Monday, 18 November 2013

J.D. Salinger’s Closed Circuit By Mary McCarthy

From the October 1962 issue

J.D. Salinger’s Closed Circuit

A suggestion that the literary hero of the
Younger Set — the Great Phony-slayer — may, just
possibly, be a bit of a phony himself.
WHO is to inherit the mantle of Papa Hemingway? Who if not J. D. Salinger? Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye has a brother in Hollywood who thinks A Farewell to Arms is terrific. Holden does not see how his brother, who is his favorite writer, can like a phony book like that. But the very image of the hero as pitiless phony-detector comes from Hem­ingway. In Across the River and Into the Trees, the colonel gets a message on his private radar that a pock-marked writer he darkly spies across the room at Harry’s Bar in Venice has “outlived his talents” — apparently some sort of crime. “I think he has the same pits on his heart and in his soul,” confides the heroine, in her careful foreign English. That was Sinclair Lewis.
Like Hemingway, Salinger sees the world in terms of allies and enemies. He has a good deal of natural style, a cruel ear, a dislike of ideas (the enemy’s intelligence system), a toilsome simplic­ity, and a ventriloquist’s knack of disguising his voice. The artless dialect written by Holden is an artful ventriloquial trick of Salinger’s, like the deliberate, halting English of Hemingway’s waiters, fishermen, and peasants — anyone who speaks it is a good guy, a friend of the author’s, to be trusted.
The Catcher in the Rye, like Hemingway’s books, is based on a scheme of exclusiveness. The characters are divided into those who belong to the club and those who don’t — the clean marlin, on the one hand, and the scavenger sharks on the other. Those who don’t belong are “born that way” — headmasters, philanthropists, roommates, teachers of history and English, football coaches, girls who like the Lunts. They cannot help the way they are, the way they talk; they are obeying a law of species — even the pimping elevator oper­ator, the greedy prostitute, the bisexual teacher of English who makes an approach to Holden in the dark.
It is not anybody’s fault if just about every­body is excluded from the club in the long run — everybody but Ring Lardner, Thomas Hardy, Gatsby, lsak Dinesen, and Holden’s little sister Phoebe. In fact it is a pretty sad situation, and there is a real adolescent sadness and lonely des­peration in The Catcher in the Rye; the passages where Holden, drunk and wild with grief, wan­ders like an errant pinball through New York at night are very good.
But did Salinger sympathize with Holden or vice versa? That remained dubious. Stephen Dedalus in a similar situation met Mr. Bloom, but the only “good” person Holden meets is his little sister — himself in miniature or in apotheo­sis, riding a big brown horse on a carousel and reaching for the gold ring. There is something false and sentimental here. Holden is supposed to be an outsider in his school, in the middle-class world, but he is really an insider with the track all to himself.
[*] By J. D. Salinger. Boston, Little, Brown, $4.
And now, ten years after The Catcher in the Rye we have Franny and Zooey.[*] The event was commemorated by a cover story in Time; the book has been a best-seller since before publica­tion.
Again the theme is the good people against the stupid phonies, and the good is still all in the family, like a family-owned “closed” corpora­tion. The heroes are or were seven children (two are dead), the wonderful Glass kids of a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child,” half-Jewish, half Irish, the progeny of a team of vaudevillians. These prodigies, nationally known and the sub­jects of many psychological studies, are now grown up: one is a writer-in-residence in a girls’ junior college; one is a Jesuit priest; one is a housewife; one is a television actor (Zooey); and one is a student (Franny). They are all geniuses, but the greatest genius of them all was Seymour, who committed suicide on vacation in an early story of Salinger’s called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” Unlike the average genius, the Glass kids are good guys; they love each other and their parents and their cat and their goldfish, and they are expert phony-detectors. The dead sage Seymour has initiated them into Zen and other mystical cults.
During the course of the story, Franny has a little nervous breakdown, brought on by reading a small green religious book titled The Way of a Pilgrim, relating the quest for prayer of a simple Russian peasant. She is cured by her brother Zooey in two short séances between his professional television appointments; he recog­nizes the book (it was in Seymour’s library, of course) and, on his own inspiration, without help from their older brother Buddy or from the Jesuit, teaches her that Jesus, whom she has been sweating to find via the Jesus Prayer, is not some fishy guru but just the Fat Lady in the audience, the average ordinary humanity with varicose veins, the you and me the performer has to reach if the show is going to click.
the admissions policy
THIS democratic commercial is “sincere” in the style of an advertising man’s necktie. The Jesus Zooey sells his sister is the old Bruce Barton Jesus — the word made flesh, Madison Avenue’s motto. The Fat Lady is not quite every­body, despite Zooey’s fast sales patter. She is the kind of everybody the wonderful Glass kids toler­antly approve of. Jesus may be a television spon­sor or a housewife or a television playwright or your Mother and Dad, but He (he?) cannot be an intellectual like Franny’s horrible boyfriend, Lane, who has written a paper on Flaubert and talks about Flaubert’s “testicularity,” or like his friend Wally, who, as Franny says plaintively, “looks like somebody who spent the summer in Italy or someplace.”
These fakes and phonies are the outsiders who ruin everything. Zooey feels the same way. “I hate any kind of so-called creative type who gets on any kind of ship. I don’t give a goddam what his reasons are.” Zooey likes it here. He likes people, as he says, who wear horrible neckties and funny, padded suits, but he does not mind a man who dresses well and owns a two-cabin cruiser so long as he belongs to the real, native, video-viewing America. The wonderful Glass family have three radios, four portable phono­graphs, and a TV in their wonderful living-room, and their wonderful, awesome medicine cabinet in the bathroom is full of sponsored products all of which have been loved by someone in the family.
