Tuesday, 29 April 2014

In Conversation: Robert Silvers NYRB: MM's supporting role clearly evident!

In Conversation: Robert Silvers

As the New York Review of Books turns 50, its founding editor speaks with Review contributor Mark Danner about the poetry of Twitter, hiding the Pentagon Papers, and how his journal of ideas emerged from the flood of “little magazines” as possibly the unlikeliest success story in publishing.

I should begin simply by wishing you a happy birthday. 
Fifty years—50 years of the New York Review.

From John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis and King’s “I have a dream” to tweets and drones and Barack Obama. 
You could say the inspiration for theReview went back even further, to 1959 and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “The Decline of Book Reviewing” inHarper’s. That essay is crucial.

It was an attack you published on what she took to be the lazy criticism found elsewhere—particularly in the New York Times.
She wrote, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity—the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself—have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal.”

Lizzie made it clear something different was needed—something new! About that, she wrote, “Nothing matters more than the kind of thing the editor would like, if he could have his wish. Editorial wishes always partly become true.”

The newspaper strike came about three years later—114 days without a newspaper printed. Lizzie and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, were having dinner with my friends Jason and Barbara Epstein, and Jason, then a senior editor at Random House, said there was no choice: The time had come to start a new book review.

This was one time you could start a book review essentially without money. 
Jason saw that with no other place to advertise, the publishers in New York would cover the costs. He called and asked me if I could leave Harper’s and start a new book review. I went to see Jack Fischer, the editor of Harper’s. He said, good, it’ll be a great experience. You’ll be back in a month.

You didn’t have any notion this would become an institution in this way?
No. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it was very possible that I would come back, and it was very kind of Jack to say my job would be held open. I asked Barbara Epstein that morning if she would join me as co-editor. She said yes. We met the next night with Lizzie in the darkenedHarper’s offices. We looked through the books that had come in for review, and we thought of various people who might write on them.

The first issue appeared dated February 1, 1963. It has been called the best first issue of a magazine ever published. Looking at these names glittering on the cover, it’s astonishing how many, from W. H. Auden to Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy to Norman Mailer to William Styron, John Berryman to Robert Lowell to Robert Penn Warren, and on and on, are still recognizable.
I remember Jason called his friend Wystan Auden. Lizzie called Fred Dupee—Lizzie and Barbara both. Lizzie called Mary McCarthy, and so did I. Barbara called Gore Vidal. I called Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Mailer. In the next two days I talked with Jonathan Miller, who wrote on Updike, and then with Philip Rahv, and Dwight MacDonald, who wrote on Arthur Schlesinger.

What did you say?
I said, we’re starting a new book review, and would they write on the book I was sending? They had three weeks. There was no question of payment. No one asked about it. Sometimes they said, “I’d rather do another book.” They all just assumed a new book review was needed.

Did you feel at the time that you were creating a particular kind of ideological community?
No, if anything it was an intellectual community. It was people we knew and admired: a community of writers we knew but who hadn’t come together in that way before, except for some of the critics who wrote for the Partisan Review. It was determined by friendships, by a shared belief in uncompromising quality in writing and by a sense that much conventional criticism was superficial and lazy, accepting the mediocre.

You describe those early days as a community of friendship, but soon you were publishing very harsh criticism by some of those writers of the work of others in that same “community of writers.” One famous example is Norman Mailer’s attack on Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group.
Her book came out just as we started regular publication—a very long novel, a best seller, about women who had been at Vassar and became entangled in each other’s lives, with much about sex and birth control.

It was considered quite risqué at the time.
Lizzie, notwithstanding her old friendship with Mary, disapproved of it and wrote a parody of it entitled “The Gang,” signed “Xavier Prynne.” But who would review it? When I called Norman, he said, “I don’t want to take on Mary.” I told him that no one else was willing to write on the book. And he said, “Well, Bob, that’s a rather deadly challenge.” And he did it. He said our Mary, alas, has fallen short of what we hoped for.
The New York Review of Books' office.

In the early days, and especially notable for the time, there were a number of quite strong and distinguished women—not just Barbara Epstein but Susan Sontag and, of course, Elizabeth Hardwick.
Aside from Barbara, Lizzie was the major influence. I would send her reviews and she would say, “Oh, yes, this piece is very good. It just needs a little work.” And then she would send it back half as long, with paragraph after paragraph cut or compressed. She had no patience at all for what you would call tired language. One day she called up and said, “Area? Practically everything’s an area now.” And I said, “Well, Lizzie. I’m looking out the window, and there’s Broadway.” And she said, “Oh yes, that’s an area, but the word is used for everything else. It’s simply a vague way of saying nothing.”

I know from sometimes-painful experience how particular you are about certain tired words. Massive, for example, is strictly forbidden. Or framework.
Framework could rightly refer to the supporting structure of a house, or a wooden construction for holding roses or hollyhocks in a garden, but now the word is used to refer to any system of thought, or any arrangement of ideas. And it really means nothing.

The most heretical thing we do is try to avoid context. Context has an original, useful meaning, now generally lost: the actual language surrounding a particular text—con, meaning “with,” and text—and now it’s used for every set of surrounding circumstances or state of things, and it gets worse withcontextualize, sometimes used to mean some sort of justification.

Even more insidious and common is in terms of, a fine phrase if you are talking about mathematical equations or economic functions in which specific “terms” are defined, but it is just loose and woolly when you say things like “in terms of culture,” for which there are simply no clear terms.

Then there is the constant movement of every kind of issue—war, treaty, or political feud—on or off “the table.” The question of an independent Palestinian state is on the table! Or is it off the table? It’s become a way of avoiding a more precise account of just what’s happening.

You also avoid left and right as descriptions of political positions. Do you no longer see a coherent left?
There are people who are more interested in liberties than others; there are people who are more interested in a fair distribution of goods and wealth, especially for the poor, and especially the black and Hispanic poor; there are people interested in protection of human rights internationally; there are people interested in control of pollution and climate domestically. You could list dozens of other causes. But lumping all these people into “the left” seems to me incoherent and lazy.

Of course, the early years of the Review saw the rise of a so-called new left in opposition to the Vietnam War, and in 1967, you sent Mary McCarthy to report from Saigon and Hanoi. When did you get the idea, as editor of a book review, of sending writers into war zones?
We felt we could do anything we wanted—we always thought we had control. The first issue came out of a very small group, to whom it was absolutely unthinkable that anyone would tell any of us what to do. We could do anything we wanted as long as we could pay the printer. From the first we had articles and political commentaries either on the Kennedy administration, say, or on totalitarianism in Cuba.

One night at the Lowells’ we tried to think of who would be the best person to write on the American presence in Saigon. Mary had certainly resented Norman’s review, but when I sent her a telegram, she said she would go next week.

