The title of Frances Kiernan’s generous and engrossing new biography of Mary McCarthy alludes to some lines from a poem by Robert Browning:
Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you,
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems and new!
The poem, called “Memorabilia,” was written in 1855, and it records, with evident irony, a comfortable Victorian’s breathless apprehension of the wild otherness of an earlier, more radical generation. The idea that a figure we’re used to seeing through the mists of historical memory, whom we know primarily through old books, but also through rumor, hearsay, and half-recalled gossip—that such a person might have been, once upon a time, ordinary flesh and blood, seems almost incredible. The poem’s hero worship is ardent, but also vague; it records the glamour of the past—the literary past in particular—but also the past’s inevitable tendency to fade. The fact that Shelley actually spoke seems more exciting than anything he might have said, and the poem ends with a shrug: “Well, I forget the rest.”
Of course, we are hardly Victorians. And Mary McCarthy, who was born before World War I and died the year the Berlin Wall fell, was neither a poet nor a martyr. In any case, Byron was the English Romantic with whom she identified: “I’ve felt a sweet affinity with the wicked Lord, ever since I was eleven years old,” she once wrote to Edmund Wilson, indulging a taste for self-dramatization and literary flirtation. Unlike the Lord, she emerges, in Kiernan’s account, as generally sane, mostly good, and always interesting, if sometimes also a little dangerous, to know. And everybody seemed to know her. In this latest biography—the third, after Carol Gelderman’s of 1988 and Carol Brightman’s of four years later—Kiernan interlards her own careful day-by-day narrative with blocks of quoted testimony from McCarthy’s friends, husbands, fans, and foes. (There are also ample, judicious gleanings from McCarthy’s own private and public writing.) A “Cast of Characters” appended to the 750-page main text runs on for sixteen more pages, listing over two hundred and fifty names in what amounts to an alphabetical directory of American literary and intellectual life from the New Deal to the Reagan administration.
Mary McCarthy was married to Wilson (the second of four marriages), had affairs with Philip Rahv and Clement Greenberg, and counted among her friends such diverse luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. She heckled Stalinists at the Waldorf-Astoria, shook hands with the North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong in Hanoi, and was sued, notoriously and absurdly, by Lillian Hellman for remarks made on The Dick Cavett Show. Born in Seattle, she migrated from Vassar to Manhattan, and then to Italy, Paris, and Maine. Her dinner parties were as renowned for her cooking as for her dazzling conversation. She left in her wake, besides broken hearts, wounded feelings, and admiring friends, essays, reviews, novels, memoirs, travel books, and many works of political reportage, strings of pearls that first glimmered in the pages of such publications as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books.
Kiernan’s assembled chorus—Vassar classmates, partisans of every stripe, one of the editors of this magazine—follows McCarthy’s progress from penniless orphan to literary grande dame with amazement and, for the most part, with affection. The words “glamorous,” “witty,” “beautiful,” and “clever” trail her like Homeric epithets. There are, inevitably, some dissenting notes: from jealous Florentine socialites challenging McCarthy’s credentials to write about their city; from Wilson’s elder daughter, Rosalind, challenging her accusations of domestic cruelty; and from a scattering of grumpy intellectuals (Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin) who contend that her celebrated wit was largely malicious, that her slashing judgments were couched in prejudice and snobbery, and that her looks were nothing special.
How strange it seems, and new. Well, perhaps not entirely. Many of the anecdotes Kiernan relates—the feuds and love affairs, the sharp blows given and received in the pages of the better periodicals—have been worn smooth by repetition. Sometimes the book takes on the vague, echoey sound of distant recollection, of tales recounted at too many cocktail parties, inscribed in too many memoirs, or uttered into too many interviewers’ tape recorders. It might save time, trees, and publishers’ advances if a moratorium were declared on huge, multiple biographies of American writers, and instead a gang of underemployed graduate students were set to work compiling a database of twentieth-century literary gossip, feeding all the various letters, memoirs, diaries, and Lives into a giant keyword-searchable, cross-indexed hopper full of disputation, rumor, logrolling, and score-settling. (Type in pairs of names—“Vidal, Gore” and “Mailer, Norman,” “Wilson, Edmund” and “Nabokov, Vladimir”—and see what pops up.)
