This year marks the hundredth birthday of both Mary McCarthy and John Cheever, two celebratedNew Yorker writers. Mary McCarthy’s fiction first appeared in the magazine’s pages in 1944. Although we tend to think of Cheever as a quintessential post-war writer, he was always one step ahead of McCarthy. Born a few weeks earlier than she was, he arrived at the magazine almost a decade before she did. Later on, the author of “The Enormous Radio” and “Goodbye, My Brother” was dismissive of his own early stories, perhaps because they fit in all too well with the kind of very short fiction favored by Harold Ross back then. At its best, in the hands of a master like John O’Hara, an early New Yorker story would speed along until everything was called into question with a deft shift in tone. At its worst, it could amount to little more than a tepid memoir or entertaining anecdote.
Sometimes a début is more like a dress rehearsal, sometimes a début can seem long overdue. Mary McCarthy arrived at The New Yorker as a fully formed writer known for her immaculate prose, her wit, her glamour, her sexual adventures, and her vexed marriage to the eminent critic Edmund Wilson, as well as for the impossibly high standards of her Partisan Reviewtheatre criticism and the shocking candor of her fiction. Word had it that she never made anything up.
Not one to shy away from controversy or from probing the limits of sexual embarrassment, Mary McCarthy wasn’t a likely writer for Harold Ross’sNew Yorker, much less for any “old lady in Dubuque.” “The Man in The Brooks Brothers Shirt,” published in Partisan Review in 1941—which begins with a young bohemian intellectual setting out to raise the consciousness of a middle-aged businessman encountered in the club car of the train taking her West, only to wake up the following morning, naked and hungover, alongside the man, who looks like “a young pig”—had made her a heroine a certain kind of young woman. For Alison Lurie, studying at Radcliffe, the story made clear “you could have a relationship with a man just for the fun of it and you didn’t have to feel guilty or upset.” For Pauline Kael, “it was tonic.” This was partly because it offered a heroine who “could be asinine but she wasn’t weak.” For a sixteen-year-old George Plimpton, “that somebody could write a story about things like that” made it remarkable. He added that, at Exeter, the story “made almost as much an impression as Pearl Harbor.”
The response of most men was less positive. For the young writer Alfred Kazin, there was “a contempt for men” in McCarthy’s descriptions of what took place on that train. For the even younger writer Saul Bellow, that contempt took a specific and unacceptable form, “I remember coming across those sentences that say in effect: She lay like a piece of white lamb on a sacrificial altar. ‘Bullshit,’ I said.”
That her story was not for the average reader suited McCarthy fine. First as a reviewer for The Nation and then as a founding editor of Partisan Review,she had been writing for a limited circle of readers. Most of her stories had appeared in small literary quarterlies. Then, in 1942, with the publication of the stories in the “The Company She Keeps” she reached a larger audience. The collection was by no means a big best-seller, but it managed to attract a fair number of reviews, plus the attention of a young New Yorker editor, William Maxwell, who wrote to her that fall, asking to see more stories.
She responded to this request at once, even though her friends at Partisan Review had little use for TheNew Yorker. Or for Edmund Wilson, for that matter. Both were dismissed by them as “middlebrow.” At least when it came to Wilson, this contempt was mutual. Caught between her old friends and a jealous older husband, McCarthy had fled her home in Wellfleet more than once. Wilson’s jealousy was not entirely unfounded, but he could be a mean and violent drunk. Though McCarthy could never be sure of his temper, she could always count on his unconditional support for her fiction. As her first reader and her most ardent promoter, Wilson had virtually shamed her old friends into taking “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.”
Whether he went on to do the same for McCarthy at The New Yorker is open to question. Given his long association with Katharine White, who had edited parts of “To the Finland Station,” as well as his poetry for the magazine, it seems entirely possible. The two of them were not particularly close, but she valued his suggestions. For a long time, Wilson had been urging her to get Ross to broaden the range of New Yorker fiction. In 1944, the same year that Katharine White shepherded two stories by Wilson’s wife into its pages, she agreed to give Wilson’s friend Vladimir Nabokov a first-reading agreement even though she had yet to see story from him that she wished to publish. That year, Wilson was serving as a temporary replacement for the magazine’s Books editor.
Mary McCarthy always made a point of saying she had arrived at The New Yorker with no help from her husband. It was William Maxwell, she said, who had brought her to the magazine. Decades later, Maxwell had no memory of this. As far as he was concerned, their first meeting had taken place over breakfast at a counter at Schraft’s toward the end of the Second World War, when she was living with her young son at the Stanhope Hotel and walking him to school every morning. She had been lovely, he said, funny and warm and beautiful and everything a mother should be.
As it turns out, there are copies of letters which prove that William Maxwell not only wrote to McCarthy but also took her to lunch in the fall of 1942 and then purchased a story, set it in type, and let the galleys sit for more than a year—a surprising delay for a story of no great length that also happened to be timely. Barely more than an anecdote, “The Company Is Not Responsible” describes an incident on a bus headed for Provincetown—a journey marked by the delays and the overcrowding that civilians everywhere had been facing during the war. Reading it, one wonders whether the writer deliberately set out to give William Maxwell a New Yorker story. Always careful and never sentimental, it lacks the most valuable quality any story can possess—a quality Maxwell would later call “the breath of life.” McCarthy submitted at least two more stories to The New Yorker, both of which Maxwell turned down. And then he took a leave of absence to work on a novel.