She was intensely critical of the American presence in Vietnam. What gave you the confidence to do such pieces? Did it have to do with the way you had structured the control of the Review?
Jason Epstein brilliantly set it up. There would be two groups of shareholders. The “A” shareholders had control of the appointment of the editor and of editorial matters, and the “B” shareholders would benefit only financially. The A shareholders were the Epsteins, the Lowells, myself, and Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher with the second issue. When Rea Hederman took over as publisher in the mid-eighties he guaranteed we’d have the same editorial freedom we always had, and we have.

So six people in control of editorial—but how much in control? Was there ever a question from that group of six?
They never tried to exercise any control. Oh, sometimes, after the fact, Lizzie would say, “Honey, you’ve simply got to do better than that.”

And the B shareholders had no say at all.
Brooke Astor was one of the leading B shareholders. A friend had shown her the paper. She said, would we come around to her flat? Whitney and I went. She was there reading the paper. She said, “Boys, I like this, and I’ll put some of my own money into it.”

Has the Review always been profitable?
No. We had a second round of fund-raising after two or three years. That was around ’65. As of ’66 we were in the black.

And you’ve been in the black ever since. This is nearly unheard of.Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, National Review, evenCommentary—none of those has been consistently profitable.
I’ve never figured out just why. We used cheap newsprint and had very low costs, including low salaries, and no staff writers. And perhaps most important, once people subscribed, they resubscribed year after year at a very high rate. And publishers, including a good many university presses, decided it was a place to advertise, and they stayed with us. And when he became publisher, Rea improved everything to do with publishing the paper, and he set up New York Review Books, which flourishes.

I’m holding here the first issue, which declares, in a statement on the second page: “This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.” This is the only editorial statement that you’ve ever made.
That’s it! And that’s still what we try to do. We shouldn’t pretend to be comprehensive. There’s no point in reviewing a book if you can’t find someone whose mind you particularly respect. And even so, we have to turn down every month or so a piece we’d asked for. But I left one thing out of that editorial statement: the freedom of those people to reply at length, to make their case.

Many of them have.
Of course.

How did the famous debate between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson come about?
What happened was this: Nabokov, after many years, published his translation of Eugene Onegin—that masterpiece of Russian literature that had long resisted translation. He decided that it was impossible to versify in any form that would be faithful to the Russian, so he would do an unrhymed translation with a huge apparatus of explanation—the famous notes, which took up an entire volume.

I recall in particular a long note about the history of foot fetishes in literature.
They’re marvelous to read.

Unrhymed or not, his translation is rather beautiful. I love it.
Most of the Russians hated it. And Edmund Wilson sent us a long essay attacking it and contrasting “the Nabokov we know” with the one who “bores and fatigues.”

They had been friends.
Wilson thought “Volodya” was obviously a man of some Russian genius, and published his reviews in The New Republic when he was literary editor there. But his Review article was a big attack on Nabokov’s very idiosyncratic language, such as “rememorating” or “sapajous” (for monkeys). The next big article was by Vladimir, defending it, in the Review. And then came Edmund’s reply.

How had you met Wilson?
I went to visit Barbara and Jason in their house in Wellfleet in 1959. The plane arrived, and we were about to go to the car and I said, “Oh, I have to get my suitcase.” And Jason said, “No, I saw a New Statesman sticking out of it, so I knew it would be you.” He had it already in the back of the car. At Wellfleet, the high point was when we went around to Wilson’s house.

The most distinguished literary critic of the time.
Well, he was a great friend of Jason and Barbara, and I saw him only rarely. But in the second issue of the Review, he did something marvelous. Interviews were appearing in every magazine at the time, and he decided to conduct an interview with himself. And he gave his many views on what was happening, some of them deeply unfashionable. For example, he had no use for the Abstract Expressionists, who at that moment were seen as kings of New York.

He hated them.
He was a man who wanted to see a clear delineation of reality, however various.

Some might say that’s a fair description of the Review’s cultural stance, which they see as conservative.
I would say “critical.” Examining things closely.

Is conservative not a fair word to use to describe the approach to, say, deconstruction in literary theory?
That’s a very interesting question. There were writers called “postmodern,” some of them very interesting and original—in the novel, for example, William Gass and other writers of fiction. We were certainly not hostile to such fiction. We published criticism of some of these tendencies and we also published articles making a case for them, for example by Michael Wood. But the Berkeley philosopher John Searle wrote a devastating analysis of Jacques Derrida’s very influential theories he called “The Word Turned Upside Down,” exposing what he called their “obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses.” Neither Derrida nor anyone else convincingly replied to that criticism so far as I can see.

You published many critiques of Freud and psychoanalysis.
Particularly Fred Crews’s very intensive analysis of Freud’s changing concepts, and their obscure, sometimes hidden origins. Of course, at the time we started the Review, it seemed everyone was being analyzed. That has changed.

It seems to me that one secret of the Review is that, even as a rarefied journal of ideas, it is actually meant for a general audience.
I always feel I want to learn from the articles we publish. And I have to assume that there’s an audience that wants to learn in the same way.

You are the audience, in other words.
Yes, that’s it. And often I hope the book under review can be brought closer to some reality that’s heretofore often been presented in a rather masked, misleading way.

For instance, in a recent issue we had a long article on General Petraeus. It’s not a big attack on him. It tries to show how his mind evolved since his days at West Point—in his Ph.D. essay at Princeton on the failures of American policy in the Vietnam War and in his work on the uses of special forces against insurgency in Iraq and in Afghanistan, especially in the Iraq War, which theReview opposed from the first. It took Tom Powers months to finish his review, drawing on more than twenty books. In all that, he has one half of one paragraph on the recent scandal.

And yet, of course, the interest of readers will be drawn there because of it.
No doubt. But the Petraeus of the scandal, the Petraus involved with Mrs. Broadwell and Tampa social life—all that depends on the record and the ideas of Petraeus the warrior, the subject of Tom’s article. That’s the only reason we even know about these small matters of domestic life.

Speaking of the relationship of the Review to the news, here is a recent issue where the lead piece is by David Cole, “Drones and the CIA: 13 Questions for the New Chief.” Now, this article appeared exactly—
On the day of the confirmation hearings for John Brennan.

So the Review comes out right on time.
Or we come out a year later and we say, Here are eighteen questions not asked at the hearing!

The book-review category is a strange one. It doesn’t constrain you from sending Mary McCarthy to Vietnam, and it also makes possible a new form, in which writers give close readings of public documents that tend otherwise to be mostly ignored—for example, congressional reports.
It does give an enormous possibility. In the case of a congressional report or transcript, it’s a text that is there to be consulted, by the entire world, and checked. There’s a big difference between that and the ephemeral, anonymous quote from the cloakroom of the Senate.

So far as I know, the man who made the most of analyzing such reports was I. F. Stone. He had physical troubles that made it difficult for him to attend public hearings, and he was wary of press conferences. But he took home public documents and subjected them to a kind of Talmudic study.

I’ve done some of it myself, for you—in particular reviewing the reports on Abu Ghraib and torture. What was interesting to me about those was that the fact of the investigations was taken as proof that the truth had come out but in fact the reports together combined to hide the truth.
These reports are often part of a presentation aimed at reassuring the public—closing up the subject and “classifying” it.

