Saturday, June 14, 2014

General Macbeth

Mary McCarthy (1912–1989)
From Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

Orson Welles starring as Macbeth in the 1948 feature film, which he also directed. Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library website.
Throughout her career Mary McCarthy wrote a series of contrarian and confrontational essays that reinforced her reputation as a feisty curmudgeon. For example, J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, first published in The New Yorker before appearing as a book in 1961, received its share of bad reviews, but virtually none of them was as blistering as McCarthy’s attack in England’s Observer Weekend Review, which included the notorious lines: “In Hemingway’s work there was never anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool.” Soon after the review’s appearance, a friend wrote to her, “Your Observer piece on Salinger must have shaken The New Yorker from the 19th Floor to the basement.” William Maxwell, the magazine’s fiction editor, complained to a colleague, “That piece is totally unjust. . . . I can’t say what prompted it. All I can say is that the water’s full of blood.”

In June 1962, the same month the Salinger critique appeared, McCarthy published another article that was perhaps on safer ground, since the author under review had been dead for nearly 350 years—although the essay to this day riles more than a few Shakespearean aficionados. “With ‘General Macbeth,’” writes her biographer Frances Kiernan, “she was merely providing a totally unexpected reading for a classic so familiar to theatergoers that there seemed to be nothing new to say on the subject—turning the Thane of Cawdor into a second-rate Eisenhower Republican.”

(The first page of this week’s selection features additional introductory remarks about the essay by James Shapiro, editor of Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now.)

Notes: Readers who have forgotten the details of Macbeth’s plot can consult the Folger Shakespeare Library’s one-page summary as a PDF or in Google Docs. In the opening paragraph of her essay McCarthy makes a reference to Babbitt, the eponymous anti-hero of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 satirical novel whose name became a synonym for a narrow-minded and self-satisfied middle-class businessman.

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He is a general and has just won a battle; he enters the scene making a remark about the weather. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” On this flat note Macbeth’s character tone is set. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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