Both were depressives, both were literary pioneers in a male-dominated profession and both came to represent almost a cause
If you only had time to read one of these books--and indeed you will--you must choose between a woman who lived for nearly 80 years, had four husbands and wrote 20 books, and one who killed herself at the age of 30, having had just one husband (but a very big one), and having written a single unpublished novel, a few short stories and a cornucopia of poems. The competition will be loaded because the book about Mary McCarthy was written, for the most part, by an editor at the New Yorker, while the Sylvia Plath book, being her journals, was written entirely by Sylvia Plath.
As a critic, controversialist and writer of fiction, McCarthy (1912-89) was a prominent figure in the political and intellectual world of mid-century America. By contrast Plath (1932-63) was a spirit possessed, a lyric poet whose field of action was at once more private and more embracing. Yet both were pioneers in a male-dominated profession, and both became exemplars to their many young admirers.
Each woman was exceedingly clever, and more than usually good-looking. Pale complexion and black hair and, in her own words, "a gorgeous ivory skin" is the truth about Mary. (She was proud enough of that skin to bare her back for a portrait camera.) Plath refers to herself as "No Elizabeth Taylor, maybe...but tan, tall, blondish, not half bad". Both suffered from depressions. When McCarthy wrote about hers she was able merely to say: "I don't want to describe it," but when Plath was in the throes she could write about little else, "a panic, absolute and obliterating". (Her poet-husband, Ted Hughes, destroyed the bleaker parts of these journals, defending himself on the ground that he did not want the children to have to read about their mother's despair.)
Neither refers to the other in the volumes under review, although McCarthy, born long before Plath and surviving long after her, must have known about the upstart and might not have approved of her, while Plath, having turned her back on American culture to move to Europe (like Henry James before her), would surely have enjoyed McCarthy's evocation of Vassar girls in "The Group" (1963), except that she died a few weeks before it was published. Significantly, McCarthy did not entirely approve of Virginia Woolf ("a certain kind of Woman Writer who's a Capital W, Capital W"), while Plath heartily did--"How does Woolf do it?"
You cannot envisage the tough cookie who stayed in literary America and dipped her hatchet in the blood of J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote and David Halberstam, seriously contemplating suicide. But it is hard to imagine that Plath, the Woolfphile, who killed herself a few weeks after splitting from Hughes, would have died any other way.
So it is the intellectual American essayist against the impulsive Europeanish poet, and already you begin to deplore the first and adore the second. Except that things are never that simple. McCarthy's youth, as described in her terrific `"Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" (1957) was desperate. When she was six both her parents died within days of each other and she was farmed out to cruel and inadequate relatives. No wonder she became feisty, doughty when she scented a good battle, and there were plenty: Hannah Arendt's book on Eichmann; communism (McCarthy was a fellow-traveller); Vietnam; and, best of all, a terrific assault on the alarming Lillian Hellman ("Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'") which McCarthy handed out on the Dick Cavett show. Hellman sued but, fortunately for McCarthy, died before the case could come to court. And if there were those, and there were, who thought her a bitch and a home-wrecker, an anti-Semite and a snob, well, it went with the territory.
It is also possible to read the Plath "Journals" (and you will read them with a mixture of fascination and the guilt of an emotional intruder) and conclude that here was a superb talent, untramelled by self-criticism, an energy which she never really harnessed--and to wonder what the effect might have been if someone, probably Hughes, had smacked her delightful face and told her to snap out of it, and write something substantial.
Frances Kiernan's technique of interweaving her narrative of McCarthy's life with soundbites from some 200 witnesses certainly creates a multi-dimensional view of her, and it probably renders superfluous further McCarthy lives.
Sylvia Plath's "Journals (1950-62)" offer just one single view of her--the subjective, interior view--and this reviewer would not swap it or her for a hundred impeccably researched biographies. To share some time with Mary McCarthy is to walk on egg-shells, both moral and aesthetic. But to read the deepest dreams and impulses of Sylvia Plath is to fall in love all over again, totally and uncritically.
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