. Read as acts of malice, the books make more tonal sense than they do as fiction. It is as though the peculiarly intimate yet burlesque quality of her portraits were generically unsuited to the genre. And it is because her fascination lies centrally in the twisting of her glittering flights of descriptive fancy with her need, as she saw it, to tell the truth, that biographies are more useful for McCarthy than for other writers.
In putting together ''Seeing Mary Plain,'' Frances Kiernan, formerly a
fiction editor at The New Yorker, has conducted an extraordinary number of
interviews, and she has selected the best criticisms of McCarthy with a freer
hand than her recent predecessors, Carol Gelderman and Carol Brightman, who were
more inclined to be protective of their subject. There is, indeed, an oddly
passive-aggressive quality to ''Seeing Mary Plain'': Kiernan never attacks
McCarthy directly, but plants spiteful little quotations throughout. Where
McCarthy herself, in her various memoirs, wrote most eloquently about her own
life, Kiernan modestly yields the floor and excerpts long passages. Kiernan's
own writing, it must be said, sometimes reads as though generated by a
biographical software program: ''Nothing was going to stop this bright and
desperately ambitious young adventurer, who had turned her back on Seattle and
set her sights on Vassar, where she was not about to settle for second best and
where she was going to distinguish herself at all costs.'' Still, by the end of
her book, having followed for nearly 80 years McCarthy and her associates --
some resentful, some adoring, all nervous -- Kiernan has proved that, in the
unlikely event that McCarthy's writing should be forgotten, if there is a
question as to whether the story of her life will continue to be engrossing, the
answer is yes.
Larissa MacFarquhar is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
By Carolyn See
Sunday, March 12, 2000; Page X01
SEEING MARY PLAIN
A Life of Mary McCarthy
By Frances Kiernan
Norton. 845 pp. $35
I want to tell you how I came to read Seeing Mary Plain. Publishers hate to run ads, with very few exceptions. Talk shows hosts hate to feature writers, with few exceptions, since writers are often inarticulate, sullen and unkempt.
One thing publishers can do, though, and they don't seem to mind doing it, is send out advance copies of books to people who might give a darn. The bound galley of Seeing Mary Plain came to the house with the four or five other books I get every day. It was enormous, more than two inches thick. But Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood had "changed my life," and A Charmed Life really did change my life, so I opened Seeing Mary Plain just to run my eye down its pages, as they say.
Eight hundred and forty five pages -- and eight days -- later, I came back to reality, dazed, enlightened and begging to do this review. Frances Kiernan has done a wonderful thing here, invented a new form of gender-based, mind-expanding biography. Seeing Mary Plain is to Mary McCarthy and women what Richard Ellmann's James Joyce was to that author and to male-generated literature. In both cases the biography fully acknowledges the breadth and depth of its subject but is absolutely enchanting to read in its own right.
Virginia Woolf once suggested that the difference between men and women writers was that men were given to public statements and convoluted sentences, while women wished "to be confidential, and to entertain." Kiernan has taken this idea and put it through a dazzling star turn. She must have seen early on that the best way to tell the story of one of the most gossipy writers of the last century was through gossip itself -- not the tabloid stuff we think of now but the product of five-hour, one-on-one conversations (in the old days, only women had time for these) in which every last motive for every last human act was dissected and dissected yet again. Kiernan -- former fiction editor of the New Yorker -- interviewed dozens of McCarthy's friends, relatives, husbands, lovers, literary rivals and her many enemies for this reconstruction of a literary life, using their voices in separate, insightful, self-contained paragraphs. She uses McCarthy's voice, and then her own, to be confidential, to entertain, to tease out the maximum meaning of McCarthy's life.
For those who haven't read Mary McCarthy's work, her early history -- told in those "Catholic Girlhood" memories -- was that she began as a lucky child, privileged and loved by beautiful parents. She carried a little fur muff. But when she was 6 her parents perished in the post-World War I influenza epidemic. She and her siblings were sent to live with an impoverished aunt and uncle from hell. (But here a younger brother chimes in that they weren't all that bad!) By the time Mary was rescued from this situation, she was enraged at the world, and never got over it. She worked off a seething sense of injustice that made her a ferocious, imperious, relentless dragon for the rest of her life.
The thing was, McCarthy looked so pretty. And when, after her Vassar education, she came to New York to hang out with the literati and perhaps do some writing herself, men couldn't get it through their heads that she was who she was.
Perhaps more than any other feminist in the country, she made men (one at a time, as they lived it, and by the thousands as they read her novels) begin to think twice about how they treated women -- not because they were "bad" when they did it: Who cared about "bad"? But because they looked like such retarded dunces, and women saw right through them. But women could be dunces too, in Mary McCarthy's eyes. Play dumb, act vapid, be a snob or a bore in front of her, and two or three years later you'd find yourself in her pages. Her women friends suffered from this greatly, but her husbands and lovers really suffered: Again and again, they couldn't seem to get it. Make a bumbling pass at McCarthy, and what -- in earlier days -- might have been gleefully reported to a single girlfriend, blow by bumbling blow, was now published (from the Latin publicare, to make public) for the world to read. For McCarthy, men were the natural laughingstock in a series of mean novelistic jokes.
Even Edmund Wilson, one of the great minds of his generation, was incautious enough to marry McCarthy, and then incautious enough to slug her in the chops a few times. What in the world was he thinking? All the lofty thoughts he ever wrote about have been tinted, irrevocably, by her comic, scathing portrait of him as a boozy bully who, in point of McCarthy fact, wasn't quite as bright as he thought he was.
What, after all, should woman authors write about? How should they live their lives? McCarthy spent time with the Boys from the Partisan Review, fighting like mad in the war between Stalinist and non-Stalinist communists, never realizing that the entire communist boat was in danger of sinking. She wrote travel literature and lived much of her later life abroad. She loved money, dressed beautifully, collected art objects and antiques. She was a fiend for the domestic arts.
She used these domestic arts, it seems, as magical red puffs of deceiving smoke: Pay no attention to that writing business of mine! Have some champagne! Try my oysters Florentine. These tiny green beans come straight from my garden! There's nothing to worry about here. Nothing at all.
People were beguiled by her again and again. They drank her champagne, ate her perfect food and acted like perfect fools even though they sometimes knew better. She nailed them, again and again, and felt about as much remorse as a wild boar. All our women novelists are in her debt -- for subject matter, for tone, for a certain smiling viciousness that can't help but captivate the reader. There would be no Alison Lurie, Diane Johnson, Alice Adams, Anita Shreve, even no Marge Piercy, without Mary McCarthy. And men might still be acting with the unconscious self-absorption of 80 years ago, in the certain hope that -- no matter how oafish their behavior -- their women would cover up for them.
I'm still dazed by the scope of this biography, which sheds so much light on the culture of the last American century. Are all politics as fleeting and pointless as McCarthy's political battles turned out to be? Was she carrying the torch for justice between the sexes, and a higher intellectual standard for women, or was she a pathological, mean-spirited harridan who hated almost everyone with equal vigor? Have men been mistreating women all these years, or could it have been the other way around? Frances Kiernan circles McCarthy with her literary camera, giving us every piece of information we could possibly need. In the end, of course, we have to make up our own minds about this extraordinary life and the irresistible work it produced.
reviews books every Friday in Style. Her most recent novel is "The Handyman."
