Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Morris Dickstein on MM : ".. the fastest gun in the intellectual world, daringly sexual yet crisply intelligent"

Death of a Cultural Byword

Scholar Morris Dickstein summed up Mary McCarthy's literary and cultural impact in an essay entitled "A Glint of Malice": "For at least a quarter of a century, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Mary McCarthy was more than an author, even more than a cultural figure. To the sophisticated, college-educated young of that time she was a byword, even a role model: the bad girl who got away with it, the wicked satirist who held everyone up to ridicule, the Vassar girl who instructed us in worldliness and sexual sophistication, the brilliant critic and essayist whose work exploded the stereotypes of feminine sensibility -- in short, the fastest gun in the intellectual world, daringly sexual yet crisply intelligent" (Twenty-Four Ways... p. 17).

Mary McCarthy at 90

Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself
astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp
style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York. Her
birthday was marked by a symposium at CUNY's Center for the Humanities
and, soon afterward, the publication of an excellent new selection of her
essays, A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays (New York Review
Books, $24.95), edited, with a penetrating introduction, by A.O. Scott.
McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912, lost both her parents to the flu
epidemic six years later and, after graduating from Vassar in 1933,
began publishing witty, acid, even wrongheaded reviews in The Nationand The New Republic. (In one review, for example, she missed
the strength of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, easily one of his
best books, out of sheer dislike for proletarian realism.) In 1937 she
helped revive Partisan Review as an anti-Stalinist journal and
became its theater critic, but soon, with the publication of The
Company She Keeps
 in 1942, she found herself more celebrated for her
fiction than for her critical writing, a balance that would shift by the
late 1960s. She reigned for decades as one of America's most brilliant
intellectuals, until she died of cancer in 1989.
I didn't really know Mary McCarthy, though I visited her on two
memorable occasions when I was teaching in Paris in 1981. But from the
early 1960s I knew her work intimately, and I was enthralled by its rare
combination of abrasive intelligence and sexual bravado. I thought of
her as not one but many writers--the endlessly self-questioning
independent woman of her best book, The Company She Keeps; the
keenly observant satirist of The OasisThe Groves of
 and The Group, with a highly developed sense of the
ridiculous; the autobiographer who re-created her abused and orphaned
childhood in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood; the richly
cultivated traveler of her books on Florence and Venice; and the prose
stylist of dazzling clarity in many literary and personal essays,
written with a scalpel as much as a pen.
Thanks in part to the weakness of her last novels, the consensus seems
to have hardened that in her fiction McCarthy somehow failed to impose
herself, and that she will be remembered primarily as an essayist.
Despite her formidable gifts as a polemical and discursive writer, this
makes very little sense. First, for all her reputation as an
intellectual who sacrificed feeling to intelligence, what powers
McCarthy's best essays, by and large, are her fictional rather than
strictly intellectual gifts. Again and again she makes her points by
telling stories, or by way of vivid description, arresting images,
subtle characterization. Unlike many of her Partisan Review
contemporaries, there are no special ideas we associate with her name.
As a thinker she was the perpetually bright-eyed student, enormously
impressive without really leaving a mark. "A Bolt From the Blue," her
ingenious dissection of Nabokov's Pale Fire, may be the best term
paper ever written, a marvel of ingenuity but not much more.
Realistically, she made only modest claims for her theater criticism,
and was quite amusing about how she fell into it. (Her first husband was
an actor and playwright, she tells us, and the "boys" at PR
didn't take theater very seriously.)
No critic of her period who hated Odets and the Group Theatre, who wrote
about A Streetcar Named Desire without mentioning Marlon Brando,
who wrote about the operatic version of Street Scene without
mentioning the composer, Kurt Weill, who dismissed The Iceman Comethsimply as bad writing is likely to go down in history for any
special feeling for the theater. Instead her essays give ample evidence
of highbrow condescension toward the theater. Other essays, like
"America the Beautiful," are saved by wonderful writing, though they are
hemmed in by the intellectual prejudices of the moment, laced with a
touch of snobbery all her own. In that essay she is astonished that the
visiting existentialist Simone de Beauvoir would ever want to eat at a
"real" American restaurant, or take in a play, or see an American movie,
or have a peek at Congress in session, with its "illiterate hacks whose
fancy vests are spotted with gravy, and whose speeches, hypocritical,
unctuous, and slovenly, are spotted also with the gravy of political
patronage." This sin of attitudinizing is compounded when she takes
precisely the opposite tack a few years later in reviewing de Beauvoir's