The world of insiders, it would appear, has grown infinitely larger and more accommodating as Salinger has “matured.” Where Holden Caulfield’s club excluded just about everybody but his kid sister, Zooey’s and Franny’s secret society in­cludes just about everybody but creative types and students and professors. Here exception is made, obviously, for the Glass family: Seymour, the poet and thinker, Buddy, the writer, and so on. They all have college degrees; the family bookshelves indicate a wide, democratic culture:
Dracula now stood next to Elementary Pali, The Boy Allies at the Somme stood next to Bolts of Melody, The Scarab Murder Case and The Idiot were together,Nancy Drew and the Hidden Stair­case lay on top of Fear and Trembling.
The Glass family librarian does not discrimi­nate, in keeping with the times, and books are en­couraged to “mix.” In Seymour’s old bedroom, however, which is kept as a sort of temple to his memory, quotations, hand-lettered, from a select group of authors are displayed on the door: Marcus Aurelius, Issa, Tolstoy, Ring Lardner, Kafka, St. Francis de Sales, Mu Mon Kwan, etc. This honor roll is extremely institutional.
The broadening of the admissions policy — which is the text of Zooey’s sermon — is more a propaganda aim, though, than an accomplish­ment. No doubt the author and his mouthpiece (who is smoking a panatela) would like to spread a message of charity. “Indiscrimination,” as Seymour says in another Salinger story, “. . . leads to health and a kind of very real, enviable hap­piness.” But this remark itself exhales an in­effable breath of gentle superiority. The club, for all its pep talks, remains a closed corporation, since the function of the Fat Lady, when you come down to it, is to be what? — an audience for the Glass kids, while the function of the Great Teachers is to act as their coaches and prompters. And who are these wonder kids but Salinger him­self, splitting and multiplying like the original amoeba?
bathroom worship
IN Hemingway’s work there was never any­body but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salin­ger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience — humanity; outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in, like the kids’ Irish mother, Bessie, a home version of the Fat Lady, who keeps invading the bathroom while her handsome son Zooey is in the tub or shaving.
The use of the bathroom as stage set — sixty-eight pages of “Zooey” are laid there — is all too revealing as a metaphor. The bathroom is the holy-of-holies of family life, the seat of privacy, the center of the cult of self-worship. What me­thodical attention Salinger pays to Zooey’s rou­tines of shaving and bathing and nail cleaning, as though these were rituals performed by a god on himself, priest and deity at the same time! The scene in the bathroom, with the mother seated on the toilet, smoking and talking, while her son behind the figured shower curtain reads, smokes, bathes, answers, is of a peculiar snicker­ing indecency; it is worth noting, too, that this scene matches a shorter one in a public toilet in the story “Franny,” a scene that by its strange suggestiveness misled many New Yorker readers into thinking that Franny was pregnant — that was why, they presumed, such significance was attached to her shutting herself up in a toilet in the ladies’ room, hanging her head and feeling sick.
These readers were not “in” on the fact that Franny was having a mystical experience. Sex is unimportant for Salinger; not the bed but the bathroom is the erotic center of the narcissus ego, and Zooey behind the shower curtain is taboo, even to the mother who bore him — behind the veil. The reader, however, is allowed an ex­tended look.
A great deal of attention is paid, too, to the rituals of cigarette lighting and to the rites of drinking from a glass, as though these oral acts were sacred — epiphanies. In the same way, the family writings are treated by Salinger as sacred scriptures or the droppings of holy birds, to be studied with care by the augurs: letters from Seymour, citations from his diary, a letter from Ruddy, a letter from Franny, a letter from Boo Boo, a note written by Boo Boo in soap on a bathroom mirror (the last two are from another story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”).
These imprints of the Glass collective person­ality are preserved as though they were Veronica’s veil in a relic case of well-wrought prose. And the eerie thing is, speaking of Veronica’s veil, a popu­lar subject for those paintings in which Christ’s eyes are supposed to follow the spectator with a doubtless reproachful gaze, the reader has the sensation in this latest work of Salinger that the author is sadly watching him or listening to him read. That is, the ordinary relation is reversed, and instead of the reader reading Salinger, Salinger, that Man of Sorrows, is reading the reader.
At the same time, this quasi-religious volume is full of a kind of Broadway humor. The Glass family is like a Jewish family in a radio serial. Everyone is a “character.” Mr. Glass with his tangerine is a character; Mrs. Glass in her hair­net and commodious wrapper with her cups of chicken broth is a character. The shower curtain, scarlet nylon with a design of canary-yellow sharps, clefs, and flats, is a character; the teeming medicine cabinet is a character. Every phono­graph, every chair is a character. The family re­lationship, rough, genial, insulting, is a char­acter.
In short, every single object possessed by the Glass communal ego is bent on lovably expressing the Glass personality — eccentric, homey, good-hearted. Not unlike “Abie’s Irish Rose.” And the family is its own best audience. Like Heming­way stooges, they have the disturbing faculty of laughing delightedly or smiling discreetly at each other’s jokes. Again a closed circuit: the Glass family is the Fat Lady, who is Jesus. The Glass medicine cabinet is Jesus, and Seymour is his prophet.
Yet below this self-loving barbershop harmony a chord of terror is struck from time to time, like a judgment. Seymour’s suicide suggests that Sal­inger guesses intermittently or fears intermit­tently that there may be something wrong some­where. Why did he kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her “simplicity, her terrible honesty”? Or because he was so happy and the Fat Lady’s world was so wonderful?
Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with HA by Kathleen B. Jones