THURSDAY, APRIL 6, 2000
'Seeing Mary Plain" is not a conventional biography. In some respects, it is like a vast assemblage of the raw materials from which biographies are made. Interviews with people who knew Mary McCarthy, excerpts from memoirs, letters, reviews, and books about McCarthy, plus excerpts from McCarthy's own writings are deftly spliced together in Frances Kiernan's fluent narrative of a controversy-filled life.
Only on one occasion did Kiernan see McCarthy in the flesh. This was in the mid-1970s, at the offices of The New Yorker, where Kiernan was a fiction editor. Although she had read "The Group" and "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" and had come to regard McCarthy as a kind of role model, Kiernan, perhaps out of shyness, did not approach her.
As Kiernan's book demonstrates, McCarthy was not always what one might call role-model material. Judged even by the far-from-puritanical standards of today, much of her life was lived in the fast lane. To characterize her, one feels the need for a term that would designate the female equivalent of a womanizer: a man-izer? Her judgments as a cultural and political commentator were sometimes glib, arrogant, and insufficiently considered. But when it came to sharp observation, rigorous self-analysis, honesty, courage, and distilling ideas and impressions into crisp, shining prose, McCarthy set an example that many writers would do well to follow.
Most writers are at their best in their work, and their private lives are best left private. Kiernan claims to agree with this proposition. But some writers, she believes, led lives of such compelling interest, we want to know more, and McCarthy, in her opinion, falls into this category. Not only did McCarthy draw heavily upon her own life experiences in her fiction and nonfiction, but her intellectual views and the polemical style in which she expressed them can best be understood in the context of the milieu in which she operated.
This was the group commonly known as "the New York intellectuals." Its core members were associated with the anti-Stalinist, leftwing "Partisan Review." Kiernan sees to it that we get to hear from most of them, from William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, and Diana Trilling to Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, and Elizabeth Hardwick. We also hear from Mary's family members, girlhood chums, Vassar classmates, husbands, editors, friends, fans, critics, and enemies.
What easily might have become a formless mishmash of quotations has been skillfully transformed by Kiernan into a compelling life story: richly detailed, vibrant, and revealing. Not surprisingly, her method of juxtaposing contending viewpoints helps clarify the nature of the political and cultural debates in which McCarthy took part. Interestingly enough, the method also illuminates many aspects of McCarthy's personal life, including her four marriages.
The premise that the lives of these writers are as interesting as their work is shared by David Laskin, the author of a shorter, less judicious book called Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals.
Laskin is particularly interested in three women who were close friends: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and Elizabeth Hardwick. Friendships, quarrels, love affairs, marriages, and divorces are at the heart of his book, especially Hardwick's difficult marriage to poet Robert Lowell, Lowell's previous, perhaps equally difficult marriage to short-story writer Jean Stafford, and McCarthy's romantic involvement with Partisan Review founder Philip Rahv and her stormy marriage to the eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson.
Laskin's book is a lively blend of domestic drama and cultural history that places public discourse in the context of private lives. His one fault is that he tends to judge the women by the standards of post-1960s feminism. Indeed, he sometimes seems to think that whenever any of them deviates from the "revolutionary" ideas of the 1960s, it is they, and not the 1960s, who must somehow be wrong.
But for all their faults, Laskin clearly admires these women and men: "[T]heir fiercely debated ideologies sharpened their minds," he writes. "Beneath the pomposity and self-importance they had a sense of public responsibility, an urgent concern for something greater than their own backyards and tax liability. They believed their discourse mattered...."
Kiernan's biography of McCarthy is a much less tendentious book. This is not because Kiernan avoids the controversial aspects of McCarthy's life and work. Indeed, we hear a veritable cacophony of contending voices and opinions. Nor is it because Kiernan refrains from making any judgments of her own: In her quiet way, she is quite judicious. Most of all, one feels that in constructing her biography, she was less concerned with proving a thesis or formulating a theory than with trying to discover the truth.
· Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
From the May 29, 1992 edition
Mary McCarthy's Frank Self View
Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.
- MARY McCARTHY was in her 70s when she published the first volume of her autobiography in 1987. "How I Grew" followed young Mary from adolescence to the brink of adulthood, ending with her wedding to a man with whom she had already fallen out of love, even before she said "I do." "Intellectual Memoirs," the second installment, is regrettably also the last, an account of the beginnings of McCarthy's life as a "New York intellectual" left incomplete at the time of her death in 1989. It opens in 1936, with the author marching in a Communist-sponsored May Day parade on Broadway, and proceeds through her forays into book and theater reviewing, the disintegration of her first marriage, her move from the Stalinist to the Trotskyite camp, and her love affair with quintessential New York Jewish intellectual Philip Rahv, founding editor of the Partisan Review. It takes us as far as her ill-considered, yet oddly fortuitous marriage to the heavyweight literary critic Edmund Wilson, who infamo usly locked her in a room to get her started on her career as a writer of fiction. In her introduction to "Intellectual Memoirs," Elizabeth Hardwick, who knew her well, writes of McCarthy's "somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact in matters both trivial and striking.... If one would sometimes take the liberty of suggesting caution to her, advising prudence or mere practicality, she would look puzzled and answer: but it's the truth. I do not think," adds Hardwick, "she would have agreed it was only her truth...." A journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator, as well as a fiction writer, McCarthy recognized the difficulty of ascertaining the truth, but certainly would not have subscribed to the view that truth cannot be distinguished from opinion or that values are only "relative." As she looks back on her life in "New York 1936-1938," she is intent upon getting things straight, whether she is trying to remember what she served her guests at a dinner party or why she deserted Philip Rahv, whom she love d, for Edmund Wilson, whom she didn't.
Before becoming a contributor to the Partisan Review ("I suspect that Philip [Rahv] imposed me on the others," she reflects with her usual frankness), McCarthy wrote reviews for The Nation and looked - often in vain - for other outlets. With her sharp critical mind, discriminating tastes, and the high standards she had imbibed from her teachers at Vassar, McCarthy was hardly the sort of reviewer to gush over the latest bestseller or join the chorus of praise for the literary star of the moment. McCarthy's intent, critical gaze, her tough-minded insistence on truthfulness were applied as relentlessly to herself as to others. McCarthy divulges, not only the frequency of her sexual encounters (high by almost any standard), but she also names real names: not, one feels, to be hurtful, but to avoid being coy. More interestingly, she tries hard to reassess her feelings and motives in the more important of these affairs, and does not let herself off lightly. It is precisely this honesty, this willingn ess to examine her own motives and count up the consequences of her actions, that makes "Intellectual Memoirs" a refreshing as well as compelling autobiography. One can only regret there is not more of it.
from the June 27, 1985 edition
`Contrariety' is McCarthy prose theme
By Merle Rubin
Occasional Prose, by Mary McCarthy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 341 pp. $17.95. The 21 essays in this latest collection of Mary McCarthy's writings were generated by a variety of occasions. Four were obituaries; one, a report on the 1968 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in London. Others were lectures, reviews, profiles, prefaces, and postfaces. Like everything else she has written -- novels, short stories, criticism -- they testify to the ceaseless activity of a keenly independent intelligence distilled into prose whose cool beauty makes it an ideal instrument for conveying highly charged emotions and ideas. McCarthy's sense of the importance of independent judgment and a certain consciousness of her own reputation for the same are reflected in the title of an earlier collection of her essays: ``On the Contrary.'' McCarthy's history of ``contrariety'' extends throughout her career, from the protest she (and others) registered against the Communist-dominated proceedings of the 1949 writers' and artists' peace conference at the Waldorf Hotel in New York to her sharp criticism of the Vietnam war in her two books of reportage, ``Vietnam'' (1967) and ``Hanoi'' (1968). Yet her contrariety goes deeper than her staunch opposition to prevailing orthodoxies, and beyond that contrariety that is inherent in the position of any militantly anticommunist liberal. It is embedded in her dialectical approach to thinking and reflected in the texture of her writing, which is based on the aesthetic principle of contrast. McCarthy was the child of two very different families. Born in 1912 and orphaned at the age of 6, she was rescued from what promised to be a very unhappy girlhood with the dour, puritanical McCarthys by her maternal grandparents (he a Protestant, she a Jew), who agreed to raise Mary in her father's Roman Catholic faith. A central theme of her ``Memories of a Catholic Girlhood'' (1957) is the contrast between the two kinds of Catholicism she experienced: one -- associated with the McCarthys -- censorious, bigoted, and punitive; the other -- associated with the convent school she later attended -- generous, uplifting, and richly beautiful. After her graduation from Vassar and a short-lived marriage, McCarthy became the theater critic for The Partisan Review, where she was closely associated with its guiding genius, Philip Rahv. Her 1974 obituary of him, reprinted in ``Occasional Prose,'' evokes the contradictions of his character with an ease and grace that belie the thoughtfulness of her assessment: ``So he's gone, that dear phenomenon. If no two people are alike, he was less like anybody else than anybody.'' McCarthy's second husband, the distinguished man of letters Edmund Wilson, encouraged her to write fiction. Her first novel was published in 1942 and has been followed by half a dozen more, not to mention short stories. McCarthy's best fiction is a perfect combination of social commentary and vivid character portrayal. Her fine sense of portraiture is also evident in her touching tribute in this volume to her departed friend Hannah Arendt: It is a model blending of personal emotion and objective evaluation. McCarthy's literary criticism, represented amply in ``Occasional Prose,'' displays the erudition of the more academic criticism while taking advantage of the freer style of the literary journalist. She pinpoints the differences among ``Novel, Tale, Romance,'' and decries the general decline in language skills that has left large portions of our population unable to use so plain a part of speech as the preposition. Anyone who listens carefully to nightly newscasts will know just what she means. Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.
Books of The Times
By Mary McCarthy
By CHARLES POORE
There are moments in Mary McCarthy's new novel when Vassar seems well on its way toward becoming a ghostly yet powerful kind of 51st state of the union.
However, these moments pass. The Vassari will not be contained in any one place. They are--as we see them through Miss McCarthy's eyes--more a perpetually replenished Poughkeepsie Establishment. Year after year, that establishment sends its viceregal girls out to sublimate the collegiate spirit in good works, bad works, and fireworks in general. As a Vassar husband and father, I have long been aware of that place of power. But Miss McCarthy's novel has given me startling new views of Vassar's finite variety. By startling, of course, Miss McCarthy has once more achieved the continuing aim of her dazzling literary career. The great purpose of creative writing, Joseph Conrad suggested, is to make you see. It is also, one gathers here, to make you jump.
Now, making readers jump, making them see, causing them to be startled, is a lavishly difficult thing to do in the currently feverish state of American literature. All the frets and fervors have had assiduous exploitation. Outrage grows monotonous and the usual rages only put us to sleep.
Yet, "The Group"--a predominantly Greenwich-Villagey sisterhood assigned to the Vassar Class of 1933--resurrects the jaunty, furtive, feral wars of the Trotskyites and the Stalinists, the rear-guardists and the avantists, the happily married and the brightly forlorn wanderers, with amazingly unflagging jubilance.
There are your three elements: politics, art, love. One aspect or another, this Happening or that, severs and joins the eight heroines of "The Group."
They attain believable clarity mainly in Manhattan's Bohemia of the Depression Years. The farther they go away from it the muzzier they get. Thus, for example, Pokey Prothero, "a fat, cheerful New York society girl" who sturdily enjoys the pleasures of great wealth, can't have much of a place in this bluestocking gallery. She may have roomed with The Group at Vassar, but in the decade after graduation that the book covers she is just a large, purring Capitalist Cat.
Well, there's no snobbism like inverted snobbism, and Pokey is at least a useful target--and occasional source of emergency wealth-sharing. The main job of carrying the colors of The Group in and out of battles, beds and rather contagious boredom is left to such girls as Libby MacAusland, who "had a spiffy apartment in the Village," and whose mind was a wind-tunnel of discoverable causes and unforgotten disloyalties, or Kay Strong, the tragic, draggled emblematic center of so many emotional storms.
The men in their lives are satirized mercilessly and I think they deserve their places in Miss McCarthy's lampooning carnival. Indeed, as I read her novel I got the impression that she was reversing the cast of one of those minor war novels in which the leading characters are not quite human beings but rather representatives of carefully assorted milieus and callings. No heroes here, at any rate. A bunch of sad sacks, compared to the heroines.
If you read Miss McCarthy's multipaneled story with an eye for style you will be rewarded by the miraculous precision she displays in making her prose fit her characters. Thus, you may have noticed the exact period placing of the word "spiffy" in the description of Libby's apartment. And when she is sketching the fad-infatuated Norine, she has that girl go all-out in jargonautica:
"Freddy isn't an intellectual. But before we were married, we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists. Some of the basic books. So that semantically we can have the same referents."
Where are they now? We'd like to hear how the survivors spent the war years, and after. A few laggards must have shed the scratchy shrillness of sophistication and acquired the urbanity and polish of worldliness.
Books of the Times
By Mary McCarthy
“It's a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite."
-- Ernest Hemingway: "Across the River and Into the Trees."
The best love affair in any of Mary McCarthy's books is her own, with Venice. There are many reservations among her observations in "Venice Observed," but it is to her "the world's loveliest city," the town of "generation after generation of incomparable artists," the place where nothing ever happens but adventures.
Are comparisons in order? Then, Miss McCarthy points out, "Where Naples is operatic, Venice is chamber music, or, if you wish, Mozartian opera -- Leporello, Cherubino, Figaro, whose arias, indeed, were composed on the text of the Venetian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte."
And again: "The Florentines, who were incapable of ruling themselves, produces a great theorist of government: Machiavelli. The Venetians had no theorists and evolved a model republic."
"Venice Observed" is announced as the first of a series on art and places under the editorship of Georges and Rosamond Bernier. One wonders where they will find an author of Miss McCarthy's caliber to give vivacity to what might otherwise be only another portfolio of extremely well-known masterpieces.
