Posted by: zhiv | June 2, 2008

Reading Notes: Frances Kiernan and Mary McCarthy

So I’ll give the May Mary McCarthy rundown.  We left off, I think, when I had started reading Frances Kiernan’s year 2000 biography, “Seeing Mary Plain,” published by Norton, but I was trying to finish Memories of a Catholic Girlhood before I got to those parts in the biography.  Finished MoaCG quite a while ago, and I guess I’ve been reading Kiernan’s book for most of the last month. 

Reviewing in the broadest of strokes, MoaCG is an excellent work of literature.  My basic experience reading it was that I wasn’t especially impressed by the first essays, perhaps because my expectations were quite high.  I was highly curious to unravel the mystery of MM’s early life in Minnesota, after her parents had died in the flu epidemic.  The story of evil guardians and an extended desolate period during childhood must have had its impact at the time, not unlike the way that “Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” had its shock value.  But the first stories weren’t especially suggestive to me for some reason.  I was impressed by the precision of the writing, and I always like to see unique words that jump out that I never use or have barely seen in my reading, and there were at least four or five of these in the first 100 pages.  By that time, the book had picked up and become more solid and engaging, and the last essays, “Yellowstone Park” and “Ask Me No Questions,” were especially good.  Lastly, I’ll mention that, as a collection of essays that were published in The New Yorker over the course of a number of years, MM includes her own later commentary, which is all rather “meta,” but it was published around the same time as Pale Fire, so it’s not shocking stuff.  And there is a progression in MM’s depth and ability as an essayist and writer as she moves through the years.  When she reaches “Ask Me No Questions” and considers the life of her Jewish grandmother, she is delving into meaty material that was crucial to her personality and identity.

I also read through most of the late “Intellectual Memoirs:  New York 1936-1938,” published from a manuscript in 1992, which was filling in stuff that, for me, Kiernan had been talking about already.  It was still good, but it has been lost in the deep seas of Kiernan’s excellent and exhaustive account.   The commentary/autobiography of Intellectual Memoirs didn’t have the same shape and structure as MoaCG, and this shows that the structure of essays about distinct elements may have been more effective somehow–something that is true, oddly enough, of The Company She Keeps.

Kiernan, who was a fiction editor at The New Yorker for a long time (15 years), is a very keen McCarthy expert, and she has written an extraordinary biography.  McCarthy is a great subject, first of all, with all of her self-drama, intelligence, and accomplishment.  But Kiernan has made a step forward, it seems, in the form of literary biography.  I’m sure that others have done this in some manner before, but she includes direct accounts from a large number of sources in her text.  It’s almost Boswellian, and I would be curious to hear about other contemporary biographies that have used the same technique, but I would be surprised to see any that have done it so effectively or seamlessly.  The first person accounts and the many direct quotations might seem to detract from Kiernan’s own narrative and sparing observations, but those are also solid and quite acute.  Sometimes the story is being told directly, and at other times Kiernan is seems to have a gentle hold on the tiller of the narrative while we read the voices of the many people who knew McCarthy.  Again, in the end MM is just a great biographical subject, it seems, but I would highly recommend Kiernan’s biography to anyone like me who has found Mary McCarthy rather late in the game, reading her now as a rather neglected midcentury writer.  I’m approaching page 500 of Kiernan’s book, and have been enjoying every page, but I’ll be interested to see the conclusions that she reaches in the end.  Continuing, I might want to write about some of the episodes of MM’s life itself.  But I just wanted to try to build some momentum after the long dry spell…     


  1. I loved the “meta” stuff in Memories — yeah it’s like Pale Fire but with an entirely different tone and in a different genre. The Boswellian element in the Kiernan biography sounds great — I love the idea of allowing in so many different voices.

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