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Fiction and America

In response to:

O'Hara, Cheever & Updike from the April 19, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

In a footnote to his review “O’Hara, Cheever, and Updike” [NYR, April 19] Alfred Kazin writes: “Lionel Trilling’s ‘Manners, Morals, and the Novel’ was an influential defense of status and privilege as necessary to the social novel, as was Mary McCarthy’s ‘America the Beautiful.’ ” There is not one word in that essay about the social novel or about status and privilege being necessary to literary art of any description. It is odd how Kazin’s memory betrays him whenever some impulse drives him to mention my name in print. Or at least each time I’ve been aware of it. He ought to see a doctor.

Mary McCarthy

Paris, France

Alfred Kazin replies:

When “America the Beautiful” appeared in Commentary, 1947, as Miss McCarthy’s answer to the woeful misunderstanding by ignorant European radicals of America’s idealism, I took it as another of the many belated but still ideological tributes to God’s Own Country then being produced by Partisan Review veterans. But when in 1961 it became the leading piece in On the Contrary, a collection whose essential theme was the irrecoverability of the nineteenth century’s great age of fiction, I realized that the asceticism and purity of heart Miss McCarthy found in America were her way of explaining to herself why the novel was dead in America. We were, she said, homeless, innocent, pure, dissociated. Even “the great financial empires are a thing of the past.” The dissociation of Americans, especially from their supposed materialism, had produced “a peculiar nakedness, a look of being shorn of everything…. Yet no tragedy results, though the protagonist is everywhere; dissociation takes the place of conflict, and the drama is mute….

What it amounts to, in verity, is that we are the poor. This humanity we would claim for ourselves is the legacy…of the thousands and thousands of European peasants and poor townspeople who came here bringing their humanity and their sufferings with them. It is the absence of a stable upper class that is responsible for much of the vulgarity of the American scene…. The ugliness of American decoration, American entertainment, American literature—is not this the visible expression of the impoverishment of the European masses, a manifestation of all the backwardness, deprivation, and want that arrived here in boatloads from Europe?” America was not the future but the peasant and immigrant past. “This past, inscribed on billboards, ball parks, dance halls, is not seemly, yet its objectification is a kind of disburdenment.”

Miss McCarthy concluded that although “a little ease” will “accrue” “a lot of sensibility,” it was too late for American civilization. In her opinion, it has usually been too late for American novelists.

Miss McCarthy has been furious with me ever since I described my youthful impressions of her in Starting Out In the Thirties and my first conversation with her in “Midtown and the Village” (Harper’s, January, 1971). The face Miss McCarthy believes herself to possess is very different from the face I have seen.

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