(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)
After the dearth of gush-worthy essays in last week's batch, I was faced with a difficult decision this time around. So, although I decided not to write about him, I must insert this plea: if you haven't checked out E.B. White's essays, get thee to the library and pick up a copy. They're gentle and thought-provoking, and the crispness, the clearness of their language is truly a beautiful experience. They seem to me absolutely measured, with a solidity and leisured-ness that I very much admire. I read the Harper Perennial volume of his collected essays a few years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. He writes with equal calm and descriptive power about life in New York City and on his farm in rural Maine; about working as a crew member on an Alaskan cruise ship and weathering a hurricane with his wife and his dachshund, Fred. He comes highly, highly recommended as an old favorite of mine—and probably yours as well, if you loved Charlotte's Web or Stuart Little as a kid.
The essayist I'm actually writing about today, however, took me by surprise: I'd never so much as heard of Mary McCarthy before Lopate introduced her to me, but her essay "My Confession" impressed me on many levels. Written in 1953, it's a clear-sighted, un-hysterical, self-respecting yet also wryly self-deprecating account of McCarthy's flirtation with and renunciation of the Communist Party during the 1930s. The plain fact that she was able to write such a thing the same year as the Rosenberg execution is amazing to me: even sixty years later, surprisingly few Americans can achieve McCarthy's level of intelligence and fair-mindedness around these issues. (It is, of course, ironic to type sentences like the above given the actions of the OTHER McCarthy, who was decidedly NOT fair-minded about the Communist Threat.) Mary McCarthy writes of herself and her first husband:
It was part of our metropolitan sophistication to know the truth about Communist fronts. We accepted the need for social reform, but we declined to draw the "logical" inference that the Communists wanted us to draw from this. We argued with the comrades backstage in the dressing rooms and at literary cocktail parties; I was attacked by a writer in the New Masses. We knew about Lovestoneites and Trotskyites, even while we were ignorant of the labor theory of value, the law of uneven development, the theory of permanent revolution vs. socialism in one country, and so on. "Lovestone is a Lovestoneite!" John wrote in wax on his dressing-room mirror, and on his door in the Old Civic Repertory he put up a sign: "Through these portals pass some of the most beautiful tractors in the Ukraine."
McCarthy's voice is one I hardly ever hear in conversations about the Communist Hysteria of the 1950s: the vigorous anti-Soviet who was once a Communist sympathizer and remains a political liberal. One is normally presented, when reading about those years, with the false dichotomy of reactionary right-wing black-ballers like those in the House Un-American Activities Committee, squaring off against earnest but misguided/impotent/brainwashed intellectuals towing the Party line. When one ceases to belong to one side of the divide in this imaginary schema, usually through some kind of conversion experience, one automatically joins the other. The idea that someone could be a critic simultaneously of Soviet Communism AND American McCarthyism is very unusual, regardless of how logical such a stance might be. McCarthy belongs to neither extreme: she comes off as flawed yet reasonable, much like the people I actually know in the real world. She was a book critic and her husband an actor in the 30s: they moved in left-wing circles but were, as she puts it, "politically unserious," a phrase I must admit I relate to deeply. If they could be charged with anything, it was not of devious attempts to overturn the American way of life, but of looking on the world with perhaps an overly wry eye, making jokes of too many things, getting drunk at too many parties. Although her sympathies leaned toward the Communists when they stood for socioeconomic equity, she turned against the Soviet model (and its American apologists) when the extent of its repression began to be known in the West—eminently sane and reasonable stances, both. McCarthy writes that
Most ex-Communists nowadays, when they write their autobiographies or testify before Congressional committees, are at pains to point out that their actions were very, very bad and their motives very, very good. I would say the reverse of myself, though without the intensives. I see no reason to disavow my actions, which were perfectly all right, but my motives give me a little embarrassment, and just because I cannot disavow them: that fevered, contentious, trivial show-off in the May Day parade is still recognizably me.
I find it amazingly refreshing to read something that puts this level of humanity back into the question of Communist sympathies. Both McCarthy's self-respect (refusing to disavow actions with which she sees no problem) and her self-criticism (cringing at her still-recognizable character flaws) persuade me to respect her, and the subtle ways she dissects the social currents of the time convinces me of her intelligence. "My Confession" is fascinating on a purely topical level: McCarthy's discussion of the left-wing world of the 1930s, followed by the reactions of her former peer group as she became horrified by, and took action against, the Soviet frame-up of Leon Trotsky, are an intriguing, on-the-ground glimpse into a turbulent period of American history, and one that gives a perspective—the machinations within the political left wing—not often addressed.
But McCarthy is making a larger philosophical point in this essay, as well: that, although an individual's story is often presented as a clear-cut series of decisions, and although people often portray themselves as weighing the consequences of those decisions before making them, real life usually works in a more unpredictable and seemingly haphazard way. Her own path to becoming an impassioned anti-Soviet, for example, hinged on a number of chance occurrences, including: her attendance at a certain party; getting bullied into a conversation with a certain man; that man co-opting a casual remark of hers and adding her signature to a petition; a number of circumstances that prevented her from sending the indignant letter she had written about the use of her unauthorized signature; and so on. By the time she really educates herself about Trotsky's case, she finds that she has already committed herself to his cause. And thusly, she argues, we make many of the decisions that in retrospect come to seem the most important. "Trotsky himself," she writes,
...looking at his life in retrospect, was struck, as most of us are on such occasions, by the role chance had played in it. He tells how one day, during Lenin's last illness, he went duck-shooting with an old hunter in a canoe on the River Dubna, walked through a bog in felt boots—only a hundred steps—and contracted influenza. This was the reason he was ordered to Sukhu for the cure, missed Lenin's funeral, and had to stay in bed during the struggle for primacy that raged that autumn and winter. "I cannot help noting," he says, "how obligingly the accidental helps the historical law. [...] One can foresee the consequences of a revolution or a war, but it is impossible to foresee the consequences of an autumn shooting trip for wild ducks."
A fascinating point, and one I applaud McCarthy for making in a social atmosphere that often naively assumed a black-or-white motivation for every decision.
Up next week: Seymour Krim, James Baldwin, or Gore Vidal.
Badge photo courtesy of Liz West: