A round table of wit, wisdom, and strife

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


'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.

What easily might have become a formless mishmash of quotations has been skillfully transformed by Kiernan into a compelling life story: richly detailed, vibrant, and revealing. Not surprisingly, her method of juxtaposing contending viewpoints helps clarify the nature of the political and cultural debates in which McCarthy took part. Interestingly enough, the method also illuminates many aspects of McCarthy's personal life, including her four marriages.

The premise that the lives of these writers are as interesting as their work is shared by David Laskin, the author of a shorter, less judicious book called

Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals.

Laskin is particularly interested in three women who were close friends: Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and Elizabeth Hardwick. Friendships, quarrels, love affairs, marriages, and divorces are at the heart of his book, especially Hardwick's difficult marriage to poet Robert Lowell, Lowell's previous, perhaps equally difficult marriage to short-story writer Jean Stafford, and McCarthy's romantic involvement with Partisan Review founder Philip Rahv and her stormy marriage to the eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson.

Laskin's book is a lively blend of domestic drama and cultural history that places public discourse in the context of private lives. His one fault is that he tends to judge the women by the standards of post-1960s feminism. Indeed, he sometimes seems to think that whenever any of them deviates from the "revolutionary" ideas of the 1960s, it is they, and not the 1960s, who must somehow be wrong.

But for all their faults, Laskin clearly admires these women and men: "[T]heir fiercely debated ideologies sharpened their minds," he writes. "Beneath the pomposity and self-importance they had a sense of public responsibility, an urgent concern for something greater than their own backyards and tax liability. They believed their discourse mattered...."

Kiernan's biography of McCarthy is a much less tendentious book. This is not because Kiernan avoids the controversial aspects of McCarthy's life and work. Indeed, we hear a veritable cacophony of contending voices and opinions. Nor is it because Kiernan refrains from making any judgments of her own: In her quiet way, she is quite judicious. Most of all, one feels that in constructing her biography, she was less concerned with proving a thesis or formulating a theory than with trying to discover the truth.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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