In any event, the source of some of Kiernan’s most telling stories about Mary McCarthy is not any previous biographer or tale-telling correspondent, but McCarthy herself. She was a writer committed to unshowy candor and rigorous self-recording. As is so often the case with literary biography, seeing plainly in this case means seeing a writer stripped of the vivid camouflage of self-presentation: the facts are admitted into evidence cut from their most important context, a rich and diverse corpus distinguished by its commitment not so much to tale-telling as to thinking. “We would do best to grant [writers] their privacy and turn our attention to the work itself,” Kiernan observes in her preface, but such good sense provides slender warrant for the physically fat, intellectually thin volume to follow, so she then qualifies it: “If Mary Therese McCarthy had never written a single word, we would still want to know about her.” How so? What would we want to know? Whom she slept with? What she served at her dinner parties? How she decorated her Manhattan walk-ups, her cottages in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, her Vassar dorm rooms? We know it all already, or as much as we could ever really want to, because McCarthy herself wrote it down and even made it seem to matter.
“Making a living is nothing,” Elizabeth Hardwick once wrote, “the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.” Kiernan doesn’t ignore the difficulties McCarthy often faced in making ends meet. In the Great Depression of the 1930s and the great prosperity of the 1950s, the glamorous literary life was, as it remains, marginal and vulnerable, an anxious scramble after magazine assignments and book advances, a hectic juggling act without a safety net. Even after her fourth marriage (to a Foreign Service officer named James West) and the success of The Group ensured her a measure of material comfort, McCarthy, especially during the years of Hellman’s suit, was never entirely free from financial worry.
But if Kiernan succeeds in showing us how the life was lived and the living was made, she occasionally loses track of the point. I don’t mean to be unkind. Seeing Mary Plain has been composed in the implicit awareness that McCarthy resides in the historical limbo of the recently departed, a lively presence to her surviving friends, family, and protégés and at the same time a fading photograph on the delicatessen wall of literary celebrity. Seeing Mary Plain, Kiernan writes, is “intended for those who are intimate with the major events of Mary McCarthy’s life as well as for those who know little more than her name. The cumulative effect is not unlike that of a novel, tracing the shape of this life, while conveying a sense of what it was like day to day.” The effort is mostly successful, though some of us might have preferred a tight, vigorous novel of manners—something more like a Mary McCarthy novel—to this baggy roman-fleuve. Unlike the two Carols, Kiernan was never acquainted with her subject (though she once spied her smoking outside William Shawn’s office at The New Yorker, where Kiernan was a fiction editor), and if we see Mary McCarthy here more roundly, from more angles, than in their books, we also see her from a greater distance.
Seeing Mary Plain, inevitably, does not so much satisfy the nostalgic wish hinted in the title as feed—and thus frustrate—it. The desire to see Mary McCarthy plain is an impulse at once to demystify her and to succumb to her mystique, to clear away the clutter of legend and to bury ourselves in it. We want to look soberly, skeptically at this most complex and alluring of American writers, but we also long to find ourselves magically in her presence, locking eyes in the smoky haze of a benefit for the Spanish Republic or the Scottsboro boys, overhearing brilliant bons mots in the brilliant Cape Cod sun, risking her peremptory disapproval in the hope of being favored by that flashing, predatory smile.
Perhaps I’m wandering from criticism into confession. But if I know anything about the difference between them—and their tendency to overlap—it’s from reading Mary McCarthy, who was, as if paying simultaneous tribute to her Catholic girlhood and her Jewish ancestry, gifted at both. Her essay “My Confession” is a small masterpiece of social criticism, and her critical appreciations of Pale Fire, Madame Bovary, William Burroughs, and Italo Calvino read like the confidences of an enthusiastic and learned friend. There’s no doubt that McCarthy’s was an interesting life; she was also, by all accounts, whether as hostess, teacher, traveling companion, or sparring partner, a formidable person to know.
