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Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals

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From the Depression era of the 1930s through the Vietnam War of the 1960s, a generation of "public intellectuals" thrived in America. They were poets, novelists, critics, and commentators who were also friends, rivals, spouses, and lovers. Their personal relationships were as passionate as their writing. In their poems, novels, and essays they debated one another while producing work that was brilliant and often controversial. Among them are such influential writers as Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell,...
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Photos New York 2000 Hard Cover in Dust Jacket First Edition New/New 6-1/2 x 10 x 1-1/4" 0684815656 2000 First Edition Hardcover book in DJ...BRAND NEW from 2000 ... publisher...Never opened, Never owned...small dot top edge...Jacket protected in New non-stick clear mylar sleeve...Gift Giving quality...320 pages...illustrated with 8 pages of glossy B&W photographs...Superb evocation of New York intellectual life over 3 decades...From the Depression era of the 1930s through the Vietnam war era of the 1960s...a generation of public intellectuals thrived in America...Poets, novelists, critics, commentators...also friends, rivals, spouses and lovers...people like Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Hannah Arendt, Allen Tate, Carolyn Gordon, Diana Trilling...' David Laskin writes about the New York intellectuals of the 1930s as if he'd known them--watched them found Partisan Review; drink themselves to blackout night after night; marry, support, divorce, criticize, and betray one another Read more Show Less

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Overview

From the Depression era of the 1930s through the Vietnam War of the 1960s, a generation of "public intellectuals" thrived in America. They were poets, novelists, critics, and commentators who were also friends, rivals, spouses, and lovers. Their personal relationships were as passionate as their writing. In their poems, novels, and essays they debated one another while producing work that was brilliant and often controversial. Among them are such influential writers as Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Hannah Arendt.

"We were not gentlemen -- or ladies," observed William Phillips, former editor of the Partisan Review, the house organ of the group. "We had strong egos." While the pages of Partisan Review were a forum for political and intellectual controversy, its offices were a hotbed of gossip, intrigue, back-stabbing, and sex. Possessed of enormous ambition, talent, and appetite, the PR circle was an intense, self-enclosed society where creative energy often gave way to self-destructive impulses, alcoholism, and adultery. For women of talent, beauty, and ambition, this literary circle offered unprecedented professional opportunity but also exacted a terrible emotional price.

Mary McCarthy, proudly promiscuous, had an affair with Philip Rahv, then editor of PR, before moving on to a disastrous marriage to Edmund Wilson. Jean Stafford, whose early brilliant stories appeared in PR, succumbed to Robert Lowell's persistent courtship, a decision that would later nearly destroy her. Lowell became a celebrity during his next marriage, to PR insider Elizabeth Hardwick, though Hardwick saw her promising literarycareer founder under the burden of coping with Lowell's recurrent psychosis. Yet, notes David Laskin, several of these marriages and friendships managed to survive and even flourish, with a lifelong bond forming between McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, and with Hardwick and Lowell presiding over the founding of the vibrantly influential New York Review of Books in the early 1960s.

Amidst all the turmoil -- or perhaps because of it -- this brilliant circle continued to produce important work, from McCarthy's scandalous novel The Group to Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, which caused a firestorm of controversy. It was perhaps no coincidence that the women in the group often shone brightest, even though in this prefeminist era they frequently found themselves caught between being writers and being wives or mistresses. They were the first generation of women intellectuals to forge an identity of their own while being attached to equally famous men. But when a new generation emerged to oppose the Vietnam War and then lead the feminist revolution in the late 1960s, they were left behind.

Written with keen insight into both the literature and the personalities behind it, Partisans is an illuminating portrait of a time when politics and poetry were all-consuming passions. David Laskin's Partisans is an important contribution to the cultural history of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Laskin's well-researched, fast-moving group biography brings a new angle to a frequently studied set of writers. From the mid-1930s to the mid-'60s, the poets, fiction writers and political thinkers associated with New York's Partisan Review shaped the intellectual and literary climate of their era. Following the careers of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt, Laskin (A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence) reexamines their works and reputations, but focuses on their romances and their marriages, and on the roles of the women in particular--"the last generation of women before feminism," as Laskin says insistently. The women of the Partisan set believed in their own intellectual powers, but (with the sometime exception of McCarthy) felt obliged to follow traditional gender roles, caring for and cleaning up after men who sometimes behaved very badly. When full-fledged feminism arrived, Laskin argues, it left them behind. Laskin provides superb, evenhanded and never lurid coverage of the affairs and divorces almost all the Partisan writers endured: he follows their public careers in avid detail, adding new light on disputed occasions. (Some of his conclusions reflect his interviews with Hardwick, whose following this book ought to increase.) By design, Laskin attends to these writers' lives at times far more than to their writings. Readers seeking nuanced interpretations of individual poems and essays should look elsewhere; those hoping for facts and insights into the New York intellectuals' troubled and talented lives will have come to the right place. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The Partisan Review (PR) was arguably the most important intellectual journal of mid-century America. Significant for the high quality of its literary and political writing, PR was also one of the first journals to accept women in influential positions. In this frank and sometimes disturbing group biography, Laskin (A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence) explores the brilliant, troubled lives of PR's major writers. The "partisans" were unlucky in love, and the book chronicles a number of their contentious marriages. Poet Robert Lowell emerges from Laskin's narrative as a man tormented by mental illness, while his wife, novelist Jean Stafford, struggles increasingly with alcoholism. The free-thinking Mary McCarthy, a novelist and powerful force at PR, accuses her critic husband, Edmund Wilson, of assaulting her while pregnant. In a culture of heavy drinking, adultery, and professional rivalry, many of the marriages could not survive. Yet despite their personal demons, these writers remained remarkably creative and prolific. Recommended for both public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/99.]--Ellen Sullivan, Ferguson Lib., Stamford, CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Nancy Miller
For years there was talk in feminist circles about whether a man - almost set off by scare quotes—"a man"—could write a feminist book. That question doesn't come up these days but in case you were wondering, David Laskin can—and has.
Kirkus Reviews
A largely anecdotal account, covering the late 1930s to the late `60s, of what Alfred Kazin called "a tiny incestuous fiefdom": the intellectual couples around the Partisan Review, perhaps the era's most influential cultural and political journal. Laskin (A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship, 1994) focuses on the women writers and intellectuals in the circle, particularly novelists Mary McCarthy and Jean Stafford, critic Elizabeth Hardwick, political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and novelist Carolyn Gordon (the latter, and her husband, the Southern poet Allen Tate, were not really members of the PR circle, but frequently intersected with it). They are largely revealed through their often stormy marriages to, respectively (excepting Gordon), first PR founding co-editor Philip Rahv and then critic Edmund Wilson, poet Robert Lowell, Lowell again, and émigré political activist Heinrich Bluechner. With the exception of the Arendt-Bluechner tie, all the marriages were stormy, characterized by drinking, furious fighting (and sometimes physical violence), breakdowns, and ultimately divorce. If Laskin's group profile at times is light on intellectual analysis, it is rich in anecdotal material, reflecting his extensive research and interviewing. For example, he deftly portrays Hardwick, Lowell's wife during a period when he suffered repeated hospitalizations for manic episodes, as his "jailer, target, nurse, the betrayed and the betrayer, the wounded, the furious, the fury, and always in the end the fount of forgiveness, solace, security." Unfortunately, at other times, Laskin focuses too narrowly on the pathologies of his often deeply flawed, butstill remarkably productive, protagonists and indulges in naive judgments. Noting, for example, that during the last six years of their marriage, Stafford and Lowell went "without sex and without love affairs," he maintains that "for two people in their twenties [this] doesn't seem possible." Yet despite these stylistic lapses, Laskin's work focuses an entertaining, absorbing, and informative lens on a singular moment in American cultural history, one shaped largely by a small, close-knit, often backbiting, yet remarkably creative group, one whose women were always influential and sometimes brilliant. (8 pages b&w photos)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684815657
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 1/6/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.54 (w) x 9.63 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Table of Contents

Introduction
One: Partisan Review Reborn
Two: The Southern Branch
Three: Seven Years of Hell
Four: Country Wives
Five: The War
Six: Divorces
Seven: The Tranquilized Fifties: Insanity and Liberalism
Eight: The Early 1960s: Firestorms
Nine: The Late 1960s: Dispersal
Epilogue: Deaths
Notes
Bibliography
Index
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First Chapter

Chapter 1: Partisan Review Reborn Even Mary McCarthy, a demon for uncovering hidden motives, is a little uncertain about how or why she was included on the masthead of the Partisan Review -- the sole woman in a company of ambitious, combative young men -- when the magazine was reborn in December 1937. "None of the histories I've looked at tells how I happened to be on the magazine," she wrote five decades later in her memoir of the period. "I am not sure myself, but I suspect that Philip imposed me on the others. And they were not altogether pleased." Philip Rahv, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine with whom McCarthy was then living, was PR's coeditor. Being Rahv's "girl," as they said back then, gave McCarthy standing -- but only so much. "[T]he boys...made me the theatre critic," she wrote, "not trusting my critical skills in other fields." McCarthy was twenty-five years old, four years out of Vassar, recently divorced, soon to marry Edmund Wilson, and on the threshold of a brilliant literary career that took her far beyond the confines of theater reviewing. Partisan Review also stood on the threshold of brilliance: for the next twenty-five years it would reign as New York's most influential intellectual journal, making (and in some cases breaking) the reputations of a generation of American writers: male writers primarily -- men such as Delmore Schwartz, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, Lionel Abel, and James Agee -- but also some exceptional women, including McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, and, to a lesser extent, Jean Stafford, Eleanor Clark, and Elizabeth Bishop. For a long stretch, in literary New York, winning favor with the PR "boys " was the surest way to make yourself heard.

PR's rebirth coincided with -- and was in part caused by -- the Depression, which had been going on for eight grim years, long enough that it no longer felt like a departure from prosperity but like a dark hole that the world had fallen into. Among writers and intellectuals, the Depression precipitated what one social observer called a "spiritual and intellectual migration...to the left." Marxist politics of some stripe became practically de rigueur among the intellectual elite. The pitched battles of the day were fought not between left wing and right wing, but within the Left itself: Stalinists versus Trotskyites, Communist Party members versus those who did not or would not join, mild socialists versus fanatical hard-liners who took their cues directly from Moscow. As Elizabeth Hardwick recalled several decades afterward, "In that circle, the Soviet Union, the Civil War in Spain, Hitler and Mussolini, were what you might call real life."

It was in this heated Red atmosphere that the original Partisan Review was launched in 1934 as an organ of the Communist John Reed Clubs. "We shall combat not only the decadent culture of the exploiting classes," the editors declared aggressively in the first issue, "but also the debilitating liberalism which at times seeps into our writers through the pressure of class-alien forces." That was the literary tone of the day. The magazine folded without funds two years later, when the Party abruptly dissolved the John Reed Clubs as a result of a sudden political shift in Moscow. Then, in 1937, Philip Rahv and William Phillips, having secured financing from a well-heeled abstract painter named George L. K. Morris, brought PR back to life in a new, radically independent guise: Marxist but anti-Stalinist, and dedicated to the cause of literary modernism. "We think that the cause of revolutionary literature is best served by a policy of no commitments to any political party," ran the "Editorial Statement" in the first independent issue, dated December 1937. "The Partisan Review aspires to represent a new and dissident generation in American letters." An all-star lineup turned out for the opening issue: Delmore Schwartz (whose memorable story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" ran as the lead piece), Edmund Wilson writing on Flaubert's politics, Wallace Stevens, Lionel Abel, James Agee, Dwight Macdonald (who wrote an essay slamming the New Yorker magazine for interposing "a decent veil" between "reality and its readers," for overindulging in whimsy and trivia, and for remaining "ostentatiously neutral" in "the class war"), and Mary McCarthy on theater. The marriage of Marxism and modernism was not always a happy one (after all, Eliot, Pound, and Yeats -- ranking deities within the modernist pantheon -- were notorious for their right-wing politics), but the magazine seemed to thrive on controversy, tension, upheaval, and dissent. High-toned, fiercely contentious, merciless, brilliant, rough, competitive, and exclusive, PR was a world unto itself, both socially and intellectually. After Philip Rahv died in 1973, The New York Times Book Review stated flatly that PR had held sway for thirty years as the "best literary magazine in America": "It would be hard to overestimate the cultural importance of Rahv's and Phillips's decision to break with Stalinism without abandoning the social and political ideals (and analytic technique) of the Marxist tradition."

But it wasn't all high-minded analysis and embattled idealism down at the seedy little PR office near Union Square. There was also plenty of gossip, intrigue, and back stabbing, as well as off-hours boozing and competitive sex. It was a milieu that fit McCarthy perfectly. She and Rahv were a striking couple -- McCarthy with her bohemian unshaven legs and drab clothing (she would soon abandon this look for more elegant attire and grooming), loose hair, brightly fixed smile, scrubbed Irish complexion; Rahv with his dark, hooded appearance, liquid bedroom eyes, gruff accent, and bulky, big-shouldered, pugnacious style. McCarthy was "not quite beautiful, and too good-looking to be called pretty," PR editor William Barrett wrote of his first impression of seeing McCarthy with Rahv at the magazine's office. There was something "wayward and even gamine about her....Nobody seeing her for the first time would have surmised that this striking and vivid girl would prove to be one of the most brilliant women and formidable intellectuals of her time." Dwight Macdonald, another crony from the early days at PR and a close friend then and after, made a memorable wisecrack about the ferocity of this "vivid girl": "Mary's smile is very famous. It's not what it seems at all. It's a rather sharkish smile. When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open." "Bloody Mary" became one of her nicknames. "She would say devastating things to people," a friend told one of her biographers, "and because she was totally honest and never pulled any punches, people were terrified of her. People are afraid of extreme cleverness and a sharp tongue and pen." As Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who liked and admired her very much, wrote, "She thoroughly believed in offending people. She believed in provocation as incitement to thought, to reform, to life itself."

Rahv was just as formidable and intimidating, though more guarded in his provocations. Only twenty-nine when he and McCarthy met, he was already a major player in literary/socialist New York -- an opinion maker, a heated debater, a brilliant editor, often a bully, who, by force of will and grit, ambition and political savvy, made PR very much "his" magazine (even their initials were the same). Rahv was too bearish and shambling to be handsome -- "He would lurch across the room," recalled Irving Howe, "weighty, unnerving, like a capsized ship"; but he had a sexual magnetism -- "primitive, even animal-like," Diana Trilling wrote with a little frisson -- that attracted women. And he was never one to restrain himself sexually. Yet for all his smolder and swagger there was something of the tense, insecure arriviste about Rahv. Howe described him as "a somewhat timid man" and noted that though his magazine had "a polemical air," Rahv himself "was not really much of a fighter, for he shared both the uneasiness of the immigrant (you had to watch your step in this land of the goyim) and the anxieties of the ex-Communist." "In a certain way Rahv was not presentable," as a younger colleague puts it. Lionel Abel found him "sharp, crude and outspoken. And full of clichés. He was always careful and cautious because he had no college training. Everything he knew he picked up by himself." He was a schemer, a deflater of reputations, and, when it suited him, a back stabber. Abel recalls him growling on one occasion, "Don't give me that crap called friendship." Delmore Schwartz, master of the sly put-down, once said, "Philip does have scruples, but he never lets them stand in his way." But although he blu stered and barked in debate, Rahv shrank from physical violence (Barrett recounts the elaborate measures Rahv took to avoid a confrontation with the art critic Clement Greenberg, who had a reputation, albeit exaggerated, for socking his adversaries). Jason Epstein says that despite his "big bluster" Rahv was really like Ferdinand the Bull -- he just wanted to sit under a tree and smell the flowers. For all his intellectual energy, there was a slothful, luxury-loving side to Rahv. "[H]e loved Henry James and every kind of rich, shimmery, soft texture in literature and in the stuff of experience," McCarthy wrote of him in a fond memorial essay published in The New York Times Book Review. Alongside his masculine persona, which she identified with politics and aggressiveness, there existed a feminine side -- artistic and dreamy -- that the world rarely saw. An avowed Marxist and advocate of revolution, Rahv nonetheless gazed longingly through the shiny plate glass of social prestige, rootedness, and standing on the American scene. He had a penchant for rich women -- "a tropism for money not of his earning," as Diana Trilling put it -- and married twice into considerable wealth, the first time to McCarthy's Social Register Vassar classmate Nathalie Swan, an architect. Breeding and class status preyed on his mind: he was always telling people that Robert Lowell was not a real Lowell (in fact he was, though not an especially rich one).

McCarthy and Rahv met in 1936 at one of the Sunday open-house parties that leftist novelist James T. Farrell hosted at his Greenwich Village apartment, and they connected again when McCarthy, who was then working as a reader for Covici-Friede publishers, asked Rahv to look over a German text (the son of Ukrainian Zionists, Rahv had emigrated to Israel with his parents as a youth before settling in America in 1922, acquiring a knowledge of Russian, German, Hebrew, and some French along the way). "We talked a little in the waiting-room," McCarthy recalled. "He had a shy, soft voice (when he was not shouting), big, dark, lustrous eyes, which he rolled with great expression, and the look of a bambino in an Italian sacred painting. I liked him. Soon he was taking me out to dinner in the Village, holding my elbow as we walked, and soon we were lovers."

McCarthy had been out of college and living in New York for only four years, but already she had acquired a practiced, worldly nonchalance about her love affairs. Born in Seattle in 1912 to charming, attractive, well-to-do parents, she was orphaned at the age of six, when the great influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 killed her mother and father within days of each other. She spent five grim years in Minneapolis as the ward of her shabby, abusive, stupid aunt and uncle -- a trauma she reconstructed in gory detail in her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Eventually, her wealthy Seattle grandparents "rescued" her (leaving behind her three brothers), brought her back to their plush home overlooking Lake Washington, and sent her to boarding school and then on to Vassar College. But the nightmare in Minneapolis marked Mary for life (in her memoir, written nearly three decades later, she still burns with angry resentment over the beatings, the inane, rigidly enforced rules, the tape applied to mouths each night before bed to stifle mouth breathing, the shabby clothes, the paucity of books and toys, the suffocating atmosphere of deceit and deprivation). At Vassar, she cast a cold, curious eye on the customs and habits of the rich eastern girls. Occasionally she was invited to their Manhattan town houses and Hudson Valley country estates, but she never really belonged "in society." In a funny way, she never belonged anywhere, except in the theater of her imagination. "She had a defective sense of reality," says Random House editor Jason Epstein, who saw a good deal of her in the 1950s and '60s and clearly never cared for her very much. "She was always performing. She invented herself -- her best theatrica l work was her self -- the brilliant, sexy ex-Catholic." The poet Elizabeth Bishop, who knew McCarthy at Vassar and maintained a wary friendship with her from then on, made a similar observation in a letter to a friend: "Oh poor girl, really. You know, I think she's never felt very real, and that's been her trouble. She's always pretending to be something-or-other and never quite convincing herself or other people." That eternal pretense turned out to be beside the point; McCarthy would succeed in her performance even without fully believing in her character.

She set about the task of self-creation in the brisk, rather calculating fashion of one of Balzac's heroes. At Vassar, she'd been "seeing" an actor and struggling playwright named Harold Johnsrud, and as soon as she graduated in the spring of 1933, she married him (she rechristened him Harald Petersen in The Group but changed little else about him aside from the name). It's far from clear that Mary loved John, as she called him, or even cared very much for him. But being married was essential to her persona, and John was a willing mate and promising enough prospect. They moved into a sublet apartment in the East Fifties and together faced down the grim, strident New York of the early Depression. The marriage ended three years later.

McCarthy covered a terrific amount of ground in her first few years in New York -- swiftly launching a career as a book and theater reviewer, carrying on multiple love affairs of varying degrees of intensity and duration once she'd discarded Johnsrud, toying briefly with marrying again, and drifting into and out of interlocking social and political circles, all more or less left-wing, hard-drinking, and bohemian. Back in those days, reviewing books for one of the intellectual journals was the way to make a name for yourself with the people who mattered. McCarthy distinguished herself almost immediately for the hard, sharp, metallic gleam of her style and for her precocious assumption of authority. "She had such tremendous confidence so young," recalls Elizabeth Hardwick, "it was as if she came out of the head of Zeus. I remember reading a piece of hers in The New Republic, a review of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children. I violently disagreed with what she said, but I still found it brilliantly written. I was struck by the confidence and gracefulness of her prose and how she had it from the beginning." Diana Trilling, though she had almost nothing good to say about McCarthy as a person, couldn't help admiring her literary style, as she wrote grudgingly in her memoirs: "There was a shine on everything she wrote, and whatever she wrote was always a statement of her sense of her own power." Alfred Kazin also remarked on the high gloss of her prose -- "the crispness, hardness, shininess of her performance," as he put it -- but he saw it not as the gleam of acuity but rather as the glint of sharpened steel: "She had, I thought, a wholly destructive critical mind, shown in her unerr ing ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure -- surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity."

McCarthy consolidated her power and her reputation when she published a searing five-part series of articles in The Nation called "Our Critics, Right or Wrong" in which she "took on" as she put it "the entire critical establishment." Though Nation editor Margaret Marshall was technically her collaborator and was billed in the magazine as her coauthor, McCarthy claimed later that she had actually done almost all the writing herself. The series was "an immense succès de scandale," according to McCarthy -- just the kind of "succès" she relished most. She was only twenty-three years old, and already she was weighing in as an intellectual contender.

Rahv, four years McCarthy's senior, looked, acted, and came across as a considerably older man -- a man of authority, strong opinions, and emphatically blunt expression (he was famous for his way of barking out "dis" and "dat"). Rahv was the quintessential immigrant intellectual. Instead of Harvard or Yale or even City College of New York, where many of New York's smart immigrant kids went in the 1930s and 1940s, he got his education standing on breadlines, sleeping on park benches, and immersing himself in books in the great high-ceilinged reading room of the New York Public Library. He came by both his politics and his passion for English and American literature straight from the source, without official sanction or professorial mediation. As an editor, Rahv took seriously Trotsky's dictum that "Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself." It was quality that mattered to him above all, even more than dogma, and Rahv had a nose for it -- for the new, the original, the pulse-quickening, the controversial. Rahv was PR's catalyst and prime mover, a born editor who trusted his gut and wrung the best prose out of those who wrote for him. Rahv, the pen name he invented for himself, means "rabbi" in Hebrew (he was born Greenberg), and that was the role he played: the one who first read and interpreted text, who set the tone, led the debate, and silenced, when he could, dissenters. So what if PR's Marxism gradually withered away as aesthetics muscled out revolution? Rahv published what he liked because he liked it, and for a run of two and a half decades what he liked was by general consent what thinking people felt they had to read. Rahv , who was not an especially brilliant writer or commanding theoretician himself, had influence. And for McCarthy, as for many other smart, ambitious young women, this was surely part of his sex appeal.

Though he could be overbearing and demanding, Rahv seems to have given McCarthy her freedom during their love affair and to have enjoyed seeing what she did with it. "Mary McCarthy was the 'bright light' of the Partisan Review," Alfred Kazin recalled with a snarl. "Why? Because she frightened all those timorous Jews." Frightened or not, Rahv was very much taken with her in every way -- and she with him -- and they promptly moved in together. Not that they didn't argue. "Sex and arguing," McCarthy wrote later, were "the only pleasures that were considered 'serious'" during the "sectarian thirties." She and Rahv had plenty of both in the improbably swanky Beekman Place apartment ("severely elegant modern furnishings, all glass, steel, and chrome on thick beige rugs") that Mary borrowed from rich friends. The plebeian (his own word) Rahv felt "compromised by that apartment," according to McCarthy, and embarrassed to receive his socialist comrades there; while McCarthy, secretly reveling in the tony address, clung to her bourgeois pleasures. "We polarized each other," she wrote in Intellectual Memoirs:


That was perhaps why we quarreled so much that summer, although we were greatly in love. It was a class war we fought, or so he defined it. I defended my antecedents, and he his. He boasted of Jewish superiority in every field of endeavor, drawing up crushing lists of Jewish musicians and scientists and thinkers...with which no Gentile list could compare....He was a partisan of what he called "plebeian" values -- he loved that word. I stuck up for patrician values, incarnate, as I imagined, in the professional class I issued from, exemplified by my grandfather....Anyway we argued amid the glass and the chromium. Philip brought an enormous zest to the exercise. Dispute was his art form. In some part of his quite complex mind, it entertained him to hear us go at it.


In a way, their relationship itself was an argument -- against convention, for "free unions" (McCarthy's term). The fact that they were living together, and in Beekman Place yet, was shocking even to their radical downtown friends. In 1937, it simply wasn't done. Delmore Schwartz, irked by their public displays of affection, began referring to her as "the whore." Lionel Abel recalls that what the other male contributors noticed was not her prose style but her legs. McCarthy didn't care. She was getting published and talked about, and she was having a wonderful time with Rahv, even with all their brawls over religion, art, and interior decoration. McCarthy was living the ultimate fantasy of the ambitious, "artistic" Vassar girl: reaping the pleasures and rewards of the "liberated" woman without embracing the dreary, dowdy rhetoric of women's rights. For McCarthy, the affair with Rahv was an idyll, a final patch of warm, youthful, erotic Eden before the fall -- before Wilson.


It pleased McCarthy in 1937, and it would still please her fifty years later, to shine in the eyes of her old Vassar classmates, to dazzle and shock them. They were an extraordinarily gifted and privileged group, these women with whom she had lived for four years on the college's stately green Hudson Valley campus. Poets Elizabeth Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser, writer Eleanor Clark (later married to Robert Penn Warren) and her sister Eunice (married for a time to the magazine editor and critic Selden Rodman), the painter Margaret Miller, the architect Nathalie Swan (who became Philip Rahv's second wife), and musicologist Frani Blough were all at Vassar at the same time as McCarthy, and all were to remain in her life in some fashion from then on, if not as friends then as colleagues, competitors, and judges, the people she played to, the audience whose smiles and envy she most wanted to elicit. This was not "the group" of the notorious novel -- those rich, wide-eyed, self-deceived, sexually eager but inexperienced future suburban matrons she satirized so gleefully -- but rather the circle of aesthetes with whom McCarthy started a short-lived, anonymously written magazine called Con Spirito. These girls were at Vassar not to acquire social poise and polish, which most of them didn't need, but to steep themselves in the best and brightest minds of Western culture, to learn how to argue, dissect, and synthesize, to recognize and praise the deserving and decry the inferior -- in short, to prepare themselves to be Mary McCarthys. And Vassar was the place to do it. Though it was still the college of choice for society girls, it also offered intellectual women a rigorous, stimulating, challenging curric ulum; thus it was elite in both senses. As McCarthy later wrote wryly, she expected Vassar to be a "Forest of Arden and a Fifth Avenue department store combined." Without being explicitly or dogmatically feminist, Vassar encouraged its women to take themselves seriously and to play as equals on the same field as men. McCarthy, the outlander orphan from Seattle, never quite fit in with her confident, discreet East Coast classmates -- "I was not ill-bred but untrained and 'wild'...very outspoken and extreme in all my enthusiasms and dislikes," she told an interviewer after The Group appeared in 1963 -- but she came to embody the Vassar ideal. The fame and success she achieved carried the Vassar stamp of approval.

Though McCarthy was the only one who made it to the PR inner circle, several other Vassar women were affiliated with the magazine back in the late 1930s and early 1940s: Elizabeth Bishop and Eleanor Clark published some of their first work in PR; Nancy Rodman Macdonald, a graduate of the class of 1932 and PR editor Dwight Macdonald's wife, worked as business manager; and Nathalie Swan entered the PR orbit when she married Rahv soon after McCarthy left him. Their appearance in the pages of PR was a sign of the magazine's prestige and the women's ambition. As Diana Trilling, who aspired to publish in PR alongside her husband, Lionel, put it, "In those days, for anybody with intellectual ambition, to publish in PR was to have made it." Neither Diana Trilling, who had gone to Radcliffe, nor the vivid young Vassar graduates of the 1930s challenged the fact that only men made the decisions that counted.

McCarthy was seeing a lot of her college friends during these first few years in New York, and she was being talked about by everyone who saw her. She flourished on indiscretion. In college she had a reputation for knowing and doing more sexually than anyone else, and in New York she capitalized on this. But knowing and doing more sexually wasn't enough; everyone else had to know what she was doing too. For McCarthy, sex was something of a spectator sport, even if the onlookers were only imaginary (recall Dottie Renfrew in The Group engaging in a prolonged mental dialogue with her Vassar friends and mother when she loses her virginity to the sexy, dissolute Dick Brown). Graphic, anatomically explicit couplings were a trademark of McCarthy's fiction and memoirs, and she could be astonishingly frank in person too. Mary set herself up as a fearless sexual adventurer, but there was a competitive, compulsory cast to her erotic exploits, as if the sex didn't "count" unless it got toted up, analyzed, broadcast, and preserved for posterity. How else to account for the joyless, malodorous Pullman car quickie in "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt" or a revelation like this from her posthumous Intellectual Memoirs:


It was getting rather alarming. I realized one day that in twenty-four hours I had slept with three different men....I was able to compare the sexual equipment of the various men I made love with, and there were amazing differences, in both length and massiveness. One handsome married man, who used to arrive with two Danishes from a very good bakery, had a penis about the size and shape of a lead pencil; he shall remain nameless. In my experience, there was usually a relation to height, as both Philip Rahv and Bill Mangold, both tall men, bore out....None of my partners, the reader will be relieved to hear, had a venereal disease.


Though she pretends to be blasé ("rather alarming," "in my experience," "the reader will be relieved to hear"), McCarthy is clearly swaggering. Curiously, most of the sex in McCarthy's fiction is awkward and degrading for both partners: either the man is a rapist or arrogant or impotent or his "equipment" is the wrong size or shape; the woman can't enjoy herself because she's worried about what it means or how she'll look in the eyes of the world or whether it will lead to anything "serious." As Elizabeth Hardwick wrote acutely in a 1961 (pre-The Group) essay on McCarthy, "In her fiction, shame and curiosity are nearly always found together and in the same strange union we find self-condemnation and the determined pursuit of experience; introspective irony and flat, daring action....The heroine, in these encounters, feels a sense of piercing degradation, but it does not destroy her mind's freedom to speculate; her rather baffling surrenders do not vanquish her sense of her conqueror's weaknesses and absurdities." For McCarthy, sex was not a path to liberation or self-fulfillment but a test, a trap, a status symbol like matching luggage or an embarrassing defect like bad teeth. A shaming "should" trails behind McCarthy's sex scenes: it should have been better, more frequent, more passionate, consummated with someone else. McCarthy's women are as sexually free as her men, but their freedom yields only disappointment. It's as if sex were a contest that every woman is doomed to lose -- except the author herself.

Most of the literary women of McCarthy's generation were also sexual adventurers -- Hardwick, Hellman, Bishop, and to a lesser extent Stafford -- racking up many more partners and spouses than their mothers did. In a sense, sexual adventurism was the badge of their generation, the thing they had in common and that distinguished them from previous generations. Sex was their favorite topic of gossip and speculation, a contest they carried on with an intense awareness of one another. Of the women in this group, no one was as driven, self-conscious, or frank about sex as Mary. From Vassar on, she prided herself on her well-publicized promiscuity.


