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  • In the Bathroom with Mary McCarthy:Theatricality, Deviance, and the Postwar Commitment to Realism
  • Michael Trask

Where for a European a fact is a fact, for us Americans, the real, if it is relevant at all, is simply symbolic appearance. We are a nation of twenty million bathrooms.

—Mary McCarthy, "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub"

Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) turns out to have a slightly misleading title, given that its final pages are dominated by the specter of Augusta Preston, née Morgenstern, the maternal Jewish grandmother who furnishes the main object of worship in McCarthy's adolescent life. "We were all devoting ourselves," McCarthy writes, "to the cult of a relic, which was my grandmother's body, laved and freshened every day in the big bathroom."1 This bathroom, "which had a sofa covered with worn oriental carpeting," "was the temple of her beauty" (226). Outlining Augusta's contours in baroque detail, McCarthy portrays a body that had once been beautiful and, because of a botched face lift that "pumped her face full of hot-wax," remains in a constant state of grievance over its fall from grace. The same prosthetic technologies that have impaired Augusta's beauty are then marshaled, if ineffectually, to shore up its remains. "Her cheeks had a puffy, swollen appearance, which her makeup did not conceal—in fact, if anything, enhanced, for . . . she always looked better in the morning, before she put on the rouge and the powder that made her skin's surface conspicuous" (240).

The bathroom that serves as the temple for this relic of a body is paradoxically a room that covers it up, layering the body with props instead of fulfilling the bathroom's utilitarian role as a place where the self unclothes in order to take care of its natural or basic needs. Rather, the big bathroom is the disturbing site where other, stranger physical needs abound. Hence, though the young Mary [End Page 7] knew intimate details of her grandmother—"her preferences in underwear and nightgowns, the contents of her bathroom down to the pumice stone she used for removing an occasional hair from under her arms"—she tells us, "I never once saw her undressed" (238). The closest she has come to seeing her grandmother naked is when Augusta learns her beloved Sister Rosie has died:

Flinging open the bedroom door, I saw her, on her bed, the covers pushed back; her legs were sprawled out, and her yellow nightgown, trimmed with white lace, was pulled up, revealing her thighs. The spectacle was indecent, yet of a strange boudoir beauty that contrasted in an eerie way with that awful noise she was making, more like a howl than a scream . . . It seemed clear to me that night that she had never really cared for anyone but her sister; that was her secret. The intellectual part of my mind was aware that some sort of revelation had taken place, of the nature of Jewish family feeling, possibly.


One of the notable features of this passage, on which I shall elaborate in the following pages, is the antithesis it rallies between surface or "spectacle" (the domain of camp) and a depth-model of the self that conforms to such inherited categories as "family feeling" and what later in the same passage McCarthy will call her grandmother's "essential Jewishness" (244). The reliance on this opposition—which would become increasingly prevalent in the two decades between World War II and the New Social Movements of the 1960s—permits us a brief glimpse into McCarthy's own strenuous commitment to essence and, through her, a mid-century literary culture that was equally concerned with rehabilitating authenticity as an aesthetic premium.

In her magisterial 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," for example, Susan Sontag distinguishes the "creative minorities" of "Jews and homosexuals" on the grounds of their very different attitude toward artifice and essence.2 Sontag betrays a notorious ambivalence toward camp as a genre; she approaches it with "a deep sympathy modified by revulsion." Differentiating herself from those who merely "exhibit" camp, Sontag argues that whereas homosexuals have a penchant for "aestheticism," with...


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