But without the continued provocation of her work—dating from the theater reviews of the 1930s in The Nation and Partisan Review to the posthumously published Intellectual Memoirs and including, most vitally, the fiction and criticism published in the years between 1942, when The Company She Keeps appeared, and 1963, when The Group conquered the best-seller lists—she would be, not quite the heroine of a novel, but a memorable secondary character. Her life would have the picturesque, decadent charm of a Forties movie, a fetish-object for antiquarians and gloomy littérateurs who complain that they were born too late. Yes, it’s fun to loaf at the neighborhood Starbucks and dream yourself back to the Horn and Hardart automat or the City College lunchroom. But history is more than a daydream of guiltless martinis, adulteries, and Lucky Strikes, more than toy-soldier reenactments of the battles between Stalinists and the Trotskyites (“no fair, you always get to be Sidney Hook!”), more than rolled stockings and snap-brimmed fedoras, more than musty polemics and warmed- over gossip. To see Mary McCarthy plainly we must risk seeing her as she saw herself—with a cold, self-critical, remorselessly analytic eye, as an often bemused, always engaged citizen of her country, her body, and her times. In other words, we have to read her.
The appearance of a new biography should be an occasion to honor this imperative, rather than, as all too often, an excuse for ignoring it. But The New York Times Book Review greeted Seeing Mary Plain with a sharp dismissal of its subject, “a viperously clever but minor writer” who is nowadays “less read than read about,” and whose gifts were decidedly negative: “read as acts of malice,” we learn, her novels and stories “make more sense than they do as fiction.” Aha. Salon’s reviewer, more sympathetically, notes that McCarthy is “not much read any more.” Kiernan, in her epilogue, finds herself compelled to broach the tremulous question of whether McCarthy’s work will “last,” and harvests some gloomy prognostications from Irving Howe and Jason Epstein, before concluding with the guardedly upbeat assessments of William Maxwell and Alison Lurie, which she endorses.
Meanwhile, in the March 2000 Commentary, Midge Decter, attempting to defend her old acquaintance both from the overestimation of the present and from its ideological condescension, affirmed that “what [McCarthy] was best and truest at was debunking anything that others applauded”—a point anyone familiar with McCarthy’s elegant dismemberings of J.D. Salinger, Eugene O’Neill, or A Streetcar Named Desire will be tempted to grant. Decter’s husband, Norman Podhoretz, in his memoir Ex-Friends, is a bit more blunt, quoting a nasty remark about Diana Trilling from a letter McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt, and noting that “this remark came from ‘our leading bitch intellectual,’ as Mary has with justice been called.”
By whom? And where, exactly, is the justice? If Kiernan’s volume attests to the persistence of a proud tradition of Mariolatry, it also uncovers a deep, durable strain of anti-Marianism. Podhoretz’s slur echoes the conclusions of a 1962 Esquire profile by Brock Brower called “Mary McCarthyism”: “Her hostile critics claim that what she has really defined, for all men to know, is the Modern American Bitch.” This was offered, secondhand, as a literary judgment, just as Podhoretz’s formulation, by virtue of quotation marks and the presence of the word “intellectual,” pretends to be more than merely personal. There is a whiff of misogyny in these characterizations, but the sense that McCarthy’s literary persona was an unstable alloy of put-on airs and a mean spirit is not limited to the schoolyard bullies of the New York intelligentsia. Here is Dawn Powell, kindred spirit and hostile critic, writing in her diary in 1956:
[McCarthy] has her two manners—her lace-curtain Irish, almost unbelievably genteel lady scholar torn between desire to be Blue Stocking without losing her Ladyship; and then her shanty Irish where she relaxes, whamming away at her characters like a Queen of the Roller Derby, groin-kicking, shin-knifing, belly-butting, flailing away with skates and all arms at her characters and jumping on them with a hoarse whoop of glee when they are felled.
That McCarthy was capable of a certain cruelty to her fictional creations is hard to dispute, and her barbs often stung real people—most of whom, it must be added, forgave her, just as she was wont to forgive the trespasses of others (including The New York Review, which ran both a wicked parody of The Group by McCarthy’s friend Elizabeth Hardwick and a scabrous review of it by Norman Mailer). Philip Rahv, we are told, thought of suing when he saw himself reflected in the truculent, conspiratorial Will Taub of The Oasis, his ex-lover’s acidic updating of The Blithedale Romance, with New York Marxists standing in for Hawthorne’s Brook Farm Fourierites. (Rahv thought better of litigation after Dwight Macdonald, who had sat, along with several others, for McCarthy’s composite “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” explained that to win the suit his friend would have to prove in court that he was just like Taub.)
