For awhile I was reading Partisans, by David Laskin, and I finished it last month. I loved the topic, which I didn’t know much about. I loved the book, which was clear and smart, well-written and interesting. And I loved the kind of book that it is, a sort of group biography that talks about a time and a culture and how it was created by a set of intertwined characters.
At first glance it seems like there can’t be a lot of books like this, but now that I consider it, there probably are more than I might think. The important thing is that the literary or historical period has to be compelling. The first thing that comes to mind is that there must be books about Bloomsbury like this, for instance. I also have Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club on my shelf, and that’s probably similar. A book about Johnson’s Club… there must be a bunch of them.
But part of the added spice in this story is that a lot of the writers considered here were married or having affairs with each other.
This is another book that opens up a world about which I knew very little, or almost nothing. Mary McCarthy makes probably the strongest entrance, a brash and sexy young intellectual storming the gates of a group of readers, writers, and thinkers clustering around Philip Rahv as he begins publishing the Partisan Review. And McCarthy remains dramatic and thoughtful and controversial to the end, more or less taking over the book–I found myself waiting for the narration to return to her–while Rahv fades into the background quite a bit.
Out of this group, the “New York Intellectuals,” I had heard of McCarthy (and read one of her later memoirs, years ago, which didn’t give me enough of the story unfortunately) and Robert Lowell. I really didn’t know much about Elizabeth Hardwick except as a reviewer. Hannah Arendt seemed to be a formidable figure to me, through my poli sci college friends, but I didn’t know many details. Rahv I might have heard of, and I suppose I knew Jean Stafford’s name and had heard of “The Mountain Lion,” but I had never heard of Allan Tate and Caroline Gordon. And I didn’t really know anything about Diana Trilling. The names of all of these people are listed in small type in a column rolling down the dust jacket of the book.
The writer I knew the best out of everybody is Edmund Wilson. He’s part of the group, more or less, but he’s a quiet 20th century literary icon all on his own, and he was never really part of the group. But Mary McCarthy married him, and they got drunk and fought with each other and had affairs and a child and the whole thing is rather epic.
McCarthy started out as a theater reviewer for Rahv and the Review, which was actually a pretty significant job because a lot was going on at the time on Broadway and in the New York theater world. The book does a great job of covering all of this material in an engaging and straightforward fashion. There’s a lot of stuff, divided up into decades, more or less, and it’s the type of book where I could go back and read the 2 or 3 pages about McCarthy as a theater critic and the early days of PR and cite examples, and it would start its own set of hares on that topic.
But then McCarthy married Wilson and they were crazy–except you can’t really say that they were crazy, because legitimate nutter Robert Lowell enters the picture, so let’s just say that they were drunk, but everybody was drunk–but Wilson was disciplined about his work and McCarthy got a lot done and started writing fiction. She published her first collection of stories, The Company We Keep, which I had never heard of, while married to Wilson. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” kept coming up, a story by McCarthy about a young woman (McCarthy) having sex with a stranger on a train. This was the first thing that I read by suggestion from the book, and it was extraordinary. It turns the images we carry around of late 30s/early 40s propriety all on their head. Very quickly, one gets a sense of what Mary McCarthy was all about.
The other big character who emerges over time is Robert Lowell. One of the amazing things about these people is that a group of ambitious and talented men and women were married to each other. The book does a good job of explaining how McCarthy, Stafford, Hardwick and Arendt were pre-women’s movement figures, just duking it out with the fellas, more or less. So McCarthy married Wilson, and Stafford married Lowell, and then Hardwick eventually took over the hard work of living with and managing Lowell.
I’m not a big poetry guy, but for anybody who is interested in 20th century poetry I’m sure that Robert Lowell provides a lot of grist for the mill, and Laskin’s book does a great job of putting his work and its sources and context out there in a very compelling way. There have to be a million great ways to enter into the world of Robert Lowell and his work–a good 20th century American poetry class being the most obvious–but Laskin’s compendium was pretty ideal for me. Whether the poems or the life and the craziness should come first is a good question, but for my own taste I’m more interested in the poetry now that I know a fair amount about the life.
It’s hard to do all of these writers, and thus Laskin’s book as well, justice in a hit-and-miss, scattered blogpost. I guess my main observation would be how much I learned about a number of writers who are interesting and important, making me want to read more. For instance, I suppose I had heard of Jean Stafford, but this book makes me want to read The Mountain Lion, which would then lead to her stories and to Boston Adventure. Now that I have a better understanding of who Hardwick was and what she was doing, I would be curious to read anything she wrote. Laskin mentions that Wilson’s novel “Memoirs of Hecate County,” random copies of which I’ve often seen over time, created the suburban gossip genre (Peyton Place, etc.), which piques my interest just slightly. Explaining Hannah Arendt and her work was great for a non-political science person. And there’s a lot more.
But I still give the nod to Mary McCarthy, partly because of the drama of her persona and history, and partly because “Man in a Suit” was so well done and a great introduction. Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, supposedly her best book, and The Group, her most successful, go onto priority status on my reading list.