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.