A Round Table of Wit, Wisdom, and Strife

By Rubin, Merle | The Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

A Round Table of Wit, Wisdom, and Strife


Rubin, Merle, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

A Round Table of Wit, Wisdom, and Strife
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?