On the Cape, vows rewritten

Son of Wilson, McCarthy recounts an unhappy marriage

Reuel and Edmund Wilson at the Wellfleet house, 1949. Reuel and Edmund Wilson at the Wellfleet house, 1949. (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Courtesy of Magnum Photos)
By Alexander Theroux
January 25, 2009
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Literary critic Edmund Wilson lived in Wellfleet for much of his life, yet wrote little about Cape Cod. Curiously, major writers who have lived in this region have tended to overlook the place. John Dos Passos said nothing of it. Same with Conrad Aiken. "Tough Guys Don't Dance" was Norman Mailer's only book set on the Cape, and he lived in Provincetown for half a century. A good explanation in Wilson's case is that he experienced as much horror as happiness in Wellfleet, as did novelist Mary McCarthy, his third wife - they lived on (and off) Cape Cod together for seven turbulent years, from 1938 to '45.

Was theirs the "Slough of Bliss" or the "Bower of Despond," as one questioning wag put it? One attempt at an answer is given in "To the Life of the Silver Harbor," an awkward yet decent account written by their only child, Reuel, who probably bears more battle fatigue than either of his parents.

Drawing on a body of unpublished material by his parents, Reuel Wilson looks back not only on his father's four marriages and his mother's three but also on their compulsive sexual affairs and his unpredictable upbringing, at once bohemian and snobbish. Now 70, he had managed to survive the complicated, emotionally fraught lives of his parents, staying in touch with both of them in a remote way until they died.

Edmund Wilson seemed an incompetent, if sporadically devoted, father. Although overweight and unprepossessing, he was not only a compulsive womanizer but a man who needed to be married. Still, Elena Thornton, his fourth wife, would later remark to stepson Reuel, "All the discipline your father had at his disposal went into his work, with little left to temper his dealings with family members." And a long lifetime of majestic work it was - "To the Finland Station," "Upstate," "Axel's Castle," "Patriotic Gore," seven autobiographical books, six volumes of journals, and on and on.

But Wilson was demanding and eccentric. (He adored women's feet; had a fixation for the color brown, preferring brown drapes, brown houses, and wearing only brown clothes; and enjoyed the company of rats.) In 1937 he met McCarthy, then working for Covici Friede publishers in New York; they married early in 1938, and on Christmas Day that year, Reuel was born.

Seventeen years younger than Wilson, McCarthy had a badly damaged soul herself, for "as a young orphan she was cruelly used by her guardians," notes her son. Wilson quickly found her difficult. He attributed her "hysterical" behavior toward him to her experiences with her sadistic "Uncle Myers." What did she see in that portly, overbearing older man? She seems to have fallen for his commanding literary profile, given her own intellectual ambitions. McCarthy was stunning in appearance and a terrible flirt. Each was a good catch for the other.

Nevertheless, the marriage was rocky from the start. McCarthy was soon subject to Wilson's taunts and combative words and offhand abuse. He struck her at least once, according to their son. Wilson stinted McCarthy with parsimonious caveats. He refused to allow her to maintain a bank account in her own name. She went into psychoanalysis at his urging the first year of their marriage, and spent almost a month at the psychiatric clinic at New York Hospital. (She would later claim that he had committed her against her will.) She got pregnant, miscarried, and was accused by Wilson of aborting the child herself. During the Wellfleet years, 1941 to '44, she began casual liaisons with other men, one with notable French and German translator Ralph Manheim, another with art critic Clement Greenberg. She vamped the ardent Theodore Spencer, a professor of English at Harvard, and then, mocking him, would proceed heartlessly to report the details to others in letters.

While it can be accurately said that Wilson aided McCarthy in her literary endeavors and that she clearly benefited as a writer of fiction from his sustained support, at least during the period he was willing to give it, neither "could peacefully coexist with the other under the same roof," writes Reuel Wilson. They divorced, and by 1946 both had remarried, McCarthy to a "dapper aesthete" nine years her junior named Bowden Broadwater, Wilson to Elena (Mumm) Thornton.

The fact that Wilson and McCarthy were both fiercely competitive and vain in queerly forgiving each other's infidelities surely fostered them. How sad, odd, and ultimately depressing it is to hear their son have to explain many years later that "both partners were capable of two- and three-, and four-timing their spouses or other lovers." McCarthy's posthumous "Intellectual Memoirs," admits her son, was a title "ineptly chosen by the publisher for a book that deals more with sex than intellectual matters." Until she died, in 1989, McCarthy revealingly referred to her domineering husband as the "Minotaur." Wilson, in his son's words, saw each of his many female partners as an "intriguing toy, to be studied and manipulated." It is the wistful acceptance of a son who could do nothing about it then and cannot now.

There seems to be fire missing from Reuel Wilson's history of his parents' time together, his conclusions clinical and abstract. "To the Life of the Silver Harbor" is long on report but rather short on insight. On the other hand, it is fair-minded and remarkably nonjudgmental. Reuel Wilson efficiently evokes the past he knew. He remembers ponds he swam in and rooms he ran through and people he knew who are now long dead, but there remains much in the narrator of the boy who lost his childhood while caught in the hot crossfire of all those bad marriages and transient affairs and being shunted about from the Brooks School to Harvard, from Hyannis to Maine, from one airy house to another dim apartment, from one dipsomaniac blatherer on the beach to another at the Ritz. He knows where all the bodies are buried. But for all he knows, he is forgiving, an intrepid traveler who has sailed through a Scylla of a father on one side and a Charybdis of a mother on the other and somehow managed to survive to tell the tale.

Alexander Theroux is the author of many books, including "Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual."


Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod By Reuel K. Wilson

University Press of New England, 200 pp.,

illustrated, $26.95

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