The standard this book sets in superb color reproductions of Giorgione, Veronese, Titian, the Bellinis, the Tiepolos, Canaletto and Guardi needs no advancement. But the layout of the pages, with a few lines of Miss McCarthy's prose often islanded below a picture where a caption would normally be, seems to me to carry to extremes the Venetian system of devious canalization.
Miss McCarthy's ideas on the art of the Venetians may not sit well in stuffier surroundings or be tailored completely to every taste. They are her own, as she sees them through the candid and unsparing eyes of an extraordinarily gifted writer, without that patterned patter that marks the hereditary or appointed connoisseur.
Venice, she suggests, has many sorceries. Among the town's spells "is one of peculiar potency: the power to awaken the philistine dozing in the skeptic's breast. People of this kind -- dry, prose people of superior intelligence -- object to feel what they are supposed to feel in the presence of marvels."
Once again, and perhaps better than ever before, she is saying that old loyalties are the strongest, old antagonisms the hardest to forget. One loves, she may believe, a William Faulkner wrote of Mississippi, in spite of, not because of, when all is said and done. She counts over many of the recognition signals we bring to the study of the Venetian painters: their brilliance of color, the luminous light from the lagoons, the opulence of Titian's and Tintoretto's women, the bright miniature quality of Guardi and Canaletto.
"I would say," she sums up, "that [Venetian painting] identifies itself -- and it is always unmistakable -- by an enhanced reality, a reverence for the concrete world."
She is as curious, as probing, about the early Venice of the doges whose main occupational hazard was sudden death as she is about the Venice of contemporary pigeon-feeding travelers. It seems appropriate, therefore, to illustrate today's column with a New Yorker drawing by Alan Dunn, showing the new -- well, fairly new -- Venetian order against a background of the Campanile, the Doge's Palace, and St. Mark's.
... And Here Machiavelli Was at Home
By Mary McCarthy
Few places in the Western world have so persistently been "written about" as has Florence. In Victorian days the City of the Lily was considered a must by all travelers with a claim to "culture"; and a remarkable proportion of them proceeded to air their views about it. The result: a few good books, many mediocre ones and a veritable avalanche of undiluted trash. Mary McCarthy's volume with the Ruskinian title, "The Stones of Florence," belongs to the first category, for Miss McCarthy is not only well versed in the subject but her taste is sure and her style -- cool, astringently witty, yet eloquent -- seems tailor-made for depicting the brilliant, mercurial, skeptical Florentines.
Art criticism, social and political history and chronicle all rolled into one, her book opens with a chapter on present-day Florence. It is not one of the happiest chapters. Like many another tourist, the author falls to complaining of noisy, jam-packed streets, overcrowded hotels, exorbitant prices, the rudeness of waiters and the poor quality of the food. All of which is trivial and rather out of place in a work of this sort. Where food is concerned one surely can find more appetizing fare that "tripe, paunch, and a mixture of cockscombs, livers, hearts and testicles of roosters." What Miss McCarthy has to say about other aspects of Florentine life, on the other hand, is important, often exciting and well worth heeding.
The "esthetes" of yesteryear would have shuddered to hear her refer to Florence as "a terrible city *** of drama, argument and struggle." Yet up to a point this is what Florence was. Whether or not the rebellious Catiline was indirectly responsible for founding Florence, the fact remains that few cities have had a more turbulent history. Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Villani and Varchi tell tales of endless strife between rival factions -- Blacks and Whites, Guelphs and Ghibellines, Cerchi and Donati and so forth and so on. "In ancient and in modern times," writes Giovanni Villani, "it has always happened in Florence that anyone who has made himself head of the people has been humbled by that same people who are never inclined to give due praise or acknowledge merit." Evidently, no public office was a sinecure on the banks of the Arno.
However, these are growing pains of democracy: the hazards to which a people thirsting "for an ideal state" are often exposed. What is worthy of note is that this chronically quarreling folk remained for centuries one of the most prosperous if not the most prosperous in Europe. Their looms turned out more and better cloth than was produced anywhere else; their dyers exercised a virtual monopoly on the market; and their bankers financed half of the kings and governments on the continent.
True, in 1889, the Bardi and Peruzzi were bankrupt by the failure of Edward III of England to repay a huge loan he had made with them, but Miss McCarthy's assertion to the contrary, this financial disaster by no means put an end to Florence as "a world banking power." Indeed, during the following century the Medicis were the greatest bankers on the Continent, rivaled by none except the Austrian Fugger, while for generations to come the florin remained, even as far off as India, the soundest monetary unit. Anyway, it is not to its wealth that Florence owes her enduring glory.
It is impossible adequately to summarize the chapters in which Miss McCarthy analyzes the achievements of Florence in the fields of art, letters and science. "Florentine history, in its great period," she writes, "is a history of innovations," and she goes on to prove it: Dante gave Italy its first important work in the vulgar tongue; a Florentine composed the first opera; literary criticism, in the modern sense, began with Boccaccio; Boccaccio's clinical account of the symptoms of the plague was a pioneer contribution to descriptive medicine; Machiavelli was the first to expose the mechanism of power politics, while the first modern art criticism was written by L.B. Alberti.
As for painting, sculpture and architecture, we only need to remember that Giotto, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo were Florentines or born within a few miles of Florence. Miss McCarthy is right in saying that Florentine sculptors carved "the best statues since ancient Greece," and Florentine painters were the most original "until the French Impressionists."
The photographs which illustrate this volume are superb, and though not everyone will go along with all of Miss McCarthy's verdicts (many will boggle at her calling Michelangelo's figures on the Medici tombs "somewhat rubbery"), we must be grateful to her for giving us one of the most lively books on Florence to appear in recent times. Indeed, no student of the Renaissance should be without "The Stones of Florence."
Mr. Beuf has commented on other aspects of Italy in his book, "Cesare Borgia: The Machiavellian Prince."
On August 15, 1984, one month after a delicate operation to relieve the pressure of water on her brain, Mary McCarthy wrote her old friend Carmen Angleton. She had every reason to be pleased. Not only had her ataxia and headaches responded to surgery, but after four years of combating a punitive and highly publicized libel action mounted by the playwright Lillian Hellman, she was free to get on with her life. On June 30, Hellman had died, old, blind, and confined to a wheelchair. On August 10, at the behest of Hellman's executors, the $2.25 million suit had been dropped.
For speaking her mind McCarthy had suffered physically and financially. If at this point she had begun to temper her words, it would not have been surprising. "I went swimming the day before yesterday, and the incapacitating headaches have greatly diminished," she wrote from the lovely old house in Maine, where she and her husband, Jim West, now lived half the year, dividing their time between Castine and Paris. Then she moved on to her big news: "It looks as if we would surely be able to drive to Peterborough, New Hampshire, to get the MacDowell Colony award. I don't know whether I told you about that, but it's another medal for literary good behavior, unfortunately with no money attached. The honor, however, is supposed to be considerable; I'd be more sensitive to that if, back in the sixties, Hellman had not been given it."
Although Hellman's lawsuit had been dropped, Mary McCarthy was not about to forgive and forget. After watching the playwright, who had achieved fame decades earlier for such Broadway hits as The Little Foxes, attract legions of new admirers with three volumes of memoirs glossing over her years as a defender of Stalin and playing up her refusal to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, McCarthy had finally erupted. In a taped interview with Dick Cavett first aired in January 1980, she had proclaimed, "[E]very word she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and' and `the.'" For four years, all the while McCarthy had been working on book reviews and essays and starting her own memoir, she had lived with the prospect of being stripped of every cent.
Lillian Hellman had, in fact, been given the MacDowell Medal for excellence in the seventies, not the sixties—1976, to be exact. McCarthy would be the tenth writer to receive the award, which was accompanied by no money but possessed an undeniable luster—in large part owing to the reputation of the colony, which had been founded in 1906 as a retreat for writers, artists, and musicians, freeing them to work without interruption for weeks at a time. In 1960 the first medal had been awarded to the playwright Thornton Wilder, who had written Our Town during a long stay at the colony. Since then, twenty-four painters, composers, sculptors, and writers—among them, Georgia O'Keeffe, Aaron Copland, Isamu Noguchi, and McCarthy's second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson—had made the journey to New Hampshire to receive the award.
For all her offhand manner, Mary McCarthy, at seventy-two, was hardly accustomed to such honors. Over five decades she had published more than twenty books of fiction, essays, and criticism. There had been respectful and admiring reviews from critics known to be fastidious. Her short story collection The Company She Keeps had broken ground for young women who came after her. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, her account of her orphaned childhood, was regarded by many as a masterpiece. Her Vietnam reporting was regarded as articulate and uncompromising even by those who did not agree with it. The Group, her best-seller, had sold millions of copies. The Stones of Florence and Venice Observed remained perpetually in print. Nonetheless, there had been little recognition from the literary establishment. At an age when she might expect to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she remained in the larger and less august chamber of the National Institute. Although she had sat on—and influenced—a fair number of prize juries, for her own work there had been no National Book Award, no citation from the National Book Critics Circle, no Pulitzer.
By never hesitating to speak harsh truths, she had made enemies less litigious than Lillian Hellman but no more forgiving. Only recently had she received any serious institutional recognition. On May 3, at the New York Public Library she had been awarded the National Medal for Literature, a bronze medal accompanied by a check for $15,000, to honor a lifetime's achievement. Robert Silvers, her editor at The New York Review of Books, had been chairman of the nominating committee. While there had been friends of Hellman on the committee, the critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, an old friend and Castine neighbor, had been there to plead her cause. Hardwick, as it happened, was also on the MacDowell Board.
Mary McCarthy was to be awarded her medal on Sunday, August 26. The drive from Castine to Peterborough could take as long as six hours. Saturday night, she and Elizabeth Hardwick, who had been chosen to present the award, had to attend a dinner for colony patrons and board members. Sunday, before an audience of several hundred listeners, each woman would have to stand up and deliver a prepared speech.
Beginning with a painful eruption of shingles in 1980, McCarthy had been suffering from one debilitating ailment after another. The shingles had subsided, to be followed by a new neurological disorder—an impairment of voluntary muscular control, which at one point was diagnosed as Parkinson's disease and then as possibly the effects of juvenile alcoholism. In July, at New York Hospital, a neurosurgeon had drilled a hole in her skull and inserted a plastic tube to serve as a drain, or shunt, to siphon fluid off to her leg. She had been home from the hospital barely three weeks. After everything she had been through, she could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, she could be forgiven for not making the trip to Peterborough at all.
Sally Austin Before Mary had the brain shunt, Jim told me that in Paris he would watch her walk across the street and find that she was absolutely stuck in the middle, paralyzed, with cars coming. That was one of the things that was happening to her. She couldn't make her legs move. The most awful things were happening, and Mary just simply never let you know. She just put it aside.
James West I had encouraged her to pay more attention to her health and of course she tried as hard as she could, but she was more interested in ideas than in her health.
Eleanor Perényi Until Mary's health began to fail, I never knew anyone so tireless. It was only after she got shingles that I could keep up with her. Up at dawn when we traveled together, ready to explore every inch of whatever town we were in. And no naps. I think it was all part of being brave about life, facing everything head-on, good or bad. The Hellman lawsuit, for instance, that would have terrified me.
James West Mary hated anything that was lying. Mary would say that Lillian Hellman's political history had a lot to do with lying—her testimony that she had nothing to do with the Soviets, when she had plenty to do with them. Mary thought that most of Hellman's so-called mature work was a history of a deception, among other things. Lillian wanted her blood. She wanted Mary to say, "I'm sorry I said that." And Mary wouldn't.
Elizabeth Hardwick Once that thing had started, to my horror Mary didn't say, "Oh, I didn't mean that," and let it drop. She wasn't about to. Which was what the rest of us would do. No, she had this idea of her own truthfulness. She would have bankrupted herself for that. It was terrible. I don't know what would have happened, had Lillian not died.
Only after Hellman's death did she feel free to check into the hospital and attend to the condition some doctors believed would end by confining her to a wheelchair. The operation performed at New York Hospital was regarded by her surgeons as delicate, though not especially difficult. She herself was famously difficult, but as a patient she proved to be remarkably undemanding—eating the hospital food without complaint and making no fuss when a floor nurse was late with her medication. She also proved to be remarkably resilient.
Susan Anderson When I first met Mary McCarthy, she had just come back from surgery. I had been assigned as her special duty nurse. When I went into the room, she was lying flat, because that was the doctor's orders, and she had prism glasses on to try and read a book. Her head had been shaved for the surgery and was bandaged. There were about six or eight of her friends around the bed. They were sitting there and talking to her and joking with her, concerned about how she was. I had to climb over people to take her blood pressure. She made suffering look easy. Other people didn't have the sense of how much she suffered. She would be witty and entertaining for people. But she knew that I knew it was very hard.
Eleanor Perényi One thing she couldn't tolerate was commiseration, being fussed over. I went down to New York to see her after the first brain operation. She lay there with her head bandaged, looking awful. But she hadn't a word to say about the operation. I had brought her a bucketful of lilies from my garden, and as I recall it, they were the sole topic of conversation.
From Mary Mccarthy's Letter to Frani Blough Muser, August 15, 1984
The operation worked, and I am now recuperating—more time to read than I've had since adolescence, for, like an adolescent, I lie flat on a bed or sofa most of the time. Unluckily half my hair was shaved off, and I would look like the Last of the Mohicans if I weren't wearing little Directoire-style caps that Maria has been knitting for me.
James West Her recovery surprised me. It was very steady and quicker than one would suppose. Of course one tends to think that tampering with the head or brain is terribly critical. Well, some of that work is and some of it ain't. Some of it is sculpture. With the installation of the shunt you have to know where you're going, but when you know, it's not too bad. Her ability to approach things really made me wonder. But there were times when she was a bit low that summer. After that suit's going on all that time, there was a little letdown when the suit got dropped.
She was to be honored at MacDowell and there was to be no begging off at the last minute. A long announcement had been printed in the colony's spring newsletter and mention had been made of the award in The New York Times.