Hannah Arendt’s Female Friends

November 12th, 2013RESET-+
IN THE LANDSCAPE of friendship, Hannah Arendt’s capacity stands luminous and large. From the time she was a young woman, she surrounded herself with a circle of friends with whom she exchanged gossip, ideas about politics and philosophy, opinions on culture and the state of the world, and, occasionally, romantic partners. Perhaps the model of Berlin salon society, about which she published an important essay early in her career, shaped her desire to create and sustain an intellectual community to nourish her. Yet Arendt’s circles — what later would become known as “the tribe” — differed from those 19th-century European salons in one important respect: Arendt’s were not comprised of “types,” or representatives of different social groups, but of companions with whom she shared a devotion to conversation and heated debate (and a love of champagne), and to whom she gave intense loyalty, expecting it in return.
In the tiny set of rooms on Morningside Drive, which Arendt shared with her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, and her mother, and, later, in the larger Riverside Drive apartment that hosted many a New Year’s Eve party, some of the most illustrious political and literary minds of the 20th century would meet — among them Hermann Broch, Paul Tillich, Salo and Jeanette Baron, Helen and Kurt Wolff, Hans Morgenthau, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Lotte Kohler, Elizabeth Hardwick, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, J. Glenn Gray, Dwight Macdonald, W. H. Auden, and Lionel and Diana Trilling. Many were, like Arendt, émigrés from Nazi-occupied Europe. Others, like Jarrell, Kazin, McCarthy, and Trilling, were American poets, writers, artists, and critics whose work shaped the cultural milieu of mid-20th century America: the New York Intellectuals, as they came to be known. All were drawn to, and sometimes repelled by, the argumentative, opinionated, yet unceasingly electrifying German-Jewish woman who held her court in a shabbily furnished apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
With its high ceilings, large rooms, and grand windows, apartment 12A at 370 Riverside Drive in New York reminded its visitors of those prewar buildings in Berlin. From Arendt’s desk, one could look over Riverside Park and the Hudson River to the edge of New Jersey. In the living room, where Arendt received visitors with her characteristic combination of archness and wit, womanly guile and cultivated erudition, stood a high-backed sofa covered in a dismal green vinyl, worn and patched, but serviceable. Scattered across from the sofa was an assortment of armchairs and in front of it, a coffee table, on which she would serve glasses of champagne from her well stocked supplies to closer friends on social occasions. The dining room, whose main table was covered in books, papers, and journals, served primarily as a library.
Helen Wolff described it as “a cheerful apartment but by no means furnished with aesthetics in mind. A philosopher’s home.” It was Arendt’s home against the world, providing, in the language she used in a 1974 speech given at Columbia University, a “place of one’s own shielded against the claims of the public.”
Hannah Arendt loved being in the contentious center of things, whether quoting Goethe and Hölderlin in the original German, lecturing Saul Bellow on the literature of Faulkner, listening to Randall Jarrell reading the poetry of Wordsworth, Eliot, or Whitman to her, being celebrated in stanzas written by Robert Lowell or W. H. Auden in her honor, or debating current events or philosophy with Mary McCarthy, J. Glenn Gray or Dwight Macdonald. Helen Wolff characterized her “very striking [...] and noticeable immediately even to those who met her for the first time, was a very powerful Ausstrahlung [charisma].”
In New York Jew, his memoir of literary New York in the 1940s-1960s, Alfred Kazin attempted to explain Arendt’s allure:
She confronted you with the truth; she confronted you with her friendship; she confronted Heinrich [her second husband] even when she joined him in the most passionate seminar I would ever witness between a man and a woman living together; she confronted the gap, the nothingness, the “extreme situation” of “modern man.” [...] The excitement of being with Hannah was mysterious, for it reached to foundations of thought that she accepted with a kind of awe. “I have never, since a child,” she once said to me, “doubted that God exists.”
With her, Kazin recalled in an interview more than a decade later:
Everything ... was temperament ... What people responded to ... was always the temperamental thing, which was very vivid ... She couldn’t accept criticism ... But she made a very deep impression ... It was this temperamental thing, which was astonishingly passionate ... She was very much a woman in every deep sense of the word ... These deep friendships [...] there’s no question that a lot of the men, poets and others who hanged around, were very much affected by her.
“As a woman?” he was asked. “Oh, yes, definitely.”
Unsurprisingly, this erotic magnetism disturbed some of the women in the circle, such as Ann Birstein (Alfred Kazin’s third wife) and Diana Trilling, whose presence may have been more a function of Arendt’s attachment to their husbands than to themselves. At least that was the impression Arendt gave them, either by ignoring them, or dismissing them with some curt remark.
There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life: those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Gotthold Lessing in Men in Dark Times, which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those which she called “intimate.” “We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy,” she wrote,
in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands. [...] Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship. [...] But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse. [...] This converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.
Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend.
“The tribe” was a circle of friends concerned with that common world, and much less with the intimate topics of face-to-face encounters. A very private person, Arendt shared the more intimate details of her life only with her husband and a few close friends, mostly women, in whom she confided more frequently in letters than in person.
Among her women friends, the unlikely and very long-lived friendship of Arendt and Mary McCarthy has been much documented and discussed, even more since receiving its first celluloid rendition in Hannah Arendt, the new film by Margarethe von Trotta, which opened some months ago to much critical acclaim. What sort of friendship was it?
In a recent post on “Page-Turner,” The New Yorker’s online book blog, Michelle Dean complained that the image of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy in von Trotta’s film was a “flat portraiture.” Dean argued that it represented the conversations between these two “ferocious minds” as if they had been dominated by exchanges “about men and love.” In reality, she contended, their friendship formed a “close intellectual bond,” serving as a “bulwark against their naysayers.”
All this is true; but it underplays the complexity and intimacy of Arendt’s relationship with McCarthy. In an age when, as Dean notes, “women hunger for models of intellectual self-confidence,” the pair’s friendship can be a source of inspiration, an exemplar of women talking “about ideas among themselves.” But this model also risks a portraiture that is flat, dispassionate, and disembodied, and we should perhaps pay attention to the complex role of the erotic in this and Arendt’s other female friendships as well.
Littered throughout McCarthy and Arendt’s correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. Their mutual intellectual support did not rule out criticism or alternative insight. “I’ve read your book [The Origins of Totalitarianism], absorbed, for the past two weeks, in the bathtub, riding in a car, waiting in line in the grocery store,” McCarthy exclaimed in a letter to Arendt. “It seems to me a truly extraordinary piece of work.” And then she added an objection: Arendt’s explanation of totalitarianism gave too little weight, she thought, to the role of the “fortuitous” in its development. After finishing McCarthy’s The Group, Arendt similarly wrote:
I liked The Group very, very much, it is quite different from your other books. [...] You have won a perspective, or perhaps rather: you have arrived at a point so far removed from your former life that everything now can fall into place. You yourself are no longer directly involved. And this quality makes the book more of a novel than any of your other books.
Unafraid to judge, both women practiced a form of truth-telling that, in its more strident tones, bordered on arrogance; the kind of arrogance neither begrudged the other.
Yet the undertone of dialogue in the letters exhibits a growing intimacy and fervor. After a 1968 letter from Paris catching Arendt up on the latest news among their friendship circle, as well as events in her own personal life, McCarthy wrote: “I must stop. I miss you very much. More than ever recently.” And Arendt replied: “Each time I receive a letter from you I realize how much I miss you. Times are lousy and we should be closer to each other. I guess I have been depressed all winter.” Not only the “daily news” which was “like being hit over the head,” but also Blücher’s continuing health scares troubled Arendt all the time. And though she didn’t speak of it much, she let McCarthy know.
The most private self-revelations, though, came from McCarthy. Arendt found her too open, in fact, and she disapproved. McCarthy told an interviewer in 1988, “She thought that was all very American and that one should hide things. Actually I don’t think she hid much herself, but that was her principle.” McCarthy held back very little. Flagrantly effusive in public and private about all her excesses, she frequently used her letters to Arendt to unload the emotional consequences of her many romantic liaisons and marriages, or to seek advice, sometimes even engaging Arendt in her intrigues.
Sometime in the fall of 1956, McCarthy began an affair with an Englishman named John Davenport. She was supposed to meet Arendt in Amsterdam in October, but wrote to tell her plans had changed; she was staying in London with her new lover. Then she enclosed several postcards written to her husband at the time, Bowden Broadwater, to create the illusion that she and Arendt were traveling together, and asked her to mail then to Bowden. Arendt complied.
The affair with Davenport continued into the following spring, until McCarthy learned from another friend about the darker, more treacherous sides of her lover’s personality — Davenport was a pathological liar and a drunk, who fabricated his own ancestry to gain entry to British society. This sad story became the narrative thread of a long letter to Arendt. “The truth is,” McCarthy wrote, “I still care about him, just as much as ever, though perhaps this feeling would not last if I saw him in actuality. [...] Oh, Hannah, isn’t it awful? I still would do anything for him [...] but what can I do?” Two weeks later came Arendt’s reply:
He did not want to be saved by you either. And this is the reason why I think you were right not to see him. [...] [Y]ou had to be frightened away; and he must have known that it would take rather drastic measures to achieve this. Certainly, there is a great deal of cruelty in all this; but then you can’t expect someone who loves you to treat you less cruelly than he would treat himself. The equality of love is always pretty awful. Compassion (not pity) can be a great thing, but love knows nothing of it.
One of Arendt’s other close friends, Lotte Kohler, who was also her literary executor for a time, claimed that Arendt couldn’t understand McCarthy’s promiscuity. There’s no question, as McCarthy herself knew, that she and Arendt didn’t see eye to eye about McCarthy’s trumpeting of sexual experiences, as she did rather audaciously in her fiction. But if Arendt couldn’t understand it, she didn’t condemn it, any more than she did her other friends’ extramarital affairs. Instead, she suggested McCarthy simply couldn’t have it both ways — if she wanted to lead a promiscuous life, she ought to accept the choices she’d made and take responsibility for them. Self-pity wasn’t a trait Arendt tolerated.
In 1960, trying to obtain a divorce from Broadwater in order to marry her next, and last, husband, Jim West, McCarthy once again turned to Arendt, complaining about Broadwater’s lingering resistance and asking Arendt to intercede on her behalf. Again, Arendt complied, agreeing to intercede in her own way. But not without chastising McCarthy for her impatience:
You say you cannot trust him. Perhaps you are right, perhaps you are wrong, I have no idea. But it strikes me that you can forget so easily that you trusted him enough to be married to him for fifteen years. [...] You write that it is just “too ridiculous” for the two of you (Jim West and you) to be the “passive fools of other people.” If you want to look at the matter in these terms at all, then it seems to me rather obvious that you both are the victims of your own, self-chosen past. This may be inconvenient but it is not ridiculous, unless you wish to say that your whole past was not only a mistake, but a ridiculous one.
And then, after lecturing her, Arendt closed her letter with this: “Mary, my Dear, I miss you! Much love and the best of luck. Yours, H.”
I confess to having been as much beguiled by the centrality of Arendt’s friendship with McCarthy as anyone. Still, as open and loving as Arendt was with McCarthy, I couldn’t help thinking the intimacy between them was bounded by a margin of revelation which Arendt would not cross. Arendt’s brutally honest mentoring of McCarthy in matters of the heart seemed to be a barrier behind which she kept her most self-revelatory feelings and fears to herself. Even though she talked with McCarthy about her concerns for Blücher’s health and her feelings about her former lover, the notorious Martin Heidegger, Arendt didn’t speak in the voice or with the vulnerability any woman, no matter how intellectual, might use to express her most intimate fears or joys with her “closest woman friend.”
That is, until I researched Elżbieta Ettinger’s archives and drafts of her never-completed Arendt biography, when another woman, an early acquaintance from Arendt’s days in Germany, came into sharper focus: Hilda Fränkel. And so did more angles of Hannah Arendt....

