Commentary Magazine

On the Horizon: Gibbsville and New Leeds

Mary McCarthy and John O’Hara are two of the most consistently interesting and provocaists in America. They are so different that it takes the accident of a publication date to bring them together for discussion. Yet once having placed them side by side, it is difficult not to see a certain significance in their very opposition. Each navigates his own course, but both discover the same America.



O’Hara is a realist; that is, he considers his principal duty to be the creation of a plausible likeness of the world. His care and skill in achieving accuracy of detail are truly astonishing, so much so that if a vivid surface were all that mattered O’Hara would be a very great novelist. But his details are more than merely accurate. He is endowed with the kind of shrewdness that can derive the world from a brand label, and the whole universe from a fraternity pin. Sharing O’Hara’s angle of vision, one begins to believe that to learn where a man was born, educated, and buys his clothes is to know virtually all there is to know about him.

The brilliant surface makes O’Hara’s world immediately recognizable. The moment you step into it, you feel at home and at the same time excited by all the bustle around you. O’Hara’s prose style, casual and tweedy in texture, contributes to the relaxed, informal atmosphere of the visit. Only after you have been there for a while, when you pause and reflect, do you realize what a strange place you have come to.

The name of the place is often Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, though at times it has been New York or Hollywood or another Pennsylvania town. It is a place in which the social has superseded all other considerations. The nature of Gibbsville was most purely bodied forth in O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra, a book which seems to me a minor classic of our time. Julian English, the hero, in a fit of drunken petulance throws a highball into the face of an influential Gibbs-villian, and the insult sets off a chain of events that leads within three days to the break-up of Julian’s marriage and his suicide. It speaks for O’Hara’s integrity of conception that he makes this fantastically disproportionate sequence credible, convincing, and even inevitable. And fantastic the story is: no other word will do. A breach of the peace at a country club followed by a few tactless moves (most crucial of which is Julian’s flirtation with another woman)—and an apparently happy life is cut off.

Of course there is a history behind Julian’s disaster. Though he is of good family, a perfectly respectable businessman, and a member of the best circles in town, he has always been a “bad boy.” But all this seems to mean is that he committed a few harmless pranks as a child, and as a young man proved unable to behave himself quite properly when drinking. The fact remains that in Gibbs-ville tactlessness is deemed a mortal offense: the real horror of Julian’s death is that no one complains at its madness. In Gibbsville, people would no more question the supremacy of the social values than most of us would question the laws of gravity. The social values are all they have. With no inner resources to sustain them against the decrees of the country club, an infringement of the rules leaves them helpless and submissive, meekly awaiting punishment, and convinced that they deserve whatever they get.

To put all this another way, O’Hara appears to conceive that a man is exhaustively defined by his observable behavior—by what is usually called his manners—and beyond that, by his sexual habits. There is nothing else, either implied or specified. But it must be understood that O’Hara is not a “novelist of manners” in the sense in which literary critics have used that term. Manners in O’Hara refer to nothing outside themselves or deeper than themselves. They are neither an index of sensibility nor the expression of moral impulses: O’Hara is no disciple of Henry James. Nor does he share in the same tradition as Fitzgerald. Like most 19th-century novelists of high life, Fitzgerald attributed a spiritual value to money and social position. “The really rich,” he said, “are different from us”—and he meant that they were more beautiful, more interesting, better (though he would have been hard pressed to define how they were better). Other novelists who have dealt with the rich have presented them sometimes as better, sometimes as worse than the rest of us—but always as different, and always the difference had a meaning. What is curious about O’Hara’s preoccupation with the rich is that despite his meticulous care in describing the way they live and think, he draws no conclusions from class. Which is to say that he is not a snob. The rich appear to him most representative of the human condition, because their lives are frankly, clearly, and fully implicated in the life of society.

O’Hara’s concern with sex, and with erratic sexual tastes in particular, sometimes seems gratuitous, as, for example, when he devotes several pages to a description of the bedding down of two peripheral characters. Love-making of all varieties goes on in his books; an O’Hara character is bound to have a very positive sexual personality, especially the women. But mere prurience does not account for these erotic passages—or at least not all of them. In the world of O’Hara, sex is the one area of a man’s life in which he can achieve a certain individuality of expression. Everything else belonging to him, defining him, identifying him, comes from environment and returns to it, bit by bit throughout the years. The epigraph to the collected works of John O’Hara might be, “Of Gibbsville we are and to Gibbsville return.” We have no privacy, no inner life, no unique irreducible qualities—no mystery. Except, that is, in the bedroom, the domain of the unpredictable, the individual.

But O’Hara has grown older—he is over fifty now—and he no longer feels satisfied with his original account of life. Ten North Frederick, his latest novel, is the most comprehensive picture he has yet given us of Gibbsville. It covers three generations and various social strata of the town, concentrating on the life span of Joe Chapin, Gibbs-ville’s leading citizen, and his wife Edith. The book ends with the following passage:

There is here, in the biography of Joe Chapin, nothing that could not have been seen or heard by the people whose lives were touched by Joe Chapin’s life. . . . Ten years after Joe Chapin’s death, the people who remember him slightly or well have to go by what he said and did and looked like, and only rarely by what he did not say or do. Somewhere, finally, after his death, he was placed in the great past, where only what he is known to have said and done can contradict all that he did not say, did not do. And then, when that time was reached when he was placed in the great past, he went out of the lives of all the rest of us, who are awaiting our turn.

The mystery of life has finally caught up with O’Hara in the fact of death, and Ten North Frederick is his attempt to reinterpret the universe in the light of that fact. The tone is less jaunty, less smart-alecky than his previous work; it conveys an impression of a man in quest of answers rather than of a shrewd bird in the know. But it is in the nature of O’Hara’s special genius that it should be helpless before questions of meaning, that it should penetrate only so far and no further. The world as he sees it, as he cannot help seeing it, contains no mysteries; at most, it accommodates a paradox or two. His angle of vision is not a matter of choice, but the way he responds to experience, and consequently not to be modified by additions but only by a radical revision.

Ten North Frederick is still written from the same vantage point as Appointment in Samarra, except that O’Hara tries to introduce another dimension by acknowledging that a man’s life is more than his observable behavior. But on this subject O’Hara has little to say, and the mere presence of the acknowledgment is enough to make the old O’Hara who survives in Ten North Frederick less convincing. The drama below the surface in the history of Joe and Edith Chapin is crudely imagined. Joe is animated by the secret ambition to become President of the United States, and when this ambition falls flat his apparently enviable life turns into an insipid affair, ending in alcoholism and moral collapse. Edith is driven by the desire to “own” another human being, and O’Hara gives us to understand that this evil wish poisons her husband’s soul. O’Hara never shows the inner struggle between Joe and Edith; it is mentioned many times but remains an unrealized idea. Actually, what comes through as the cause of Joe Chapin’s failure is precisely the same error that destroyed Julian English—a tactless move. Joe attempts to further his political career without consulting Mike Slattery, the local boss, and O’Hara is very good when he portrays the disastrous consequences of this offense against the system. For the rest, all the talk about the Joe Chapin-nobody-knew and the “real” Edith Chapin strikes us as a propitiatory gesture toward the gods O’Hara once slighted and whose sovereignty he is now ready to proclaim.



A Charmed Life is Mary McCarthy’s third novel (or fourth, depending on whether you consider The Company She Keeps a novel—I do not). Like The Oasis and The Groves of Academe, it is a satiric portrait of a community of intellectuals, this time bohemian rather than political or academic. Martha Sinnott, the heroine, returns with her second husband to New Leeds, a town whose “essence was a kind of exaggeration. . . . In wife-beating, child neglect, divorce, automobile accidents, falls, suicides, the town was on a sort of statistical rampage, like the highways on a holiday week-end.” She has come back after a long absence to finish a play, though the infectious disorder of New Leeds life frightens her, and in spite of the fact that her first husband, Miles Murphy, from whom she had fled in the night several years earlier to marry John Sinnott, is still in town and still a problem to her. Martha’s marriage to Sinnott is a good one, but has lost the aura of excitement that once surrounded it. Under the circumstances, the inevitable happens, and after a drunken party Miles seduces Martha. When she finds that she has become pregnant, the very slight possibility that Miles may have been responsible forces her to seek an abortion. Her desire for a child, reason, arithmetic, and prudence all tell her to have the baby. But intelligence is powerless against Martha’s more obscure emotions. (”. . . the moral part of Martha knew that she would have to have an abortion because all her inclinations were the other way”).

On her way to the abortionist, Martha discovers that she is no longer afraid of herself. At that moment her car swerves and crashes, killing her instantly. It is as though, fearless, she were no longer eligible for life.

The story of Martha is standard Mary McCarthy, not as sharply executed as some of the Margaret Sargent stories in The Company She Keeps, perhaps, but nevertheless very much worth reading. However, at least half of A Charmed Life has to do with other characters and other matters—principally the career of Warren Coe, a little abstract painter of small mind, silly aesthetic theories, and large heart; and the timid sexual ventures of Dolly Lamb, a fading virgin in her thirties whose goodness is equaled only by her fragility. These sections of the novel are thin and rather flabby. They are Miss McCarthy’s experiments in charity, and they seem to register her perception of the helplessness of Good People, but one has the impression that their main purpose is to expand what might have been only a longish story into a full-length novel.

The fact is that good people, helpless or otherwise, are not in Mary McCarthy’s line. Neither, for that matter, are bad ones; she seems to me quite indifferent to the ordinary moral categories. Like any good satirist—and she is surely the best in America—she creates her own heaven and hell. In the world of Mary McCarthy all activities are equally absurd, all people equally ridiculous. Even Warren Coe, whom she tries very hard to strike off as a figure of dignity, remains pathetic, and so does Dolly Lamb. At first glance, nothing distinguishes the saint from the sinner. There is, however, one traditional virtue which never stimulates Miss McCarthy to suspicion and ridicule—and that is honesty, the will to face the truth about oneself, the desire and ability to be critical of one’s own motives. This kind of honesty is, of course, an “intellectual” virtue, presupposing as it does an unusual degree of analytic power. Which is precisely the point: the major distinction Miss McCarthy makes with regard to people, the only distinction that has force and reality to her, is between the intelligent and the stupid. But the intelligent are not those who have read many books or who are always concerned with ideas. They are the people who refuse to harbor illusions about themselves, who are vigilant and severe in flaying the self-deception out of their souls.

Of this virtue Miss McCarthy’s heroines are always possessed. A Mary McCarthy heroine examines her soul with the scrupulous, unashamed persistence of a professional model looking herself over in the vanity-table mirror. She knows exactly what she looks like from every angle, and she is not afraid to acknowledge that her nose may be a trifle too long. Indeed, it is of the greatest importance to her that she recognize her own weaknesses, the better to carry them off. But here the comparison ends. For the more a Mary McCarthy heroine knows about herself, the less she is able to control her actions (“The more one knew, the less one could predict, it seemed to Martha Sinnott”). She is driven by impulses that seem to have no relation to what she feels herself to be. To take the most salient example—and the most frequently recurring situation in Miss McCarthy’s work—the heroine never goes willingly to bed with a man; she always “finds herself” in bed with someone she dislikes and often hates. What we have in Margaret Sargent (and all the others who follow her, including Martha Sinnott) is a spectator of her own life, yet somehow not a participant, essentially unaffected by her experience and hence not really responsible.

But Miss McCarthy’s heroines represent a good deal more than that. In general, it might be said that they dramatize the disjunction—or rather, the hostility—between Reason and Impulse. This is Miss McCarthy’s true subject, a theme which underlies her satirical castigations, which calls forth all her famous brilliance, which gives point to her acerbity, and depth to her apparently gratuitous bitterness. She has seen the special relevance of the idea for the contemporary world. The impotence of reason and good intentions against instinct and impulse is, of course, a very old theme of literature. Indeed, it is one of the cornerstones of Christian thought, used by theologians from Augustine to Tillich to prove that man without Grace is helpless against the Devil. It was, too, Freud’s great preoccupation; when accused of giving too much license to sex, he retorted that the aim of his new science was to establish for the first time in human history the dominion of reason over the unconscious. But this ambition was never fulfilled. Freud ultimately claimed that his most enduring achievement was to have dealt the third great blow to human pride, the first two being the Copernican revolution and Darwinism, which proved that man was neither cosmologically nor biologically unique.