Fortunately, the medal ceremony began to take on something of the aspect of a holiday outing, thanks to two summer visitors of Elizabeth Hardwick's—Esther and Peter Brooks, who had a sprawling summer cottage with spectacular views of Mt. Monadnock, in Dublin, New Hampshire, just down the road from Peterborough. An invitation was extended one night when Mary McCarthy and Jim West were over at Hardwick's for dinner. Esther Brooks proposed that everyone at the table come stay for Medal Day weekend. The Wests would spend their first night at the director's house at MacDowell, but Elizabeth Hardwick—as well as Sally Austin and Jon Jewett, two young Castine friends—would stay with the Brookses both nights.
The morning of Saturday, August 25, Jon Jewett picked up the Wests promptly at eight. Journeys by car were a great thing in the West marriage. But this was unlike any such journey they had made in the past.
James West Sometimes on one of the long car trips Mary and I used to take—in the Black Forest or on the way to Rome—when I was driving and I felt I was beginning to get a little tired, Mary would risk singing, and she'd hum a little bit. And it was very pleasant. Then she'd stop because she was bashful, I guess, about her singing. Hers was a very deep voice and it was hardly the tune involved, but nonetheless it was very pleasant. She sang old Irish ballads and occasional Scottish ballads. She knew what the tune was, but the voice control was not there. As with everything, she aimed at perfection, and she got so that finally she sang those ballads as they were written to be sung. Oh, she loved the words.
Jon Jewett We had just typical light gossip in the car, but I was sort of tense, which I'm usually not. I was worried about getting Mary there. Jim didn't have a lot to say. It was terribly hot. Lizzie and Mary just chatted on the way they always did. It wasn't until we were well into New Hampshire that Mary just sort of groaned and started to collapse. We had hospital pillows and she curled up and rested her head on Lizzie. Lizzie claimed to know where the colony was, but in Peterborough we got lost.
Hillcrest, where Mary McCarthy and Jim West were staying, was the oldest building at the colony. At one time it had been the home of the colony's founders, the composer Edward MacDowell and his wife, Marian. Now it housed the resident director. Built as a plain eighteenth-century farmhouse, it was enlarged in 1896 and then embellished with gables, balustrades, porches, and a verandah. A beautiful music room was added on. In this music room, with its pine wainscotting, exposed beams built-in window seats, and gold embossed Japanese wallpaper, sits Edward MacDowell's piano. Waiting for McCarthy at Hillcrest were Chris Barnes, the colony's resident director, Margaret Carson, the colony's publicist, and Samuel G. Freedman, a reporter from The New York Times.
Margaret Carson When I learned that Mary McCarthy was to receive the MacDowell Colony Medal, I telephoned The New York Times and asked if they were interested in doing a story. They were, and they assigned one of their best reporters, Samuel G. Freedman, to interview Ms. McCarthy at the colony. I knew she had been ill, so I suggested we schedule the interview for late afternoon and that would give her a chance to rest before seeing Mr. Freedman. That seemed agreeable to her and arrangements were made. She was pleased about The New York Times. The next day, however, when I asked her to talk to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, her hometown paper, she snapped, "How much will they pay me to do it?" I pointed out that she had not asked me to request payment from The New York Times. "That's different," she said. I told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer what she had said. The answer to me was "Forget it." I did not forget it, and I did not dismiss it. From then on, I did not arrange any more interviews with Mary McCarthy. There's nothing in the book that says you have to be an easy person to get along with. There's only something that says if you're going to be an artist, be a damn good one. When she came down that afternoon, she didn't seem frail—not a bit. I saw to it that she got together with Sam Freedman and then I left.
Samuel G. Freedman For my generation, the feud with Lillian Hellman was the only thing that brought Mary McCarthy into public consciousness—except for a handful of women I knew, who found Mary McCarthy through Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. I expected a literary lioness, and she was feisty and opinionated. She certainly hadn't been brought low by either illness or the formality of the occasion. Liking did not enter into our relations that much. I admired the zest and fierce intellect—especially from someone at that age.
Dinner was a sit-down buffet at the director's house. Some fifty guests were invited and tables were set up in the living room, the back hall, and the music room. Virtually all of the colony's board members were there, and at least two had met the guest of honor in the past—the writer Brendan Gill, who had reviewed two of her early novels for The New Yorker, and Lael Wertenbaker, who had enjoyed a distinguished career as a journalist and written one highly regarded memoir that told of her husband's harrowing death from cancer. After dinner some of the heartier dinner guests went on to join the colonists, who were holding a dance in the tent set up for the ceremony on the lawn behind Colony Hall.
Brendan Gill At MacDowell dinner is an especially pretty occasion because Hillcrest is so nice and old-fashioned and everybody always feels good and excited about the affirmative nature of things. That night, everybody was startled by Mary's wearing a knit cap. There was a sense of not being sure what it meant. She and I just chatted a little bit. I think she was glad to see somebody she'd known for a long time. Then I introduced her to a couple of people. There are always people who are hovering about, hoping to meet the great person.
Lael Wertenbaker At Hillcrest I felt like I was going to swim into those sweetly smiling jaws and be chewed up. I had known her before. I'd met her at least three times. I met her in Paris at one point. It was in the late forties and my husband and I were living in Paris and she was visiting. I dislike her writing intensely. She certainly was a good stylist, which I admire, but I disapprove of the way she uses real people in her fiction. She invades other people's privacy. I didn't go up to her. I sat across the room, terrified.
James West She seemed to me that first night a tiny bit weak and a tiny bit tired. Frail is not a word I would use for her. She got around—not quite as fast as usual—but she did talk with a number of people and did seem to enjoy it. And then she wore out a little faster than usual. The two of us went down to the tent after dinner. At MacDowell, after all her troubles with Hellman and with her health, she was out and in public and she was like herself. People. Fun. Music. Do you think she'd miss that? We had one little dance.
Sunday morning, while the heat was still bearable, a handful of workmen were busy tidying up the green-and-white tent, where the dance had been held the night before. Hundreds of folding chairs were set up in long rows. Wooden armchairs for all the speakers were placed at the rear of a raised platform, and a podium, equipped with a microphone, was set up at the front. The morning was glorious, but promised to be sultry. George Kendall, resident director of the colony from 1951 to 1970, was looking forward to watching the ceremony from the first row.
George Kendall When Edmund Wilson got the award he had just turned down a similar award from one of the New York organizations—I think it was the Century Club. But he accepted the MacDowell award because he felt it really represented something from the artists themselves, sweating away. I think there's a little bit of a fraternal link there. That's what makes it particularly moving for an artist to receive the medal.
James West It was Mary's day and like a good photographer I stayed out of the way. I made sure as much as I could that everything was okay for Mary. She was having a tiny bit of trouble walking after the operation. But it was not nearly as bad as it had been.
The Colony Newsletter would later report that it was the most beautiful day of the summer. In spite of the heat, more than seven hundred people crowded into the tent. Although most of McCarthy's friends were tied up with summer vacation plans, the poet James Merrill was able to make it to Peterborough, as did Arthur Schlesinger's first wife, Marian, who had a house in the area. Among the colonists there were no close friends. However, taking a special interest in the proceedings were the poet Jane Cooper, who had run into McCarthy over the years, and the novelist Meg Wolitzer, who had written her to say how much she loved Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and then received two notes back.
William Banks, the colony's vice chairman, opened the Medal Day ceremony by announcing a bequest from the daughter of Dubose Heyward, colyricist of the opera Porgy and Bess. The soprano Nora Bostaph sang two songs from Porgy and Bess and then Trevor Cushman, the colony's president, introduced Elizabeth Hardwick, who was to make the "presentation address." Hardwick had been Mary McCarthy's friend for over three decades. In that time she had been called to speak and write about her more than once. While her prepared talk drew on observations that had been made in the past, it was put together with considerable care.
In the limited time she was allotted, Elizabeth Hardwick did her best to cover all bases—to suggest the special nature of Mary McCarthy's achievements, while placing them in a larger historical context. She began with the writing. After doing justice to the "purity of the diction," the "classical sonority of [the] balanced clauses," and the "mastery of prose composition," Hardwick went on to say that the writing was never an end in itself but always "in the service of striking ideas."
In discussing the writing Hardwick tended to concentrate on the fiction. She made much of the fact that even though a major theme of McCarthy's fiction had been ideological follies now long forgotten, her stories and novels had not dated in the slightest. As Hardwick saw it, the reason for this was simple enough: "The conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and clamorously fashionable is an enduring historical theme."
Next Hardwick went on to speak of the woman herself. After making much of McCarthy's "dashing, slashing and puncturing wit," Hardwick spoke of her character. She spoke of her refusal to let pass anything she believed was wrong. And she spoke of the fundamental conservatism underlying her liberal politics. "The technological utopia is not to this author's taste," she announced.
But Hardwick did not leave it at that. She went so far as to assert that McCarthy's rejection of the fruits of modern technology was no crank prejudice. "There is the suggestion of the lost ideal America," Hardwick said, "the America of enlightened self-respect and self-reliance, of truthfulness, decent education and moral courage at home and in defense of the Bill of Rights." Finally, Hardwick declared that with both her life and her writing the author being honored that day belonged to a long-standing and honorable American tradition.
From Elizabeth Hardwick's Presentation Address
[I]f Mary McCarthy is a scourge she is a very cheerful one, light-hearted and even optimistic. I do not see in any of her work a trace of despair or alienation but instead rather romantic expectation. She always expects better of persons and of the nation. She seems to believe in love and her heroines are ready to rush out to it again and again. To me this writer from Seattle, New York, Paris and Maine belongs in the line of cranky, idealistic American genius [....] There is something of Henry James in her and more of William James; you can find Emerson and Margaret Fuller and even the deflating slyness of Mark Twain.
Jane Cooper Elizabeth touched on so much and with such delicacy. And to do that for an old and dear friend is the hardest thing. It's much easier to do it for a stranger.
James Merrill I always have an impression of Lizzie's presence. She's a very vivid presence. I remember the tone of voice and the kind of sweetness that came through at MacDowell. She seemed very pleased to be doing this. I think Lizzie was always rather insecure vis-à-vis Mary. She probably spent a lot of energy trying to cover it up.
Elizabeth Hardwick's presentation address was all that it should be. The decorum of the occasion demanded that she restrict herself to wholehearted celebration. To smile at her friend's domestic conservatism was the most she could permit herself.
For Mary McCarthy, on the other hand, decorum was less compelling than a chance to express exactly how she felt. The speech she gave that morning was not like any she had ever delivered. But before she had even opened her mouth to speak, she had departed from MacDowell custom by delivering her written talk from a chair. (The Times the following day would ascribe this to the fact that she was recovering from surgery on her "scalp.")
Seated at a small wooden table with a microphone and a water pitcher, Mary McCarthy began by letting her listeners know that for her this was hardly an occasion for celebration. "Ladies and gentlemen," she announced, "in accepting this award I've been driven to review my career, a somewhat saddening business, for I, as person and writer, seem to have had little effect, in the sense of improving the world I came into or even of maintaining a previous standard." The only improvement she could see was in the proliferation of labor-saving devices, which she saw as no real progress at all.
"I like labor-intensive implements and practices," she informed her listeners and went on to explain why: "The amount of labor that goes into a human manufacture determines the success of the enterprise." As examples she gave "cranking by hand an ice cream freezer" or "pushing a fruit or vegetable through a sieve," and then went on to invoke Michelangelo, who had spoken "of leaving some mark of the tools on the marble rather than have a smooth, polished surface." "I think it has something to do with truth," she said.
She told of how she had fought off the electric typewriter, the Cuisinart, and credit cards, only to find the electric typewriter itself was fast becoming "obsolescent". She acknowledged that her objection to many of these technological advances was perhaps nothing more than "prejudice," but she made it clear that she objected to credit cards on "political" grounds. "I am against the forced registration of citizens," she explained.
Although the greater part of her talk was devoted to the sorry state of a world that was less and less to her liking, her failure to have any lasting effect on that world was never far from her mind. Toward the end of her talk, trying to leaven her words with such humor as she could muster, she returned to this theme.
From Mary Mccarthy's Acceptance Speech
[W]hy should I care that I have lived my life as a person and writer in vain? We all live our lives more or less in vain. That is the normal common fate, and the fact of having a small name should not make us hope to be exceptions, to count for something or other. At best, we writers, artists in general, give pleasure to some, and the pleasure we have offered our readers comes to seem a sort of bribe that will persuade them to listen to us when no pleasure is involved [....] But I wonder, will anyone listen if I make a pitch, here, for Mondale?
James Merrill Mary gave a very touching reply to Lizzie's presentation, stressing all the things that we loved and sometimes deplored about her. Her reluctance to join the modern world. Her boycotting of mechanical kitchen appliances and electric typewriters and credit cards. She came through as a very crusty survivor, full of charm.
Jane Cooper I thought it took tremendous courage to appear as she appeared and to give this speech sitting down. And when she said, I feel sad because my work never changed the world, I thought, You're one of the few people who meant your work to change the world.
Meg Wolitzer The main thing I remember is her railing against credit cards. I gave it a lot of thought because I was really broke. I was subletting my apartment so that I could go to MacDowell. I didn't have a credit card. It was the one thing about which I felt, Oh, good, she'd approve of me. But what does it mean, not wanting credit cards? It seemed that there was a conspiracy-theory quality to her speech.
George Kendall That day she seemed charged with intellectual and physical energy, although she wore a bonnet on her head that looked like a nightcap. I know she'd just had surgery. I don't know how old she was. I assumed she was in her sixties. She was very dynamic. She was courageous and sparkling. She came across as someone you would be delighted to sit next to at a dinner. You would hope to run across her again later.
James Merrill This was the only medal ceremony I'd ever been to. It's not the sort of experience I really go in search of. It's sad, because in the nicest possible way the person being honored is being kicked upstairs.
Samuel G. Freedman People like her were becoming marginal, through no fault of their own. First, she was seeing the death of intellectual life in this country. The culture had moved away from ideas and words to images. Second, during the Reagan era anyone from the Left who was old or dying—whether he was a Stalinist, Trotskyite, Lovestoneite, social democrat, or anarchist—would have to feel that it was all a failure. If you had fought battles on the Left for social democracy and an enlightened kind of welfare state and racial equality and at the end of all your fighting what you were left with was Reagan, it would make you want to hit your head against the wall.
