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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Dec172010

« In Which Mary McCarthy Was A Legend In Her Own Time »

You can read the first part of this series here.

Our Mary, Right or Wrong

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Meeting the great influx of immigrants from Western Europe during and after the war changed Mary McCarthy's mind about American involvement in the conflict. She found herself in a new circle of intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and had faced the horrors of fascism and communism firsthand. She began teaching at Bard College to support herself when checks from The New Yorker proved insufficient. She fell in with a New Yorker grunt, the twenty-five year old Bowden Broadwater, who was eight years Mary's junior, and he began visiting her at Bard on weekends. They eloped a year later — his first, and her third. As Gore Vidal once snidely put it, "Women like Mary marry for a purpose."

with bowden broadwaterFor the first time in her life, Mary was both stable and happy. But her writing was soon to cause the trouble in her public life that has dissipated from her private one. Her take on the Partisan Review crowd, a novella titled The Oasis, incensed Saul Bellow and fellow Partisan Review contributor Harold Kaplan, who wrote that

Bellow and I spent half the night talking about Mary McCarthy's alleged story. Perhaps there is something an outraged masculine reaction involved (as I believe there was in much of the critical reaction to her first book) but we believe this thing is so vile, so perfect an example of everything that is nasty in New York and everything that is sterile in recent American writing, that we came to the conclusion that something should be done about it.

As usual, the males in her crowd proved to be the truly humorless ones, but that didn't account for the response to McCarthy's short novel completely. It was primarily that she had no problem with putting the people in her life in her writing, and that they were never flattered by her portraits of them. One person, however, called McCarthy's novel a gem. That was Hannah Arendt.

with arendt, dwight macdonald and robert lowell (not pictured)

The two had met earlier, but Arendt had been shocked by what she perceived as sympathy for Hitler's desperate desire to be loved by the French during his occupation of Paris. After the publication of The Oasis, the two began a lifelong friendship. Although Arendt was mostly unknown at this time, the publication of her The Origins of Totalitarianism launched her into prominence in 1951 at the age of 45. A sexual relationship with Martin Heidegger was already in Hannah's past, and McCarthy was drawn to her worldliness and the fact that they seemed to agree on everything.

arendt

Mary experimented with more journalistic writing, penning a series about the homosexual underbelly of Greenwich Village that ran in the New York Post. She was paid $800, and it attracted publishers to a collection of her essays, which Robert Giroux would eventually publish. Her college novel The Groves of Academe was published in 1952, a stinging satire of both Joseph McCarthy-era politics and the insulated liberalism that indoctrinated college students. As usual, men found the work incomprehensible, with Dwight MacDonald writing, "Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty, is she god or something?" The problem with writing about how boorish some men are is that they will be writing the reviews of the book where you are saying that.

Upset with the disopprobrium from the Partisan Review crowd, McCarthy planned to start her own magazine. Before the founding of Critic (which never published an issue) she wrote that, "The truth, at its simplest is that people, not just liberal intellectuals but ordinary liberal people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on, are made restless at seeing their own opinions mirrored week after week in the journals that are written for them. What they object to is not lack of agreement with their own political conclusions but the sense of mechanical repetition that drones from these familiar pages." Her criticism of how liberal magazines took on Joseph McCarthy himself was the source of her anxiety. Instead of simply tearing down a conservative icon, she thought they should try to understand his appeal among the populace.

Her failure with Critic paralled her failing marriage. Most people never saw Broadwater and McCarthy as something that would work long term. McCarthy always said exactly what she was thinking, and Broadwater was very much the same. The two were a fearsome sight at parties and events. Her next novel, A Charmed Life, did the work of breaking up the marriage, because after its publication Broadwater suggested it would be impossible to return to their home in Cape Cod after what Mary had written about the people there. (The women of Wellfleet stopped going barefoot to the supermarket because of A Charmed Life.)

During a trip to Europe, Mary stayed behind in Venice to research the book that would become Venice Observed. While Broadwater holed up in a fleabag motel in New York, a succession of friends visited her. Once back in the U.S., she longed to return to Italy, and eventually, accompanied by a black Chevy, went to Naples. In Rome she began sleeping with the English critic John Davenport until her husband arrived on the scene. This time of personal turmoil was also the moment of her finest artistic success, as her collection of memoirs Memories of a Catholic Girlhood received the best notices of her career.

with her brother Kevin

When she met the man who would become her fourth husband James West, she was still married to Broadwater. The forty-six year old West was the public affairs officer for the American Embassy in Warsaw, with a young wife and three young children himself. Getting away from their respective spouses was tricky business, but as usual, McCarthy could talk a man who was captivated by her into most anything. When Broadwater phoned the Paris hotel where she was shacking up with West, the older man answered the phone. Mary came clean and asked for a divorce just minutes later.

Although her soon-to-be ex-husband was aware of his wife's previous dalliances, he found himself shocked into a weird kind of submission — the nasty Harvard man was turned into a meek puppy. Hannah Arendt wrote Mary to say, "He never was so nice before, never." West found obtaining his divorce more problematic, and he convinced McCarthy to sequester herself in Warsaw during a time of upheaval in that city.

