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At Gull Pond

When Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson, who married in 1938, were getting on well, they found each other mutually stimulating and, in the company of friends, they excelled at repartee, not argument. Although McCarthy had little good to say, either in interviews or in her own memoirs, about Wilson as a husband, she clearly benefited as a writer of fiction from his sustained encouragement and support. It seems that the couple agreed for the most part on political and literary matters, but were often at odds over things mundane. Wilson, by his own admission, tended to misbehave at precisely those times when they were getting along well.

Considering their marital difficulties, it is not surprising that Wilson made fewer entries in his journal during the years the marriage lasted. The passages dealing with Cape Cod nature are, however, of great interest to us, especially the one captioned “Gull Pond 1942.” Because it shows McCarthy against a natural backdrop, the portrait is unique; unfortunately it displeased its still-living subject and was cut at her request from the published version of The Forties, one of the volumes of Wilson’s journals. She reacted indignantly to Wilson’s portrayal of her as a sex object (although the journals describe the other women with whom he had been intimate in much the same way). She also had the publisher cut another sexual scene between them, this one at the Little Hotel in New York, as well as a one-sentence entry that refers to “Mary’s derangement.” The text “Gull Pond 1942” shows Wilson’s considerable talent for evoking wild nature, and McCarthy, with meticulous precision and sensual verve.

GULL POND 1942

Gull Pond May 21, 1942—The ladyslippers were out, sprinkled so sparsely around the brink of their solitary flowers—deepening in a couple of days from flimsy stooping ghosts as pale as Indian-pipe to a fleshy veined purplish pink swollen between pigtails and curling top-knot that also suggested Indians; and along the white sand of one side, where the bowl of the pond shelved so gradually, the little white violets with their lower lips finely lined as if with beards in purplish indelible ink, their long slim rhubarb-purplish stalks and their faint slightly acrid pansy smell, grew with thready roots in the damp sand; they were yellowish like ivory here, but on the opposite more marshy bank (with its round stones, its patches of red irony water, its shooting-box with a flock of square black and white decoys, its steeper banks, its dead gulls and fishes) their effect was not quite so dry and they showed a vivid white like trillium where they bloomed against the deeper and the more luxuriant green. As one walked in the water one encountered pines putting out their soft straw-colored (?) bunches of cones and smelling with a special almost sweet-fern fragrance. The baby cones seemed almost embarrassingly soft, almost like a woman’s nipples.—When we got to the shallow channel between Gull Pond and the next one, I found a mother herring trying to get through from the latter by gliding and flapping on her side. She was silvery with purple-silver along the upper part of her length. At the mouth of the channel there were several of them splashing and when I came close I saw that the water was all dark with a whole crowd of them—from above they are just roundish muddy streaks under water. The sand here, flat and more marshy and grown with green rushes, was all tracked with the trefoil (?) of gulls’ feet, where they had come to get the fish.

On the other side of the pond, the stretch where there was a screen of tall pines, a new and grander note, almost theatrical—and then the little screen of scent-pines that left a little strip of sand between it and the thick tangled jungle of bushes and shrubs and briars that covered the hill behind. In there we used to make love while all kinds of little birds rustled and twitched and sang behind. Today we cleared a place under the low branches of the pines so that we could get a little shade, and the light openwork shadows rippled on Mary’s white skin;—her waist and abdomen where she lay naked—as the breeze stirred the branches; also fish splashing. Afterwards, Mary put her feet up and grabbed a branch with her long square-tipped prehensile toes—and she giggled and grinned about it, enjoying the idea of being able to do it, one thing she wasn’t sensitive about—stretched up further and seized the branch and, rather to my astonishment, pulled her whole body up till only her shoulders rested on the ground. She said that I couldn’t do that—I replied that I was in a little more advanced stage. She said that her ancestors had been kings of Ireland—I said, Yes: in the trees.

—When I was trying to keep my mind off it, in order not to come before she did, leaning on my hands, I was able to look out on the lake and the afternoon landscape, where only the cries of the gulls were heard….