Stories of Arendt’s female friendships such as these reveal a side of her not usually captured in more traditional portraits. Yes, her intelligence was intimidating; yes, she was judgmental, arrogant, and not easily moved from an opinion once formed — whether on ideas or people. But she was also a person of deep feeling, with an appreciation for the vagaries of the human heart. Those she allowed to come closest saw and came to depend upon that.
This essay is an excerpt adapted from Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Re- posted and pictorially updated : The Company We Keep: Mary McCarthy and the Mythic Essence of Vassar By Meghan Daum 92

The Company We Keep: Mary McCarthy and the Mythic Essence of Vassar

By Meghan Daum  92             


"The essence of Vassar is mythic. Today, despite much competition, it still figures in the public mind as the archetypal women's college … For different people, in fact, at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism." – "The Vassar Girl," Holiday, 1951


The older I get and the more years that unspool between my present-day self and the girl who collected her Vassar diploma one muggy May day nearly two decades ago, the more I understand that there are two kinds of love for Vassar. There is the love you feel when you are matriculated, when you are going about the quotidian business of student life, and then there is the mythic love, the love you feel for the idea of the place. The second is not dependent upon the first. In fact the first is a childish love. The first has to do with booze and sex and Frisbee, with friends and quasi-friends and friends with benefits and friends you'll have forever and friends whose names will be lost to you by your 25th birthday. The first has to do with what books and music and art and sports you're into and where you sit in the dining hall and whether or not you have chosen to spend the four years plumbing the depths of your psyche or (if you are wise) simply allowed your psyche to exist on its own terms, however messy and confusing and "clichéd" it might feel to you in certain moments. (A hypervigilance against clichés seems to be a particularly Vassarian trait.)
The second kind of love for Vassar tells us how the past perfect tense got its name. The second kind of love is the nostalgic, revisionist kind. It's the love of having been there. It is the warm little surge we feel when we spot the word "Vassar" spelled out across a car's rear window. It is that perverse yet abiding fondness we retain for rose and gray as a color combination. It is that strange phenomenon wherein, five or ten or fifteen years after we've passed through Taylor Gate for the last time, we can run into a classmate we barely knew or perhaps even actively disliked and feel a genuine gladness about seeing her. If the at-Vassar experience can be claustrophobic and emotionally fraught and too often burdened with what can only be described as a tyranny of cool (of being cool, of having cool associates, of knowing about cool things) the post-Vassar experience is expansive, buoyant, and as relevant or irrelevant to our lives as we want it to be. I have a distinct memory of being told by a senior Student Fellow during a freshman week orientation that one of the greatest advantages of a Vassar education is that you spend a lifetime bumping into fellow alums in the most exotic locations. "For instance," the soft-spoken, bespectacled young man explained, "I ran into someone in the basement of the Paris airport! It was remarkable!"
Notwithstanding that the same could be said for lots of private, relatively pedigreed institutions and notwithstanding the fact that even more remarkable would be running into a classmate in the basement of the Bismark, North Dakota airport, he had a point. In fact he had something close to the point. That is to say that we go to Vassar not only to study Shakespeare and Vermeer and calculus and French but also to build the connective tissue between our private ideas and our public actions (between "the self and society," as they say in sociology courses.)We go there not just to learn how to think but to learn how to live.
Mary McCarthy majored in English, not sociology, but I suspect she would have believed that to attend Vassar is to study sociology above all else. As a member of the class of 1933, McCarthy's Vassar was a place that made no bones about its commitment to providing women not only an elite education but also preparing them for membership in elite, eastern seaboard society. For McCarthy, who had come from Seattle by way of Minneapolis, this was alien territory. Though she'd had a private school education in Seattle, first at a Catholic convent and later at a prestigious boarding school (with a year of public high school thrown in for good measure) Vassar was an unequivocal step up the ladder for her, and one she believed she had coming to her. "I was determined to not let the U happen to me," she wrote in How I Grew (the "U" being the University of Washington; also unappealing was Stanford, which had a quota for one-eighth women but was said to "type a girl as a grind and homely.") Having sent for admissions catalogs from Vassar, Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr, McCarthy ultimately chose Vassar because, as she would later claim, she liked the direct, plainspoken language of the course descriptions.
McCarthy would later claim a great many things about Vassar—that she was encouraged by her teachers, that she was discouraged by her teachers, that she was happy, that she was miserable, that it was a shallow place, an intellectual place, a bucolic place and, especially in her first couple of years, a "too pastoral" place whose "short, fat trees" didn't measure up to the tall, angular topography of the pacific northwest. Throughout her professional career, Vassar was for McCarthy both a muse and a foil. Its precepts were her default setting, its emphasis on critical thinking, particularly as put forth by her cherished English professors Miss Anna Kitchel and Miss Helen Sandison, was often her go-to rationale for being so damn critical of everything in her midst. If McCarthy's big subject as a writer was the intersection of literature, politics and the human psychological experience, Vassar was one of the main channels through which she ran her ideas.

Helen Sandison
She referenced the college frequently—in fiction, in memoir, in lectures, in interviews. Her 1951 essay for Holiday, "The Vassar Girl," which talked about the ways women's roles had changed since she'd been a student, showed up in an essay collection ten years later, and, more importantly, was a wellspring for many of the characters and concerns in her breakout 1963 novel The Group. Like Cezanne with his apples or Degas with his dancers, McCarthy returned to Vassar in her work again and again, pointing out its failures (every graduating class that followed her own seemed more "self-centered" and "unconcerned with social causes" than the last) even while granting it a rather unimpeachable hero status. "Vassar remade a girl," she wrote in How I Grew. "Vassar was transformational." As is the case for so many of us, Vassar was for McCarthy the laboratory in which random little notions were allowed to germinate into lifelong convictions. It was also the place where her late-adolescent existential angst eventually faded into romantic sweet selective memory. This is to say she forgot how disconnected she often felt from the place but nonetheless left us to imagine her as a girl for whom every minute of the college experience afforded equal measures of intellectual reverie and convivial good times. In other words, she left us to imagine a girl none of us could possibly measure up to.
Like McCarthy, I've tended to wear my ambivalence about Vassar on my sleeve. I've written about how I was sometimes quite unhappy, how I didn't work hard enough, how I was often too irritated by the affectations of certain classmates to recognize the genuineness of others. In spite of all this, Vassar has been a subject about which I cannot seem to stop writing. It's a sort of permanent ringing in my ears, a leitmotif that has a way of creeping on to my pages every time I look away (does the subject of particle theory relate to the subject sexual politics at Vassar? I'm afraid I once spent many paragraphs attempting to show that it does.) What I am saying, in other words, is that I am not speaking to you as an expert on McCarthy or as an official representative of Vassar or even as a teller of my own, not-all-that-interesting story. I am speaking to you as a fellow traveler on the road to nostalgia. I am speaking about the way the second kind of love for Vassar, the looking back kind, can occupy an entirely different ecosystem than the first. Put another way: you don't have to have liked going to Vassar in order to like having gone there.