The politics of the Review fascinate a lot of people. For example, one sees pieces that are rather praising of Obama, and other quite critical ones.
Any first-rate group of writers will have very different views of Obama. You wrote for us your essay “Obama and Sweet Potato Pie” about his first campaign and the youth and the sexiness and rapport he seemed to evoke. David Bromwich wrote a very caustic and critical piece about his foreign policy. You then wrote critically about his use of “the politics of fear.” Michael Tomasky has argued that he’s brought about a transformation in American life in which a series of different groups have been drawn into politics and that he has in fact succeeded in making some fundamental changes, for example in health care. There must be room for very different, conflicting perspectives, different judgments about Obama and public policy generally.

But is it not hard to claim that the Review has no political identity at all?
We’ve had to have several political identities. As editors, it was as if we were being confronted by successive waves of historical development and challenges—waves like the Vietnam War, like the criminal activities of the Nixon administration, like Star Wars and the economics of the Reagan administration. And these different historical and political forces also loomed in the form of books. We tried to react by asking the people whom we respected as perceptive and as knowledgeable to deal with them, and we sent writers we admired to report on them—Joan Didion, for example, who reported on the war in El Salvador, and the Cubans in Miami. What becomes more and more clear is that victims and persecutors can change parts.

Your early skepticism about Cuba marked you off from most of the left.
In the first regular issue, there was an article by Daniel Friedenberg. He said, there’s a distinct resemblance between the new system in Cuba and the old system in the Soviet Union; they are both totalitarian. In some of the liberal press at the time, there was a general feeling of sympathy for Cuba, Castro, and the glamour of a new kind of society. When I went there in 1969, the poet Heberto Padilla insisted we could only talk while walking in the park, and there he slipped me a sheaf of poems that we published when I got back.

You’ve said that during the Cold War you wanted to find a place on the left from which you could defend the rights of those under Soviet rule while still opposing the excesses of militarized Cold War policy.
Underlying what we did was concern about the effect of powerful, torturing, bullying regimes on human rights. Barbara and I were both very aware that here we were in America with rights and freedoms. At the same time, we’re very aware that poets in Iran or a writer in the Soviet Union or East Germany—that these editors, writers, and people who wanted to express themselves were being suppressed, and we felt from the beginning that we should try to give them a voice. At the same time we published strong criticism of such Cold War follies as Star Wars.

Does the state of human rights abroad look better to you now?
Where there’s the most at stake is clearly in China.

There’s a long record of avoidance of reality. When we began the Review, there was wide support for the Chinese Revolution among intellectual and academic specialists. Little was said about the human costs of the Communist revolution, the crushing of the so-called peasant ownership class, the death of millions. Many people felt that in China was being created something like an egalitarian society, of which they could approve. And this included many American liberals, including many professors who studied China. Some didn’t realize the extent to which the attempts by Mao to encourage local industry in the form of backyard steelmaking were irrational and doomed. The country was about to plunge into one of the greatest famines in human history, with more than 40 million people starving to death, and very few pro-Chinese Americans were aware of it when it happened, or of the brutality and killing of millions during the Cultural Revolution.

In late 1988, during a visit suggested by George Soros’s foundation, I was invited to give a lecture at the University of Beijing, at a time when the regime was relatively tolerant. I said that an ideal situation for intellectual journalism was to have a paper that a group could organize and own outright, and be free to say what the group wanted. It was an ideal, and by some extraordinary convergence of circumstances, this is what we had at the New York Review. I realized, I said, how entirely unreal and unattainable this ideal might seem, but at least it was a basis from which one might start. If you can’t have complete ownership, you might have some. And if you can’t have full say, you might have some. You could aim for more. The audience seemed extremely enthusiastic. That night my friend Grace Dudley and I met in a rickety apartment with the great Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, who promised to write for the Review on the need for freedom in China—and later he did. Then I met alone with a very small group of young Chinese who said they had a plan for a Beijing Review of Books. It wouldn’t be published in Beijing; it would be published in a small town somewhere in the West, where they were in touch with a print shop. They intimated they had some sympathizers—no more than that—in the far reaches of the bureaucracy from people supposedly connected with the relatively open-minded Zhao Ziyang. And could we help them? They seemed extremely attractive young people, and I said they could use our archives and articles. And not long afterward came Tiananmen Square. Fang Lizhi had to take refuge in the U.S. Embassy for over a year, and the members of the Beijing Review of Books group went into hiding. Some were arrested. Some of them escaped through Hong Kong. Some paid large sums to do so—$500,000, I was told. One of the most congenial of them, one of the most intelligent, turned out to be a high-ranking security official. He had been guiding the whole thing.

For many who read it in the late sixties, the Review retains a distinctly radical flavor—there was that notorious cover with a “how-to” drawing of a Molotov cocktail.
That “how to” was misleading. The diagram could not be used to make a bomb. The Molotov-cocktail cover seemed to us no more than an emblem of what was happening at a time when there were violent protests going on, and we were carrying in the paper a long account of the riots in Newark. We were not in any way recommending it. But publishing it on the cover was a serious mistake. It gave many a false impression of the paper, and some made the most of it. And now, 45 years and two generations later, here we are still talking about it.

You published Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg …
We published Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in 1967. What was it about? He said that many intellectuals in America were in some way complicit with different aspects of the Vietnam War, whether in social and political science, economics, or the uses of science for military strategy. They had been putting forward indefensible rationalizations for it. In academe and out of it, they were contributing to the war effort, and he didn’t think they should. It was the responsibility of intellectuals to seek truth and not to contribute to that kind of government violence. Few essays we published had such an effect. Later I met Dan Ellsberg, who’d been out there in Vietnam as an intelligence expert. Then he went to work for rand. He outlined to me a very cogent critical essay on U.S. policy in Vietnam, and we published it. Not long after, he released to the Times the Pentagon Papers he’d acquired at rand.

Didn’t he leave the papers in your office?
Yes. After the New York Times had published them, he said, “Can I keep some papers at the Review?” And we took the papers, and we put them in a corner, next to a radiator, in a suitcase, and they just sat there. For months.

Eventually he retrieved them.
A man called and said, I’m from the so-and-so law firm, and I’ve been asked to pick the papers up.

On the Middle East, the Review has carved out a fairly distinctive role.
We’ve had some of the most informed and today realistic articles I know of from Rob Malley, the Middle East Director of the International Crisis Group, and Hussein Agha of St. Antony’s, Oxford, particularly in their very skeptical view of the Arab Spring. They called their essay “This Is Not a Revolution.”

It has become increasingly hard to write about issues involving Israel with any subtlety.
You have to get used to the fact that any serious criticism of Israeli policy will be seen by some as heresy, a form of betrayal, and we’ve had a lot of such denunciation. What such critics don’t say about the Review is that much of what we’ve published has come from some of the most respected and brilliant Israeli writers—the late Amos Elon, Avishai Margalit, David Grossman, David Shulman, among them. What emerges from them is a sense that occupying land and people year after year can only lead to a sad and bad result.

