Sunday, 24 June 2012

When I met Mary McCarthy - the full story


Thirty years ago, I was a post-graduate student of American Studies with one ambition: to reveal Mary McCarthy, the so called ‘First Lady of American Letters’, as the missing link of feminist literature. My research at Hull University had led me to believe that McCarthy was not only a pre- eminently undiscovered feminist writer, but had unique significance as a bridging figure, connecting the first wave feminism of the suffragettes with the second wave of Women’s Liberation, which, by 1982, had become a powerful influence on literary students and academics, myself obviously included. McCarthy, for me, was the torch-bearer for feminist writing during the dark decades of the 1930s and ‘40s, the period that Shulamith Firestone called the ‘counter revolution’, when feminist values and thinking were all but buried under an aggressively resurgent patriarchy. During this period, McCarthy worked as a theatre critic for the anti-Stalinist Partisan Review, was an outspoken supporter of Trotsky during the Moscow Trials and, most notably in my view, had pioneered an autobiographical literary genre which explicitly represented gender relations as political struggles, over twenty years before Kate Millet declared that ‘the personal is the political’.

To my mind, the evidence from McCarthy’s early fiction was compelling: her lonely heroines, who combined scrupulous self-honesty with political integrity, consistently and courageously defied their manipulative male adversaries - typically the bullying boyfriends or controlling husbands – and managed to survive, bloody but unbowed, in the shifting and often treacherous world of New York’s intellectual bohemia.  On the battleground of the sexes, McCarthy represented female resistance, as well as the tortured, alienated conscience of collaboration, always from the woman’s point of view.
The best proof of this could be found in her then forgotten first book, ‘The Company She Keeps’, a collection of loosely linked short stories, published in 1942.

“She might marry a second, a third, a fourth time, or she might never marry again. But, in any case, for the thrifty bourgeois love insurance, with its daily payments of patience, forbearance, and resignation, she was no longer eligible. She would be, she told herself delightedly, a bad risk.” (Cruel and Barbarous Treatment)

“The man’s whole assault on her now seemed to have a political character; it was an incidental atrocity in the long class war” (The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt)

“‘Ah,’ she said, ‘now you are on Frederick’s side. You think I ought to welcome my womanly role in life, keep up his position, tell him how wonderful he is, pick up the crumbs from his table and eat them in the kitchen.’” (Ghostly Father, I Confess)      

"...she saw herself as a citadel of socialist virginity, that could be taken and taken again, but never truly subdued."  (The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt)

Judging books by their covers, you'd be forgiven for expecting soft porn.
“The romantic life had been too hard on her. In morals as in politics anarchy is not for the weak. The small state, racked by internal dissension, invites the foreign conqueror.” (Ghostly Father, I Confess)        

For the 24 year old me, McCarthy’s feminism was a truth waiting to be told, and, having surveyed the deadly conservative corpus of Lit. Crit. about her, I thought I might play some small part in announcing the discovery. Though I didn’t know at the time, however, it turned out I wasn’t alone in this view: William Barrett, McCarthy’s one-time editor on Partisan Review, had reached a similar conclusion. In his memoir of the New York radical intellectual scene of the 1930s and 40s, The Truants, published in 1982, Barrett wrote of ‘The Company She Keeps’: “We did not know it then, but she was in fact firing the first salvo in the feminist war that now rages within our society, though I doubt the movement has since produced any weapon of equal class and calibre. It was also something of a shocking book, or seemed so at the time.”
     But the trouble with seeing McCarthy as a feminist was that she simply wasn’t having any of it. In fact, she had publically expressed an intense dislike for feminism, or so it seemed from a succession of fairly unequivocal statements:

“A woman can’t possibly have all the prerogatives of being a woman and the privileges of being a man at the same time….I much prefer being a woman, probably for very bad reasons like liking clothes and so on.”  Vogue 1963.

“As for Women’s Lib, it bores me….this whole myth about how different the world would have been if it had been female dominated…seems a complete fantasy to me.” Miriam Gross, The Observer 1979.

