Smart people behaving badly; A new memoir details the sexual impropriety of a literary couple
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 February 2009)

Elena, the fourth and final wife of Edmund Wilson, apparently a candidate for spousal sainthood, excused his drunken rages and frequent infidelities by suggesting that he had invested all his discipline in writing and had nothing left for the rest of life. It was true that his exceptionally hard work produced many excellent books. Rightly, Wilson (1895-1972) was called the leading literary critic in 20th-century America.

But in dealing with the rest of life, whether his taxes, his drinking habit or his sexual appetites, he was impulsive, profligate and careless. Mainly through forgetfulness, he failed to file an income tax return from 1946 to 1955. Debt and penalties burdened him for years. In 1963, Wilson apparently decided that his reputation required polish. He wrote The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest, expressing indignation at the way tax collectors treated him and explaining that his failure to file had been a principled response to U. S. foreign policy. Nobody, so far as I know, believed him.

Wilson was called Bunny by most of his friends but his manner was dignified and mature, even in his early years. In his twenties, he had a love affair with Edna St. Vincent Millay, a beautiful and much admired poet in Greenwich Village. To heighten their intimacy he told her, "By the time we're 50 years old we'll be two of the most interesting people in the United States." She replied, "You behave as if you were 50 already." Their relationship soon ended.

A lengthy parade of other women followed during the next half-century, each relationship stirring up clouds of gossip. The most lurid, by a long way, was his tumultuous affair and then marriage in 1938 to Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), a brilliant critic and the author of delicious satirical stories and novels.

If Wilson was the randiest of American male intellectuals, McCarthy was the sexiest (and in print the frankest) of female writers. By the time they were divorced, after seven unhappy years, it was clear that when it came to outrageous behaviour McCarthy, 17 years younger, could almost match him.

Of course, being writers, they told many versions of their story, in memoirs, diaries, letters and fiction. It has always fascinated students of the period, in particular those, like me, who admired both writers.

This season, a unique witness, their only child, Reuel K. Wilson, has come forth with his version, To the Life of the Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod (University Press of New England). Reading his father's published diaries, Reuel notes a passage that pictures a female partner as an intriguing toy, to be studied and manipulated. On this point, Reuel's judgement is harsh: "While imbibing the woman's sexuality, he simultaneously dehumanizes her." Wilson thought McCarthy deranged, hysterical, perhaps insane but "did not admit that his behaviour could trigger her outbursts and that his excesses qualitatively exceeded hers."

The two of them, Reuel tells us, "single-mindedly furthered the cause of sexual freedom, often with little regard for the feelings of others." This is putting it mildly. Before and after their marriage, they flaunted their infidelities. They lived much of the time on Cape Cod, where intellectuals regularly traded houses, insults and wives -- but even by Cape Cod standards, Wilson and McCarthy went out of their way to exhibit their promiscuity. Others might be called two-timers. Reuel tells us that both of his parents "were capable of two-, three-and four-timing spouses or other lovers."

McCarthy, making regular trips to see her psychiatrist in New York, managed to work in sexual interludes with Clement Greenberg; she was slipping away from America's leading literary critic to make love with America's leading art critic.

Reuel sees both his parents as damaged: "Wilson, goaded by inner demons, was capable of boorish, cruel, and even violent behaviour. 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." It seems that Wilson struck his wife one night, and soon after arranged for psychiatric treatment -- for her. McCarthy and Wilson, while compatible on literary and political matters, could not live in peace under the same roof.

Seventy years old, Reuel Wilson is retired from the University of Western Ontario, where for many years he taught Russian, Polish and comparative literature, following his father in his eagerness to conquer one language after another. In theory Reuel should look back in anger. He does deal frankly with the ethical lapses of his parents, but a tone of sweet forgiveness dominates his story. Perhaps he outgrew his anger, or perhaps he determined from the beginning to be as unlike them as possible.

He tells us he was glad to see his parents divorce; the elimination of persistent acrimony from his life was a great relief. And he was grateful for the arrival of more peaceable stepparents. Wilson's fourth wife, Elena Mumm Thornton, treated Reuel with motherly affection and indulgence. Bowden Broadwater, McCarthy's next husband, turned out to be a good-hearted young man and a welcome companion.

Elena stayed married to Wilson till his death 25 years later. She gave him a good lunch every day, often entertained their friends at dinner and apparently didn't mind much if one of the guests was a romantic attachment of Wilson's, such as Penelope Gilliatt.

Reuel sets most of his memories in the milieu of Cape Cod. He was often happy there in youth, he still maintains a place in Wellfleet and he wants to tell us about Wilson's subtle but enthusiastic response to nature as it was exhibited in that community beside the Atlantic. He draws his title from Wilson's memory of how he and others dedicated themselves "to the Cape, to the life of the silver harbor -- and all the love and work that had gone with it, that we had come there to keep alive."

He's chosen to write To the Life of the Silver Harbor in circular style, going over each incident several times, so that familiar facts keep returning, like luggage on an airport carousel. The awkward format will tax the patience of many readers. Still, Reuel Wilson deserves gratitude for providing a unique perspective on one of the most celebrated encounters of 20th-century literature.

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