I’ll not forget going to see Golda Meir—then prime minister—with Isaiah Berlin in 1969. Golda asked me, “What do you think of all this that you’ve seen?” And I said, “I come from a Zionist family, and I’ve seen, as I expected, remarkable accomplishments in Israel—in agriculture, in education, in technology, in helping people to start new lives. But I do keep asking myself about what happened to the Palestinians who lived here and the Palestinians who are now living under military occupation. And it’s very hard for me to reconcile the two.” And she said, “We’re not an occupying power, an aggressive power. It’s like Pakistan and the break with India. People thought they had to leave and form a different society, have their own country, defend themselves.” And I said, “Is that really the way you want Israel to be seen? As a kind of Pakistan?” She thought and said, “No, I want to say that we’re a moral people, as concerned about the Palestinian people as anybody else.” And then she said, “Isaiah, what do you think?”

She put him on the spot.
He said, “Military occupation. Seldom a good thing. Seldom works out. Shouldn’t go on and on.”

The Review has not only had the sort of life span many of its early contemporaries would envy, it’s also become, for a book review, increasingly adaptable in its subject matter—regular articles about movies and television and now about the Internet and life online.
Well, Zadie Smith is a writer I much admire. She reviewed the film The Social Network along with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.She thought there had been illusions about Facebook; she did not feel that the “friendship” on which Facebook was based was truly a coherent idea of friendship at all. As she said, “If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would … What we actually want to do is the bare minimum.”

Soon the Review will be publishing a piece on video games and on the experience and allure of playing them, among them the games played by the Columbine killers. These games together have sales of $25 billion, much more than the movies.

From books to texts to video games. What comes next?
The other night, I sat next to a woman who said, well, my children now only send Instagrams.

Instagrams! I don’t even know what those are.
You keep in touch with your friends by sending them one picture after another, from your phone.

Don’t you find this development rather worrying?
Years ago my friend John Gross did many anthologies for the Oxford publishing company—the Oxford Book of Essays, the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, and so on. Now I might imagine an Oxford Book of Tweets! That is to say, witty, aphoristic, almost Oscar Wildean remarks, drawn from the millions and millions of tweets. Or from comments that follow on blogs. But I doubt it will ever be done. A great many tweets and follow-on comments are really rather lame or cheap wisecracks, in which you feel behind the tweet the compulsion, simply, to … tweet. To get in on it.

To tweet or not to tweet. And not to tweet is to be left behind.
And that raises a question: What is this? What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism.

If a novel is published, we have a novel review. If poetry is produced, if a play or a movie or a TV show is produced, there are the forms of criticism we know. With the new social media, with much of the content of the Internet, there are very few if any critical forms that are appropriate. They are thought to be somewhere partially in a private world. Facebook is a medium in which privacy is, or at least is thought to be, in some way crucial. The premise, at least, is that of belonging to a family, a circle of friends. And there’s another premise, that any voice should have its moment. And so there seems a resistance to intrusive criticism.

But this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.

Are you concerned that younger readers form a generation obsessed not with long form but with these very short prose forms?
I don’t know. The phrase long form has come in in the last twenty years or so. I’d never heard it before. I’d thought of reports and essays and criticism of different lengths—lengths that the subject seemed to warrant. Long form as opposed to what?

To, I suppose, reading on the screen, which is generally thought to limit the length of what can be read.
But is that necessarily true? Much of the material on the Internet can be long, very long. And should be.

Which brings us to books themselves: Are you concerned about their future?
In one way or another, if you include e-books and self-published books, more books are being published than ever. Most people don’t seem to understand that. And there is no falling off, in my view, of very serious books. A major problem for us remains, as I see it, the flood of books that do require consideration for review. That should be reviewed. We’re constantly struggling to master the flood. If you look over the lists of just the university-press publishers, you’ll find literally hundreds of books worthy of review.

Until she died in 2006, you and Barbara Epstein co-edited theReview in one of the most fruitful, and certainly the most enduring, partnerships in literary history. How did you do it?
Barbara and I had an understanding right at the beginning that we would collaborate on everything. We published nothing that each of us had not read and gone over. We shared every piece, every assignment. We had no division of labor. We both dealt with reviewers of fiction, poetry, science, history, and art. We were extremely close partners.

She had a marvelous sense of humor, and one reason I looked forward every day to going to the Review was that Barbara and I saw a lot of what we were doing and a lot of the people we were dealing with as, however admirable and serious, also absurd and funny. It was a kind of weird gamble in which we had quite astonishing freedom, and our general approach, if someone had an idea for something interesting but quite different from anything we’d ever done, was, why not?

Is that how the personal ads came about?
Whitney Ellsworth, who joined us as publisher after the first issue, came to us one day with some ads that subscribers had sent in: “Beautiful Jewish writer seeks sexual partner who can dance,” and so on. And Whitney said, “Well, is this the sort of thing we want to do?” And Barbara and I said, “Why not!” Other papers of course did this later, the London Review and others, but nothing quite as, shall we say, elaborate and bold as many of these ads came to be. People competed for the most colorful description of their fantasies about themselves and their ideal partner.

The ads have attained a kind of celebrity.
And some rather famous people we knew actually met people through them. And about once a year, a couple would appear and say, “We met through theNew York Review, and we’re just married.”

When I came to the Review in 1981, just out of college, one of my jobs was to retype manuscripts after you’d edited them. I’d sit at my little desk, and you’d sit at your big desk behind this towering phalanx of books, and every once in a while a piece of paper would come sailing over the parapet, a typewritten manuscript page now completely covered with your penciled changes. Many of these pages, of course, were the work of writers I’d come to greatly admire for their wonderful published prose, and I found myself shocked to discover that you did a great deal of work on it. But I was also fascinated to see that a lot of the work you did with your pencil seemed to be uniquely in the service of making these writers sound—how I should I put this?—like … themselves.
Sometimes, of course, they would get very angry and want to restore everything. And often those people who want to restore everything are not very good writers.

And yet I recall writers whose pieces had been heavily edited—rewritten, really—receiving the galley, in which all the changes had been seamlessly incorporated, and responding: Well, but you didn’t change anything at all!
The fundamental point is that if a writer has something interesting to say, you have to ask, sentence by sentence, if it is clear as it should be or could it be clearer, while also respecting the writer’s voice and tone. You have to listen carefully to the tone of the writer’s prose and try to adapt to it, but only up to a point.

You are famous also for these late-night telephone calls in which you track down a writer in some exotic land to ask about changing a word. Or a comma.
When I worked for Jack Fischer at Harper’s, he would look at the final galleys. He would take his pencil and he would go through and make changes—cross things out, put things in—and it would go right off to the press. I was appalled. Writers deserve the final word about their prose.

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

Although often you will scrawl a note in the margins saying, “It might be helpful here to have a word or a line about X.”
Yes! We do often in the galley.

