(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

This is the fourth biography of Mary McCarthy. Doris Grumbach’s The Company She Kept (1967) is an incomplete but still valuable book because the biographer was able to interview her subject extensively—even though McCarthy had repudiated Grumbach’s work by the time it was published. Carol Gelderman, for Mary McCarthy: A Life (1988), had her subject’s complete cooperation and retained her confidence. Carol Brightman, for Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (1992), enjoyed access to McCarthy and was able to supply much new information in her biography. It would seem that Brightman’s work completed a cycle. A long book and well written, it surely obviated any need for yet another biography. After all, although McCarthy is an important figure in American literary history, it is not clear that any of her books will enter the literary canon. Indeed, McCarthy herself expressed doubts about the lasting value of her work.

In certain respects Frances Kiernan surmounts these reservations about whether yet another book on Mary McCarthy is needed. Kiernan meets the fundamental requirement for a new biography, which Matthew Bruccoli put succinctly when asked why he had written a new biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “more facts.” Kiernan has diligently interviewed new and old sources and provides a welter of new data and interpretation. In addition, she has chosen a subject who is colorful by definition; that is, people just love to talk and to speculate about Mary McCarthy because she was so outspoken and provocative. Moreover, to write about Mary McCarthy is to write about many of the most important writers of her time. Not only did McCarthy know so many of the important New York intellectuals, such as Alfred Kazin, William Phillips, Philip Rahv, and the other writers who clustered around the influential Partisan Review; she was also married to America’s most important critic, Edmund Wilson, and she involved herself in the major controversies of her time, especially anticommunism and the Vietnam War. What is more, her fiction constantly draws on her life, with many of her characters only thinly disguised versions of Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, and many other notable literary personalities. Further thinking about Mary McCarthy is therefore, as Carol Brightman suggests in the subtitle of her biography, inextricably connected to thinking about the world she inhabited and shaped, a world that will continue to shape the future, which means that in the future her world will undoubtedly be assessed again and again. Mary McCarthy, in other words, is likely to remain a perennial temptation to the biographer.

Aside from new facts and interpretations, how does the form and style of Kiernan’s biography differ from its predecessors? Her most striking innovation is to include many excerpts from her interviews. Perhaps half the book is a record of her interviews, which she weaves together with her narrative. The advantage of this method is that the voices of history come vividly alive without mediation from the biographer. The disadvantage is that Kiernan sometimes allows the voices to deal with difficult issues around which there is no consensus. Perhaps it is honest for the biographer to simply present conflicting evidence without trying to reconcile contradictions; on the other hand, such a method employed too often seems like an abnegation of the biographer’s responsibility. Should not a biographer steeped in the evidence provide an interpretation—even if that interpretation has to be tentative or qualified?

A case in point is Mary McCarthy’s marriage to Edmund Wilson. Some of the documents Kiernan cites, and some of her interviewees, strongly suggest that Wilson beat his wife savagely. Certainly McCarthy herself claimed that he did. On the other hand, Wilson’s daughter Rosalind strongly objects to this portrait of her father, and Kiernan cites other documents that are ambiguous enough to leave room for doubt. Kiernan’s handling of this explosive issue might seem fair, except that she does not cite, let alone deal with, important sources. It is astonishing, for example, that her Notes section does not even refer to Jeffrey Meyers’s major biography of Edmund Wilson. Meyers is not even listed in her bibliography. This seems especially strange since Kiernan does generously acknowledge the work of earlier McCarthy biographers. However, they did not have the kind of access to Wilson’s papers that Meyers did.

A similar problem occurs when Kiernan deals...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)