McCarthy did not stay on the PR editorial board for very long, as Diana Trilling noted in her memoirs, but she remained, in Trilling's words, "one of its most valued contributors." Mary may have entered the PR orbit as Rahv's girlfriend, but she soon became one of the boys -- accepted and respected as Trilling never would be. "To enter a man's world and to hold one's own there -- intellectually and sexually!" PR editor William Barrett marveled in his memoirs. "Mary McCarthy certainly did that intellectually, and from what one would gather from her writings, as well as from other reports, sexually too. So much so indeed, that she rather struck terror into some male bosoms." In fact, Elizabeth Hardwick and to a lesser degree Hannah Arendt were the only women who ever rivaled McCarthy's standing on the magazine. "Mary was talented and beautiful and hard-working -- and there were fewer talented women back then," Lionel Abel says today, trying to account for her unique position. "Yes, she could be malicious, but even her maliciousness had a kind of elegance about it. At the parties, people came with their wives, but she was a writer. She was with the boys." Nobody, including McCarthy herself, thought to remark the oddness of this: it was just how things were. For McCarthy, the real distinction was not gender but politics and what we would call "lifestyle": "I remained, as the Partisan Review boys said, absolutely bourgeois throughout," she told an interviewer. "They always said to me very sternly, 'You're really a throwback. You're really a twenties figure.'...I was wounded. I was a sort of gay, goodtime girl from their point of view. And they were men of the Thirties. Very se rious. That's why my position was so...lowly." Lowly or not, McCarthy was in her element on PR; it was her natural habitat, and the friends she made in these heady months of the magazine's rebirth -- Dwight Macdonald, a rumpled Yale-educated radical who shaped and shared her political views; William Phillips, Rahv's moderate, cautious coeditor (and increasingly, as years went by, his bate noire); critic Fred Dupee; and of course Rahv himself -- would remain her comrades and allies for decades.

McCarthy's rivalry with Diana Trilling dates back to this period or shortly afterward, when Trilling began publishing book reviews in The Nation. Diana's husband, Lionel Trilling -- a rising star of the Columbia University English Department, one of the first Jews to get tenure at Columbia, a lucid prose stylist, an appealingly modest man whom many women found extremely attractive -- was writing regularly for the revitalized PR, and Mary and Diana inevitably encountered each other at the never-ending PR cocktail parties. The two women had met, McCarthy recalled, at a downtown Trotskyite meeting, and Mary was struck by Diana's beauty: "[W]ith her dark eyes and flaring nostrils, she looked like Katherine Cornell. Among Stalinist males, I heard, the Trotskyists were believed to have a monopoly of 'all the beautiful girls.'" But once she married Lionel, Diana ceased to register with McCarthy as either a beauty or a Trotskyite and devolved into a mere wife. This may have been the root of the problem between them. For in the PR world wives were invisible, negligible -- except when they were sleeping with you -- and in Mary's mind Diana would always remain a wife even after she began to publish. In her memoirs, Trilling writes sardonically of her remarkable metamorphosis from "marital appendage" to serious player after she began to write for The Nation: "Now at Partisan Review parties it was as if I had all at once acquired new power of mind or a new endowment of personal charm; the other writers could talk to me without the fear that they were squandering time." But McCarthy steadfastly refused to recognize Trilling's new and improved status: in her mind, Trilling would always be something of an upstart, a grasping ambitious wife who had clawed her way to prominence on the power of her husband's name. (Trilling recounts in her memoirs how she agonized over whether to sign her reviews with her maiden or married name: the PR boys "were united in the advice that I write under my maiden name; they feared that I was going to be an embarrassment to Lionel. But Lionel was adamant that I write as his wife."). It was inconceivable to McCarthy to write as anyone's wife, even after she married the far more estimable Edmund Wilson.

Diana Trilling wanted to be recognized and valued as both writer and wife (and later on, mother), and that was part of why McCarthy, along with Elizabeth Hardwick and Hannah Arendt, looked down on her. They, of course, were wives too (and McCarthy and Hardwick were also to become mothers), and the conflicts that Diana Trilling experienced between her writing and her loyalty to her husband and family were familiar to all of them. But it was Trilling's sin to make a fuss over it. "In the actual conduct of our lives Lionel and I silently accepted the premise that my first responsibility was to my home and family," Trilling writes in her memoir. "Had this been put in words, I daresay that even as far back as the thirties and forties I would have protested it. But so long as it was not formulated, I was able to deceive myself that it was a matter of free will and competence that I took on the tasks of the home....That the addition of a professional job to woman's homemaking occupations demands the expenditure of double energies was not a subject which was much discussed in my generation. Lionel wanted as much for me in self-realization -- but how he would have hated that word! -- as he wanted for himself. I wanted as much for him as he wanted for himself and more than I wanted for myself. There was nothing special about this. It was the way that nice girls were raised."

McCarthy knew all about this double duty, of course; indeed, she prided herself on how successfully and seemingly effortlessly she pulled off her dual labors. But she would have quailed at Trilling's self-serving, breast-beating tone. McCarthy and the literary women she was close to considered themselves exceptions to the rules that bound ordinary women, including Diana Trilling. They didn't want or need to protest: they believed that the quality of their work won them an exemption from the conventions of middle-class wifeliness and motherhood. And to some extent they were right: McCarthy, Hardwick, Arendt, and even Jean Stafford for a time did have standing with the boys, far more than Diana Trilling.

At bottom, McCarthy's dislike of Trilling reveals more about herself than about Trilling's failings. Trilling was a convenient punching bag. And punching her was a way of disguising how much Mary had in common with her. Over the years, Trilling remained a second-class citizen in the eyes of McCarthy and company; being almost one of them was worse than being nothing at all.


McCarthy was the marrying kind, and so was Rahv, but there never seemed to be any question of marriage between them. Living together, even on swanky, decidedly non-Marxist Beekman Place, suited both of them better. Rahv, as it turned out, was already married but couldn't (or wouldn't) divorce his wife just then. And McCarthy, despite her protestations years later of being "greatly in love," was still looking around. She adored Rahv, but in some unfathomable, inexpressible way she didn't quite respect him. Her snobbish side -- the part of her brain that supplied her satirical fiction with damning data on how people dressed, ate, traveled, furnished their homes, voted, and conducted their adulterous affairs -- sized Rahv up and found him wanting. As Delmore Schwartz wrote in an unfinished short story based on their liaison, "She soon found that there was a roughness about Stanislaus [the Rahv character] and a rudeness and a habit of being too serious in conversation which she did not like in the least." Rahv was uncouth, and that bothered McCarthy. He was too Slavic, too Marxist, too Jewish, too un-American to suit her. In the fiction she wrote soon after the affair ended, McCarthy vented (and probably amplified) the disdain she felt for Rahv and the other New York Marxist intellectual men she was running around with in the late 1930s. In the shocking (for its time) and deservedly famous story "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," McCarthy sets her protagonist and alter ego, Meg Sargent, on a westbound train, makes her succumb to a one-night stand with a paunchy middle-aged, Middle American businessman, and then has her reflect bitterly on the men she had left behind in the city:


[I]f she had felt safe with the different men who had been in love with her it was because -- she saw it now -- in one way or another they were all of them lame ducks. The handsome ones, like her fiancé, were good-for-nothing, the reliable ones, like her husband, were peculiar-looking, the well-to-do ones were short and wore lifts in their shoes or fat with glasses, the clever ones were alcoholic or slightly homosexual, the serious ones were foreigners or else wore beards or black shirts or were desperately poor and had no table manners. Somehow each of them was handicapped for American life and therefore humble in love.


Meg, taking severe stock of her recent past, wonders whether she really belongs with "this fraternity of cripples." Had she "been spending her life in self-imposed exile, a princess among the trolls?" For all his brains and power, Rahv was one of the trolls in McCarthy's eyes. Her success with the PR crowd had come too effortlessly. Rahv and the boys overvalued her because they didn't know any better. "The men she had known during these last four years had been, when you faced it, too easily pleased: her success had been gratifying but hollow," McCarthy writes of Meg in the story. "It was not difficult, after all, to be the prettiest girl at a party for the sharecroppers. At bottom, she was contemptuous of the men who had believed her perfect, for she knew that in a bathing suit at Southampton she would never have passed muster." This may well be an example of the way she "proclaimed the endless treacheries of the human heart -- " as Kazin wrote irritably, "proclaimed it with a discipline of style, a show of classical severity and subtler manners than their [the PR crowd's] own, that pointed up her right to take such a very large bite of her victim." But she was onto something. She had wowed Rahv and the PR boys not because she was such hot stuff but because they lacked "breeding," manners, an innate sense of fine distinctions. They didn't know from Southampton, these immigrants and sons of immigrants. They knew Henry James, but Henry James would never have condescended to know them. Their American experience came from books, and their judgments were sharp, shrill, and rough around the edges. They were stars in New York, but they faltered when they stood on native ground.

Things were altogether different with Edmund Wilson, the commanding, difficult, massive man of letters who entered McCarthy's life shortly after she started living with Rahv. Wilson, whatever else was wrong with him, radiated perfect confidence in his judgment -- whether of books or of women in bathing suits. The power to discriminate and assign proper value was his by birth. And McCarthy was highly susceptible to this power. Actually, the PR boys were too. It was their idea, not hers, to woo Wilson and get him to contribute to the magazine. Sometime during the autumn of 1937, they invited Wilson to lunch in Union Square, bringing McCarthy along as bait (she remembers wearing her "best clothes -- a black silk dress with tiers of fagoting and, hung from my neck, a long, large silver fox fur"). Everyone, including McCarthy, was worried that she would make a fool of herself -- and disgrace the magazine -- in front of the great man. But as it turned out, Wilson, in the flesh, was not all that imposing. "He bustled into our office," McCarthy wrote later in her memoirs, "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."

Wilson, at forty-two years of age, had already left his mark on two decades of American literature. He had published widely and deeply on everything from symbolist poetry to the Scottsboro trial; he had written an influential novel of the 1920s, I Thought of Daisy, along with plays, poetry, reviews, and social criticism. He knew just about everyone on the literary scene -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Louise Bogan, Dawn Powell, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were among his intimates -- and he even had a cordially combative relationship with conservative Southern poet Allen Tate. Wilson, like most of his fellow American writers and intellectuals, had taken a sharp turn leftward during the 1930s, and by the end of the decade his politics were more or less aligned with those of PR, though he had arrived at his brand of independent-minded Marxism along a rather different path from the one Rahv and his cronies had traveled down. The learned, respected, left-leaning Wilson would be a big catch for the resuscitated magazine, and the editors did everything they could to land him. Rahv, in particular, was obsessed with Wilson: obsessed with publishing him, but perhaps even more obsessed with puncturing the Wilson balloon. "Wilson is a good writer, but he has no ideas," Rahv went around telling the boys (poverty of ideas being the unforgivable sin in Rahv's book). PR editor William Barrett wrote in his memoirs that Wilson became "like a boil on the brain" to Rahv. Rahv would later show the same obsessive ambivalence toward Robert Lowell and Hannah Arendt, formidable intellectuals he picked apart viciously in private while printing their new work in the magazine. With Rahv, it wasn't so much jealousy as a street fighter's instinct to catch the other guy, the big guy, off-guard.

So McCarthy, Rahv, Fred Dupee, and Dwight Macdonald took Wilson to lunch. And Wilson promised to send along something for the new magazine. But before he did, he had McCarthy out to dinner and then, unknown to Rahv, into his bed.

Rahv's "boil on the brain" grew more inflamed when McCarthy broke the news, a few short months later, that she was leaving him to marry Wilson.

Copyright © 2000 by David Laskin

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