Even though it may be Christmas Eve, as it often was.
That has to do with the schedule of the press.

But it also amounts to a kind of sign, whether the intention is there or not, a signal to the writer that absolutely everything is being done, no matter what the time, to care for this prose.
Well, I hope it makes people feel that each word counts. It’s going to be read by a lot of people. It’s going to have an effect. It means everything.

When I began working for you, there were two shifts for editorial assistants working in your office: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then a later one.
Two-thirty to 10:30 p.m.

Which I learned often went on to midnight or later. How is it after 50 years you are able to maintain that level of meticulousness and determination?
I don’t feel that that kind of work is a matter of decision. There’s simply no alternative to reading every piece attentively and very critically. It would be unthinkable not to. I work my way through several reviews a day. If I’m at home I’ll simply try to stay up until I do it. If I’m here at the office I’ll try to stay until I finish it.

Did you always work such hours?
I was an editor at Harper’s, a monthly magazine with several editors, and we worked under a number of unstated assumptions—that the readers could take only so much; that radical writers and ideas were taboo. That what Lizzie called the “light little article” was indispensable. No doubt it has changed in many ways. But the New York Review was and is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to do what one wants on anything in the world. Now, that is given to hardly any editor, anywhere, anytime. There are no strictures, no limits. Nobody saying you can’t do something. No subject, no theme, no idea that can’t be addressed in-depth. There’s an infinity of possibilities. Whatever work is involved is minor compared to the opportunity. That is the essence. That is the nature of the magazine.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Vassar Unzipped Part 4: 'Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.'

Vassar Unzipped

Shocking, titillating, and acid-laced, The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel about eight Vassar girls, turned the feared and revered literary critic into a wealthy, world-famous author. But the backlash was brutal, not least from her Vassar classmates. Laura Jacobs explores why the book still dazzles as a generational portrait, falters as fiction, and blighted McCarthy’s life.

FLICK LIT A scene from the 1966 film adaptation of The Group, directed by Sidney Lumet, with Jessica Walter as Libby, Joanna Pettet as Kay, and Shirley Knight as Polly. Inset, the book’s original, 1963 edition.
Everyone loved Chapter Two. Straitlaced Dottie Renfrew—Vassar class of 1933 and a virgin—has gone home with the handsome but dissipated Dick Brown. He undresses her slowly, so that she “was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls.” Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some “rubbing and stroking,” and then some “pushing and stabbing,” she starts to get the hang of things. “All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups … ” No hearts and flowers here, simply a female orgasm described by a female writer who was as empirical and precise as the male writers of her day—perhaps more so—yet always attuned to the social niceties imprinted upon a certain class of female mind. Dick removes the towel, impressed by the minute stain, and in a remark that pulled the romantic veil from the usual novelistic pillow talk, says of his ex-wife, “Betty bled like a pig.”
It was the first line of Chapter Three, however, that brought mythic status to Mary McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Group. “Get yourself a pessary,” Dick says the next morning, walking Dottie to the door. The chapter proceeds to offer a tutorial on the etiquette, economics, semiotics, and symbolism of this particular form of contraception, circa 1933. Diaphragm, ring, plug—call it what you will—when The Group was published, in 1963, the subject was still shocking. Sidney Lumet’s movie of The Group—released three years later, smack in the middle of the sexual revolution—included Dottie’s deflowering and subsequent trip to a gynecologist but substituted euphemisms for McCarthy’s blunt language. Instead, Dick Brown says, “The right lady doctor could make us a lot happier.”
Critics of The Group would call it Mary McCarthy’s “lady-writer’s novel” and “lady-book,” insults meant to suggest it was a falling-off from her previous work. And it was different from what she’d done before. Up until The Group, McCarthy was feared and revered in the smart, tight, testy, and frequently backstabbing world of midcentury literary quarterlies and political reviews. Her critical assessments of theater and literature were scathing, and no one was too high to be brought low. Arthur Miller, J. D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams—the greats of the day—all came in for vivisection, McCarthy’s own Theater of Cruelty on the page. (“Torn animals,” poet Randall Jarrell wrote of a character based on McCarthy, “were removed at sunset from that smile.”) Her early novels read like moral chess matches where everyone is a pawn. And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear in the hearts of male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But The Group—a novel that followed eight Vassar roommates from commencement in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940—was her Mount Olympus and her Achilles’ heel, a monster international success that brought world fame yet failed to impress the peers who mattered most.
“Women’s secrets again,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote to a friend, “told in clinical detail.”
“No one in the know likes the book,” poet Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.
“Mary tried for something very big,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote to historian Nicola Chiaromonte, “but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
All true, and all beside the point. Published on August 28, 1963, with a whopping first printing of 75,000, The Group was a sensation. By September 8 it was No. 9 on the New York Times best-seller list for adult fiction, with booksellers ordering 5,000 copies a day. By October 6 it had dethroned Morris L. West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman to become No. 1, where it would stay for the next five months. By the end of 1964, nearly 300,000 copies had been sold, though now and then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich had to refund the price of a book. Women’s secrets “told in clinical detail” were, for some, tantamount to pornography. The book was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland.
Countless novels have topped the best-seller list for months. Mention them now—The Shoes of the Fisherman, for instance—and people go blank. Not so with The Group. While its plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil, the secrets of these Vassar girls were chinked in stone and the racy one-liners etched in memory. As Helen Downes Light, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s, told Frances Kiernan, the author of the biography Seeing Mary Plain, “I used to keep seventy-five dollars of mad money in a book. We had The Group on the shelf in our guest room and I thought, I’ll remember where it is if I put it in there. Every guest we had would come down the next morning and say, ‘Did you know you had money in that book?’ ”
Money in that book! Avon paid $100,000 for the paperback rights. Movie rights sold to producer-agent Charles Feldman for $162,500. The Group made Mary McCarthy a very rich intellectual, one of America’s first highbrows to receive gargantuan sums, thus changing the financial expectations of serious writers and the scale on which their work could be judged.
By the time McCarthy began The Group she had been writing about groups for years. It was a fascination of hers, and you could say it was fated. When McCarthy was six, she and her three younger brothers lost both parents in the 1918 flu pandemic. Gone the beatific home created by an adored mother and charismatic father; gone the intimate group that is one’s family. Her father, Roy McCarthy, was the son of J. H. McCarthy, a wealthy, self-made grain merchant in Minneapolis. Roy was charming and handsome, but he was a binge drinker, which made it difficult for him to hold a job. At 30, he went west to Oregon for a fresh start in a timber-brokerage business, and it was there that he met 21-year-old Tess Preston, dark-haired, beautiful, and accepting of Roy’s alcoholism. They married in 1911, and when Mary was born, in 1912 in Seattle, Roy not only stopped drinking for good, he became a lawyer at 32. Unfortunately, the ill effects of childhood rheumatic fever left him increasingly bedridden. The decision to move the family back to Minneapolis, to be close to Roy’s parents, proved fatal. Upon arrival, Roy and Tess died within a day of each other. The orphans would be shuttled between unsympathetic and sometimes sadistic relatives.
A little girl with a gimlet eye, Mary was acutely aware of her new status—the outsider looking in—and she became well acquainted with the power games played by those on the inside. Her coming-of-age brought more of the same. As a Seattle girl of uncertain class (not to mention—and she didn’t—a Jewish grandmother), she was an outsider at East Coast, upper-crust Vassar. As an Irish Catholic of bourgeois upbringing, she was an outsider among Partisan Review’s gang of first-generation Jews, even as she ruled from within as the magazine’s theater critic and queen cobra, entrancing male colleagues while living with P.R.’s editor Philip Rahv. In fact, being “inside” only brought ambivalence. “A princess among the trolls” is how she came to characterize her position at P.R., rather nastily, in her astonishing short story of 1941, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” This frank and often bawdy portrayal of a one-night stand on a cross-country train, its details drawn from McCarthy’s own past tryst on a train, was a dropped bomb that brought career-making notoriety. “I was at Exeter at the time,” the late George Plimpton told Frances Kiernan, “and it made almost as much of an impression as Pearl Harbor.”

