Sometime in this decade we should reach the tipping point where the number of books about the Partisan Review crowd outweighs those they wrote themselves. The pans are not yet equal. But in the coming months Frances Kiernan’s mammoth oral biography of Mary McCarthy will rattle the scales; and substantial studies of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and the sadly overlooked Philip Rahv are reportedly under way.
It’s unlikely, though, that we will soon see a book as lightweight and superfluous as Partisans, David Laskin’s group portrait of some of the women writers—Hannah Arendt, Jean Stafford, Caroline Gordon, Elizabeth Hardwick, Diana Trilling, and, of course, McCarthy—associated more or less with PR from the ’30s to the ’60s. That a major publisher is banking on an audience for secondhand gossip largely mined from earlier, better-written biographies and memoirs shows how advanced is the marketing effort to exploit the New York intellectuals as another Bloomsbury mother lode.
Laskin’s ostensible reason for bringing together this unwonted sorority is to examine the “last generation before feminism,” even if the notion of limiting the investigation to women is inherently demeaning. After all, if this coterie shared anything it was an intellectual honesty that welcomed a battle of wits and ideas with men. Everyone, regardless of gender, showed respect, if not awe, for Arendt’s erudition, just as McCarthy’s adder tongue inspired general terror.
How can the legacy of any of these women—of McCarthy as theater and literary critic, anti-Stalin polemicist, satiric novelist, and sexual libertine; of Arendt as historian of fascism and the Holocaust—be assessed if their writings aren’t measured against those of their male counterparts?
Laskin is the Linda Tripp of biography. While appearing to speak for women and lend a sympathetic ear to their marital woes as they wrestle with bipolar geniuses like Robert Lowell or serial philanderers like Allen Tate or despotic grumps like Edmund Wilson, he is as often as not undercutting their standing either as wives or as writers. While comparing Stafford’s novel The Mountain Lion favorably to Huckleberry Finn, Laskin slips in the dubious claim that “had Stafford not ridiculed ‘women’s lib’ in the 1960s and ’70s, the novel might have found a place on feminist reading lists instead of assuming the shabby, genteel status of a neglected classic.” (Has he ever glanced at a feminist reading list, the cores of which tend to be made up of “neglected classics,” or books that male critics have denigrated with terms like “genteel”?) McCarthy’s love of cooking and dinner parties is made to sound suspicious, as if she were a Martha Stewart fan trying to pass herself off as a PR subscriber. For Laskin the dressing for this crazy salad of smart women could never really be a mindful resistance to American middle-class taste or the vulgar tyrannies of the Stalinist left but a not altogether healthy girlish delight in gossip and clothes, or the bed of the same well-endowed man.
The book offers a discreet keyhole view into the bedroom lives of the New York intellectuals. Jason Epstein claims Hardwick was the “prettiest and sexiest and the easiest to have an affair with.” Even Arendt can look positively shagadelic when seen through Laskin’s dewy eyes. For all of the faux feminist candor about what went on between the sheets of the Brainy Bunch, however, he has little to say about how well McCarthy and Hardwick raised their children; or the regrets, if any, at Stafford’s having none. Eager to present and define these writers as girlfriends and wives, and as catty and unreliable allies of one another, Laskin is strangely mute when it comes to rating them as mothers.
The problem may be that once he has diagrammed the sexual roundelay, Laskin has nowhere to go with his “generation before feminism” thesis. He seems to harbor some vague notion that, had Stafford or Hardwick read Betty Friedan as young women, they might have bailed out rather than endured the agonies of marriage to a raving abuser like Lowell. But feminist theory is of limited value when one confronts seductive intellect or power. (It didn’t prevent Gloria Steinem from making a fool of herself with Mort Zuckerman.) Laskin quotes without comment Hardwick’s answer to an interviewer who asked her if she had ever felt overwhelmed by Lowell’s work. “Well, I should hope so,” she said.
Where is Susan Sontag on Laskin’s list of brilliant babes? Far better credentialed as a New York intellectual than either Stafford or Gordon, and with just about as much use for Susan Brownmiller and Marilyn French, Sontag’s omission can only mean that the generational cutoff is nonsense or that she wisely refused to talk to him. I suspect both. Laskin borrows freely from Ann Hulbert’s biography of Stafford, Carol Brightman’s of McCarthy, Diana Trilling’s autobiography, and many other memoirs. His own research is harder to detect.
The lingering fascination with the PR crowd remains their literary verve. They were, in Kazin’s words, perhaps the last generation for whom “writing was everything.” The boldest assertion in Laskin’s book is a defense of the writer’s privilege to use any material in the name of art. In recounting the celebrated to-do in 1973 when Lowell lifted paragraphs from Hardwick’s anguished letters to him and published them in The Dolphin and For Lizzie and Harriet, Laskin knows he should be appalled by the poet’s violation of an intimate trust. But he can’t help admiring this “desperate assault on decency” and “going all the way in pursuit of truth.”
Although Laskin reports Elizabeth Bishop’s crushing verdict on this episode—”art just isn’t worth that much”—he never truly reckons with this question in the lives of the writers under his glass. Then again, it may be that he doesn’t speak for women at all. McCarthy’s many veiled depictions in her fiction of her tortured marriage to Wilson are never viewed in so transcendent a light as Lowell’s betrayal. Perhaps for Laskin it takes a man to go all the way, pierce the membrane between private and public, and really score as an artist.