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Mary McCarthy in New York

Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936–38.1 I look at the title of these vivid pages and calculate that Mary McCarthy was only twenty-four years old when the events of this period began. The pages are a continuation of the first volume, to which she gave the title How I Grew. Sometimes with a sigh she would refer to the years ahead in her autobiography as “I seem to be embarked on how I grew and grew and grew.” I am not certain how many volumes she planned, but I had the idea she meant to go right down the line, inspecting the troops you might say, noting the slouches and the good soldiers, and, of course, inspecting herself living in her time.

Here she is at the age of twenty-four, visiting the memory of it, but she was in her seventies when the actual writing was accomplished. The arithmetic at both ends is astonishing. First, her electrifying (“to excite intensely or suddenly as if by electric shock”) descent upon New York City just after her graduation from Vassar College. And then after more than twenty works of fiction, essays, cultural and political commentary, the defiant perseverance at the end when she was struck by an unfair series of illnesses, one after another. She bore these afflictions with a gallantry that was almost a disbelief, her disbelief, bore them with a high measure of hopefulness, that sometime companion in adversity that came not only from the treasure of consciousness, but also in her case from an acute love of being there to witness the bizarre motions of history and the also, often, bizarre intellectual responses to them.

Intellectual responses are known as opinions and Mary had them and had them. Still she was so little of an ideologue as to be sometimes unsettling in her refusal of tribal reaction—left or right, male or female, that sort of thing. She was doggedly personal and often this meant being so aslant that there was, in this determined rationalist, an endearing crankiness, very American and homespun somehow. This was true especially in domestic matters, which held a high place in her life. There she is grinding the coffee beans of a morning in a wonderful wooden and iron contraption that seemed to me designed for muscle building—a workout it was. In her acceptance speech upon receiving the MacDowell Colony Medal for Literature she said that she did not believe in labor-saving devices. And thus she kept on year after year, up to her last days, clacking away on her old green Hermes nonelectric typewriter, with a feeling that this effort and the others were akin to the genuine in the arts—to the handmade.

I did not meet Mary until a decade or so after the years she writes about in this part of her autobiographical calendar. But I did come to know her well and to know most of the “characters,” if that is the right word for the friends, lovers, husbands, and colleagues who made up her cast after divorce from her first husband and the diversion of the second, John, last name Porter, whom she did not marry. I also lived through much of the cultural and political background of the time, although I can understand the question asked, shyly, by a younger woman writing a biography of Mary: “Just what is a Trotskyite?” Trotskyite and Stalinist—part of one’s descriptive vocabulary, like blue-eyed. Trotsky, exiled by Stalin and assassinated in Mexico in 1940, attracted leftists, many of them with Socialist leanings, in opposition to the Stalin of the Moscow Trials, beginning in 1936, which ended in the execution of most of the original Bolsheviks and the terror that followed.

The preoccupation with the Soviet Union which lasted, with violent mutations of emphasis, until just about yesterday was a cultural and philosophical battleground in the years of Mary McCarthy’s “debut” and in the founding, or refounding, of the magazine Partisan Review. In that circle, the Soviet Union, the Civil War in Spain, Hitler, and Mussolini were what you might call real life, but not in the magazine’s pages more real, more apposite, than T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Kafka, and Dostoevsky.

Her memoir is partly “ideas” and very much an account of those institutional rites that used to be recorded in the family Bible: marriage, children, divorce, and so on. Mary had only one child, her son Reuel Wilson, but she had quite a lot of the other rites: four marriages, interspersed with love affairs of some seriousness and others of none. Far from taking the autobiographer’s right to be selective about waking up in this bed or that, she tempts one to say that she remembers more than scrupulosity demands. Demands of the rest of us at least as we look back on the insupportable surrenders and dim our recollection with the aid of the merciful censor.

On the other hand, what often seems to be at stake in Mary’s writing and in her way of looking at things is a somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact in matters both trivial and striking. “The world of fact, of figures even, of statistics…the empirical element in life…the fetishism of fact…,” phrases taken from her essay “The Fact in Fiction,” 1960. The facts of the matter are the truth, as in a court case that tries to circumvent vague feelings and intuitions. 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 she would have agreed it was only her truth—instead she often said she looked upon her writing as a mirror.

And thus she will write about her life under the command to put it all down. Even the name of the real Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt in the fiction of the same name, but scarcely thought by anyone to be a fiction. So at last, and for the first time, she says, he becomes a fact named George Black, who lived in a suburb of Pittsburgh and belonged to the Duquesne Club. As in the story he appeared again and wanted to rescue her from New York bohemian life, but inevitably he was an embarrassment. As such recapitulations are likely to be: Dickens with horror meeting the model for Dora in later life. Little Dora of David Copperfield, “What a form she had, what a face she had, what a graceful, variable, enchanting manner!” Of course, the man in the Brooks Brothers shirt did not occasion such affirmative adjectives, but was examined throughout with a skeptical and subversive eye. About the young woman, the author herself more or less, more rather than less, she would write among many other thoughts: “It was not difficult, after all, to be the prettiest girl at a party for the share-croppers.”

The early stories in The Company She Keeps could, for once, rightly be called a sensation: they were indeed a sensation for candor, for the brilliant, lightning flashes of wit, for the bravado, the confidence, and the splendor of the prose style. They are often about the clash of theory and practice, taste and ideology. Rich as they are in period details, they transcend the issues, the brand names, the intellectual fads. In “The Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” we have the conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and fashionable. About a young couple, she writes: “Every social assertion Nancy and Jim made carried its own negation with it, like an Hegelian thesis. Thus it was always being said by Nancy that someone was a Communist but a terribly nice man, while Jim was remarking that someone else worked for Young and Rubicam but was astonishingly liberal.”

In the memoir, we learn that we can thank Edmund Wilson for turning the young Mary away from writing reviews to undertaking fiction and thereby producing these dazzling stories. We also learn that she thanks him for little else. A good deal of these pages left at her death tell about her affair with Philip Rahv and analyze the break, in fact a desertion, from him and her marriage to Wilson. I must say that much of this drama was new to me. I was not in New York at the time. I met Mary for the first time in the middle 1940s when I was invited to Philip Rahv’s apartment. She was with a young man who was to be her next husband after the “escape” from Wilson, that is she was with Bowden Broadwater. Philip was married to Nathalie Swan, Mary’s good friend from Vassar…. A lot of water had flowed by.

The picture of Mary and Philip Rahv living in a borrowed apartment on East End Avenue, a fashionable street over by the wrong river, since Philip was very much a downtown figure, rambling round the streets of Greenwich Village with a proprietary glance here and there for the tousled heads of Sidney Hook or Meyer Schapiro and a few others whom he called “Luftmenschen.” The memory, no matter the inevitable strains of difference between them, has an idyllic accent, and she appears to have discovered in the writing, decades later, that she loved Rahv—a discovery I will call amusing for want of a better word. There was to be an expulsion from the garden when Edmund Wilson meets Mary, pursues her, and finally, a not very long “finally,” gets her to marry him.

The account of her moral struggles is a most curious and interesting one, an entangled conflict between inclination and obligation; the inclination to stay with Rahv and the obligation to herself, her principles, incurred when she got drunk and slept with Wilson and therefore had to marry him. The most engaging part of this struggle is not its credibility or inner consistency but the fact that Mary believed it to be the truth. There was a scent of the seminarian in Mary’s moral life which for me was part of her originality and also one of the baffling charms of her presence. Very little was offhand; habits, prejudices, moments, even fleeting ones, had to be accounted for, looked at, and written in the ledger. I sometimes thought she felt the command to prepare and serve a first course at dinner ought to be put in the Bill of Rights.

I remember telling her about some offensive behavior to me on the part of people who were not her friends, but mere acquaintances, if that. When she saw them on the street up in Maine she would faithfully “cut them”—a phrase she sometimes used—while I, when her back was turned, would be waving from the car. Yet it must be said that Mary was usually concerned to make up with those she had offended in fiction, where they were amusingly trapped in their peculiarities, recognizable, in their little ways, not to mention their large ways. Among these were Philip and Nathalie Rahv whom she had wounded, painfully for them, in a novella, The Oasis. They too made up, after a time, after a time.

  1. 1

    An unfinished memoir by Mary McCarthy, to be published in May by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; this essay will appear as the introduction.

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