Of the making of books featuring the late critic and novelist Mary McCarthy it seems there is to be no end. In the years since her death in 1989, we have been treated to two biographies, one by Carol Gelderman (1989) and one by Carol Brightman (1992); a snippet by McCarthy herself, Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936-1938 (1992), undoubtedly the beginning of something more extended; a volume of her correspondence with Hannah Arendt (Between Friends, 1995); and Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work, edited by Eve Stwertka and Margo Viscusi (1996). And now there are two new books: Seeing Mary Plain by Frances Kiernan,1 who was for many years the book-review editor of the New Yorker, and Partisans by David Laskin.2
From one point of view, I suppose, none of this is surprising. The author of The Company She Keeps (1942), The Groves of Academe (1952), Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), The Group (1963), Birds of America (1971), and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979) was beautiful, famous, and very, very clever, some would say brilliant. Above all, she was a member of a literary-intellectual community that has itself in recent years become a subject of great historical interest to many people—and, it would appear from Mary’s case, particularly to women.
Seeing Mary Plain is basically a lengthy collection of interviews held together by brief biographical introductions. As the format might suggest, it is a work of hagiography—with piety, you might say, oozing from every pore. And why would her old friends not be pious in speaking on the record? Mary was both a very imposing and a very entertaining woman and had a wide circle of acquaintance; she was ill for quite a long time; and she suffered terribly before she died. The result, however, not only makes for rather dull reading but is also quite uninformative. For if there is anyone toward whom piety is a beclouding attitude, it is Mary McCarthy.
Though she herself now and then affected to believe in the virtue of dutifulness, and came close to it in her relations with Hannah Arendt, her adopted duenna, there was basically not a drop of such feeling in Mary. What she was best and truest at was debunking anything that others applauded, all the way uphill from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to the works of Michelangelo. And this is not to speak of her nearly insatiable taste for the malicious barb that could be aimed at anyone who swam into her ken, including her (allegedly) nearest and dearest. Late in life, it is suggested in Seeing Mary Plain, she was surrounded by younger female acolytes. One trembles to imagine what she herself might have said or written about an aging lady writer caught in that particular light. All of which is to say that in Frances Kiernan’s portraiture Mary is not only not seen plain—she is hardly seen at all.
As for Partisans, whose subtitle is “Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals,” it too focuses heavily on Mary. But it also includes only somewhat less full accounts of five other women: Elizabeth Hardwick, Hannah Arendt, and Diana Trilling, each of whom was very much a “New York intellectual,” and Jean Stafford and Caroline Gordon, neither of whom was. The term “partisans” is of course meant to signify an association with Partisan Review, which was both the magazine and the social center of the New York school of literary intellectuals in the 40’s and 50’s—again with the exception of Jean Stafford, who was for a time married into the circle but whose career took a very different path, and of Caroline Gordon, who was a kind of distant kissing cousin.
David Laskin, who is also the author of a book called A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence, is somewhat at sea in dealing with these women, being, as it seems, exclusively a citizen of his own time. In his introduction he remarks that they belonged to “the last generation before feminism,” and for him this is a very significant statement, if not, indeed, the most significant fact about them. While he does take some account of the literary and political issues that once defined and later bedeviled the community of which they were members, what sets the real theme of this book is the problem that Betty Friedan so famously named “the Woman Question.”
All these women had literary careers, some more successful than others; each of them was taken seriously by her peers; and by the end (Elizabeth Hardwick alone is still among us), each had achieved genuine renown. And yet men, whether as husbands, ex-husbands, or lovers, somehow remained at the center of their lives. Mary McCarthy had four husbands, Hannah Arendt two, Jean Stafford two, and Elizabeth Hardwick, Diana Trilling, and Caroline Gordon one apiece—the last-named condition, one husband, being by far the most keenly absorbing of wifely energies. All six were serious about homemaking, and, with the possible exception of Jean Stafford—whose life was full of sorrows and booze—they were enthusiastic cooks and hostesses, Mary McCarthy perhaps the greatest enthusiast among them. And most bewildering of all to poor David Laskin, when Women’s Lib hit its stride, they all professed disdain for it.
Since they are his heroines, Laskin theorizes that the reason for this contempt must have been inexperience. In his view, they simply “lagged behind women who began working for the first time as a result of the war.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “Rosie the Riveter did not beckon to the likes of Mary McCarthy, Caroline Gordon, Jean Stafford, or Elizabeth Hardwick.”
Partisans is replete with such pricelessly callow nuggets of social analysis, as it is with a great deal of sheer unfiltered gossip—like Frances Kiernan, Laskin did a good deal of interviewing. Some of this gossip was retailed to him by people who were simply not in a position to know what they were talking about; some of it slips outright into the realm of fable. Nor, in his library researches, did Laskin always understand what he was reading—taking at face value, for instance, a frivolous remark of Mary’s about World War II. “For most of us,” she wrote one day with a characteristic flip of the pen, “the war has been a kind of ghastly entertainment.” Despite all his labors, David Laskin is evidently unaware that Mary McCarthy could be the world champion of frivolousness, whether she was speaking about World War II or traveling to Hanoi—which she did in 1968—with eight pieces of luggage in tow.
In offering us the details of these women’s sex lives and marriages—a subject about which none of them, with the exception of Hannah Arendt, was in the least reticent—Laskin unfailingly gets things just wrong enough to be very wrong. There is abundant detail here about Mary McCarthy’s marriage to the critic Edmund Wilson, and Jean Stafford’s and Elizabeth Hardwick’s marriages to the poet Robert Lowell, but almost no understanding of why these women should have wanted these men in the first place or have put up with them for as long as they did.
In Laskin’s eyes, for example, it would appear that Mary married Wilson on a lark—she herself pretty much describes it that way in Intellectual Memoirs. That Wilson was in those years a huge literary authority—a literary authority being an irresistible force in the life of a young woman writer—and that Mary’s career as a writer was probably more than enough for her to stake a marriage on, are ideas that Laskin does not quite grasp. As he makes clear, Mary had a bad time of it, but then, after all, so did Wilson; and in the end she got what was promised by this marriage, though it is certain that he did not. Nor does Laskin appreciate her subsequent marriage to Bowden Broadwater, to which he devotes scant discussion. Though it ended by her dumping Broadwater, all unceremoniously and at long distance, when her fourth and final husband, James West, swept her off her feet during a trip to Europe, she had established with him a real home in New York, and he was absolutely central to that home and her life in it.
As for the two women—Jean Stafford and Elizabeth Hardwick—who married Robert Lowell and afterward paid dearly for it, once again the book fails to provide even a glimmer of understanding. Lowell is described at length as a strange and unbalanced young man who would do such things as camp out in the yard next to the Tennessee home of his mentor Allen Tate. Later we are told, rather in passing, of his having become a major poet. For the rest, we see Lowell mostly in the manic phase of his manic-depressive illness, an illness from which years of shock treatments and various drugs and therapies brought no surcease.
When manic, Lowell sometimes grew violent, and was capable of coming home with a strange woman to whom he had proposed marriage; as the years wore on, the mania grew. It can have been no picnic for his two wives, especially not for Elizabeth Hardwick, who unlike Jean Stafford stayed the course for many years. But if Laskin were paying proper respect to her, he might have noticed that illness, or even fame, was not all there was to Lowell, who when he climbed down from madness was extraordinarily sweet and perceptive and loving. No wonder Hardwick kept hoping for the appearance of some medicine to his distemper—until it was too late and he was off, married to someone else and living in London. (And small wonder, too, that she was later moved to cast a momentary, sisterly glance at the feminists.)
Finally, Laskin turns out to be downright hostile—perhaps more hostile than he himself knows—to the political and literary attitudes of the community of “partisans.” He seems to have absorbed a lot from the published reminiscences of Diana Trilling, who, although a full-fledged member of the community, also carried on intermittent and often fierce warfare against it. Though a literary critic in good standing, she seemed constantly embattled about her status, anxious lest she be thought of as “merely” Lionel Trilling’s wife, and on the lookout for insult. Surely it was she who fed Laskin’s own feminist inclinations with the canard that wives who were not themselves writers counted for nothing among the brutally exclusionary partisans.
To be sure, there was malice aplenty—among others, Mary McCarthy and Philip Rahv (one of Partisan Review‘s two editors) were consummate masters of it. (Hardwick, too, was no amateur.) Beyond mean gossip, often not much more than an easy source of entertainment, there was also an underground current of genuine antagonism. Among the men, this antagonism was like a kind of steady low-level nasal drip. Among the women, it tended to come in flashes—which may be why they were better able to put it to literary use. Whatever the case, these feelings resulted not from the lack of a raised sexual consciousness but above all from the fact that, for more than two decades, the “partisans,” male and female alike, were unable to escape from one another’s clutches.
They were unable to escape for a very good reason: the hatred of both their political and their literary ideas within so much of the world that surrounded them. In the late 1930’s and 40’s, they were anti-Stalinist radicals committed to the literary and artistic avant-garde when prevailing opinion was pro-Stalinist in politics and, in artistic matters, hostile to modernism. By the 1950’s they had become mild leftists and liberal anti-Communists but remained committed to a literary and artistic avant-garde that was itself on the verge of becoming less “avant” and increasingly the stuff of advertising campaigns—and thereby yet a further source of alienation. The “partisan” community would begin to come unstuck in the 60’s, with several defections from among its ranks to the camp of the radical students, and would blow up even further in the 70’s with the onset of neoconservatism.
In fairness to the tin-eared and uncomprehending Laskin, one has to repeat that the literary-political history of this group about which he has absorbed so little is not the real subject of his book. What he is really doing is expressing both awe and a very contemporary puzzlement that such gifted and accomplished women as Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Stafford, Caroline Gordon, and even to some extent Diana Trilling should have managed to get through life without protesting against the condition of women, or venting their anger against the masculine principle, or holding “society” or “patriarchy” responsible for any of their difficulties.
“How could such a thing be possible?” is the question this book was really written to address. If it utterly fails to provide an answer, that is because the question itself arises out of a culture that surrendered without a whisper of resistance to the likes of Germaine Greer, Susan Brownmiller, and Gloria Steinem, with their doctrine of the “injustices” done to them and their sisters throughout history. In this sense, Partisans is not, as it bills itself, a chronicle of the past but a document right out of a stale, weary, and (it is to be hoped) waning feminist present—one that, despite all the books about Mary and the rest, has paid no real heed to her or to any of Laskin’s other putative heroines.
Still, for anyone who knew them, there are small and inadvertent consolations in Partisans. If only poor Mary from her grave could hear that her life was never really touched by the career of Rosie the Riveter, she would undoubtedly be rolling over and over in that state of sparkling amusement that was her most attractive, and in the end her most admirable, quality.
1 Norton, 890 pp., $35.00.
2 Simon & Schuster, 319 pp., $26.00