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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eve Stwertka remembers Mary McCarthy’s “thrillingly civilized life”

Eve Stwertka remembers Mary McCarthy at the
New York Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Eve Stwertka’s remembrance of Mary McCarthy. Stwertka, Professor Emerita at SUNY Farmingdale, shares the duties of co-trustee for the Mary McCarthy Literary Trust with Margo Viscusi. Together they edited the collection of essays, Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy.
Mary McCarthy was a crucial presence in my life. We met when she became my tutor, at Bard College, in 1945, and she continued to be my mentor, benefactor, and good angel. I owed her my first job, at Partisan Review, and she hosted my wedding. Eventually, she asked me (together with another friend) to be her Literary Trustee.

Reading Mary’s reminiscences one come across quite a bit of turbulence: There’s the early death of her parents, the miseries suffered from a wicked uncle, an illegal abortion, five husbands, marital rows, illnesses, miscarriages, and that notorious law suit at the end.

But, at the same time, to know Mary, over the years, was to be smitten by the life of friendship, beauty and pleasure she constantly created. To visit her was a treat. And that was as true in the walkup tenement in New York, with its bathtub in the kitchen, as it was later, in her elegant Paris flat and on the seacoast of Maine where she spent many summers. Her hospitality was extraordinary, her parties exhilarating, the food and drink, delicious. And guests were always drawn into some sort of fun, like swimming in secluded ponds or picking overblown roses to make rose-petal jelly. When she served lobsters, the mayonnaise had to be homemade. And the ice cream had to be cranked by hand.

Above all, there was great conviviality with other writers and many clever people of her time, so that the most pleasurable aspect of her gatherings was usually the conversation.

And, Mary was diligent. Up early, she took a cup of coffee into her study and shut the door for the morning. She kept her desk tidy, stuck to the limitations of her manual typewriter, took pains with her research, and answered all letters, often in her exquisite Catholic-school handwriting.

What I observed, then, was a thrillingly civilized life that Mary willed into being—a well-wrought life, with a strong emphasis on good workmanship.

And this reminds me of something she said in a Paris Review interview, about the concept of “Finding Oneself.” “I suppose,” she said, “everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self. But, what I think, is that you really must make the self. It is absolutely useless to look for it—you won’t find it. But it’s possible . . . to make it. . . . You can finally, in some sense, make and choose the self you want.”
At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Ross Posnock on Henry James
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow
Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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