Issue 119, Summer 1991
Mary McCarthy was working or? the second volume of her “intellectual autobiography” when she died in October 1989. The first volume, which chronicles her life from age thirteen through her years at Vassar and her brief marriage to an actor immediately after graduation, is entitled How I Grew. The title jokingly suggested for the sequel was . . . And Grew.
Mary had a “first reading” contract with The New Yorker, which had published two of the chapters from the first volume but had not taken the first two chapters of the second volume. One always wonders why the work of a brilliant and famous author is turned down. In Mary’s case, the reasons are not complicated. As a prose stylist, she has few peers. It is disconcerting, therefore, to read passages in the autobiography that forgo polish and acerbic wit in order to recall an event or relationship with the greatest possible factual and emotional accuracy. At moments, the narrator seems hesitant, even awkward in her efforts (. . . it may have happened this way. . . I am quite sure. . . not certain. . .) but she has clearly adopted a speculative approach as a sort of sub-style, for the bright beacon of her critical apparatus is on herself now’ and the integrity of her recollections. So although the McCarthy sparkle, candor and hilarity are very much at play, there is a new note of diffidence, of vulnerability.
Mary remarked that the chapter on Edmund Wilson (the third chapter) would be the most difficult for her to write. It was a relief to her when she finished it. The day before she was moved from her room at New York Hospital to the intensive care unit, she told a friend that the Wilson chapter was at The New Yorker. She was never to know it had been rejected, nor that, in the upheaval of moving offices, it was lost for over a year.
Margo Viscusi, one of the trustees of her literary estate and a former secretary’ as well as a good friend, says Mary usually made copies. But Mary was very trusting, and might well have sent the only copy off in those final days at Bard College when she was overwhelmed with work, her usual busy social life and ill health. Mrs. Viscusi also believes that Mary left no unpublished writing, except for notes she made for abook she hoped to write on Gothic architecture. She kept no journals and left no incomplete first drafts. Everything she wrote has been published, except for this last “lost’’ chapter about one of the most celebrated literary marriages of the century.
The following narrative picks up from the preceding chapter which concludes in October 1937 with the young McCarthy, along with the staff of the newly revived Partisan Review, nervously waiting for Edmund Wilson to drop by.
“All of us were on hand for the big occasion: we were hoping to get some thing from him for our first or second number and we wanted to make a good impression. . . .”
He bustled into our office, short, stout, middle-aged, breathy—born May 8, 1895; we others were in our twenties—with popping reddish-brown eyes and fresh pink skin, which looked as though he had just bathed. Perhaps it was this suggestion of baths—the tepidarium—and his fine straight nose that gave him a Roman air. I think he was wearing a gray two-piece suit and a white shirt.
We walked to the Union Square restaurant and took a table on the second floor, above the cafeteria. I was the only woman, but Wilson did not seem to notice me specially. He talked mainly to Dwight [Macdonald] and Fred [Dupee]. Somebody asked for our drink order. We were all, except for Dwight perhaps, nervous and tongue-tied, and a drink would have helped. But Wilson shook his head irritably, as though annoyed by the proposal, and we all meekly followed suit. Probably he didn’t drink and disapproved of the habit. Maybe one of the boys had the courage to order a beer.
That is all I recall of this first meeting. Of course I remembered him from Vassar in my junior year—the year after Axel’s Castle—when he had read a paper on Flaubert with such alarming pauses that Miss Sandison, who had introduced him, had run down to the basement in A very to find him a glass of water:“Vox exhaurit in faucibus.” Now he showed more aplomb as we talked about the new, anti-Stalinist Partisan Review and what we were going to have in our first issues. He agreed that we ought to have something by Trotsky, if we could get it. He may have tried to interest us in his friend Paul Rosenfeld, to be our music critic. We spoke of Andre Gide and his revised view of the USSR, exemplified in a piece I was translating for our second number. Wilson had read it in French, he said, cutting the subject off. As I later learned, he did not think much of Gide. The conversation turned to Travels in Two Democracies, which had described his own trip to Russia, contemporaneous with Gide’s. The title showed how far he had come politically in a little more than a year; that book had been published in 1936. He could no longer call Russia a democracy unless ironically—the trials had happened in between. Essentially his book belonged to the epoch of the Kirov assassination, and perhaps he was slightly embarrassed by his failure to see ahead.