Mary McCarthy wasn’t the only Vassar girl from the graduating classes of the early 1930s who got involved with Partisan Review. You may recall that Philip Rahv married Nathalie Swan — Some said that Rahv married Swan on the rebound from McCarthy, when she left him for Edmund Wilson. Swan was one of the literary crowd on the Vassar campus, and became an architect, having spent time studying at the Bauhaus. Later she (or some aspects of her) appeared in the sophisticated lesbian, Lakey, at the end of The Group, returning to New York from her Europeanisation. Elizabeth Bishop, another Vassar girl involved in the literary coterie that included McCarthy, was published by Partisan Review, and the story “Hurry, Hurry,” that follows Morris’s “Art Chronicle” on Arp, was written by a witty Vassar Left Intellectual and writer, Eleanor Clark. When McCarthy became part of the posh-girl group that lived in the South Tower on the Vassar Campus, she was also becoming involved with the Clark sisters.
Eleanor and her sister,Eunice, were active in politics at Vassar, before McCarthy had found herself a leftist Trotskyist, and just about the time that McCarthy first knew of Trotsky, Eleanor had gone with Trotsky’s entourage into exile in Mexico in 1937 when he was expelled from Norway in 1936. after the first set of the Moscow show trials. She married Jan Frankel,Trotsky’s secretary, to help confirm his immigration status.
The girls had worked together on a ‘rebel’ College magazine, ‘Con Spirito,’ suggesting both their brio and their clandestine atmospheric. In The Group, Norine, who may have been modelled on the Clark sisters, says of McCarthy’s South Tower crowd: “You people were the aesthetes. We were the politicals. Your crowd was sterile. But God, I used to envy you. Poise, Social Savy. Looks. We called you the Ivory Tower Group. Aloof from the battle.” That at least is what McCarthy figured (or hoped) the Clarks might have thought of her.
But years later, Eleanor Clark told the biographer Frances Kieran: “I didn’t like Mary. I never liked her. My sister Eunice knew her a lot better, and for her pains and I must say in some cases extraordinary generosity, she got kicked in the teeth. In The Group she got pilloried along with everyone else.
I don’t know when Eleanor Clark wrote the story, “Hurry, Hurry.” But it is a marvellous combination of the absurd and the surreal, written with the wit and metropolitan confidence characteristic of a Dorothy Parker story in The New Yorker.
At the same time, it is a fable of the hollowness of bourgeois society — its cultural conformity, pomposity, self importance, and the voice is that of one of the younger generation. It is a girl’s voice that is both satirical and embarrassed by her complicity in the world of her mother.
The narrative is a sang-froid description of ‘a beautiful June day’ — the day the narrator’s mother’s house falls down. Thrust immediately into the fact of the fallen house, we learn that the household dog, a French poodle named ‘de Maupassant,’ hadn’t noticed anything in advance. The mother adores the dog — “She loved the aristocracy of him, the way he tossed his luxurious black mane….” But the mother had spoiled the poodle: “In the end he was incapable of serious thought and must have played or slept through the entire catastrophe.” The falling down house is ignored by the narrator herself. “I was not interested. Instead, “I spent the entire time — two or three hours it must have been — under a maple tree, and rescued nothing but one silver-backed hand mirror. As the building falls in this slow motion ruination, neighbours gather on the lawn now strewn with the contents of the house,drink cocktails and offer comments and useless advice.
In one area, “beams could be heard falling, and already a wide crack was beginning to open diagonally across the front of the living-room wall, exposing the dust-covered leaves of books, first the historical works and later the vellum-bound editions of Dante, Baudelaire and Racine. it was this, I think, that first awoke my mother to a real awareness of what was happening. It was not only that the books were threatened with destruction: it was also obvious to everyone that their pages had not been cut.”
The narrator’s insouciance becomes even more extreme as her mother becomes more brittlely hysterical. What makes the story work is the way Clark turns the humour of the surrealized fall of the house inside out like a mobius strip as it becomes a scorching scene of human horror. The mother sends a maimed servant, Myrtle, into the house to bring out a family heirloom, in the course of which impossible task, Myrtle is beaten with wood switches, breaks her back while carrying the monstrous ‘highboy’ she was sent to bring out, while all the neighborhood ladies are shouting, “Hurry Up Myrtle, Hurry Up, Hurry Up” until she can only be seen between windows as a wall crashes into her — and “she fell with her torn-off wrists lifted up in prayer.”
The poodle makes its way up to the mother’s bedroom, and she cries out to him, “Moppy! Moppy!”, my mother cried, ‘Did you think your mother had forgotten you? Oh Moppy you did!?
The two — mother and poodle — do jump from the remaining wall, “My mother in a new flowered print and a picture hat, holding up her arms with an expression of love, almost — I thought at that moment but I am not sure ow — almost a look of fulfilment in her face, which at times made one think of a madonna though the profile was too sharp. And then the last of the house fell and buried them.”
I wonder what Dwight McDonald thought about the story — was it too slick for him? Or did it conform too much to his ideas of New Yorker ideology? Anyone reading this know?
Here is the link to read the story itself on the BU onlinePartisan Review site: p.35ff. click here Hurry Hurry
Eleanor Clark later wrote well- received travel books, one of which won the National Book Award — The Oysters of Locmariaquer (1964),a study of a French community of Oyster farmers — and she married the poet Robert Penn Warren. She remained a beautiful and witty woman all her life: