Mary, Je T’Aime: Literary Portraits

February 18, 2009 | 8 books mentioned 12 4 min read

Like more conventional forms of romance, the first great literary love of my life began with a look. Young readers of Playboy have similar experiences, I believe, with centerfolds: a precise moment – the turning of a page to reveal a face (more likely a body) that haunts the young man for the rest of his days. In bars too, at high school dances, in college dining halls, in lecture classes and seminars such infatuations begin: a single glimpse of an unknown stranger prompts the festerings of fascination and desire. My literary romance began in the pages of A Book of Days for the Literary Year, between June 22nd and June 23rd:

This picture, which still hangs above my desk, is Mary McCarthy’s Vassar senior portrait and from the first moment I saw it, I was in love. She was all the things I wanted to be: a writer, beautiful and serious, but also – or so she seemed to me – bright, frank, fearless, alluring. And she was also what I was then: a bit childlike and clean-scrubbed and, perhaps, a bit mischievous (I sense that still in the shadowed corner of her mouth). I have since discovered that McCarthy’s looks were a bit sharper than this picture reveals, and became more so in her 20s and 30s. There are also some ghastly pictures of her in later life (one of her on a panel with W.H. Auden comes to mind – the two look like finalists in a World’s Least Well-Preserved Person contest, and I think I remember McCarthy to be missing a tooth in this one). But in the Vassar portrait she is stunning. I gather from the number of men who fell under her spell (Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenburg, and Philip Rahv among them) that the beauty that won me was real.

Is this strange? Or inappropriate? This enthralling first look, this discovery of one of the great literary loves of my life through a visceral, physical attraction to her? My affair ended in an intellectual and aesthetic admiration of McCarthy’s bracing, clean, meticulously observed prose and her total, sometimes aggressive, frankness about sex and everything else in How I Grew, The Group, The Groves of Academe, Cast a Cold Eye, The Company She Keeps, and Intellectual Memoirs. Her bravery (or was it brazenness?) held me rapt and abject even after the original power of the Vassar picture had been diluted somewhat by other, less flattering visions of her. The most famous McCarthy line of all time is one she tossed out about Lillian Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979. McCarthy had described Hellman as a dishonest writer and Cavett pressed her, “What is dishonest about Lillian Hellman?” McCarthy responded: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Hellman responded with a $2.5 million libel suit.) Not until I found Lord Rochester, Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade some years later would someone seem so awe-inspiringly self-assured and terrifyingly bold in thought and word.

But the question of beauty remains. Susan Sontag, whom one might have expected to rise above the average woman’s hyper-consciousness of beauty, was by her own account, one of us: “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.” In Paradise Lost, the newly-created, unfallen Eve is more taken with her own reflection in a lake than she is with Adam. He is, by her own account,”less fair,/ less winning… than that smooth wat’ry image” of herself. When I started reading McCarthy, I didn’t just want to be able to write like she did, I wanted to be her. I wanted to be what she had been: beautiful, dazzlingly bright and self-certain. Her books were sacred how-to guides that might transform me (however silly or sinister the ladies at may have found the idea of intellectual memoirs as how-to books in Anne’s post last week). But it is laughable: Jon Stewart had a joke about the increasing sexiness and femaleness of cable news anchors – a segment called “News I’d Like to F#@k” and this approach to news-watching was, regrettably, similar to the way (in my too earnest and hopeful teendom) I approached McCarthy – with a confusion of hungers – for beauty, for intellectual acuity. I cannot tell which is which sometimes. I cannot subtract the beauty of the person (beauty I admire; a beauty I covet) from the disembodied voices of the written world. The materiality of the person clings to the writing, gives the words a captivating timbre that the plodding and mousy can never achieve.

I remember reading reviews of Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and none of the reviewers seemed capable of talking about the book itself (The Secret History, Redux? – I guess, I have not read it) without first invoking Pessl’s beauty, or other reviewers’ fascination with her beauty, which was the same thing. I do not think that I am alone in my weakness – “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant” I may be – dilettantish, even (as you already know) – but not alone. Perhaps there are earnest and just readers out there who are not drawn in and repulsed so erratically as I am: people who plod dutifully and methodically through expansive reading lists of canonized authors (perhaps they go further – and read chronologically and boy-girl-boy-girl as well!), immune to the charms of such as these. But to belittle the powers of beauty and charm – and the irrational more generally – is not to escape it, and I do not try.

Patricia Highsmith

Anna Akhmatova, 1924.

Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, 1956, Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.

Assia Wevill, poet and second wife of Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in 1969, as Plath had before her, but killed her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. Not surprised you fell in love with that picture at all. And of course her writing lived up to the expectation, which is even bettah.

  2. C. DeMarr – I would agree that Assia possessed a more bountiful beauty in her younger days, but they both looked quite ashy toward the end of their tragic lives.

  3. Interesting. And the photo of McCarthy is stunning. Physical beauty is certainly nice to view – in writers just as it is in any other earthling. But an author's possession or lack of attractiveness doesn't affect my feelings about his work at all. In fact, in many instances (unless the dust jacket sports a photo), I have no idea what the author of my reading matter looks like. And while I'm flattered by the "earnest and just" epithet, I certainly don't like to think of myself as plodding.

  4. Wonderful post, Emily. I've always been smitten with Carson McCullers, but more for her sexy ugliness.

    (And I've heard that another one of my favorite writers, Lorrie Moore, is quite the looker–and that she smells really good.)

  5. How about voices, Emily? Have you ever found yourself the victim of love at first listen? If I weren't already enamored of Zadie Smith's fiction, I certainly would be after listening to her speak.

  6. I remember being taken with the strangeness of her looks when I saw Carson McCullers after reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But I am not so shallow as to dismiss the worthy because they are not beautiful–McCullers is enthralling in a physical sense for other reasons. The McCarthy moment was unique for me, defining, and I feel something a little different about her for having come to her through a rather unconventional means. She wasn't just a body-less someone to read: she was someone to want, someone to want to be.

    I also, reading Mark Greif's review of the Sontag diaries, came across a new McCarthy-ism, possibly superior to the Hellman one: McCarthy meets Susan Sontag for the first time, after Sontag had taken up McCarthy's theater review column at the Partisan Review, and says to her: "Oh, you're the imitation me."
    Smitten again.

  7. I remember reading Borges when I was a young man and being enthralled by his short stories.

    I don't have a picture of him on my wall, and I never had even an imaginary love affair with him, but his books still sit on my shelf (and every once in a while I pick them up).

  8. That line from the Sontag journals (which I've just finished) is terribly resonant, haunting, not easily dismissed coming from a woman so much "married" to the mind. That the intellectual woman must somehow eschew physical beauty, elegance, style–in oneself or as something to freely, deeply desire–where does this binarism originate? There is a lovely little exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on Valentina; this bookish woman took 15 minutes today to luxuriate in V's extravagant elegance.

  9. Thank god I was well into Marisha Pessl's book before I looked again at the Photograph. Brilliant phrasing, metaphor, sentences, reminded me of the Shipping News.

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