Novel Idea

The Group is considered McCarthy’s fifth novel, but, truth be told, it’s hard to know exactly which of her books is the first. The Company She Keeps, published in 1942 and cited as the first, was actually a collection of previously published short stories, including “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” all sharing a protagonist, Margaret Sargent. Her piercing sensibility takes the place of a plot, sending waves of pitiless social insight and irony rippling through the book. McCarthy’s “second” novel, The Oasis, was the winning entry in a 1949 fiction contest sponsored by the English literary monthly Horizon. A novelette in length, a political satire in tone, The Oasis was also a roman à clef that spoofed the Partisan Review intellectuals, presenting them as Realists or Purists and plopping them into a rural Utopia where they attempt to live outside society, without modern conveniences or class distinctions. Former lover Rahv, caricatured as the leader of the Realists, was so stung by the book he threatened to sue. In an interview with The Paris Review, McCarthy clarified: “The Oasis is not a novel It’s a conte, a conte philosophique.
Continued (page 2 of 4)
An interesting choice of words on McCarthy’s part, conte versus “story,” for the French conte not only translates as “tale,” it also connotes a narration, a story told orally. Setting aside the fact that McCarthy could be quite theatrical when reading her work before an audience, there is a distinctly narrated, documentary-voice-over quality to her fiction, as if her tales came straight from her head—eyes, ears, brain, mouth—without ever having traveled through her heart.
The Groves of Academe followed in 1951 and A Charmed Life in 1954. Groves is yet another chess match, an example of what the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, a lifelong friend of McCarthy’s, termed her “ideological follies,” this one between academics (recognizable to those in the know, naturally) at a small college modeled on Bard, where McCarthy had taught for a year. As for A Charmed Life, the plot, not ideological but still a kind of folly, zeroes in on the emotional dynamics of an iffy marriage dropped into a tiny community of bohemians, further complicated when the protagonist’s former husband (based, in part, on McCarthy’s second husband, the writer Edmund Wilson) lures her into a drunken roll on the couch. Booze and bad sex were never far apart in the world of Mary McCarthy, and A Charmed Life turns on what will be done with the pregnancy that follows.
In the year that brought forth A Charmed Life, the Partisan Review published yet another McCarthy tale, this one called “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” Hard to believe Mary could go one better than “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” but she did. Sandwiched between an Irving Howe essay, “This Age of Conformity,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Tradition and the Modern Age” was the unabashed third chapter of The Group—“Get yourself a pessary.” It was a scandalous sneak preview that made everyone want more.

Portrait of the Ladies

According to biographer Carol Gelderman (Mary McCarthy: A Life), the idea was articulated in 1951, when McCarthy applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant. She wanted to write about “a group of newly married couples who emerge out of the Depression with a series of optimistic beliefs in science, engineering, rural electrification, the Aga stove, technocracy, psychoanalysis In a certain sense, the ideas are the villains and the people their hapless victims.” It was a concept novel, with not so much a plot as a plan: the characters conned by progress with a capital P. The grant was denied, but McCarthy went ahead and began writing.
In 1959, five years after “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself” was published, McCarthy again applied for a Guggenheim, this time describing the book as a “history of the faith in progress of the nineteen-thirties and forties as reflected in the behavior and notions of young women—college graduates of the year 1933 It is a crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes, and idées reçues. Yet the book is not meant to be a joke or even a satire, exactly, but a ‘true history’ of the times … ”
The concept had been simplified and refined. In a way, it was the fictional flower of a nonfiction essay McCarthy had written in 1951, for Holiday magazine, in which she stated, “For different people … 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. Pre-eminently among American college women, the Vassar girl is thought of as carrying a banner.” The Group was now the book McCarthy was destined to write. Her editor, William Jovanovich, of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, thought it “might be one of the few important books that is about women without being actually for women.” The jury at the Guggenheim must have thought so too, for the grant was given.
McCarthy would fulfill her proposal with i’s dotted (Dottied?) and t’s crossed. The Group isn’t a joke, and though satirical it isn’t a satire. The lives of McCarthy’s eight graduates—nine if you count Norine, a classmate who envied the group from afar and is the novel’s lone outsider—do indeed present a crazy quilt that captures the history of the time. Dottie proffers a peephole into the sexual mores of the 1930s and Priss into “enlightened” mothering. Literary Libby wants to be an editor but is steered toward agenting, while Polly’s love affairs shed light on the era’s attitudes toward psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In Kay we have the consumer as climber, a woman in love with the intellectual cachet of modernism; for this she is mocked by her philandering husband, Harald Petersen (modeled on McCarthy’s first husband, Harald Johnsrud). Androgynous Helena writes the class newsletter, and chubby heiress Pokey is present mostly through her butler, Hatton. Empress of them all is Lakey—Elinor Eastlake, of Lake Forest, Illinois—the aloof aesthete who’s studying art in Europe and spends most of the novel offstage. Most of the movie too. “Waiting for Lakey to reappear,” the film critic Pauline Kael wrote in a 1966 essay on the making of Lumet’s movie, “is about like waiting for Godot.” But worth the wait, for she was played with sublime hauteur by a young Candice Bergen. It is upon Lakey’s return from Europe that the group realizes she is a lesbian.
Getting the book written would take some doing. Late in 1959, the year McCarthy received her Guggenheim, she met the man who would become her fourth and last husband, the diplomat James West. McCarthy left her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, to wed West, who had to leave his second wife, Margaret. West was posted to Paris, where the couple bought a large apartment, and McCarthy took on extra writing assignments to help pay for its renovation. This annoyed Jovanovich, who’d drummed up huge advance interest in The Group and wanted to see it finished and in print pronto. Moreover, in early 1963, just as she should have been perfecting her final manuscript for its April deadline, McCarthy spent intellectual and emotional energy defending Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a bureaucratic cog in the Holocaust machine and the man who would embody, in the report’s infamous phrase, “the banality of evil.” First serialized in The New Yorker and deeply controversial, the book was written by McCarthy’s beloved friend and kindred spirit, the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Yet even before the move to Paris and the Eichmann explosion McCarthy realized she couldn’t manage The Group’s projected time frame—the Roosevelt 30s to the Eisenhower 50s. In 1960 she told The Paris Review, “These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them.” She felt that comic figures, as if by Delphic decree, were not allowed to learn or grow. Reducing the time frame to seven years, she still had trouble wrapping it up. “I’ve lost all perspective,” McCarthy told Arendt. “The main thing is to push on and deposit the burden. On Jovanovich’s lap.” That said, when McCarthy suddenly found herself on the verge of best-sellerdom, she was, she wrote, “very much excited by all the excitement about the book.” The question of whether McCarthy had made the girls’ fates feel like more than faits accomplis would be left for the critics to settle.


