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Intellectual Memoirs, 1936–1938
by mary mccarthy
harcourt brace jovanovich, 114 pages, $15.95

The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, who died in 1989, was up to the time of her death working on a memoir of her life in the late 1930s, in effect a sequel to her two previous autobiographical works, Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew. Perhaps she meant by the end to have offered up the story of her entire life. It is a story that if honestly told would have taken many turns, literary and historical as well as personal, and would have included among its dramatis personae some of the most fascinating minds of twentieth-century America. Be that as it may, she left behind only a few brief chapters—not even so much the beginning of, as notes toward, a longer work—covering the years 1936-38 and published under the title Intellectual Memoirs.

The years from 1936 to 1938 were, to be sure, eventful, one might even say formative, ones in Mary McCarthy’s own life as well as in that of the New York literary bohemian community of which she had by the time covered in this book come to be a member. For her, this period was among other things the interregnum between her first marriage, entered into in 1933 when she was twenty-one and fresh out of Vassar, and her somewhat hasty—and, she would have us believe, blindly undertaken—second marriage to Edmund Wilson, by then an important literary celebrity. This was also the time that witnessed the commencement of her serious career as a writer and critic, and with it, of a whole group of new friendships that would, after her idiosyncratic fashion, be lifelong ones. Figures like James T. Farrell, Dwight Macdonald, F. W. Dupee, William Phillips, Philip Rahv, and others—most of whom would one day be collectively identified as the “Partisan Review crowd” and as such would until the onset of that cultural swing called the sixties exert a very special kind and degree of literary influence—turn up in McCarthy’s life as mentors, sponsors, and playmates.

For that crowd—and indeed, for every writer and thinker touched by the leftist or liberal ethos of the time—the years covered in these memoirs were a period of fateful and far-reaching political schism, one that would continue to have profound political and cultural consequences for the next half-century. A little over-simply put, this was a split between the Stalinists and their fellow travelers on the one side and the anti-Stalinists on the other. The immediate occasion for this split was the Moscow show trials, which while not the first, were the most directly visible evidence to that date that the Soviet regime had become a murderous dictatorship. There would be a mounting collection of such occasions down through the years, each bringing its own new cohort of anti-Communist intellectuals, but the basic terms of this political battle were being laid down at the moment McCarthy is writing of here. Moreover, the battle extended far beyond the province of mere politics, for people’s capacity to deny the evidence about the nature of Soviet Communism went to the heart of their relation to everything else—art, literature, life itself.

Mary McCarthy, by her own account someone floating more or less recreationally in the waters of literary leftism (the book opens with her memory of marching arm in arm with her lover of the moment in the Communists’ May Day parade shouting “Fellow workers, join our ranks!” and, in her words, “having fun”) was almost accidentally to find herself one day in the anti-Stalinist camp. Her name had without her permission been added to the list of signatories to a petition to secure a fair hearing for Stalin’s arch-enemy Leon Trotsky, and when Communist friends began in their well-known style to hector her and demand that she have her name taken off the list, she dug in her heels and refused. Thus had she made what she describes as “the pivotal decision of my life.”

Pivotal indeed, at least in the near term, for the anti-Stalinists were then and for a long time to come far outnumbered and outpowered among the American literati. Indeed, not until the end of World War II would McCarthy and her friends move beyond coterie status and find their rightful place of prominence in the literary sun.

If floating is the word for her youthful relation to politics, it is doubly so for her relation to sex. The period between her first two marriages seems also to have been devoted to a serious bout of totally unserious bed-hopping. She refers in passing to having slept with this one and that one and the other one, and mentions on one occasion having had three assignations in a single day. Some of this undertaking to compile a sexual record was clearly de rigueur for all the women of bohemia: sleeping around was after all the first, and in those years still meaningful, and at the same time possibly least strenuous, way to épater le bourgeoisie. But in her particular case, the intense lightness of it all sounds not so much conventionally bohemian as affectlessly compulsive.