Peggy Guggenheim, who took McCarthy under her wing during her first trip to Europe, was repaid with “The Cicerone,” in which she figures as a louche adventurer out of a Henry James tale as rewritten by Truman Capote. F.W. Dupee, a cherished friend and McCarthy’s colleague during her teaching stint at Bard, was nonplused to find himself made over into Howard Furness, a bumbling department head in The Groves of Academe. Most famously, a number of the residents of South Tower, Vassar ’33, objected strenuously to having served, thirty years later, as models for the young ladies of The Group, though they never could quite settle on who was supposed to be whom. And what about the man in the Brooks Brothers shirt?
That story of a Pullman-car dalliance between a young bohemian woman and an older businessman was shocking in its time (“It made almost as much an impression as Pearl Harbor,” says George Plimpton, who read it at Exeter). It remains striking for its frank portrayal of casual sex without the usual vestments of guilt, neurosis, or liberation theology, and for its pitiless self-portraiture. Not because of indelible, possibly invented details like the brass safety pin holding together the woman’s underpants, but because of the author’s uncanny ability to sympathize with her heroine’s sense of intellectual and moral superiority even as she lampoons her sexual insecurity:
That was what had been missing in the men she had known in New York—the shrewd buyer’s eye, the swift, brutal appraisal. That was what you found in the country clubs and beach clubs and yacht clubs—but you never found it in the café of the Brevoort. The men she had known during these last four years 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 a party for the sharecroppers. At bottom, she was contemptuous of the men who had believed her perfect, for she knew that in a bathing suit at Southampton she would never have passed muster, and though she had never submitted herself to this cruel test, it lived in her mind as a threat to her. A copy of Vogue picked up at the beauty parlor, a lunch at a restaurant that was beyond her means, would suffice to remind her of her peril.
Relentless as she was in the exposure of other people’s foibles, errors, and self-delusions—in this story she casts the harsh beam of satire on Rotarians and radicals, indeed on everyone but the sharecroppers themselves—McCarthy rarely let herself off the hook. True, she appears in the novels sometimes as a martyr on the altar of failed marriage—Martha Sinnott in A Charmed Life, Kay Petersen in The Group—or as an avatar of virtue, compassion, and brave common sense—Domna Rejnev in The Groves of Academe, Elinor “Lakey” Eastlake (though she denied it), again in The Group. But more often—in stories like “The Weeds,” “CYE,” and “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,” or in the heart-rending, clearheaded Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew—there is evidence of a self-scrutinizing temperament mordant in its levity and tenacious in its discipline, decorous yet indiscreet.
Still, if McCarthy had composed only naughty romans à clef and self-exposing reminiscences, along with a handful of cutting reviews, her detractors might have a point. Catty remarks are not literature, or even literary criticism. Keys tend to grow rusty, or to get lost in the cushions of the couch. Philip Rahv, magus of Partisan Review, who wrote criticism like a boxer, all footwork and brute force, is not as well remembered as he should be, but even if he were it might be hard to excite a roomful of undergraduates with the news that Will Taub was really him. And the bookstores—to say nothing of the cable TV listings—are so thoroughly saturated with unhappy childhoods and tales of real-life sexual misadventure that little appetite may remain for the special cruelties of McCarthy’s Catholic girlhood or her lost episodes of Sex and the City circa 1939.
But an impressive number of her books remain stubbornly in print, and the present moment seems rather congenial to McCarthy’s sensibility. Her heroines are like big sisters or wise aunts to the girls who hunt and fish their way up the best-seller lists, and she herself may be an unacknowledged foremother to a generation of women who, with the ebbing of feminism, find themselves subject to the same dilemmas—how to balance intellectual and domestic labor, how to square matrimony with autonomy, how to be smart, successful, and at least moyenne sensuelle—that she anatomized with heroic clarity fifty years ago. Her books on Florence and Venice, meanwhile, stay afloat in the current tide of Mediterranean real estate and culinary porn, buoyed by the fact that graceful writing and dogged research will always find a place in the well-packed suitcase.
