Friday, September 15, 2017

The Unspoiled Reaction

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

Detail from The Puppet Show, undated oil painting by Theodore Kleehaas (1854–1929). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
According to her son, Mary McCarthy often looked back on the summer of 1945 as the best period of her life. She had recently separated from her first husband, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, and she spent the summer at the home of her friend Polly Boyden in the Cape Cod town of Truro. The community boasted an eclectic selection of leftist novelists, journalists, critics, and artists—including a number of McCarthy’s peers from The Partisan Review. Boyden, a poet, had published The Pink Egg, a political allegory which has been called “the oddest of all proletarian novels.” Other Truro residents included the writer and editor Dwight Macdonald, novelist James T. Farrell, literary critic Philip Rahv, art critic Clement Greenberg, sculptor Costantino Nivola, and composer Gardner Jencks. The only incident to disturb the summertime idyll was news of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6; fifteen years later she recalled first seeing the headlines in the general store and “saying to myself as I moved up to the counter, ‘What am I doing buying a loaf of bread?’”

Although her stay on the Cape in many ways resembled a vacation, she was under pressure to continue writing. It had been three years since the appearance of her debut book, The Company She Keeps, and she had a commitment from Houghton Mifflin for the publication of her follow-up novel. McCarthy tried to work on a novella called “The Lost Week” but ultimately abandoned it; a 56-page draft ending mid-sentence was found among her papers after her death. She spent hours on the beach, translating Simone Weil’s essay “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” and “getting sand in my typewriter,” and her translation was published later that year in a small political journal. She finished one short story, “The Friend of the Family,” that Bernice Baumgarten, her agent, shopped around but proved unable to place. (Town and Country would finally accept it two years later.)

And so she began work on another story. Complicating her routine that summer of 1945 was the presence of her six-year-old son Reuel. As she explained to Baumgarten, “We are living next door to [short story writer] Phyllis Duganne, and it is a question every morning which mother’s work is going be demolished for the day by the children. So far I have gotten the best of it, and today their interest was deflected from us: they discovered the pleasure of flitting Phyllis’s mother with the flit gun.” In spite of the lurking threat of being sprayed, McCarthy found time to finish the story, “The Unspoiled Reaction.” Her agent had better luck with this one, and it appeared the following spring in the Atlantic Monthly.

As biographer Francis Kiernan notes, this latest story is nothing like the acerbic portraits of New York’s pre-war social scene in The Company She Keeps. Instead, “The Unspoiled Reaction” is “a pared-down, almost allegorical account of a children’s puppet show that goes wildly out of control.” McCarthy never included this selection in one of her books but it has now been restored to print, along with several other uncollected stories, in the recently published Library of America edition of Mary McCarthy’s complete fiction.

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In the theater lobby everyone at first mistook her for another patron (a grandmother, perhaps), though the fact that she wore an unstylish close-fitting hat, antique earrings, and no coat and had a generally anxious, false, and flustered air should have announced her status. . . . 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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