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 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…

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