—Before lunch we had gone in for a dip: not too cold to be uncomfortable. Mary had gone in naked, I had put on my old brown trunks. Mary looked very pretty and white. But she was ripened by the summer sun where her face and neck and arms had been exposed while working on her garden, and the tan of her forearms and the reddening tints brought out in her rather pale skin were in harmony with her blue suit of overalls and made her seem almost luscious. When I kissed her after we’d eaten as she was lying in her new rather shiny pink latex bathing-suit, with its skirt chopped smartly off just at the base of her buttocks (it was when she was standing up, though, that you noticed this)—the shoulder-straps down so as to leave her breast bare, I kissed her wide red fleshy and rather amiable mouth, which had character, while she shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand, it (her mouth) seemed to me naked and made me think of the lips below. At this point we finished the yellow wine and went on to the screen of the scrub-pine.

—I had a sense of adventure in exploring the other bank of the pond and walking all the way around. At one point, the bottom was stony; in one place, there were little fish; at another, there were water-bugs featherily and (elusively) flawing (scrawling?) the surface. (Shooting box, etc.) Further on, a light and slow ripple gave the illusion, as you walked in the water, that it was the sand of the bottom, with its rare stones and sticks, that was rippling like some thin and light sheet slowly and lightly shaken out as one might shake out a long carpet.

—When we had first come between one and two the lake had not looked so attractive—a little roughened and opaque from a distance, (in the foreground along the water were forts and walls and moated castles built by and for Reuel from several days before); but when we came back from our walk around it, there were dark and soft-looking clouds, which did not look as if they were really going to rain, hanging over the pond from the opposite bank, and yet leaving above us, among white (shreds? more like bits of cotton pulled out from the roll) of cloud, a fresh and bright and (rarified not dense) blue; and the water had a leaden look that was at the same time perfectly limpid—and lovely.

—When I went back to get the towels, on which Mary had been lying, I saw a little orange and black bird, like a finch, hopping around in those scrub-pines just where we had been.

—The little yellow buds of the pines are not the cones, neither these nor “the candles,” with bristly conelike scales, that rise from the middle of the cluster. The cones are little round green cones that grow underneath on the branch. When you shake the soft things, they give out a lemon-yellow dust that looks like (lemon-colored) smoke.

—The deer dung and sharp divided hoof-prints just opposite where we lay—the yellow and black butterfly (monarch?) that was flying out over the pond.

[EW’s marginal note] All to be followed by violent quarrel the next morning and her running away to New York.

The entry is not presented in chronological order, and it is framed at the beginning and the end with views of the landscape. By way of explanation, Gull Pond is the only large pond in Wellfleet to be almost perfectly circular; it is attached by a narrow sluiceway to smaller Higgins Pond, which links to tiny, dark Williams Pond. Here is the chronological sequence of events: between one and two in the afternoon, the couple arrives on the side of Gull Pond adjacent to Gull Pond Road (where my mother usually parked the car); they establish themselves in the shade of the scrub pine trees, have a picnic lunch, swim, make love, and play. Then they walk around the pond; before they depart Wilson picks up the towels.

The passage begins with a description of his favorite wildflower, the lady slipper. “Flimsy stooping ghosts as pale as Indian-pipe” a few days earlier, the lady slippers have now turned to a “fleshy veined purplish pink swollen between pigtails and curling top-knot that also suggested Indians.” This erotically suggestive description of the flowers and the personification of them as Indians ushers us into a sublimely natural world where he and McCarthy, modern versions of Adam and Eve, will be the only human presence.

Nothing escapes the narrator’s watchful eye as they circumambulate the pond (the same walk is described in two separate passages). He notes the shoreline, alternating between mud and sand, the white violets, the migratory herring, the gulls’ footprints in the sand, the sandy bottom rippling underwater with its “rare stones and sticks,” the sand castles made by me (age four) just days earlier, the cottonlike clouds, and, the most dominant presence of all, the fragrant pine trees covered with blooming baby cones “almost like a woman’s nipples.”

After the picnic and the swim, their lovemaking takes place behind the shelter of the pines, at a site that they have used before for the same purpose. In order to postpone his orgasm, Wilson looks “out on the lake and the afternoon landscape, where only the cries of the gulls were heard.” The harmonious outcome shows the contiguity of “wild” and human nature.

When he returns to the beach to retrieve “the towels where Mary had been lying,” Wilson observes a “little orange and black bird, like a finch,” in the scrub pine. Now, for the reader’s benefit, he delivers a short lecture (the same one, doubtless, that he had in real life given McCarthy) on the nature of a pine tree’s reproductive apparatus. The multiple pine flowers respond to his touch with an orgasmic cloud of pollen.