“I’ve always liked being a woman. And it seems to me that one of the problems of a lot of feminists is they don’t like being women.” Carol Brightman, The Nation 1984

To be fair, McCarthy had also voiced admiration for a number of feminist writers and causes, yet, at the same time, it was obvious that she held a deep dislike for radical feminism and was invariably at pains to distance herself from ‘woman’s lib’.
That her own views were outwardly at odds with my feminist reading of her fiction posed obvious questions. Could the writing be feminist and the author not?  Was she a feminist in denial?  My tutor in American Studies, suggested that I ask her in person, which at first seemed absurd: a literary giant consenting to be interviewed by an ordinary student, from a provincial English university? Not very likely. And yet, as my tutor pointed out, she had accepted an honorary degree from Hull in 1975, which might be a useful angle of approach. So I wrote to her in Paris in September 1981 and, to my immense surprise, she agreed to meet me at her apartment on the Rue de Rennes in January 1982.

It was a cold, but clear and sunny afternoon in Paris when I called on Mary McCarthy. I was  late because of a hold up on the metro, and, as she’d been quite precise about the timing of our meeting over the ‘phone – ‘at 2, for just an hour’ – I had to hurry out of the station exit and was perspiring by the time I found the address.
Despite McCarthy’s off-putting reputation for caustic wit and razor-sharp ripostes – a characterization chiefly constructed by male critics, which McCarthy herself had once famously dismissed as ‘Balls!’ – I found her to be a most patient, polite and positive interviewee, whose replies to my often awkward questions were always carefully considered. As far as ‘outing’ her as a feminist, my mission was not quite as unsuccessful as I’d feared, and it’s quite appealing to speculate about what she might have gone on to say, had we not run out of time at a crucial moment. I began by asking her about current writing projects

MM. I’ve started work on a new autobiography - my publisher calls it an intellectual autobiography - beginning in 1925, when I first noticed that there was such a thing as an intellectual!  It starts where Memories of a Catholic Girlhood ended, more or less, but it’s really nothing like Memories, in style or content.  I’ve approached the early part from a different angle and used a lot of new portraits. The impulse to improvise – like re-imagining conversations, or re-ordering events, for dramatic impact and so on – is nowhere near as strong as it was for Memories. Maybe the distance of time has made me more particular in some ways - at least it’s reduced the urge to follow fictional conventions.

RL. On the topic of writing and recollection, how do you respond to comments made by some reviewers of your early fiction, that it was simply thinly disguised autobiography?

MM. In many of those early short stories, fictionalizing events from my own life was, at least partly, I think, a kind of distancing device for self-observation, making it easier for me to step back and study my own feelings, under the camouflage of fiction. Most writers begin by writing about themselves and, in that sense, I was certainly no exception. Having said that – and going back to your question - I do hate the sloppy assumption which somehow labels The Company She Keeps as ‘merely’ autobiographical, as though there were just this one-to one connection between writer and character. I think it shows a lack imagination, a lack of attention to the writing itself. Actually, it was only after I’d written my third story that the idea of a heroine for a novel began to take shape - which was really a kind of experiment in perspective. But anyway, that sort of criticism is all the more irritating because it overlooks the ideas I was really trying to consider.

RL. Did that include considering Meg Sargent as somehow typical of her gender and era?

MM. It was never my aim to characterise Meg Sargent as a woman of her times, though I think any serious writer will automatically reflect the values of their age, in one way or another. No, the idea of femininity, as an identity, or as some sort of restraint or restriction, was not my concern; neither was I particularly interested in examining ‘gender’. I was far more interested in describing human affairs, not just male-female, but a wider network of social ties and influences, in relation to personal integrity and honesty, for instance, or power and justice. The idea of surviving a particular kind of domination was obviously a concern in a story like ‘Ghostly Father, I Confess’ which, as you probably know, had quite a direct autobiographical source, growing out of period in my life when my second husband (Edmund Wilson) had convinced me to see a psychiatrist – three in fact, all very conservative, politically and professionally – in return for a divorce and custody of my son, Reuel, who was then 4. In fact, it was really a trick to stop me filing for separation - not an organised conspiracy as such, but they all wanted me to go back to the marriage. As things turned out, once I’d escaped from Wilson, it became perfectly clear that all my so-called psychological problems were the inventions of the psychiatrists.

RL. In one particular story – ‘The Friend of the Family’ – you make a clear connection between the decline of a marriage and the rise of fascism. In drawing this parallel, were you developing the idea of male-female relationships as political power struggles?