James West When Mary said her actions hadn't counted for much it was heartbreaking. She had been low that summer, but it hurt me when she said things like that. But the talk ended on a much brighter note. The audience really went for her Mondale pitch. She'd said her say and she must have been pleased that she could do that after all she'd been through.
As always on Medal Day, tables were set up outside the tent for the box lunches. Samuel Freedman did not stay on for the picnic, and Esther Brooks was in a hurry to get back to her house in Dublin and start dinner. Although Mary McCarthy was beginning to tire, she kept smiling and shaking hands and posing for photographs. She and Elizabeth Hardwick were walking down an alley of trees, on their way back to the car, when Nancy Crampton, the photographer there to cover the ceremony for the colony, snapped one last picture.
Although the guest of honor got to bed before midnight, it had been a long, demanding, and by no means carefree day. Monday morning, three of the travelers from Maine were up early, eager to get on the road. However, no one was surprised to see that the Wests were still in their room. At the Brookses', with Mt. Monadnock in the distance and no other house in sight, the real world can seem continents away.
Jon Jewett Around eight thirty I went up to Mary and Jim's room and listened and I could hear someone was in the shower. I went downstairs, and Lizzie said, "Hurry up and get the trays." Esther and I fixed up two trays with a poached egg, an English muffin, and an old-fashioned coffee thermos for each. We didn't need Lizzie—we had two trays and two people—but Lizzie was like a schoolgirl going up the stairs ahead of us. Mary and Jim were propped up on their pillows waiting. Jim looked at his watch. In Castine, I guess Maria brought them their breakfast promptly at eight thirty.
Esther Brooks Elizabeth left with Sally around nine. Afterward the rest of us all had a great breakfast on the screened porch behind the dining room. It took about an hour to get that organized and Peter, Jon, and I had just started our breakfast, when Mary and Jim came downstairs fully dressed and sat down with us and ate all over again. They took a helping of everything. The phone rang, and I said, "Mary, it's a newspaperman on the phone, do you want to speak to him?" Jim said, "Perhaps I'd better take it, Mary." He was still trying to protect her. She went out and took the call and came back looking very pleased with herself. The reporter had wanted to know about how she felt now that the Hellman suit had been dropped. She'd told him she'd really been looking forward to the lawsuit, and Jim said, "You could have said something better than that, dear."
As it happened Mary McCarthy had already said "something better"—or if not better, then more elaborate—to Samuel G. Freedman whose piece ran that morning in the Times. To ensure that readers did not miss it, the piece was cited in a boxed index on the front page. In addition, the opening sentence to her MacDowell speech was quoted in the paper's "Quote of the Day."
From "Mccarthy Is Recipient of Macdowell Medal,"
The New York Times, August 27, 1984
Mary McCarthy, literary lioness, received the Edward MacDowell Medal here today for her career as an author. She proceeded to show that, at the age of 72, she still has her growl and her claws [....] Miss McCarthy assailed J. D. Salinger when he was at his height and defended James Farrell when it was chic to dismiss him. She was a stout anti-Stalinist from the time of the Moscow purge trials, yet she remains far to the left in American politics and visited North Vietnam during the war.
And in the incident that brought her perhaps more fame than her books, Miss McCarthy was sued for libel by Lillian Hellman in 1980 [....] "I'm absolutely unregenerate," Miss McCarthy said [....] "I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that."
James West I regretted her public statement that she was sorry that Lillian died because she would have liked to have taken her to the mat and won the case. I thought that was a bit gross myself. A little too much. After all, that's almost cannibalistic.
Esther Brooks I just thought, This is going to be very bad publicity for Mary. I knew Lillian much better than I knew Mary. What Mary said about Lillian is true, but I don't think you can say those things. And what does it mean to say that the "ands" and the "buts" are a lie. In the end it wasn't pretty and it wasn't funny. It was appalling.
Samuel G. Freedman I thought in terms of historical context. I mean, here was somebody who has been fighting the same political battle—the Stalinist Left vs. the non-Stalinist Left—for fifty years. I think she probably felt the way Muhammad Ali felt when Joe Frazier retired. You've lost your best and longest antagonist. What's life going to be like if you have no one to hate?
Esther Brooks After they left, I came into the living room to find the plaster was falling down from one corner of the ceiling. There was an old claw-footed tub in the bathroom Mary and Jim were using. The tub has a shower curtain attachment, and you have to tuck the curtain inside the bathtub. That's fairly rudimentary. Well, Mary didn't. She flooded the bathroom floor and never told anybody. You know the way water goes through old houses. We had to have the ceiling redone.
Samuel Freedman's piece in the Times ended on a note of triumph, with her making her pitch for Mondale and receiving "raucous applause" from her listeners. Her head in a little knit cap, unable to stand at the podium, she was no longer an object of pity. The speech was a success. If all went well, she would soon be hard at work on her own memoirs. Yet the opening words of her speech, when highlighted in the Times's "Quotation of the Day," sounded an undeniably plaintive note: "As a person and a writer, I seem to have had little effect on improving the world I came into." This air of sorrow, or regret, did not go unremarked on Monday morning by at least one Times reader, who sat at the desk of his Wall Street law office with a pen and a long yellow legal pad and wrote out a detailed memorandum:
Memo: From Louis
Re: Mary McCarthy's having lived her life in vain
To: Mary McCarthy
Facts: I have considered Mary McCarthy's effect on my life, and I discover the following:
1) As a reporter
she convinced me, a Republican desperately seeking to believe in this party
a) R. Nixon was the arch villain of Watergate.
b) [The war in] Viet Nam was an unjustified moral and tactical disaster.
2) As a critic she introduced me to the delights of Compton-Burnett and Sarraute, two authors I had not previously known how to enjoy. And she reintroduced me to Dickens.
3) As a travel writer, she immensely intensified my love of Florence, revisited twice, her book in hand.
4) As a novelist she gave me reassurance that form, plot, character delineation and intelligence are still as vital to fiction as a "bleeding heart" and that fiction still has a great role to play in our society.
5) As a religious writer she opened my eyes as none other to the reality of Catholicism in America—what it is really like.
Conclusion: Multiply me by thousands, and it will appear that McC's life has been lived in vain only if all lives are lived in vain.
Louis Auchincloss was not a close friend. They had met over the years at dinners in New York and at literary gatherings, and in 1965 Auchincloss had included an admiring chapter on her fiction in Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists. His memo was sent off in the morning mail with a scribbled note. Later, Mary confided to her friend Cleo Paturis that his words had meant a good deal to her, but seeing her response you might not necessarily know this. On September 5, she sent Louis Auchincloss a brief typed letter. She said that while his words had had a "cheering effect," she did not want him to think she was "fishing." To repay him for his "testimonial" and his "kindness" she recommended he read the second volume of Hilary Spurling's biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which had just come out. But to his memo's conclusion, she offered a mild demurral. Not quite ready to accept his tightly reasoned argument, she wrote, "Maybe I really feel, though, that all lives are lived somehow in vain."