A Round Table of Wit, Wisdom, and Strife

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SEEING MARY PLAIN: A LIFE OF MARY MCCARTHY By Frances Kiernan W.W. Norton 845 pp., $35

PARTISANS: MARRIAGE, POLITICS, AND BETRAYAL AMONG THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS By David Laskin Simon & Schuster 319 pp., $26

'Seeing Mary Plain" is not a conventional biography. In some respects, it is like a vast assemblage of the raw materials from which biographies are made. Interviews with people who knew Mary McCarthy, excerpts from memoirs, letters, reviews, and books about McCarthy, plus excerpts from McCarthy's own writings are deftly spliced together in Frances Kiernan's fluent narrative of a controversy-filled life.

Only on one occasion did Kiernan see McCarthy in the flesh. This was in the mid-1970s, at the offices of The New Yorker, where Kiernan was a fiction editor. Although she had read "The Group" and "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" and had come to regard McCarthy as a kind of role model, Kiernan, perhaps out of shyness, did not approach her.

As Kiernan's book demonstrates, McCarthy was not always what one might call role-model material. Judged even by the far-from- puritanical standards of today, much of her life was lived in the fast lane. To characterize her, one feels the need for a term that would designate the female equivalent of a womanizer: a man-izer? Her judgments as a cultural and political commentator were sometimes glib, arrogant, and insufficiently considered. But when it came to sharp observation, rigorous self-analysis, honesty, courage, and distilling ideas and impressions into crisp, shining prose, McCarthy set an example that many writers would do well to follow.

Most writers are at their best in their work, and their private lives are best left private. Kiernan claims to agree with this proposition. But some writers, she believes, led lives of such compelling interest, we want to know more, and McCarthy, in her opinion, falls into this category. Not only did McCarthy draw heavily upon her own life experiences in her fiction and nonfiction, but her intellectual views and the polemical style in which she expressed them can best be understood in the context of the milieu in which she operated.

This was the group commonly known as "the New York intellectuals." Its core members were associated with the anti- Stalinist, leftwing "Partisan Review." Kiernan sees to it that we get to hear from most of them, from William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, and Diana Trilling to Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Hannah Arendt, and Elizabeth Hardwick. We also hear from Mary's family members, girlhood chums, Vassar classmates, husbands, editors, friends, fans, critics, and enemies. …