"There is too much talk, too many labels for things, too much pseudo-cleverness. I suppose I'll get that way, too, though I'm doing my best to avoid it." – letter to Ethel "Ted" Rosenberg, childhood friend, November 1, 1929 (McCarthy's freshman year)
I'm sorry to say I did nothing to avoid the pseudo-cleverness. I actually aspired to it. Labels were of less interest, since I was at Vassar from 1988 to 1992, the burgeoning years of grunge, and the only acceptable labels were Doc Marten, Levis, and Camel Lights. Cleverness, however—pseudo and otherwise—was job one. My interests were, in descending order: 1) adopting the traits and affectations of classmates that hailed from New York City; 2) smoking cigarettes and staring at the wall; 3) the films of Wim Wenders; and 4) letting people know that I was interested in the films of Wim Wenders. That sums it up for my freshman year. The subsequent years were spent in some combination of 1) changing dorms in an effort to become less miserable 2) engaging in quasi-intellectual brinksmanship (often about Wenders; occasionally about Fellini) while drinking Hazelnut blend coffee in the café on the second floor of the College Center 3) taking the train to New York City 4) missing (not accidentally) the last train back to Poughkeepsie from New York City.
I also did some legitimate stuff (I frequently have to remind myself of this.) I went to classes and to the library and to language labs. I had some healthy, meaningful relationships (platonic and otherwise) and some toxic, self-destructive ones. I wrote and co-directed a play for Philaletheis, I played oboe in the orchestra. I "guarded" the art (translation: fell asleep while reading The Bostonians) in the Taylor Art Gallery for my work-study job. I ingested psychedelic mushrooms on Founder's Day and rode the ferris wheel while the Red Hot Chile Peppers played on the outdoor stage. I wrote a review of Drugstore Cowboy for The Miscellany News. I went to the film league-sponsored movies in Blodgett nearly every night (presented on 16-milimeter reels by student projectionists who endured constant equipment failure and indignant shouts of "focus!" from the audience.) After these films I almost always went back to my room and listened to cassette tapes of broody female singer-songwriters and asked myself if the people around me were really having a great time in college or simply playing the part of college students having a great time.
I am admitting all this because I think it's important to come clean about a major feature of the Vassar experience: as good as it is at making you feel special, it's sometimes even better at making you feel miserable or even insane. Such are the hazards of attracting, as the college guides put it, "arty, off-beat students." A friend from Davison used to toy with the idea of writing a gothic novel set in an institution that purported to be a college but was actually a psychiatric facility. "Kids think their parents encouraged them to apply because it's supposedly an interesting and off-beat place," she'd explain. "But what they don't realize is that they've been mentally ill all their lives and are finally being warehoused among their own kind."
As a high school senior, my most trusted college guide had been Lisa Birnbach's College Book. Birnbach was the author ofThe Preppy Handbook, a satirical treatise on the social hierarchy of east coast WASP culture that had been published when I was in the sixth grade and that I read continually through high school without really understanding that it was a satire. If I recall correctly, Birnbach ranked Vassar as having the "most glamorous" students in the country. I also seem to remember something about there being such a shortage of men on campus that women happily paid for their drinks when they went out.
Mary McCarthy's Vassar was not a place where women bought men drinks. Founder's Day in 1930, the second semester of McCarthy's freshman year, involved not psychedelic drugs but a faculty performance of Julius Caesar. Yale men came to campus for mixers and students were often engaged or even married before graduation (needless to say, the concept of early marriage has been anathema to the Vassar sensibility for approximately the last four decades.) Pull up old film footage from those days and you will see delightfully grainy, herky-jerky images of young ladies in modest, flowing dresses and men in baggy knee pants and schoolboy sweaters. They look like silent film stars. Moreover, they look like adults. It's astonishing to think that these croquet-playing, Bugatti-driving sophisticates are the same age as the beer-chugging, Jams shorts-wearing youths of my era.

