Posted by: zhiv | June 30, 2008

Seeing Mary Plain, by Frances Kiernan

This is an excellent biography, and it does its job of covering the events, background, and issues of Mary McCarthy’s life quite admirably.  It’s a mature, completely solid book, well aware of the biographical work that had been done on McCarthy during her lifetime and shortly afterwards, and making a substantial and significant addition to the existing record.  And of course Kiernan has an acute understanding of McCarthy’s autobiographical writing in both memoir and fictional form, which is a big part of why McCarthy is a fascinating biographical subject in the first place.  In reading The Company She Keeps and The Group (and a lot of her other fiction has just as much autobiography in it), I was always curious about the sources for the characters and scenes.  As I’ve mentioned before, David Laskin’s group biography Partisans started me on MM, but it had a different focus and didn’t provide the same kind of information.  Some of the earlier biographies, which I should cite more carefully than I will right now, presumably provide the “keys” and backgrounds, but Kieran’s interviews go a large step further and encompass the perspectives of many of the subjects and characters involved or described in MM’s writing.  Kiernan’s major contribution is oral history in the form of intereviews with McCarthy’s friends, contacts, enemies and admirers, which appear as small, manageable paragraphs throughout the text.  In this manner, we hear directly from people who knew MM, witnesses who can talk directly about her life, her world, and her work.

Kiernan was a longtime (15 years?) fiction editor at The New Yorker (not longtime enough that she was there when MM was publishing in the magazine, however), and since this book appeared in 2000 she has published a biography of Brook Astor.  And so it’s not surprising that in many ways this is an editor’s biography, in the best sense.  Kiernan’s accomplishment in creating a completely readable text out of innumerable documents and substantive interviews is quite impressive.  The book is 750 pages long and I read it with enthusiam over the course of a month, and finished it a couple of weeks ago.

After reading it I looked at a couple of reviews, most of which enjoyed the book and appreciated its accomplishment like I did, but one or two were mixed and skeptical of Kiernan’s effort of one or two were mixed and skeptical of Kiernan’s effort of telling the story and melding her own writing with the quoted interviews.  This is subjective, I would say, but for my own part I thought that Kiernan’s writing and insights wre very fine, and well-measured in a book that manages such a comprehensive and exhaustive treatment of its subject.  I note these reviews, which can be located easily enough, because I remember that one of them mentioned some other fairly recent (in 2000) biographies that had used a similar semi-oral history technique.  One fo them was a book about Edie Sidgwick, I believe.  All this seems worth mentioning because Kiernan’s approach to the writing of biography appears to be part of an evolution, perhaps minor, in form.  Interviews and oral history have always been a part of contemporary or semi-contempoary biography, and perhaps it’s only notable here because of the somewhat stark appearance of quoted material in the text.  But for me at least it was all very effective.

At any rate, Kiernan does a great job of telling the story of MM’s so very interesting life.  And Kiernan’s sustained, intelligent effort furthers the campaign to establish McCarthy’s place and importance as a mid-century writer and literary figure.  I came away with a clear sense and lots of details about MM’s life and work, and it was interesting to see the different major epochs of her life.  Over the course of reading the book I experienced a wide range of responses and levels of interest as MM moved from a difficult childhood to capturing a firm place in the midcentury New York literary and intellectual world.  But more recently, finishing it and reading about the last 20 years of her life, it became clear how she faded out just at the time that I myself began to read and study literature, answering my questions about how I had been for the most part ignorant of her and her work.  Although The Group was a spectacular bestseller, it wasn’t her best book and she wasn’t able to follow it up with a book or series of books that would have established her literary reputation at a higher level.  She wasn’t able to aim at contending to be a world-renowned writer like Iris Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer or others, and towards the end you realize that Kiernan’s book, which begins with MM’s bittersweet acceptance of a lifetime achievement medal at the MacDowell writer’s colony, is imbued at its start and finish with a melancholy ambivalence.  McCarthy is still someone who had a massive impact and her work will last, but you get the sense that distractions and difficulties and the changing times of the 60s caused her to fail to become transcendent, that she had laid the groundwork to become a George Eliot or Virginia Woolf and then didn’t make it.  This doesn’t lessen her work, and given her personality and the challenges she faced, it’s all still quite extraordinary.  With writers like GEliot and VWoolf, for instance, and certainly Jane Austen, their works transcend the interest of their interesting lives.  With a brilliant character caught up in his contemporary literary culture like Dr. Johnson, however, who obviously has the best of biographers, his life seems to transcend any of his specific works.  With a fine and thorough biography like this one, added to an already-existing set of works, it appears that McCarthy leans towards the Johnson side of the equation, which, after all, isn’t so bad.      


  1. Very interesting review. I’d like more for MM in terms of her long-term reputation, but I think you are right in your conclusions (not that leaning “towards the Johnson side of the equation” is so bad, as you say). I can’t see studying MM without studying the life at least to some degree, which is not true of all authors. Interesting notion that MM was setting herself up to be great but didn’t quite make it — the intersection of life and art is fascinating here. I suppose there is little you can do about it if life is going to throw distractions and uncertain times in your way.

  2. These thoughts here, Zhiv, just add to my curiousity about McCarthy. Until you mentioned her, I have to admit I’d never heard of her.

    What you write about her “failure” (my word seems harsh, however, perhaps disillusionment is better), make me think about writers and their awareness of their own contribution. To be so keenly aware of one’s work and its place in the hierarchy so to speak would be its own kind of distraction. I wonder about writers who might be able to turn that awareness off.

  3. […] a fair amount of her fiction and memoirs, and a really good biography of her by Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain, highly recommended. McCarthy is a wonderful feminist nexus for mid-century literature, linked not […]

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