The unavailability of McCarthy’s critical and political essays, in particular On the Contrary and The Writing on the Wall, is to be regretted, but here again there are some hopeful signs. As the long academic monopoly on the discussion of cultural matters finally crumbles, a modest revival of interest in mid-century criticism seems to be underway, signaled by Leon Wieseltier’s welcome new anthology of Lionel Trilling’s essays and Brad Leithauser’s expert repackaging, last year, of Randall Jarrell’s incandescent reviews. Surely McCarthy deserves a comparable volume.
When it appears, it will help make the case for McCarthy’s importance as a novelist—one of a handful of indispensable writers of realist fiction in the immediate postwar era. Her slim, packed book of lectures Ideas and The Novel, published when her own novel-writing days were done, illuminates her ambition to put back into fiction everything modernism, starting with Henry James, had seen fit to excise, in other words everything people actually talk about—politics, art, religion, food, furniture, and so on. An earlier pair of lectures, “The Fact in Fiction” and “Characters in Fiction,” delivered in Eastern Europe in 1960, look back on the nineteenth century, when “novels, including James’s, carried the news—of crime, high society, politics, industry, finance, and low life.” Granting all the complexities of modern life that make old-fashioned realism untenable, she nonetheless expresses a marked longing for a fiction of persons and facts, of charmed and disenchanted lives viewed in their immediate, documentable social surroundings.
These essays amount to an implicit defense of McCarthy’s own ambitions as a novelist. The charm and insight of her early stories are widely granted, but her seriousness and originality are underestimated, in part because her favored subject—smart women smarting at the perplexities of life in the bookish hinterlands of the middle class—is taken to be shallow and parochial. “High-grade back-fence gossip,” said Clifton Fadiman of The Company She Keeps. The Group, Norman Mailer wrote in these pages, “could be said to squat on the Grand Avenue of the Novel like a shabby little boutique,” and its author likened to a “saleslady.” But Mailer, himself laboring to revive the mighty tradition of Dreiser and Dos Passos, at least understood the scope of McCarthy’s ambition, and credited her with pushing “just far enough to reinvigorate the…grand premise of the novel” (even if, in his view, her vanity, snobbery, and timidity—the fact that she was “simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel”—caused her ultimately to fail).
In Show Norman Podhoretz, again hiding behind an unnamed source, called McCarthy “an intellectual on the surface, a furniture describer at heart.” Mailer in the notorious peroration of his review makes a similar point, though in an idiom better suited to his own intestinal preoccupations:
Everything in the profound materiality of women is given its full stop until the Eggs Benedict and the dress with the white fichu, the pessary and the whatnot, sit on the line of the narrative like commas and periods…. The real interplay of the novel exists between the characters and the objects which surround them until the faces are swimming in a cold lava of anality, which becomes the truest part of her group, her glop, her impacted mass.
The Normans are not entirely wrong. There is a lot of stuff in The Group, and it sometimes threatens to take over the story. For example:
This whole desk side of Gus, which impressed Libby, had touched Polly’s heart. She sometimes felt she had fallen in love with a desk, a swivel chair, and a small scratchy moustache. Still, to fall in love with a desk and be presented with a couch was daunting.
For Mailer the chief criterion of realism is the achievement of “a work which is true in its very relation to the perception of reality.” Why not consider that Polly Andrews’s whimsical, desperate scrambling of people and things might answer this demand at least as authentically as the “diabolism” and “large social themes” Mailer finds missing from The Group?
He’s right about the diabolism—whatever interest McCarthy may have had in metaphysics, or in the problem of evil, did not survive Catholic school—but the large social issues are there. The desk and the couch are the metaphorical correlatives of Polly’s terrible fix, which is that the married Communist she has been seeing has forsaken Marxism for psychoanalysis, and therefore can’t leave his wife for Polly. (His analyst forbids what the Party might have allowed.) McCarthy’s genius was to catch how hard it is to tell the serious business of life from its trivia. Of course, the roman-tic compromises of a silly Vassar girl hardly amount to much next to the unshackling of the proletariat or the conquest of the unconscious—or is it the other way around? It’s not that McCarthy disregarded the grand intellectual movements of her time, or sat out its great political struggles. On the contrary: she hurled velvet bricks at Sartre and de Beauvoir, attacked Stalinists and (Joe) McCarthyites with equal vigor, and, the wife of an American diplomat, traveled to Hanoi in 1967 frankly “looking for material damaging to the American interest.” Politics and ideas were never diversions from the world of love affairs, dinner parties, and paying the rent, any more than those undertakings were distractions from the grave business of politics and ideas.
Perhaps her most brilliant illustration of this disposition can be found in “My Confession,” her account of how, in 1939, she went from the ranks of the near fellow-travelers to the masthead of the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. “I too have had a share in the political movements of our day,” she declares, taking issue with the conversion narratives of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, “and my experience cries out against their experience. It is not the facts I balk at—I have never been an espionage agent—but the studio atmosphere of sublimity and purpose that enfolds the facts and the chief actor.” Instead, she presents her flirtation with communism as something of a caprice—not frivolous, exactly, but certainly fun. It’s a lark, after all, to imagine yourself on the right side of history, and to feel superior to everyone who isn’t. The fun stops abruptly at a cocktail party, when someone asks McCarthy if she thinks Trotsky deserves a fair hearing. Since she’s been in Nevada getting divorced, she hasn’t been following the Moscow trials, and so she answers “of course” without really thinking about it, thereby capriciously committing herself to a moral position from which she will not swerve. “Most of us who became anti-Communists at the time of the trials,” she concludes,
were drawn in, like me, by accident and almost unwillingly. Looking back, as on a love affair, a man could say that if he had not had lunch in a certain restaurant on a certain day, he might not have been led to ponder the facts of the Moscow trials…. Our anti-Communism came to us neither as the fruit of a special wisdom nor as a humiliating awakening from a prolonged deception, but as a natural event, the product of chance and propinquity.
Or, a good lapsed Catholic might say, of grace. This passage illuminates not only the character of McCarthy’s politics, but the guiding principles of her fiction. Her second husband, Edmund Wilson, who decided his young wife should give up reviewing for novel writing, understood this before anyone else. “I’m not sure she isn’t the woman Stendhal,” he wrote to Christian Gauss in 1941, as McCarthy was working on “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” Though there is obviously some husbandly hyperbole in this assessment, Wilson was not one for careless judgment. Like Stendhal—like Tolstoy and George Eliot, and the other nineteenth-century novelists she revered—McCarthy sets her characters loose into a welter of public and private comedy and travail that turns out, in retrospect, to have been the storm of historical change. Like Fabrizio del Dongo in The Charterhouse of Parma stumbling into the Napoleonic Wars, Dotty with her pessary, the girl on the train with her safety-pinned knickers, the wronged wife weeding her garden, and McCarthy herself—to say nothing of poor Will Taub, and the man in the Brooks Brothers shirt, and their real-life doppelgängers—are all caught up in a world-transforming drama so sweeping, and yet so intimate, that it still lacks a name or a definitive chronicle.
Unless, of course, the chronicle is to be found in the novels of Mary McCarthy. Their subject is a series of upheavals in their way as profound as the cold war of ideas in which she served both as combatant and battle correspondent. Her fiction is about the perpetually renegotiated, endlessly vexed, frequently comical relationships between men and women; about the brave absurdity of trying to carry on serious conversation amid the noise and clutter of consumer capitalism; about making it, letting go, and carrying on. But she says it more cogently than I can:
The tree of life, said Hegel, is greener than the tree of thought; I have quoted this before but I cannot forbear from citing it again in this context. This is not an incitement to mindlessness or an endorsement of realism…(there are several kinds of reality, including interior reality); it means only that the writer must be, first of all, a listener and observer, who can pay attention to reality, like an obedient pupil, and who is willing, always, to be surprised by the messages reality is sending through to him.
And so she was, plainly.
September 21, 2000