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The Preternatural Readers' Response Contest Winners! MARY MCCARTHY, ON THE CONTRARY / Julia Copeland You know, I met Mary McCarthy once about a year ago, at a cocktail party held in her honor by her sister-in-law, who invited a few of us aspiring-writer types specifically so we could view the great woman of letters. The party was in Los Angeles, famous haven for sycophants and sybarites and other unsavory characters with titles of Greek extraction, and Miss McCarthy balanced herself with dignity on the brick edge of the swimming pool while screenwriters and actors hovered near and the rest of us, less self-assured, hovered far. It was clear, even at some remove, that the guest of honor mistrusted her surroundings, and she mentioned being anxious to get to San Francisco, where presumably things were more civilized, and where might be found a simple, old-fashioned manual typewriter. (Here we blushed for our hostess, who had, and who had vainly offered, both word processor and electric typewriter, but not the virtuous SmithCorona . And we blushed for ourselves, too, and for others like us, unfortunately and even sinfully modernized, who had lost respect for the old values: truth, beauty, and the banging carriage return.) "Oh," breathed one of my friends, as we left the party, "And she's the perfect Vassar product, too. The navy blue pleated skirt, and stockings with clocks1." I myself had nothing much to say. I was still smarting for my friend the hostess, and obscurely ruffled that the writer of The Group and TZie Groves ofAcademe, which works I admired not at all, should be officiously particular about the machine she chose to write on. In my own defense all I can say is, I hadn't read the nonfiction. I mean, my God, the First Lady of American Letters, or whatever they call her, and I hadn't even bothered to read the letters in which she demonstrates her primacy. In any case, I've made a start now, with these essays collected in 1951, which I read quickly and all at once, as if I were reading a novel. 284 ยท The Missouri Review I went through, as one will with essays and philosophies, crowing delightedly when I came across anything that struck me as an echo of my own thoughts, though of course logically (chronologically) mine can only be echoes of hers, as hers may perhaps be of earlier thoughts. Mirrors in mirrors. The sadness comes not from the realization that one's thoughts are not entirely original, despite the bliss of ignorance, but from the question, Why haven't I heard this before? Why aren't these ideas yet common currency? For example, this, from the first essay, "America the Beautiful": "This republic was founded on an unworldly assumption, a denial of 'the facts of life/ It is manifestly untrue that all men are created equal; interpreted in worldly terms, this doctrine has resulted in a pseudo-equality, that is, in standardization, in an equality of things rather than of persons. The inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness appear, in practice, to have become the inalienable right to a bathtub, a flush toilet, and a can of Spam." Admittedly the thrust of her argument is different from that of mine. Her concern here is materialism, of which, she argues persuasively, Americans (at least in 1947) had been unjustly accused. My argument, in the 1980s, is that, having achieved that "equality of things," and surfeited with flush toilets and bathtubs, Americans are pushing on, crying unrealistically for true standardization (among themselves!), doing the Procrustean number. I was fascinated by her review of Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, in which she discusses Arendt's careful distinction between "labor" and "work." "Indeed," says Miss McCarthy, "the labor of keeping house is labor in its most naked state, for labor is toil that never finishes, toil that has to be begun again the moment it is completed, toil that is destroyed and consumed by the life process." "It is significant," she continues, "that the discoveries of The Human Condition were made by a woman, for housework, honorificalIy so called, is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 184-187
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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