The year 1963 was a big one for what is now termed “second-wave feminism.” McCarthy never rode any wave of feminism. Generously mentored by male editors and lovers, she scorned special pleading based on gender. Nevertheless, her Vassar girls burst upon the world in the same year that saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a groundbreaking study of the nameless unhappiness that was plaguing postwar housewives. (Friedan’s book was sparked by Smith girls, classmates she had surveyed at a 15th reunion.) Also in 1963, Radcliffe girl Adrienne Rich published her third collection of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a seismic shift into the terrain of gender politics. “All three of these books,” says Katha Pollitt, essayist for The Nation, “were about the way very smart, educated women get trapped in the lesser life they are compelled to lead.”
Unlike her sister-school sisters, McCarthy wasn’t taking on the present in a way that was radically or even covertly subversive. She was looking at the past, specifically, she said, at a “vanishing class”—upper-middle, Protestant, educated. Her girls were bluestockings, not rebels. They graduate from Vassar embracing the social responsibilities required of their class and believing that America is inevitably improving. Almost all of them become less acute with the passing of time. One could and probably should read this diminuendo as an authorial statement on life. As W. H. Auden wrote in the poem Lullaby, “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children … ” But Pauline Kael also had a point when she said, “She beats up on those girls.”
Continued (page 3 of 4)
“I think she looked around at what happened to her classmates,” says the novelist Mary Gordon. “Because she’s really talking about what happened to women after the Second World War. They really got shut down. To give it a rosier coloration is something her honesty would never have allowed her to do.”
It was honesty on another level that made the book controversial. McCarthy was matter-of-fact and often slapstick about subjects everyone else deemed sacred—sex, motherhood, one’s relationship with one’s shrink. And she was completely unfazed by physiology.
“ ‘Betty bled like a pig,’ ” reiterates the writer Penelope Rowlands. “My mother had a whole circle of friends that were parents. We kids would play in Central Park and they would sit on the bench. I have a distinct memory of the mothers sitting there giggling. One of them had a book and she said, ‘Read Chapter Two,’ and handed it to someone else. I can see them all just savoring it.”
Mary Gordon remembers “the pessary, that was such a major thing. I was in Catholic school at the time and I thought The Group was a dirty book. I read it under the covers, and it was very exciting among my friends. Even though it had taken place in the 30s, it still seemed like late-breaking news. Smart women able to be sexual—that just seemed, in 1963, very thrilling. And it had immense stylishness.”
“There were scenes that were neat and snappy,” recalls writer and critic Margo Jefferson. “Of course, everybody remembers Libby and her secret, what she called ‘going over the top.’ Written in that precise little way.”
The reviews rolled in as expected, acknowledging McCarthy’s reputation as a critic and trying, in the words of Jovanovich, “not to be wrong about the book.” Some even went as far as to quote back McCarthy’s own description of her objectives (progress, platitudes), a rare deference that attests to the fear factor attached to her name. In The Saturday Review, Granville Hicks lauded McCarthy’s newfound sympathy for her characters yet suggested it was as “social history that the novel will chiefly be remembered.” In The New York Times, Arthur Mizener detected no sympathy at all but decided that while The Group was not a conventional novel, “it is, in its own way, something pretty good.” The Chicago Daily News called it a “whopper … one of the best novels of the decade.”

Partisan Politics

Backlash arrived in October. Norman Podhoretz, writing in Show, went after the snobbery he perceived in McCarthy’s novel: “Willfully blind to the spirit of moral ambition and the dream of self-transcendence that animated [the 30s], she can see nothing in it but foolishness and insincerity—despite the fact that she herself was produced by that spirit.” Even worse was the broadside from a new publication—started up during the New York newspaper strike—The New York Review of Books, edited by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein. McCarthy considered The New York Review friendly, having written an essay on William Burroughs for its very first issue. Her good friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, then husband and wife, were part of The New York Review’s inner circle. So she was stunned when the fortnightly slammed her not once but twice.
On September 26, 1963, a three-paragraph parody called “The Gang” was published under the pseudonym Xavier Prynne (a play on Xavier Rynne, the famous pseudonym of Francis X. Murphy, who wrote extensively on the Vatican). It zeroed in on Dottie’s—now Maisie’s—defloration, mocking the way McCarthy’s avid, appraising omniscience doesn’t shut off even during a shtup: “Gasping for breath, Maisie giggled and said, ‘Remember Bernard Shaw? Something about brief and ridiculous.’ ”
McCarthy was not happy to be parodied so publicly and perfectly. And she was dumbfounded when she learned that Xavier Prynne was none other than her close friend Hardwick.
“Why did Lizzie do it?” asks Kiernan, who is now at work on a book about Robert Lowell and his wives. “Well, it was irresistible. And, to be fair, the one part she mocks is the best part of the book. She hasn’t picked one of the weaknesses.”
“Lizzie was a great friend of Mary’s, so it was obviously complex,” says someone who knew them both. “She felt it was a matter of justice—justice for literary judgment.”
Worse would come three weeks later, when The New York Review of Books published Norman Mailer’s strenuously virtuosic, outrageously sexist takedown. The razor sharpens on the strop in the opening paragraph, with Mailer hailing Mary as “our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc … ” et cetera. He gives The Group one compliment—“It has a conception of the novel which is Mary’s own”—and then goes on (and on and on) to say in a thousand different ways that it is “good but not nearly good enough.” In short, he gave her the Mary McCarthy treatment.
Negative reviews on such a grand scale are no fun, but they can bring positive publicity to a book, a greater sense of moment. And then there’s the jealousy of friends. “The people at the Partisan Review were all very smart,” explains cultural critic Midge Decter, who knew McCarthy in those days, “and very catty with one another because they were all living as literary figures in a shortage economy of fame and money. Mary had published some fiction, but not much attention was paid to it. Then The Group was a big success and nobody could stand it. Everybody was very mean about Mary and envious of her. It wasn’t unheard of by then; Saul Bellow had had a big success. That was the first major trauma. But the idea that you could actually make money being a writer, that was new.”
“High art and popular art were in very different worlds,” says Pollitt. “You couldn’t be in both. You might want your book made into a movie, but if you did, that was selling out.”
“It was a best-seller and she was making all this money,” Kiernan says. “You’ve got to realize, she had always been an intellectual—a New York intellectual. And so the people who had respected her, they look at her again. And she’s now got Susan Sontag nipping at her heels, and Susan is suddenly the intellectual, and she looks a lot purer than Mary does at this point, and styles have changed. So did she sell out deliberately? I don’t think she ever intended The Group to be a big best-seller.”

The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword

Once critics and friends got their swipes in, Vassar classmates took their turn. For years McCarthy had been wounding friends and colleagues by liberally, transparently, and irreverently using them in her fiction. The Group was no different. But where her previous novels had highbrow readerships, vastly smaller, this one was titillating everybody. In her 1992 biography of the author, Writing Dangerously, Carol Brightman notes that among McCarthy’s set “identifying the bodies in the ‘blood-stained alley’ behind The Group quickly became a favorite pastime.” They knew that these girls were based on real people. It didn’t help that McCarthy had hardly changed the names of the victims—for instance, Dottie Renfrew derived from Dottie Newton. Yet she insisted the book could not be called a roman à clef because the girls were “unknown to the public.”
Whatever you call the book, the Vassar class of ’33 viewed it as a betrayal. In a story titled “Miss McCarthy’s Subjects Return the Compliments,” which ran on the front page of the Herald Tribune Book Review in January of 1964, one of the affronted said, “It’s all there—our parents, our habits, our prejudices, our classmates.” Interviewed by the journalist Sheila Tobias, the “real-life” roommates shot back, remembering McCarthy as narcissistic and unkempt. And they were withering about the bun she wore at the nape of her neck, a signature. “She may,” one said, “be the only Vassar girl not to have changed her hairstyle in 30 years.” Writing to Jovanovich in high dudgeon over the “horrible nasty piece,” McCarthy protested that “The Group is an idea, not a study of the actual group disguised—a Platonic ideal.” Sounds like the old conte philosophique defense. She did, however, finally cut her hair.
The provenance of the novel’s most mysterious character, Elinor Eastlake, is to this day a fascinating question. The character is as self-contained as a cat, and in the novel’s final scene—Lakey’s verbal duel, behind the wheel of her car, with Kay’s husband, Harald—she’s mesmerizing, which is to say brilliantly written. Although McCarthy eventually said Lakey owed her “Indian eyes” to Margaret Miller and her “fathomless scorn” to Nathalie Swan, both Vassar classmates, a description that arrives late in the novel superimposes Mary upon Lakey: “They had all cut their hair and had permanents, but Lakey still wore hers in a black knot at the nape of her neck, which gave her a girlish air.” Kiernan believes “she’s many people. I think partly she’s Mary, partly she was Margaret Miller, who had the physical beauty of Lakey. And Helen Dawes Watermulder, from Chicago, she thought she was Lakey.” Others believe that Lakey was based on one person, a Vassar graduate of quiet renown, Elizabeth Bishop.
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A distinguished poet, in literary stature right up there with Robert Lowell (and thus above Mary), Bishop happened to be a lesbian. When she first read The Group, she’d been amused. But, Kiernan writes, friends had persuaded her that “not only was she the model for Lakey … but Lota de Macedo Soares, her Brazilian lover, was the model for the baroness [Lakey’s lover].” Bishop went cold on McCarthy, who as late as 1979 appealed to her in a letter: “I promise you that no thought of you, or of Lota, even grazed my mind when I was writing The Group.
“Mary thought that she had changed certain facts, and Elizabeth thought it was still too close,” says an editor who knew both women. “This is what one thinks: Would there have been a Lakey if there hadn’t been Elizabeth Bishop? The answer is probably no. Lakey is meant to be Mary-like in appearance and Elizabeth-like in superior sensibility. It’s very important to the novel actually, because it’s important to the novel’s tone, which has this superiority, this sense of knowingness about different lives, different people. She clearly had followed these women. Vassar had been very important to Mary as the place where she formed her view of things, and you feel her attempt to locate people socially, where they stood, where their family stood. It’s very much part of her writing and her sensibility, this question of who is superior in American social life.”
Not until 1976, when Esquire published Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque,” a short story that fouled the society dames he called his “swans,” would another work of fiction upset so many women.


Novelists lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young. She once said that the reason you write a novel is “to put something in the world that wasn’t there before,” so she had the artist’s impulse for creation. But she did not have the artist’s trust in stirrings that cannot quite be set to words. She couldn’t leave characters to a fate that was out of her control. This is why the word “novel” keeps slipping off her fiction and why she herself was constantly coming up with other terms for her work.
McCarthy grew to dislike The Group and the best-seller treatment that accompanied it. “I hated the whole business of interviews and TV. I felt I’d been corrupted,” she told the English newspaper The Observer in 1979, “that the world which I despised had somehow eaten its way into me.” There were two more novels and reams of nonfiction. She continued hurling judgments like thunderbolts. One in particular, lightly tossed, wreaked havoc. In 1979, on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asked McCarthy which writers she thought were overrated. “The only one I can think of,” she said, “is a holdover like Lillian Hellman.” She then uttered the actionable sentence, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Hellman was watching, and within weeks, citing defamation of character, she sued McCarthy, Cavett, and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation for $2.5 million. Hellman’s lawyer said she would drop the suit if McCarthy issued a retraction, but McCarthy wouldn’t, because she couldn’t lie. It wasn’t until 1984 that a first ruling came down, and it was in Hellman’s favor. McCarthy planned to appear in court, but Hellman died a month later, and with her the lawsuit. In 1989, McCarthy died of lung cancer. She never had another book as big as The Group.

Roberta Maxwell (Hellman) & Marcia Rodd (McCarthy) last
Roberta Maxwell (Hellman) and Marcia Rodd (McCarthy)
Until the end, admiring writers and journalists made pilgrimages to the apartment in Paris and to Castine, Maine, where the Wests summered in a 19th-century sea captain’s house. While McCarthy remained politically left and in full support of reproductive rights, more than once she commented on her preference for doing things the old-fashioned way. “I like labor-intensive implements and practices. Cranking by hand an ice cream freezer … pushing a fruit or vegetable through a sieve … leaving some mark of the tools on the marble I think it has something to do with the truth.” And again, “I love recipes that involve pushing things through sieves.” In a way it describes her method as a novelist. McCarthy’s plots, their ingredients measured out and mixed with an almost scientific objective in mind, are like recipes—usually for disaster. And instead of fruits or vegetables, it is her characters that get pushed and strained through a sieve.
The poet Robert Lowell, whom McCarthy adored and revered, said something similar but with more eloquence. In a letter to Mary dated August 7, 1963, he described her Vassar girls as “cloistered, pastoral souls breaking on the real rocks of the time.” He went on to include himself in this group of cloistered souls, writing that in the late 30s “we were ignorant, dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear the wilderness.” Leave it to the poet to know an elegy when he sees it. Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.