book, which had degenerated into an obtuse anti-American tract. She
accuses her French counterpart not only of being careless of facts,
unobservant--a cardinal sin, in McCarthy's book--but of a reflexive
condescension not so different from McCarthy's earlier viewpoint. In the
interim, many of New York's alienated intellectuals had come home.
McCarthy's essays are strongest where they overlap with her fiction and
memoirs. Her obituary pieces on Philip Rahv, Fred Dupee and Nicola
Chiaromonte are striking character sketches that emerge from a well of
deep feeling. One of her finest essays, "Artists in Uniform," about her
awkward encounter with an anti-Semitic Army colonel, is virtually
indistinguishable from a short story; in fact, Harper's first
published it as a story, as if to remove the bite of actuality from it.
Later she wrote another piece for Harper's ("Settling the
Colonel's Hash") reflecting on the differences between an essay and a
story; in her case, she recognized, the line was hard to draw. (Neither
of those essays is included in A Bolt From the Blue but can be
found in her superb 1961 collection On the Contrary, which gives
us McCarthy at the height of her powers as an essayist.)
For all her exacting sense of fact, one of McCarthy's ultimate
contributions was to blur the distinctions between different kinds of
prose writing, to show how fiction could be opened up to the thinking
mind and how essays could profit from the techniques of fiction. Her
first novel was a loose collection of linked stories. Because she was
imbued with the Catholic practice of self-scrutiny, her fiction could
grow as analytic and introspective as her essays. As A.O. Scott writes
of the heroine of that first book, Meg Sargent, she "marries and
divorces, goes to dinner parties, editorial meetings, and her analyst's
office, has affairs with pedigreed intellectuals and traveling salesmen,
but mainly what she does...is think, argue, criticize." Only the novelist in McCarthy could give her critical mind its rich texture and immediacy.
Several chapters of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood had already
appeared in a collection of stories, Cast a Cold Eye. Once
integrated into the memoir, they were followed by second thoughts and
factual corrections. Another of her best essays, "My Confession," is
really a reflective memoir that describes both her haphazard political
education and the progressive culture of the 1930s, built around the
peculiar mores of the Communist Party. How shall we take these pieces?
As she says of "Artists in Uniform," "I myself would not know quite what
to call it; it was a piece of reporting or a fragment of autobiography."
In her own way, she was a pioneer of the hybrid New Journalism of the
following decade. Along with another fiction writer, James Baldwin, she
created the serious personal essay of the postwar years.
A page later she adds a trenchant observation that offers a clue as to
why we should not slight her fiction in celebrating her essays. One of
the qualities that "Artists in Uniform" and "My Confession" share with
her early fiction is a sense of the woman herself not as prepossessing,
in control, but as tentative, ambivalent, even at moments cowardly and
ashamed. She looks back on her own confusions with unfeigned regret. A
schoolteacher had written to congratulate her on her so-called story in
Harper's: "We thought it amazing that an author could succeed in
making readers dislike the author--for a purpose, of course!" This
benighted response must have heightened McCarthy's awareness of what she
had actually done. "I wanted to embarrass myself," she says, "and, if
possible, the reader too." In the original essay this proved to be a
good strategy for exposing genteel anti-Semitism, along with the
awkwardness or complicity of engaging with it; but it was also much
more, perhaps a key to McCarthy's work at its best. Her writing was
strongest when she was as hard on herself as she could be on others.

We can readily recognize this embarrassment from the predicament of Meg
Sargent in "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," when she finds
herself in an unthinkable sexual encounter on a train, or in "Ghostly
Father, I Confess," where she is caught in an impossible marriage to a
man very much like Edmund Wilson. Her social embarrassment is always
linked to the state of her soul. McCarthy's rueful feelings about her
own behavior run through "The Weeds," a story based on her attempts to
leave Wilson, and through some of the Dickensian early chapters of
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The common denominator in all
these texts, whether comic or horrific, whether they focus on the safety
pin in the underwear or the protracted nervous breakdown, is the
protagonist's sense of vulnerability--the woman with her guard down.
This is something McCarthy habitually leaves out of her satiric or
critical writing, where a more self-assured, more destructive, though
also more witty side of her personality comes into play. Unfortunately,
this tart-tongued double is the only McCarthy some readers remember,
though it's not necessarily the woman her friends recall or the writing
they most value. One of her biographers, Carol Brightman, may exaggerate
when she refers to her "nearly inexhaustible appetite for remorse and
self-castigation," but this undoubtedly brings us closer to the welter
of emotions behind the icy sheen of her brisk intelligence, her famously
"cold eye."