Artists in Uniform

Although I haven’t picked it up in a while because of limited reading time, I’ve been enjoying Mary McCarthy’s collection of essays On the Contrary. It has a lot of essays that are new to me, and a couple that I’ve read before and loved, one of which is “Artists in Uniform.” The essay tells the story of McCarthy meeting and striking up a conversation with a man, the Colonel, on a train journey across the U.S. The two of them have been sitting in a car with a few other people, and because the Colonel is a man who tends to get what he wants, everyone expects that McCarthy will have lunch with him, even though he never actually asked her. But McCarthy hears the Colonel making anti-Semitic remarks, and she decides she will refuse lunch. She argues with him and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for his offensive comments, and although she eventually gives in and does have lunch with him, she keeps on arguing with him the entire time.

What makes the essay enjoyable is the way McCarthy describes their intellectual battle. The Colonel insists that there must be some personal reason McCarthy is so adamant about her anti-anti-Semitism; he can’t wrap his mind around the possibility that someone would have such a view just because it’s the right view to have. McCarthy believes what she does because it’s the right thing to believe, but the truth of the matter is that her grandmother was Jewish. She realizes she can’t let the Colonel know this, or he will dismiss her beliefs as personally motivated. So the two of them go at it: he keeps asking her questions trying to figure out what her personal connection to the Jews is, and she keeps trying to use reason and logic with him.

She sees that she’s much smarter than he is, and, given that it’s Mary McCarthy here, there’s no reason to doubt her. She’s aware of what’s going on in his head, all the twists and turns of his thinking, as he tries to figure her out. At the same time, she describes her own weaknesses and mistakes:

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The colonel put down his attache case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then …” said the colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” … All at once the colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving. “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted.

McCarthy, despite having given in on the matter of lunch and despite making some minor tactical errors along the way (such as assuming the Colonel is religious, when he is not), is in control of the situation. She is watching the Colonel trying to catch her out and failing again and again.

She is in control, that is, until all the sudden she’s not. I won’t give away the essay’s ending, but the encounter does not conclude in the way McCarthy wanted it to. Her hopes of converting this man into a more enlightened way of thinking completely disappear. What the essay ends up being about, finally, is McCarthy’s own pride — pride in her intellect and in her ability to reason people into good behavior. Intellect will only get you so far, after all. If the Colonel doesn’t want to believe something, he won’t, and no amount of arguing will change his mind.

That dynamic captures what I like about McCarthy: she’s wickedly smart, but she’s not afraid to make herself look a little foolish. That, I think, is often what the best personal essayists do.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

8 responses to “Artists in Uniform

  1. I really should read more essays by McCarthy. I was so impressed by my introduction to her through the Lopate book, but have yet to follow up by reading any more of her. I love her voice – the excerpt you pulled reminds me why. As you say, wickedly smart, but not afraid of self-criticism. What a great combo.


  2. On your recommendation I bought a volume of McCarthy’s essays, although mine is ‘The Writing on the Wall’. I’ve just checked and this essay isn’t in it, which is a great shame as you’ve made me want to read it now whenI ought to be doing half a dozen other things. (So perhaps a blessing rather than a shame:)). What you have done , though is made me move this collection higher up the pile. Thank you again.


  3. I’ve not read McCarthy and clearly I need to. My library has the book so I have added it to my list so I won’t forget about it. No I just need to muster the time and an opening in my reading calendar.


  4. Now I’m so curious about how the essay ends! I’m always at a loss about how to deal with people who are adamant about things that are just not so, which is aggravating when, say, it comes to vaccination, but frightening when it comes to antisemitism, racism, sexism, or homophobia–beliefs that can result in, at best, exclusion and limitation, and at worst violence and death.


  5. I’ve always been a little in awe of Mary McCarthy but curious about her, too. Have you read her autobiography? I should look up her essays in the Lopate book to get a taste of her work, though I also have a couple of her novels on hand as well. So many reading choices! The nice thing about reading blog posts about other readers’ reading experiences is getting a little taste of a lot of books!


  6. Emily — yes, a wonderful voice. You might also like her book Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Think of it — a whole book of that wonderful voice! I admire that book very much.

    Annie — Writing on the Wall is more focused on literature topics, I think, whereas this one has a whole range of subjects. The section I’ve been reading has a lot on politics and cultural issues, although there are some literary essays later. I hope you enjoy Writing on the Wall when you get there!

    Stefanie — that’s always the problem, isn’t it? To find time on the reading calendar is surprisingly difficult! I hope you like her when you do read her.

    Lilian — you are right that encountering such a person is a scary thing. It’s frightening when someone is completely impervious to logic or even to emotional appeals. I think that giving away the ending of a good essay is just as bad as giving away the end of a story, so I had to keep it secret!

    Danielle — I agree with you about being in awe of her. She’s definitely a person who provokes that response. I’ve read her book Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and also her book How I Grew, although it was a while ago. I think she has even more autobiographical work. I should go back and reread at some point.


  7. What a lovely account – I am a fan of Mary McCarthy, but a fan who doesn’t read enough of her work! I must get hold of an essay collection by her – I’ll bet she writes them well.


  8. Litlove — I’m guessing you would like them very much. On the Contrary is great, as are all her memoirs.


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