The first of two reviews of Partisans by David Laskin, whose book about Partisan Review details personalities rather than politics and whose focus on gender relations during the age of 'counter revolution' tends to passively reflect the male gaze rather than challenge it. Nevertheless, Laskin's re-construction of the era and sub-culture has much to commend it.
Stacy Schiff's review seems to take a 'post-feminist' view of McCarthy's generation who 'didn't get' feminism. Maybe we should berate Shakespeare for his lack of a post-colonial perspective.
January 23, 2000
Why did the Partisan Review women put up with the Partisan Review Men
By STACY SCHIFF
his shapely volume brings to mind Samuel Butler's argument that the ''Odyssey'' was the work of a woman. Among other oddities, how else to explain the fact that when Ulysses and Penelope crawl into bed and begin to tell the stories of their 20-year separation, Penelope goes first? (Butler might have buttressed his case by pointing out that Ulysses listens to his wife with rapt attention.) All the women in David Laskin's pages go first too, up against a narrative obstacle even greater than Penelope's: They were married to writers, a notoriously noisy proposition. How to get a word in edgewise? To the usual din of he-said-she-said is added the question of who controls the narrative, a particularly vexed issue when both parties maintain a commitment to the written word. And in American letters it would be difficult to locate a more graphomaniacal crowd than those intersecting, overlapping couples loosely configured around Partisan Review in its heyday.
Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals.By David Laskin.
Illustrated. 319 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $26.
The history here is familiar, though it reads differently in Laskin's depoliticized context, shorn of its intellectual import, turned on its head gender-wise. Mary McCarthy leaves Philip Rahv, a Partisan Review editor, to hurl herself into bed with, and marriage to, Edmund Wilson, whose prose style she was said to admire more. (One of the most refreshing aspects of this book is how much literature mattered. The allure of these women was perfectly pronounced, but enhanced by their ability to write -- well -- like men.'') McCarthy deems that marriage a failure after one night; Wilson beats McCarthy and McCarthy beats Wilson; we still have the most explosive garbage-taking-out scene in American letters, the one that ends where all garbage-taking-out scenes threaten to: in divorce court. Meanwhile, the poet Allen Tate and his novelist wife, Caroline Gordon, play den parents to the young Robert Lowell, soon to meet and pursue Jean Stafford. Stafford and Lowell limp through their own six years of marital torture, stumbling over depression, gin bottles and Lowell's fervent embrace of Roman Catholicism. To say nothing of the demands of literature; in Stafford's succinct formulation, ''Being a writer and being married to a writer is a backbreaking job and my back is now broken.'' Ultimately the two part ways. Stafford distances herself from the Partisan Review crowd; Lowell goes on to marry Elizabeth Hardwick, who stoically survives two decades of Lowell's manic depression, while in her work merrily skewering the Lowell family milieu.
Expertly threading his way among the biographers, Laskin, the author, most recently, of ''A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence,'' charts the intersections of these high-octane lives. There are plenty of head-on collisions. Stafford and Lowell, their marriage in shambles, plan to winter in Tennessee with Tate and Gordon, until they learn the Tates are divorcing -- in part because of Tate's involvement with other women. Among them was Elizabeth Hardwick, who was to become the next Mrs. Lowell. Laskin takes the wide view but cannot stop Mary McCarthy from stealing the show, quite an accomplishment among this cast. No one else gives as good as she gets; no one else has as much sex, on or off the page. And how to compete with a beautiful, brilliant woman of whom it was observed: ''When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open''?
Laskin's subjects do not make for a highly functional crowd; ''Partisans'' amounts to the intellectual ''Smart Women, Foolish Choices.'' It is mostly a study of forbearance: how did these women bear the weight of Wilson's ego, of Lowell's personality, of those gin bottles -- one burden more heavy than the next -- and not collapse at their typewriters? Among the charges the Wilsons level at each other are, in Laskin's catalog, ''domestic violence, insanity, alcohol abuse, mental cruelty and infidelity.'' When Lowell's condition is, briefly, brought under control by lithium during his marriage to Hardwick, McCarthy refers to him as ''subdued by this drug in a sort of private zoo -- his home -- with Lizzie as the keeper.'' A truly impressive amount of liquor disappears in these pages; this crew spends so much time at Payne Whitney it could pass for a writers' colony. The talk revolved around what might otherwise be termed one another's private lives. As Diana Trilling recalled, ''We talked incessantly about sex, sex and more sex, with particular emphasis on adultery.'' The poisoned knives were not to be wondered at; after all, this was a cadre of professional critics. And one editor's characterization of the magazine -- raucous, impious and intransigent'' -- was every bit as true of its contributors.In their sloppy intensity, these lives feel almost contemporary to our exhibitionistic, self-excavating age. But -- beyond the Payne Whitney visits, the highball glasses, the fog of smoke -- there are constant reminders that Laskin's is a distant era. And in this respect he makes what feels like one very wrong turn. Repeatedly he is frustrated that these smart, independent, pioneering women couldn't see the point of feminism, never got Betty Friedan. It is not enough for him that they did it all backward, in heels and with highball in hand. Why the compulsion to marry, and to marry so recklessly? Why the deference to husbands of whom they were the intellectual equals? He dearly wants them to have embraced the women's movement, to which they would have lent considerable force but which they resisted, often with all their might. This, he insists, ultimately marginalized them. Diana Trilling -- against whom the ''f'' word was actually deployed -- couldn't even make Jean Harris into a feminist icon. Had only Stafford not ridiculed the movement, her novel ''The Mountain Lion,'' Laskin laments, ''might have found a place on feminist reading lists instead of assuming the shabby-genteel status of a neglected classic.''
Yet to claim as much is to ignore Stafford's plangent cri de coeur. In her game of wife-woman-writer, the first two terms trumped the third. ''For me, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that my life holds nothing for me but being a writer. . . . I want you to know now and know completely that that would mean to me absolutely nothing,'' she wrote Lowell, not exactly a feminist battle cry. And not only were they lousy feminists, these writers were, as Laskin makes clear, startlingly domestic. Stafford builds her dream house; McCarthy prides herself on her elaborate holiday meals. Hardwick eulogized McCarthy in a way most women, on some level, aspire to be remembered: as much for her wit as for her blueberry pancakes. Neither of which would have been notable were it not for her work.
Laskin wonders why it never struck these intellectuals to arrange things differently, yet the ''differently'' is something for which -- a revolution later -- we are still searching today. And while it may seem remarkable that a husband's work should come first, none of these women appear to have minded having been married to hugely talented, often very visible, men. Most of all, it's impossible to say -- of McCarthy, Stafford, Hardwick -- that ''they managed to get published and to become famous, formidable intellectuals without challenging or offending the males who published them,'' given the toll on their personal lives. Hasn't Laskin seen ''Annie Get Your Gun''? These women wrote their way out of, and around, their marriages. They funneled their frustrations, their failures, their feelings about Boston society into their work. It cannot be said that anyone suffered in silence. They fought all the way, but the battle was a private one. Blinded by their own success, they had no time for liberty on the barricades.
Their histories are neither typical nor prescriptive, but they do beautifully define a moment, if not a future. Jean Stafford offered what may constitute the only sane formula for a married literary life, though she does not do so in ''Partisans.'' In her last days with Lowell she concluded that women writers shouldn't wed, ''unless they are married to rich responsible husbands who fill their houses with servants.'' But surely Mary McCarthy deserves the last word. In explaining her resistance to the women's movement, she offered up her ultrarealistic view of the battle between the sexes: ''Someone,'' she purred, ''always wins.'' And someone always has to go first.
Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of ''Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov),'' a biography.