It should be said, though, that McCarthy's social life was not the stuff of chaste prom dates and pillow flights in flannel nightgowns in Main's South Tower. For starters, she was prickly and capricious in her friendships. "She could be absolutely brutal," a classmate recalled in Frances Kiernan's biography, Seeing Mary Plain. "She would decide she didn't like you one day, and then sneer at you." By the time McCarthy was an upperclassman, her frequent trips to New York allowed her to pass for the kind of cosmopolitan smarty-pants that would have terrified her a few years earlier. One oft repeated story has McCarthy letting her friends in on secret knowledge that there were "sexual perverts" in the world that "liked to have relations with corpses." Pondering the veracity of this, the friends had to resign themselves to assumption that "if Mary said it then it must be true."
And then there was her boy trouble. Beginning in her sophomore year, McCarthy was involved with a New York City actor named Harald Johnsrud (whose general persona and first name, complete with original Norwegian spelling, she later borrowed for The Group.) In true college girl fashion she spent many hours obsessing about whether he liked her and how much. The summer before her senior year she even moved with him into a one-room apartment, with disastrous results. "I had not thought that anyone could suffer so much," she wrote in How I Grew. "I cried everyday, usually more than once […] And almost the worst was my total mystification. What made him so hateful I never found out, and this left me with a sense of being hopelessly stupid."
Reader, she married him. McCarthy and Johnsrud wed shortly after her graduation in 1933. They divorced in 1936, but not before McCarthy had an affair with a man she met at a dance at Webster Hall, a popular Manhattan hangout for lefty activists. On the train to Nevada, where she traveled to secure a divorce, McCarthy shared drinks with a strange man and somehow woke up the next morning naked in his sleeping berth (later the basis for the short story "The Man in the Brook Brothers Shirt"). In the end, she was married four times, most famously to the critic Edmund Wilson, with whom she had a son. Along the way she had countless affairs. The year following her divorce from Johnsrud, her dance card was especially busy. "It was getting rather alarming," she recalled later in Intellectual Memoirs. "I realized one day that in 24 hours I had slept with three different men. And one morning I was in bed with somebody while over his head I talked on the telephone with somebody else. Though slightly scared about what things were coming to I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at."
If McCarthy were to seek psychological counseling today (not that she would, since she considered psychiatry nothing more than a collection of arbitrary narratives) her promiscuity would almost undoubtedly be seen as a casualty of fatherlessness. She'd been orphaned at age six when her parents died, one after the other on consecutive days, in the influenza epidemic of 1918. From there she'd been sent to live with relatives and suffered terrible abuse, including frequent beatings with a razor strop. Though she'd fared better after being placed with her grandparents in Seattle in 1923, her childhood was animated by an element of gothic horror that she sometimes joked about and probably never really got over. Though her sex life at Vassar, at least as far as we know, was comparatively tame (pining over one man for three years can have that effect) you have to wonder if she also returned to her room most nights and asked herself if she was having fun yet. Actually you don't really have to wonder.


"I've been working on a novel for years, it's about eight Vassar girls, called The Group. It's about the idea of progress. There are these eight girls that go through the book and who are subjected to all the progressive ideas of their period, in architecture, design, child-bearing, home-making, contraception and so on. It's kind of a technological novel about the woman's sphere . . . The novel's told from the point of view of these eight individual girls—though of course their mothers are all there too, large figures from the past, and the girls are sitting on their ample laps like little dolls on the lap of a great big Madonna . . . Well, I'm afraid the mothers are better than the daughters. The mothers sort of belong to the full suffragette period with its great amplitude—you know, women smoking cigarettes in holders and dancing the cha-cha—and the girls are rather tinny in comparison with the mothers, I'm afraid. This wasn't my intention to start with but that's what does seem to have emerged." – Interview in Vogue, 1963
McCarthy griped more than once about how boring and conventional her Vassar classmates tended to become as they grew older. She also often seemed convinced that no cohort was as intellectually curious, politically aware or socially conscious as the one represented by her class of 1933. Documentary footage of a campus visit in 1974 shows a winsome, rather mischievous-eyed McCarthy talking and smoking cigarettes with students (male and female, all of them long-haired, bell-bottomed and frightfully articulate) in the Rose Parlor about the mood on the campus post-Watergate. In a voice-over, she concluds that they feel "far less sense of a commitment to carry a [political] message" than her own peers had in the Roosevelt era. In her day, she says, "you had a sense, more here than in most colleges, that you would come out of here with something to contribute." The progressive spirit of the early days of the New Deal, she said, had the effect of making "everyone [in America] become a Vassar girl." Not that such exuberance was built to last. By 1949 the average member of her graduating class had "two-plus children and was married to a Republican," she wrote in "The Vassar Girl." Thanks to coddling parents and generous bank accounts, the demographic profile of the Vassar girl "is already decreed. And the result is that the Vassar alumna, uniquely among American college women, is two persons—the housewife or matron, and the yearner and regretter."

That might be overstating things ("uniquely among American college women?") and it most definitely overlooked the fact that a good many of those women were Republicans to begin with rather than fashionable socialists like McCarthy and her circle. It's also, let's face it, kind of bratty. But what could be more appropriate? Scoffing at the conformity of others is a time-honored tradition among Vassar alums. Who among us hasn't read the class notes and, amid the inevitable pangs of envy, secretly congratulated ourselves for taking what we perceive to be a more adventurous path? Who among us hasn't cited the college's relentless emphasis on independence as the source of our own fears of commitment? Who hasn't said, "of course I can't settle down yet; I went to Vassar?"
During my time at Vassar it was not uncommon for women to envision futures for themselves that involved having children on their own. Perhaps this stemmed from the gender imbalance of the student body and the attendant scarcity complex when it came to eligible men. Serious relationships were generally frowned upon (to attempt one was a little bit silly; to want one was almost shameful) and as a result the prospect of someday finding someone to marry, even in the outside, non-Vassar world, had something of an air of implausibility. Or perhaps it was just because The Heidi Chronicles, which ends with the loveless but "empowered" heroine adopting a baby on her own, was a hit on Broadway. In any case, when we sat around in our flannel nightgowns plotting our futures, men didn't necessarily factor very heavily into the equation. We were going to have major careers. We were going to do serious travelling. We were going to get PhDs in public health and help spread Norplant throughout the developing world. And someday, when we'd checked off enough boxes, we'd order up a baby and carry it around in a colorful, exotic sling as we strolled through the farmers market on lazy Sunday mornings in search of the perfect organic kumquat. This was what we fantasized about rather than Yale men in knee pants. And as best as I can see, this is what most of us fell short of, either by dropping out of grad school or marrying Republicans or not caring sufficiently about kumquats. We're all yearners and regretters in our own ways. And McCarthy too, for all her exceptionalness, was surely no exception.
I remember writing for Paul Russell's Narrative Composition class a short story about a woman who had a child with a gay man. I considered this concept to be very zeitgeisty and provocative. In describing the man's apartment I'd mentioned that he had a ficus plant in his living room. Russell dinged me for unoriginality, saying, "whenever a gay man comes out the closet he's rewarded with a ficus plant." To this day, I've never encountered a ficus plant without thinking about that.
That's a story about Vassar that I love, not least of all because it doesn't involve my staring at the wall for hours. But like I said, the more time I put between the rather ridiculous person I was back then and the only slightly less ridiculous person I am now, the softer my gaze on the whole experience becomes. The more I find my way into the second kind of love for Vassar, the past perfect kind that McCarthy mined into a literary genre unto itself, the more peace I make with the fact that the first kind of love mostly eluded me.

