SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
Well, from what I’ve read about Mary McCarthy (“Of Course They Hated Her,” January 5) her honesty was uncomfortable because it was cruel and of course people hate cruelty.
And even though Flannery O’Connor did defend McCarthy’s writing in a letter to her frequent correspondent Betty Hester, which was quoted in the article, she also wrote another letter to Hester that painted Mary McCarthy sarcastically as a “Big Intellectual,” and critiqued McCarthy’s belief that the Eucharist is a “symbol” and “a pretty good one”:
“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.
“That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
San Jose, Calif.
B. D. MCCLAY REPLIES:
The story about Flannery O’Connor meeting McCarthy at a dinner is a famous one, usually told (as here) at McCarthy’s expense, and worth discussing. It certainly causes trouble for anybody who wants to claim McCarthy as a Catholic novelist, just as McCarthy’s own memoirs do. For that reason, I’d only really go as far as I do in the piece and say McCarthy’s Catholic childhood certainly provided her with moral formation, but she had no lingering belief.
However, while it’s safe to say that O’Connor was very unimpressed by McCarthy in this interaction, I think the story also illustrates what the two writers had in common. That O’Connor bit back and didn’t politely gloss over the difference between McCarthy’s dead Catholic upbringing and her own living faith is of a piece with the way McCarthy did not avoid saying the hard thing in her own life. So, to address the first point, I don’t think that this instinct is cruel, even though to act on it you can’t worry much about making other people uncomfortable. There’s a difference between stating the truth even if it’s going to hurt people and saying something true with malice, and I think McCarthy mostly, though not invariably, stuck to the first.
In his engaging piece on burnout (“A Burnt-out Case,” January 5) that cites Aquinas as an example, Jonathan Malesic invokes “Joseph” Weisheipl. In fact, his name was James Athanasius Weisheipl, OP (“Athos” to his Dominican confreres). His Friar Thomas d’Aquino (the toponymic “d’Aquino” never caught on) was the first scholarly biography of the saint in English, and was runner-up for the National Book Award in 1974 (Sherwin Nuland’s best selling The Way We Die finished first.)
Weisheipl was not only an indefatigable scholar but also a gifted teacher and in the twenty years he taught at the University of Toronto directed many students. He departed this life at the early age of sixty-one, leaving behind among other projects the outline of a book that bore the title Philosophy and the God of Abraham. This became the happy choice for the title of a book in his honor (CUA Press, 1991), to which eighteen of his students, confreres, and former colleagues at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies contributed.
R. James Long
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
In “Nothing Was Inevitable” (December 12) John Lukas recounts Winston Churchill’s worry that, even in the event of a Japanese attack, “Roosevelt would find it difficult to declare war against Germany.” As it turned out, Hitler solved his dilemma. On December 11, 1941, three days after Roosevelt declared war on Japan, Hitler declared war on the United States. Under their treaty agreement, Germany was only obliged to come to Japan’s aid if it were attacked. But Hitler decided that since the United States and Germany were already close to all-out war in the North Atlantic and the United States would be preoccupied with the struggle in the Pacific, he had little to lose. Mussolini followed suit the same day. Together with the attack on the U.S.S.R., Hitler’s blunder sealed the fate of the Third Reich.
I very much enjoyed reading Ingrid Rowland’s review of Terence Ward’s recent book, The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting Changed an Ordinary Life Today (“Christmas Critics,” December 1, 2017)—especially her description of Caravaggio’s painting, The Seven Works of Mercy.
I have only one small quibble with her article. In her review, Rowland speaks of the seven acts of mercy taken from the Gospel of Matthew. She later states that Caravaggio added an “eighth” work of mercy (burying the dead) in his painting. However, in her original list, only six works appear. The addition of “burying the dead” to the list would bring the total to seven.
In fact, there are only six works of mercy mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. The seventh (“burying the dead”) actually comes from the Jewish Bible’s Book of Tobit. Otherwise, I found Rowland’s review very instructive and a pleasure to read.
A QUIZ FOR THE PRESIDENT
Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s column, “The Man Who Knew Too Little” (October 20, 2017) was terrific. It seems like with the literally dozens and dozens of different beats around covering Trump, his basic knowledge, or lack thereof, is one that is mysteriously underserved. Perhaps the reason is some sort of journalistic “professionalism,” as O’Reilly pointed out? I find it hard to believe that a reporter’s asking the president basic policy questions to gauge his level of understanding breaks any kind of journalistic code of ethics.
Over the last few months I have tweeted to reporters begging them to ask the president simple questions like: Can you explain how a bill becomes a law? How many Supreme Court justices are there? Can you please tell the first and last names of all the Supreme Court justices? What is the acronym DACA short for? What is the state capital of Oregon? How many Congressional Districts are there in your home state of New York? Can you show me where North Korea is on this unlabeled map? Puerto Rico is one of five American Territories that are inhabited. Can you name the other four?
I would be willing to donate my yearly salary to his re-election campaign if he answered all of those right.
Peter Quinn’s reflections on his “distant father” (“Out of Reach,” October 20) evoked memories of my relationship with my own father, also “distant.” I believe that the problem is cultural and the solution generational.
Like Quinn’s grandfather, my father was from Ireland. We have to take into account the deprived rural environment from which Irish Catholic immigrants came to this country. Add as well the gender-rigid, Jansenistic church that shaped the lives of the Irish for centuries. The man’s role was to support the family, not to “coddle” the children.
As an adult, I visited my father’s birthplace in County Waterford. The farmhouse in which he was born—small and isolated, with no central heating or plumbing—was then occupied by a younger man, strikingly similar in appearance to my father. The hand with which he shook mine was rugged and strong, a hand that cut turf and milked cows and dug potatoes. It was certain that the farthest thing from his mind was playing ball with his son or taking him to the movies.
Although living in New York City, my father was but one step removed from that rural world. He raised his children as he had been raised—that is, he left it to his wife, my mother. He was not out in the field plowing behind a horse like his own father had done, but he was out of the house all day working. And he expected dinner on the table when he arrived home.
I am my father’s son and didn’t easily assume a substantial role in the lives of my children. But I made some progress. Now, in the next generation, I see my own son, a much more “modern” father, embracing his children easily, something I had difficulty doing.
As I say, it’s a generational thing. Peter Quinn survived his “distant” father. So have many of us.
William F. Powers
Chapel Hill, N.C.