MM. The story was conceived on experimental lines, in terms of making comparisons between politics and human relationships in general, not just male/female. I don’t know how anyone could put a feminist label on that, or on anything else I’ve written for that matter. Feminism is just not part of my generation’s way of looking at things - though obviously, the politics of human affairs has always interested me. And, in that story for example, it was a natural connection to make, between social behaviour and political tyranny.

RL. Meg never seems to realise the independence she longs for in those stories. Is this a pessimistic point of view?

MM. Well, no, I don’t think so. They were realistic in the sense that they drew on my own experiences at the time. I think it’s true that I wrote them, or one of them at least, partly as a way of hitting back at Wilson, but I was attempting to be truthful about what had happened, without trying to generalise from my own position. So realistic, and unromantic, yes, but not pessimistic.

RL. The one hope for many of your heroines seems to be their critical self-honesty. Does this conscience represent anything more than an individual solution to broader social problems?
MM. This belief in self-honesty is central to everything I’ve ever written! Can’t you tell? Far from being subjective, I think truth and honesty are principles to be defended in all aspects of life, political and personal. Take Solzhenitsyn - I have real doubts about some of his views, but I’ve nothing but admiration for his courage, in standing up against the full force of the Soviet system. As for my characters, those early heroines are thoughtful, observant, doubting, never really inclined to delusion or fantasy. In many ways, with their cherished intellectual honour and curious consciences, they’re very conventional heroines.

RL. But for some of your characters, like Polly Grabbe in ‘The Cicerone’ and Lakey in ‘The Group’, wealth and privilege offer greater freedom and control. With these characters, were you pointing to class differences in the way women negotiate relationships with a male world?

MM. Well, I hadn’t really thought about it in those terms - but yes, this could well be the case. It’s pretty obvious that wealth, beauty and intelligence allow a character like Lakey the kind of independence denied to her college friends, though it’s difficult to think of Polly as representative of an alternative life-style for women - she was essentially a comic character whose reversal of roles was just as crude and spiteful as in some traditional relationships.

RL. You said recently that “…to be a novelist you have to have this alert social thing.” Regarding ‘The Oasis’, was this the moment when you became more interested in social interaction, from a political perspective, as the subject for a novel?

MM. I think many writers begin with short stories because a novel sometimes seems too big a project to undertake, but there wasn’t one definite moment. I’d always been attracted to exploring the idea of social justice and when I began work on ‘The Oasis’, the novel was really the only suitable form. To write a novel, I think you have to have quite a bit of experience, to know how different kinds of people behave and to be able to judge them. Politically, I’ve never really understood why people saw my treatment of all those liberal-left characters as so destructive. That old picture of me as a sneering satirist with an acid tongue is utterly stupid! What I really wanted to do was to start some sort of political re-thinking on the left, about the problem of trying to live up to your principles. ‘The Oasis’ wasn’t really an attack on the theory of utopias, but more about the failure of the wrong people trying to put them into practice. And yet the right people probably wouldn’t have made it work either, because of the nature of utopianism, I suppose – various projects have proved the impracticality of those types of ideals.
 But, for myself as a novelist, it’s more than simply a social thing - I sometimes view a novel as a kind of testing ground for different principles. Take ‘A Charmed Life’ for instance – I was very interested in exploring the problem of maintaining personal ethics in a skewed social environment – New Leeds – built on the shifting sands of moral relativism. In the end Martha’s downfall is not because of her ex-husband but because she pays the price for not sticking to her own beliefs.

RL. Did you kill off Martha because you’d become tired of the McCarthy heroine?

MM. Well, I think Martha’s death is justified by the novel’s development, in the sense that she makes a logical choice, out of step with the illogical world she’s part of, but her death was never intended as anything symbolic or sacrificial. But it is true, I was becoming bored of my heroines, for technical reasons really - no matter how I tried to disguise characters like Martha and Meg, or even Katy Norell and Domna Rejnev, in terms of their appearance and profession and so on, they always turned out to be too close to me, despite the surface differences. Also, in terms of viewpoint, the fictional stand- in was becoming far too limiting. After ‘A Charmed Life’, I really wanted to explore less direct forms, without any obvious representative. ‘The Group’ was my first attempt at this – so, for the reader, it becomes a matter of deciding which characters could be trusted and which couldn’t. Take Kay’s death, for instance – was it suicide or just an accident?  To my mind, I provided enough evidence in the book to suggest that it was clearly an accident. The fact that characters like Harald and Libby – who are shown to be completely conceited and self-deluded – believe it was suicide should be enough to convince anyone of the exact opposite.