"You never liked me at college," says the character Norine in The Group. "None of your crowd did." How many of us have said the same thing, to ourselves if to no one else? How many of us have felt betrayed by that mythic essence? How many of us have lain awake at night in fear that our professors were on to our fraudulence, that our friends secretly hated us, that the admissions office let us in by mistake? How many of us regularly revisit Vassar in our dreams, wherein we retrace our steps through the quad as if searching for a lost item, wherein we have the nagging feeling that we've forgotten to do something, though we don't know what it is?
All of us, I suspect. Mythic qualities tend to have that effect. Vassar captures the imagination even as it breaks the heart. And isn't that what keeps us coming back for more?

Friday, 1 November 2013


Timeline 1968

JAN 5 The US Justice Department indicts Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rev. William Coffin of Yale
and three others for conspiring to violate draft law
5 Alexander Dubcek is elected leader of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia
6 The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour album goes to number 1
8 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson endorses the ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign for working an
additional half hour each day without pay
17 US president Lyndon B. Johnson calls for the non-conversion of the dollar
19 At a White House conference on crime, singer and actress Eartha Kitt denounces the Vietnam War
directly to President Lyndon Johnson
21 An American B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashes at North Star Bay, Greenland,
killing one crew member and scattering radioactive material
23 North Korea seizes the USS Pueblo, claiming the ship violated its territorial waters while spying
30 Tet offensive begins as North Vietnamese and NLF forces launch a series of surprise attacks across
South Vietnam. They attack more than 100 cities and assault the US embassy in Saigon

FEB 1 Saigon’s police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes an NLF fighter with a pistol shot
to the head in a scene captured on camera
8 At South Carolina State, three black students are killed in a confrontation with
highway patrolmen in Orangeburg, during a civil rights protest against a whites-only bowling alley
13 The US sends 10,500 more combat troops to Vietnam
18 Some 10,000 people in West Berlin demonstrate against US in Vietnam War
26 Thirty-two African nations agree to boycott the Mexico Olympics because of the presence of S Africa

MARCH 4 Martin Luther King announces plans for Poor People’s Campaign
8 First student protests in Poland’s political crisis
15 The US mint halts the practice of buying and selling gold
16 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. American troops kill hundreds of civilians
17 Over 100,0000 demonstrate in London’s Grosvenor Square against the Vietnam War. More than 90
injured and 200 demonstrators arrested
18 The Congress of the United States repeals the requirement for a gold reserve to back US currency
22 Daniel Cohn-Bendit and 7 other students occupy administrative offices of the University of Nanterre
27 Soviet space pioneer Yuri Gagarin is killed in a training flight crash
28 A riot erupts in Memphis during a protest in support of striking cleaners led by Martin Luther King
31 US President Lyndon B. Johnson announces he will not seek re-election

APRIL 4 Martin Luther King. is shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in
major American cities for several days afterward
11 Joseph Bachmann tries to assassinate Rudi Dutschke, leader of a left-wing student
movement in Germany. Students attack Springer Press HQ in Berlin
19 Secretary of the National Assembly in Czechoslovakia promises rehabilitation of political prisoners
and freedom of the press, assembly and religion
23 Student protesters at Columbia University take over buildings and shut down the university

MAY 3 First battle between students and police at Sorbonne, University of Paris
7 March of 50,000 students to the Arc de Triomphe
10 Night of the Barricades in Paris. Hundreds injured and arrested
13 Demonstration of one million workers and students in Paris
14 Occupation of factories begins at Sud-Aviation, Nantes
27 Second week of strike action, with 10 million workers involved
29 De Gaulle “disappears” as 500,000 demonstrate in Paris

JUNE 3 First returns to work take place
3 Radical feminist Valerie Solanas shoots and wounds Andy Warhol as he enters his studio
5 US presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los
Angeles, California by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy dies from his injuries the next day
13 Several left-wing organisations banned in France
17 The UK imposes sanctions against Rhodesia
19 50,000 in Washington to support the Poor People’s Campaign
23 Elections in France lead to major successes for Gaullists
27 Czechoslovak parliament abolishes censorship and provides for rehabilitation of political prisoners

JULY 17 The Arab Baath Party  stages a bloodless coup in Iraq and gains control as the
Revolution Command Council

AUGUST 11 USSR announces new military manoeuvres along the Czechoslovak border
13 An assassination attempt is made against Col. Papadopoulos, the right-wing military
leader in Greece
20 Prague Spring ends as 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 5,000 tanks invade Czechoslovakia
25 Seven dissidents protest in Red Square against the invasion
28 Beatles release Revolution

SEPTEMBER 27 France vetoes the UK entry into the Common Market

OCTOBER 2 A student demonstration ends in a bloodbath in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. Soldiers
kill 300 students prior to the start of the summer Olympics
5 A civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland, which included several Stormont and
British MPs, is attacked by the Royal Ulster Constabulary
16 In Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-Americans athletes, raise their arms in a
black power salute after winning medals

NUVEMBER 3 300,000 march against Greek fascist junta as ex-premier Papandreou is buried
5 Richard M. Nixon defeats Hubert Humphrey to become US president

DECEMBER 22 Mao Zedong advocates educated youth in urban China to be re-educated in the
24 US spacecraft Apollo 8 enters orbit around the Moon
a year that shook the world