Thursday, January 15, 2009

To the Life of the Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod

To the Life of the Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod Reuel K. Wilson. (University Press of New England One Court St. Lebanon, NH 03766)

The marriage of writers Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson was not an ordinary coupling. Their creative life spans more than half a century. Their collective literary opus consisted of criticism, fiction, autobiography, political journalism, travelogues, and to a lesser degree (in Wilson’s case) poetry.

In his memoir: “ To the Life of Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod ,”Reuel K. Wilson, ( now well into his 70’s) the son of Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy focuses on his parents’ life on Cape Cod in the late 1930’s to the mid 1940’s, when their marriage ended after a tumultuous seven years. Reuel Wilson writes:

“They married in Feb. of 1938. Unfortunately, neither partner could peacefully coexist with the other under the same roof…Suffice it to say that Wilson, goaded by inner demons, was capable of boorish, cruel and even violent behavior. McCarthy, who carried the stigma of childhood trauma—as a young orphan she was cruelly used by her guardians—reacted emotionally to her husband’s frequent needling and criticism…”

McCarthy, author of the novel “The Group” among others, and Edmund Wilson, well-known for his “Memoirs of Hecate County,” decided to anchor their new married life in the environs of the Cape. Reuel Wilson writes that the Cape was a good fit for the couple:

“ Because of its great natural beauty and its odd mixture of locals and self-exiled, or vacationing writers and artists, the newly married couple decided to cast anchor in Wellfleet, just fourteen miles south of Provincetown at Cape’s end.”
Their life together was one of creative output, mixed with a great deal of boozing, idle flirting, infidelities, and violent arguments, all well-documented in this memoir. So whether you are a literary purist, or a gossip-monger, you will find much of interest here.

Although according to Reuel Wilson, the Cape was not Wilson’s high literary priority, he did write a lot about it as evidenced by his copious journal jottings. Here is a passage by Edmund Wilson concerning a favorite spot on the Cape, “Gull Pond”

"—pale dullish blue, as if unawakened yet with summer—smooth as metal with only a few glistenings of light, few but intensely bright and far out a loon… a float, silhouetting its neck and its long bill…”

Much of Wilson’s serious poetry was published in a volume “Night Thoughts” (1953), and a number of poems deal with the Cape. He writes in the poem “Provincetown”

“Here never in this place I knew/such beauty by your side, such peace--/These skies that brightening imbue/with dawn’s delight the day’s release.”

McCarthy wrote a novel “A Charmed Life,” that in some ways reflected the residents of Wellfleet. Reuel Wilson writes that the characters were “marked by weird idiosyncrasies that reflect inner distortions, willing slaves to their own weaknesses…” Overall the seacoast bohemia depicted in this novel lived contented lives. The novel got only a luke warm critical reception, and because of some unflattering descriptions of the townsfolk, it made McCarthy few new friends. McCarthy left the Cape behind for good shortly after the novel was released in 1955.

Although “To the Life of the Silver Harbor…” narrowly focuses on the couples life on the Cape, a much broader perception of these literary figure can be gleaned from this arcane scope.

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