The above-quoted journal entry not only shows Wilson’s deftness at rendering nature but also reflects his view of a female partner as an intriguing toy, to be studied and manipulated. The woman emerges as a lesser kind of vessel. In the text he remarks: “I kissed her…wide red fleshy and rather amiable mouth, which had character, while she shaded her eyes from the sun with her hand, it (her mouth) seemed to me naked and made me think of the lips below.” While imbibing the woman’s sexuality, he simultaneously dehumanizes her. After their lovemaking, a supine McCarthy has playfully grasped a branch with her “prehensile toes” and triumphantly hoisted herself off the ground. Wilson parenthetically remarks that this was “one thing she wasn’t sensitive about.”

True enough, McCarthy took offense easily and resented any criticism, but Wilson’s own tendency to find fault in his wives could only have exacerbated her “sensitivity.” In the marginal note fixed at the end of the entry, Wilson writes: “All to be followed by violent quarrel the next morning and her running away to New York.” He seems to suggest that the quarrelsome McCarthy was only too happy to find an excuse to leave him. Much later, his daughter Rosalind would write:

What he did when he set about destroying a woman was almost incommunicable because it combined the conscious and unconscious to such an extent on his part and constant criticizing from morning until night.

When traveling in Italy in 1945, Wilson remembered Gull Pond and McCarthy in his journal. This memory finds expression in a single sentence also deleted from the published version at McCarthy’s request. It is part of a series of freely associated images at the end of the section titled “Return to Italy,” and reads:

Morning, dawn at Gull Pond—threat of darkness at Mary’s derangement—which hung over things and sometimes seemed to have some connection with what was going on abroad.

Wilson firmly believed in McCarthy’s “hysteria” if not her actual insanity. He did not admit that his behavior could trigger her outbursts and that his excesses qualitatively exceeded hers.

On June 21, just one month after he made the long “Gull Pond” entry cited above, Wilson wrote a moving poem on the occasion of McCarthy’s thirtieth birthday. In it he seeks to convince her of his ongoing love and admiration; he also pleads for her sympathy. His tone is didactic, for his role in the marriage has consistently been that of a mentor as well as a lover. Here is the poem, typed on three sheets of paper with the letterhead EDMUND WILSON, WELLFLEET, MASSACHUSETTS:

Darling do not weep with tears
My four years of your thirty years:
I too once felt the scene turn thin,
The sky come down, the road close in;
The faces that I had thought my own
Dull dolts that left me all alone;
The places where I breathed and fed
A dismal dump to lie down dead—
And if today you were to go,
Were gone, again I should feel so.

Between two seas a strip not wide
Splits ocean side from harbor side,
And keeps apart, with beaten knees,
The blank unbuilt unplanted seas;
Or, better, between pond and pond
The streak of water makes a bond,
A limpid stream in white sand.
—And if you say a turtle stalks
This stream, debating as he walks
Where best to burrow in the slime,
To wait the proper snapping time;
Remember that I say the snails
That leave their little hollow trails
Along the bottom that stays white
Are tiny beasts that do not bite.

—Mary, this morning when sunrise
First met your green and lighting eyes
In debt and dèche the way I live,
I have no other gift to give—
Nothing to guard our flickering foyer
Against Judge Otis, paranoia,
Tovarishch Stalin’s dark apostles,
The envious reviews of hostiles,
Against the rank and shallow weeds
That rise to wreck our ripest seeds;
That ring the bell and spring the door,
But never yet have split the floor—
Nothing to give today but these,
Across the ponds, between the seas,
Between the tadpoles and sweet peas:
Lined words to one who can align ‘em
Till weaklings cry out, “Quem ad finem
Sese iactabit—what a gal!—
Audacia?—the animal!”
*
But failing better coin, my dear,
Please take these for your thirtieth year;
And disregard the thinning scene,
But read the love that lies between.

In the first stanza the poet urges her not to despair over their four years together; he too has faced desperation and despair (possibly a reference to his nervous breakdown in 1929). Using the surrounding landscape as a unifying motif, he speaks to her as one writer to another. Paying homage to her literary skills and bravura, he solicits her to help in his struggle with penury and a hostile outside world.

  1. *

    The Latin means: “To what end will he/she vaunt him/herself…. Audacity?” Above “the animal!” Wilson has penned a possible substitution: “but what a pal!”

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