"Our Saint, Our Umpire"

An appreciation of Mary McCarthy, whose literary and political writing is well represented in a new anthology
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I don't suppose my hands ever trembled more than they did in opening a letter —four onionskin pages, airmailed from Paris—that Mary McCarthy wrote to me on March 23, 1973. "Thank you for sending me your honors thesis," she began, "which I have been rather slow to read." I had sent this 152-page disquisition on her work at the urging of my adviser and with, as one biographer says in telling the story, "the innocence of the very young." I was twenty-one.

McCarthy pronounced me, in her letter's first paragraph, "quite a lot wiser and more studious than the adult professionals"—chief among them Alfred Kazin—"who have elected me as their field to trample over." But she went on to ask whether I would "mind a few corrections"—three and a half pages, crowded with elite type, that took exception to my callow suspicions ("I don't use strategies with interviewers. I just try to answer the questions. That is probably hard for a young person to believe of an older one"); my naive politics ("You miss the point of my controversy with Diana Trilling" over what reprisals might follow a Communist takeover of South Vietnam); even my use of the term "gourmet cooking."

I find that phrase abhorrent and would find the thing abhorrent if I was sure what it was. It ought to mean, if anything, very rich, showy dishes, with lots of foie gras, cream, caviar, liqueurs, flambéing—the opposite of good food. I like cooking and do it well, I think. But that ought to be normal. If anybody who takes the trouble to put a decent meal together has to be classed as a "gourmet," that is an odious situation.

Here, addressed to me alone, was the same thrillingly authoritative voice I had heard in her novels, where every character, including the autobiographical heroines, suffered this same lash of "correction." It was the voice I'd heard in her theater criticism, in her memoirs, polemics, and travelogues. If the term "man of letters" had any meaning left, I had decided in picking my thesis subject, this woman had first claim to it. I had her picture—the elegant profile, the terrifying smile—taped to my dorm-room wall. It was "the thinking man's pinup," I told friends.

"Do you plan to be a writer?" she asked, near the close of her letter. Well, if she thought it a legitimate question, then perhaps it was a reasonable aim. The fact is I did plan to be one, and could name the book that had given me the ambition: a volume of her essays, On the Contrary, published in 1961.

Now, thirteen years after McCarthy's death, in time for what would have been her ninetieth birthday, A. O. Scott has assembled a collection of her literary, cultural, and political writing that matches the scope and extends the temporal reach of that (scandalously) out-of-print volume. A Bolt From the Blue distills a half century of McCarthy's nonfiction, and the experience of rereading so much of it at once has made me look more approvingly than I've ever before been able to upon my youth. Say what you will about the scrawny, awkward creature in that dorm room, he had good taste.

McCarthy stumbled into her first important writing, the drama criticism she began composing for Partisan Review in the 1930s. When putting together a collection of these theater pieces a couple of decades later, she recalled, "Being an editor, at least in name, I had to be allowed to do something, and the 'Theatre Chronicle' (we spelled it 'theater') was 'made work,' like the WPA jobs of the period." She came to regard some of her youthful pronouncements as "insufferable," but today's reader, at a much further remove, will find these early pieces, some more than sixty years old, remarkably fresh and funny.

By the early 1940s McCarthy was already and irreducibly her mature critical self, the gaily severe judge Norman Mailer would one day call "our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword." A firm believer in sense over sensibility, she pondered Blanche DuBois's "poetic moment of self-definition" in A Streetcar Named Desire:

She who has never spoken an honest word in her life is allowed, indeed encouraged, to present her life to the audience as a vocational decision, an artist's election of the beautiful, an act of supreme courage, the choice of the thorny way.

Unlike the novel's achievements in realism, which excited McCarthy's ardent championship, drama's attempts in that direction led only to paradox. On stage, she argued, realism became "a depreciation of the real," sinking to its nadir at the middle of the twentieth century in "the Broadway cave-world of the American School playwrights, who have accustomed us to a stage inhabited by apes with complexes."

The typical character of the so-called American realist school is a sub-human member of the lower urban middle class. This creature is housed in a living room filled with installment-plan furniture, some of which will be broken before the play is over.

In dramas of this kind words fail the dramatist and the hero equally.

Our American realists do not try to write badly. Many, like Arthur Miller, strive to write "well," i.e., pretentiously, but like Dreiser in the novel they are cursed with inarticulateness. They "grope." They are, as O'Neill said of himself, "fogbound."

Edmund Wilson, McCarthy's second husband, expressed a certain exasperation that her idea of theater reviewing was to file a "crushing brief against a play." But Scott's varied new compilation reminds us how much entertaining public service McCarthy provided by going after, in the same manner, certain species of contemporary fiction. In 1962 she paid a sort of social worker's call on J. D. Salinger's self-sanctifying Glass family, and reported back:

In Hemingway's work there was hardly 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.

She wondered whether Seymour Glass had killed himself not out of an excess of sensitivity, the usual coroner's ruling, but "because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake."

McCarthy gave her most sustained attention, along with her heart, to the great nineteenth-century novels—English, French, and especially Russian. Scott includes her avid appreciation of Anna Karenina, a novel so sensual as to be "a book of the body," a book "terribly true, almost truer than any novel ought to be," the only novel ever, with its "temple-like Greek logic," to reach the status of tragedy. With perhaps less passion, but greater precision, she wrote "On Madame Bovary" in 1964, deciding that a "central metaphor" of this novel was the lending library, "because it is the inexhaustible source of idées reçues—borrowed ideas and stock sentiments which circulate tritely among the population." Emma's dull husband, Charles, was to McCarthy the hero of the book, uncorrupted as he is by the consumer's lust for fashionable notions and material goods: "The only thing in life he chooses is Emma. She is his first and last piece of self-expression." McCarthy saw Flaubert's book as "the first novel to deal with what is now called mass culture," a subject that was starting to dominate her own fiction at the time she wrote this essay. In fact, Emma Bovary might be regarded as the ninth young woman in The Group.

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Thomas Mallon’s books include the novels Two Moons and Aurora 7, as well as Rockets and Rodeos, a collection of essays.

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