Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Company Is Not Responsible

Mary McCarthy (1912–1989)
From Mary McCarthy: Novels & Stories 1942–1963

Detail from Tom Hackett Walking Along Commercial Street Past the Delight, Delight, Delight House, undated, oil on board by American artist Mary Hackett (1906–1989). Visit the Provincetown History Preservation Project site to see the full painting. The Delight House (mentioned in McCarthy’s story) was in front of the Atlantic Coast Fisheries Cold Storage Plant in Provincetown.
Mary McCarthy met literary critic Edmund Wilson in 1937 at the office of the newly relaunched Partisan Review, whose editors eventually hired her to write theater criticism. She and Wilson married the following year and their seven-year marriage was tumultuous and occasionally violent. “By 1944 my parents' marriage was pretty well on the rocks, with my mother ensconced in New York and my father holding the fort with me in Wellfleet,” Reuel Wilson recalled in his memoir of a childhood spent on Cape Cod. By the end of the year, “my mother and I took final leave of the house my father was renting on Henderson Place in uptown Manhattan, just off East End Ave. All that remained for them was to haggle over the terms of a divorce.”

In spite of the tumult of her marriage, the early 1940s marked a turning point for McCarthy’s writing career. In 1942 her debut book, The Company She Keeps, with its six interrelated stories, became the scandale du jour, both for its accounts of sexual liaisons that vaguely resembled her own experiences and for its thinly disguised composite portraits of members of the New York intellectual and Provincetown bohemian milieus. After reading a couple of the stories when they had appeared in periodicals, New Yorker editor William Maxwell invited her to contribute to the magazine. Thus, biographer Frances Kiernan writes, “McCarthy arrived at The New Yorker as a fully formed writer known for her immaculate prose, her wit, her glamour, her sexual adventures, and her vexed marriage to the eminent critic Edmund Wilson, as well as for the impossibly high standards of her Partisan Review theatre criticism and the shocking candor of her fiction.”

Yet Maxwell went on leave before any of her pieces actually appeared in the magazine, and it was Katharine White who returned to the The New Yorker’s staff and bought “The Weeds,” a story that unsparingly fictionalized McCarthy’s stormy relationship with Wilson and that was perhaps the nail in the coffin of their marriage. Unusually lengthy for fiction published at the time in the magazine, “The Weeds” effectively established McCarthy as one of its stable of writers—but it was actually not her first story for The New Yorker. Maxwell had previously accepted “The Company Is Not Responsible,” a story that (as Kiernan notes) “was mild and even heartwarming and nothing like anything she had ever written.” The story languished in the magazine’s stockpile until White dusted it off and published it after accepting “The Weeds.”

Describing a group of strangers who unexpectedly bond “together, in amity,” on the bus to Provincetown, “The Company Is Not Responsible” was never included by McCarthy in one of her books but has now been restored to print, along with several other uncollected stories, in the just-published Library of America edition of Mary McCarthy’s complete fiction.

Notes: On pages 850–51, McCarthy namechecks several real-life Cape Cod and Provincetown references. Established in 1798, the Atlantic House has served a notably bohemian and eccentric crowd since the early 1900s and a predominantly gay clientele since World War II. McCarthy and Wilson’s teenage son, Reuel Wilson, went to the bar with his mother in the 1950s and recalled that “Provincetown nightlife, with its all-female bands and transsexual performers, was quite an eye-opener.” The Delight, Delight, Delight House is pictured above and described in the caption. The girl named Halcyon almost certainly refers to Halcyon Cabral (Durst), whose Portuguese ancestors immigrated to Provincetown in the 1870s and whose family was prominent in the development of its business center and wharf from the 1940s to the end of the century. Camp Edwards is a U.S. military training base, established in 1931 on Cape Cod. On page 852, the passengers sing two songs. “My mother sells snow to the snowbirds” is from the bawdy song “How the Money Rolls In,” sung to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” German composer Friedrich Silcher’s popular song “Die Lorelei” (1837) set to music the poem of the same name by Heinrich Heine. The excerpt translates:

      And on one peak, half-dreaming
      She sits, enthroned and fair;
      Like a goddess, dazzling and gleaming,
      She combs her golden hair.

      With a gold comb she is combing . . . [trans. Louis Untermeyer]

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There was a girl named Margie, a girl named Ann, a honeymoon couple, a man named George, the girl called Blondie, and me; a middle-aged woman, a drunken sailor, four Harvard boys, a machinist’s mate (first class), the driver—called Mac, though that was not his name—and several supernumerary passengers, among them noticeably a soldier with a pipe. . . . 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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