And if it is possible to characterize her account of becoming an anti-Stalinist as one of having tripped into it, how would one characterize her account of agreeing to marry Edmund Wilson? When she met Wilson, she tells us, she had only recently settled down into being seriously in love, as well as keeping house, with Philip Rahv, the young Russian-Jewish immigrant with a fierce will and intelligence who was co-editor of Partisan Review (for which she had become the theater critic). She spent two evenings with Wilson, on both occasions drunk; and during the second, in his house in Connecticut, she somehow found herself making love to him on the couch. Soon after, he began to press her to marry him. She was young, vital, beautiful, and brilliant, and he was deeply lonely. And though her heart still belonged to Rahv, so she claims, and after a certain amount of dithering pro and con, she agreed. Why? After half a century, she can still only guess. Not for money, she says; Wilson didn’t have that much. Perhaps because Wilson offered intellectual attractions that were beyond Rahv’s capacity—“we were going to read Juvenal together, for example.” Furthermore, she loved the country, as did Wilson, and Rahv was incorrigibly urban. Finally, she thinks she has found the explanation: “It was the same old class struggle Philip and I had been waging from the moment we fell in love. Wilson, relatively speaking, was upper class.”

It is typical of the heroines in Mary McCarthy’s novels, who are always and quite undisguisedly she, that they own up “honestly” to some sin or bad motive in order to conceal a truer failing. In the case of her marriage to Wilson, which had already turned ugly by the wedding night and would remain so for the seven years of its duration, she cheerfully confesses to the role played by snobbery and flatly denies that played by literary ambition. Among the inducements offered her by an importunate Wilson, she tells us, is that he would do something for her as a writer. Rahv would only keep her doing criticism, said Wilson (at which, be it noted, she was even at so early an age quite masterful), whereas he believed in her talent for “imaginative” writing (which would in the event turn out to be small and given to an altogether uncreative mean-spiritedness). Though it is true that without Wilson “I would not be the ‘Mary McCarthy’ you are now reading,” she says, at the time she was not at all moved by the thought of what Wilson might do for her: “It seemed mercenary.”

The very inappositeness of this particular adjective when the issue was that of furthering her literary career, especially for so careful and highly polished a craftsman of words, sets off a small moral smoke alarm—the very same alarm as provides a steady accompaniment to the reading of her novels.

So, then, she was from early on an anti-Communist, but please don’t, dear reader, take it too seriously. She was for a time wildly promiscuous, but don’t imagine that it had the slightest effect on her. She married a man who attracted her very little yet promised her much, but don’t for a moment suppose that she had any responsibility for the ensuing dissonance of their life together. The mental maneuver involved in such evasions is handily served by an almost unbelievably impressive memory for detail. Meals, wines, cocktails, games of bridge and poker, dresses, hats, decor—all are given equal weight with events in the world and affairs of the heart and/or mind. How on earth, the reader is over and over given to wondering, could a woman in her late seventies, who had seen so much and done so much, been in so many places, known so many people, dig out of her mind’s file the little white lamp bought in Macy’s or the tall cocktail shaker designed by Russell Wright or the color of her bedspread in her studio on Gay Street? The author of these memoirs is a woman who has clearly spent a great deal of energy making sure that no one and nothing either escapes her or on the other hand acquires too burdensome a presence in her psyche.

In that sense the book, sketchy as it is, teaches us a great deal about her. Few people have been more malicious about their friends, especially in print—indeed, one of the works that established her as a writer of fiction was a novella called The Oasis, in which the very Philip Rahv whom she loved and betrayed is caricatured so brutally that when it was published, strong men gasped. Yet we can see now that what impelled her in that book was not so much a real feeling of malice as an ungovernable carelessness, in the radical sense of the word. So, too, when the 1960s came along and the world was once again, as it had been in McCarthy’s 1930s, treated to the sight of young people without a care having themselves some old leftist-style “fun,” nothing of her earlier political commitment inhibited her from finding her own way to join in. She went off to North Vietnam, where the really big kids went to play, and returned with an almost scandalously mindless book about the war, about the ugliness of the Americans and the virtues of the North Vietnamese, that was even more an intellectual than a political betrayal of what she had once been thought to stand for.

But there can be no betrayal, neither of the personal nor the political nor the intellectual kind, where there is no loyalty. And there can be no real loyalty where nothing counts for more than anything else. Brief as it is, this book displays great zest, along with suggestions of a high wit and brightness. But to value these qualities too highly is to indulge a childish, as W. H. Auden once put it, “taste for sweets”; when life and art both came to demand more of Mary McCarthy, such wit and brightness sadly proved too light to bear the freight. 

Midge Decter is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash. Image cropped.