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.