Just when it began to seem like “The Company Is Not Responsible” might never run, Katharine White retrieved a set of soiled galleys moldering in the Fiction bank and rushed the story into print. It ran the week after Easter. The story might never have run if Katharine White hadn’t returned that winter from a five-year stay in Maine, where she had been working part-time for the magazine but mostly seeing to it that her second husband Andy (E. B.) White could work on his own writing. Or, to put it another way, it might never have run if she hadn’t received a story from Mary McCarthy earlier that spring, a story totally unlike those sent to William Maxwell—a story she didn’t want to risk losing. Not only did Katharine White retrieve those galleys submitted to Maxwell, but upon purchasing the new story she asked Wilson to hand deliver to his wife a first-reading agreement and a thousand-dollar check for signing it.
Never try to second-guess an editor. Time and again, they will surprise you. Or surprise themselves. This new story had already been turned down by at least two editors at more likely magazines. Wilson may have pressed McCarthy to show Katharine White this story. And then pressed White to read it. But White was a woman who knew her own mind. In addition, she knew what it was to have a beloved garden and to work up the courage to leave a difficult husband. In short, she knew what it was to be like the woman in this new story, “The Weeds.”
The New Yorker did not have a table of contents until the late sixties. And until fairly recently, writers’ names only appeared in small type at the end of a piece in the magazine. So it’s hardly surprising that the publication of “The Company Is Not Responsible” passed almost unnoticed. The same cannot not be said for “The Weeds,” which appeared the following September, when there were be sufficient pages to accommodate it. “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed,” the writer announces, before going on to tell how “she” finally manages to leave behind her petunias and overbearing husband and then tries to make a go of it in New York, only to have her husband drag her back home six days later, crushed and exhausted, reduced to taking a perverse pleasure in thwarting his determination to rescue a garden she knows he cannot abide. “McCarthy is always her best heroine,” someone later observed. And there is much truth to this. But in McCarthy’s best stories no one is spared her irony or her contempt, not even the character she most closely resembles.
“The Weeds” is a sour and disturbing story but it is also a powerful one. According to Brendan Gill, it created a sensation in the halls of The New Yorker weeks before it appeared in print, because of the shocking length of its galleys, which ran to something like seventy inches at a time when most of the magazine’s stories were still fifteen hundred words long, and because of the disturbing nature of it content. Not to mention that Edmund Wilson, the writer’s older overbearing husband, occupied an office on those halls. How had Wilson let this happen? Brendan Gill had no idea. But as far as Gill was concerned, this was Mary McCarthy’s début story. Decades later, he had no recollection of an earlier one. He had no great fondness for the writer herself, but he believed that with this story she had played a key role in paving the way for longer and more ambitious fiction at the magazine—for stories by Nabokov and Updike, and certainly for stories like “The Enormous Radio” and “Goodbye, My Brother.”
“The Weeds” appeared in the September 16th, 1944, issue of The New Yorker. By then, life had gone on to imitate art. Early that summer, a fight had erupted one night in Wellfleet, and Mary McCarthy fled to New York, leaving behind her husband and her garden, as well as also her small son. After several weeks, Wilson managed to persuade her to return, promising yet again to turn over a new leaf.
Shortly thereafter, Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson were living in a narrow rented house at Henderson Place, on East Eighty-sixth Street, not far from the river and not too far from their son’s new school. Spotting that issue of the magazine on their Henderson Place coffee table, McCarthy’s old friends didn’t know what to say. What had possessed her? And how could Wilson forgive her? As it turned out, he couldn’t.
With this story, Mary McCarthy finally succeeded in putting an end to her vexed marriage. By Christmas, she had moved with her son into the Stanhope Hotel, where she would be within walking distance of his school, and of Schraft’s. That February, she filed for a separation, charging her husband with unspeakable acts of violence and he repaid her in kind, their depositions providing the tabloids with details far more sordid than any she had revealed in her fiction.
But how could Wilson have allowed things to come to such a pass, given that he always read her stories after she finished them? And if he had indeed read the story, how could he have gone on to be so angry with her? Years later, she told an interviewer that when she’d confronted him and brought up this very point, he had admitted that she had indeed shown him the story. “But you’ve improved it,” Wilson said.
There is no way of knowing how much McCarthy improved “The Weeds.” Stories in manuscript can look very different in type. And they can go on to look different yet again when they appear in the pages of a magazine. One thing is certain: between them, Mary McCarthy and Katharine White brought to the pages of The New Yorker a story that could not possibly go unnoticed—a landmark story that takes “The Company She Keeps” one step further, and which went on to be the lead story in McCarthy’s second collection, “Cast a Cold Eye.” This second collection has long been out of print, but “The Weeds” continues to be available to readers in the New Yorkerarchi4