A “new philosophy calls all in doubt”—and we have Donne’s Anniversaries and many Victorian testimonies to give us some sense of the uneasy skepticism caused by the first two revolutions. What Freud called into doubt was our power to control our own characters, much less our own destinies. He taught that no human motive can be “pure,” that motivation itself was an incredibly complex phenomenon made up in great part of elements which the actor did not even know were present. He taught that we never quite “outgrow” anything, that the child we once were lives on within us, clamoring to be heard, filing his demands against the adult mind and spirit—and with astonishing success. And here we have the Mary McCarthy heroine: a high-minded adult under the tyranny of a five-year-old brat.

Miss McCarthy, it would seem, has assimilated the lessons of Freud very thoroughly; she has felt them with an intensity no other writer has even approached. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, and then become an avant-garde intellectual, she was perhaps in an especially good position to understand the implications of Freud’s skeptical pessimism, and certainly she responded to it with something like religious fervor. (The analogy between the psychoanalyst’s couch and the confessional is always on her mind.) The failure of Reason as a substitute for Grace, and the illusion of free will—she went through, as it were phylogenetically, these adventures of Western culture in her own life:

She feared that hope might be an illusion, which she had in common with every wreck and derelict who had floated up on the beach. It might be nothing more than the old “free will” of the philosophers, which was a part of the apparatus of consciousness and told nothing one way or the other about reality.

In this scheme of things, hypocrisy—traditionally the main butt of satirists—takes on a new flavor. No one can help being a hypocrite; we are all hypocrites by definition, though some of us are “honest” hypocrites. This, according to Miss McCarthy, is a great joke—on other people:

The conceit of the “noble” action, he said to himself, chuckling, lacte gratuit, the selfless, improvident, senseless, luxurious, spendthrift action, this had touched the soft spot of the little iron maiden, so resolved to distinguish herself from the others . . . whose ancestors had had to work for a living, by the implacable purity of her motives.

But note how the tone changes when one of her heroines is under scrutiny:

They still “loved” each other, but this love today was less a promise than a fact of life. If they could have chosen over again, neither would have chosen differently. . . . They could not even imagine an ideal companion they would put in the other’s place. From their point of view, for their purposes, they had the best there was. There lay the bleakness; for them, as they were constituted, through all eternity, this had been the optimum—there was no beyond. There was nothing.

The use of “through all eternity” in that passage is, of course, serious, lending grandeur to Martha’s difficulties. The relish at having found someone out is transformed into the solemnity befitting the confrontation of a Great Truth. Freud may have deprived Miss McCarthy of her faith in the power of intelligence, he may have convinced her that it is impossible even to be honest, but she will not surrender her feeling of sublimity at the steady contemplation of one’s own ruin.

What we respond to in Miss McCarthy, I think, is this show of fearless honesty, this last-ditch stand against cynicism. How courageous, we say, to admit such things, how admirable! But it is, after all, only a show. The “bleakness” inspires no horror. Instead, it seems to generate satisfaction, even complacency. For other people are worse because they are not perceptive or honest enough to admit to their own nothingness. Intelligence may be unable to realize itself in action, it may be morally neutral, but how comely a sight all the same!

It is, then, to intellectual vanity—the only form of pride snatched from the flames of three cultural revolutions—that Miss McCarthy’s satire appeals. How well she seems to understand our predicament, we who have lost our innocence by knowing too much, the over-conscious, over-critical. How much more attractive she makes us appear than the rest of those people. How well she understands our spiritual fastidiousness, our despair at discovering unworthiness in ourselves. How perfectly she appreciates that the real, the enduring me is the thinking, analyzing me, not the doing, the pragmatic me. How cunningly she salvages my essential purity from the wreck of my life.



In Gibbsville every gesture a man makes is noticed and judged; in New Leeds every movement of his spirit is taken account of and used in evidence against him. In both places the standards are as severely and confidently applied as they are vaguely conceived. A man must always be on guard, for, at any moment, and for a reason he may never even understand, someone is likely to take away his membership in the club, or in a bout of despondency he may even tear it up himself. The resident of these places is denied the luxury of taking himself for granted, either socially or morally. No matter what his position, no matter how securely lodged he may seem to be, he must always make a supreme effort, he must continue to justify the space he occupies on the earth. Gibbsville and New Leeds, different though they look, are nevertheless neighboring communities, and both are in America.


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