It is ironic that under such dramatic circumstances that she began work on The Group, for as worldly as her current love affair was, it is a most domestic novel. Following the lives of a number of Vassar women, the novel reads like a strained picaresque today, more like warped Jane Austen than worldly Emily Gould. Its simple pleasures were perhaps fueled by her love affair with West, with whom she rarely argued as she did with her previous husbands.

To Arendt she wrote, "My love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I've become conscious in myself of a certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember me telling you that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games."

With her private life more in order, The Group appeared in August of 1963. Her most readable, accessible novel, it was a sensation for the general public and was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet. She was invited on The Tonight Show. The upscale, WASP subjects of her satire were as per usual, not as amused, but Mary could care less. (Once, at a party on West End Avenue while she was at Vassar, one particularly snobby gentile had entered into a laughing fit at the idea of socializing with an Irish woman.) If her novelistic writing wasn't overly artistic, the deftness of her satire was. Everyone wanted to know what Vassar girls really did think about, how they experienced the rigeurs of sex and even marriage for the first time — and Mary spared no one.

Yet she was not as tough as she required her friends to be. When Robert Lowell's wife Elizabeth Hardwick penned a savage parody of the book in a piece titled "The Gang" that appeared under the byline Xavier Prynne in The New York Review of Books. Mary sent off an angry letter to Lowell:

I think it's easier to forgive your enemies than to forgive your friends, and that is not just a remark. With your enemies you don't feel a sense of betrayal, and what is at the bottom of a sense of betrayal but bewilderment a loss of your bearings? I would not know how to act with Elizabeth yet; that is, I feel I would start acting falsely....

from the 'How I Grew' typeYou can forgive an enemy because that immediately puts you on a fresh basis with him; the slate is wiped clean. But with a friend, you can't wipe out the past because the past includes your friendship as well as the injury you felt you've been dealt. So you have no basis on which to start again, neither the old one or a brand-new one. The practical way of coping with this is to revise your opinion of the friend, in a downward direction. In this way you have a new friend. But I don't want to do this with Elizabeth.

in north vietnam in 1968Among critics with integrity, some of those writers imagine the public forum as a place where anything can be said and then subsequently forgiven. But for McCarthy, her ideas about other people's writing were from a rigorous place, not from a spirit of open and fun inquiry. She took criticism extremely seriously whether she was dealing it out or taking it in. In the case of The Group, the real judge was the marketplace: the book sold over five million copies around the world.

mary smoked her entire life. Arendt's influence pushed McCarthy towards more political topics. Her forays into the political issues of the day, Vietnam and Watergate, were not as well received. In the first case, her hagiographic portraits of the North Vietnamese didn't age particularly well; in the second, the story was already obvious and no one really needed to read Watergate Portraits. When Arendt died of a heart attack after executing the estate of Karl Jasper in 1975, McCarthy flew to New York to execute her will.

In 1980, during a televised interview with Dick Cavett, she made her infamous statement about Lillian Hellman: "that every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the'." Despite the fact that Hellman was the textbook definition of a pathological liar, she sued McCarthy and CBS for libel. Hellman, a devoted Stalinist and professional fabricator, was more damaged by the resulting lawsuit — most people never took her seriously again, and a litany of non-admirers came out of the woodwork to prove McCarthy right. But it also had, as Hellman perhaps intended, a negative financial effect on the defendant.

Mary never thought of herself as a feminist. Her time in various socialist and political groups had made her jaded about belonging to such an association, and on a personal level, she took equality with men as something of an absolute. As an ultimate outsider who reversed the polarity of her life completely, she proved by her simple existence that it was possible for an outspoken woman to survive, even thrive, in a men's world.

As McCarthy and West entered into a comfortable lifestyle, they took up residence at James Merrill's apartment in Stonington, CT, and then began alternating between homes in Maine and Paris. Mary continued to teach at Bard. West's income allowed her to continue her free-spending ways. Her publisher William Jovanovich recalled booking her onto a flight out of Paris, and watching her upgrade herself to first class with cash: "Out of her capacious handbag came fifty-dollar bills, splaying onto the linoleum. She turned to me and said, 'Don't look.'"

from the typescript to 'How I Grew'Her lawsuit with Hellman took its toll. She suffered headaches and sleeplessness, but resisted going to the hospital because of her desire to outlive Hellman. When her enemy finally died in June of 1984, she had an operation to relieve the pressure on her brain from ataxia. As West put it, "I had encouraged her to pay more attention to her health and of course she tried as hard as she could, but she was more interested in ideas than in her health." In 1989, she died of lung cancer, survived by her husband.

When we remember how far American letters has come, it is easy to forget the people who brought it there. Saul Bellow once recalled Mary ticking off a list of names of people she planned to go after in reviews while dressed to the nines at a downtown party. He thought it indecent, but because McCarthy said exactly what she thought, we do not have to suffer from the poverty that public acclamation of sexists and bigots provides us.

You can find the first part of this series here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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"Stuck" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Not the Drinking" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Hanging Up" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

 

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