RL. You once said that the Group was ‘supposed to be the history of the loss of faith in progress.’ Were you out to shatter female illusions, particularly in marriage as an institution that could be liberalised in some way?

MM. No. The Group was conceived essentially as a comic novel. Apart from Lakey, none of the girls are very bright and I was interested in satirising the way each of them embraces the New Deal era, in fashions, domestic appliances, ideas, sex and so on. The girls are meant to be funny, especially in the way they parrot the progressive opinions of their husbands or boyfriends, and I wanted to show how their often rather naïve expectations are ultimately confounded.

RL. From what political viewpoint?

MM. From the left, but not with any great seriousness. I was more interested in describing the girls’ gullibility and self-deception than anything else. That their attitudes hadn’t really changed from their mothers’ was, for me, one of the most comic aspects of the book.  Kay was the real power in ‘The Group’ and her death was meant to represent the end of that whole liberal-progressive era in American life.

RL. Were you surprised by the success of ‘The Group’?

MM. Yes.

RL. Why do you think it was so popular?

MM. Sex! Initially I thought it would be banned – but, as it turned out, only Ireland and a state in Australia outlawed it. I think sexual attitudes had changed  enough for it to be published. Part of its popularity was word of mouth, mothers and daughters recommending it to each other; and the first stages of the women’s movement also helped, I think. ‘The Group’ was quite quickly recruited for the feminist cause.

And it was on that intriguing note – that the success of her most famous novel may have been due, at least in some part, to its striking a common chord (or cause?) with the beginnings of the feminist resurgence – that she called time on our discussion.

It’s quite tempting for me to speculate on the possible effect such a revelation might have had on McCarthy’s standing, had it been expanded and made more public at the time. Would it have signalled a new phase in the dialogue between McCarthy and feminists? Could it have led towards a more explicit acknowledgement of common ground or shared values? Who knows – it might have. As it turned out, the only people to hear about my encounter with MM were fellow students taking a course on ‘Women in Literature’ at Hull University, and my tutor, who suggested the names of  literary journals that might be interested in publishing my account. However, it was around this time that I became more involved in anti-racist politics and less with academia, my interest in scholarship fading so quickly that this meeting with one of 20th century America’s literary giants was almost forgotten. Until now, of course.
Thirty years on, in the year of McCarthy’s centenary, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mary McCarthy had never existed, so successfully has she been airbrushed from literary history by academia and the cultural media.  But in thinking seriously about McCarthy’s significance to contemporary readers, it’s interesting to note that, although she may have denied feminism during her lifetime, some academics on the left have begun to re-assess her status as a figure of growing importance in the history of feminist literature. In ‘Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America’, Paula Rabinowitz questions the idea that feminism was silenced in the 1930s and 40s and views ‘The Company She Keeps’ as a ‘pivotal’ novel, which not only ‘constructs a narrative of female class consciousness out of the woman’s body’ but ‘narrates class as a fundamentally gendered construct and gender as a fundamentally classed one’, which is, more or less, what I was trying to say back in 1982, I think.

"This critical, historical, and theoretical study looks at a little-known group of novels written during the 1930s by women who were literary radicals. Arguing that class consciousness was figured through metaphors of gender, Paula Rabinowitz challenges the conventional wisdom that feminism as a discourse disappeared during the decade. She focuses on the ways in which sexuality and maternity reconstruct the "classic" proletarian novel to speak about both the working-class woman and the radical female intellectual.
Two well-known novels bracket this study: Agnes Smedley's "Daughters of Earth" (1929) and Mary McCarthy's "The Company She Keeps" (1942). In all, Rabinowitz surveys more than forty novels of the period, many largely forgotten. Discussing these novels in the contexts of literary radicalism and of women's literary tradition, she reads them as both cultural history and cultural theory. Through a consideration of the novels as a genre, Rabinowitz is able to theorize about the interrelationship of class and gender in American culture.
Rabinowitz shows that these novels, generally dismissed as marginal by scholars of the literary and political cultures of the 1930s, are in fact integral to the study of American fiction produced during the decade. Relying on recent feminist scholarship, she reformulates the history of literary radicalism to demonstrate the significance of these women writers and to provide a deeper understanding of their work for twentieth-century American cultural studies in general."