- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

By Reuel K. Wilson
University Press of New England, $26.95, 200 pages, illus.

Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy, who were married for seven especially stormy years in the midst of their generally turbulent lives, were each in their own right major figures in 20th century American literature. They were also the kind of literary folk whose personalities loom at least as large as their substantial oeuvres. They wrote revealingly and fully about themselves during their long lives in diaries, letters and sundry autobiographical forms and have, not surprisingly, been the subject of intense biographical scrutiny since their deaths. Now we have the reminiscences of them by a literate, intelligent septuagenarian, a retired professor of comparative literature in Canada, who just happens to be their only son.

It must be strange to be Reuel Wilson, child of these titanic figures and larger than life human beings, witness to their equally titanic struggles, and uniquely positioned to know them as human beings. He has, of course, figured in all those biographies - to say nothing of his parents’ memoirs - but here for the first time we have his own particular - and very valuable - viewpoint. Although he is the prismatic lense through which we see Wilson and McCarthy, Mr. Reuel has kept the focus squarely on his parents. He is not shy about giving his point of view, but he is genuinely concerned with broadening and deepening our understanding of these fascinating and complex people. Clearly, they were not the easiest of parents to be around, but this book is truly a whining-free zone, about as far as you can get from a Mommie Dearest sort of memoir.

Mr. Reuel is aware of the difficulty of his task, acknowledging at the outset that his parents “present a formidable challenge to biographers and critics. … Both McCarthy and Wilson led complicated and emotionally fraught lives - which dramatically intersected during their seven-year marriage. Both seemed to court public controversy, and neither could, or would, avoid private scandal.” Note the way he refers to them by their last names when talking of them as public figures. In the course of the book, he will refer to them as “my father” and “my mother” when giving us personal reminiscences of them. And that’s the beauty of this slim volume: The way he is able to balance the public and the private.

Talking of his mother, the author comes out directly and states that “In McCarthy’s case, the investigator faces another kind of obstacle: how to separate the public from the private persona, the writer of fiction from the self-proclaimed truth teller.” In fact, throughout his honest, searching memoir the filial investigator seems to be truly a chip off the old block - or in this case off the two old parental blocks. Like his mother, he seems to be always in scrupulous search of the truth and like his father seems profoundly concerned with buttressing what he says with scholarship. References to autobiographical and biographical sources are exhaustively referenced and even footnoted, all very useful as a guide to those readers who will doubtless be stimulated by this book to read more about Wilson and McCarthy. Mr. Reuel is not shy about correcting or adding to the record where necessary: After all he has a unique vantage point and authority to do so. But he consistently does so with a quiet grace all his own, a quality which would have greatly benefited his choleric father and contrary mother and those around them.

Edmund Wilson’s fourth and final wife, whom he married shortly after his divorce from McCarthy, was Elena Mumm Thornton, a beautiful cosmopolitan woman who managed to hold on to her difficult husband until his death a quarter-century later. She remains a somewhat enigmatic figure in biographies of Wilson, although his diaries provide detailed accounts of their sexual activities which must rank as among the frankest accounts of conjugal coupling on record. Mr. Reuel provides a rounded portrait of a stepmother whom he clearly liked a great deal:

“Every noon she bore an exquisitely prepared lunch into the study. Later in the day she would cook a substantial dinner for family members and frequent guests. Even in the last decade before my father’s death, when their relationship had somewhat soured, Elena graciously entertained the likes of Penelope Gilliatt, the younger English writer to whom he was romantically attached. When I stayed in Wellfleet, Elena cared for me ‘like a second mother’ (my father’s phrase). In fact she did many things that biological mothers do but which didn’t fall within my mother’s purlieu. I still wear a heavy wool sweater with an Icelandic design that Elena knitted for me over a long Cape Cod winter. One summer, when I was in the throes of chess fever, she played games with me virtually on demand … [although] I was curtailing her only hour of daytime respite.”

Mr. Reuel is equally fond of McCarthy’s next husband, Bowden Broadwater, who was eight years younger than she. Bowden’s stress on his predecessor’s positive achievements and his being a “great man” must have been an invaluable counterweight to McCarthy’s less than fond view of her ex-husband. Mr. Reuel was fortunate in both step-parents, but somehow you feel Elena must have had the edge: Not only did she provide home comforts, but he tells us that “moonlight bathing, au naturel, with my stepmother was an unforgettable experience.” Clearly this was one child who was far better off with divorced parents than if their battlefield of a marriage had continued throughout his childhood. Perhaps this is the root of his mellow view of them and Cape Cod, the scene of so much of his life with Mom and Dad.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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