Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Books I'm Reading: Mary Cantwell's Manhattan Memoir (May 21, 2013)

Who was Mary Cantwell--Mary Lee Cantwell? Although she lived a life more important than I ever will, she was no Amelia Earhart, no Rachel Carson, no Lousie Nevelson--in big-picture terms, she was a fairly ordinary journalist, she was a mother. Yet, in writing about her life, using her extraordinary memory, her extraordinary ability to turn a phrase, her extraordinary willingness to be honest (although here and there, you get the feeling she's holding back just a little) she has enshrined a modestly important life in three absorbing, vivid memoirs and elevated it to something close to art.

I read Manhattan Memoir, a 2000 Penguin edition that brings together three books originally written and published separately: American Girl (Random House, 1992), Manhattan, When I Was Young (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), and Speaking with Strangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). The three books were written during Cantwell's later days, as a columnist for The New York Times. Cantwell died in 2007.

American Girl, the first of these, is a kind of love letter to Bristol, Rhode Island, the town Cantwell grew up in, and to her childhood there. It takes the reader from her earliest days through her high school graduation. She is never specific about dates (in this segment or the two later ones), but Cantwell, having been born in 1930, mostly describes the late 1930s and early 1940s in this volume. Nostalgia for Bristol, for her family--most especially for her father--and for a lost era are at the heart of American Girl, which, in loving detail, describes young Mary's school and family life and her awakening to the politics of power, to class distinctions, to attitudes to femininity, to her own sexuality, and to possibilities beyond her bounded world. It is a progression of epiphanies that point the way to new understandings of self and place. At the end of American Girl, we see a Mary Lee that is defined by and deeply emotionally attached to the place and the people that have nurtured her and, simultaneously, a Mary Lee that is ready to be "launched" into the world, ready to escape from small town constraints. The two states of mind are contradictory. Much of what Cantwell has written--in this volume and the next two--seems to chronicle her ongoing but ultimately hopeless attempts to reconcile this kind of inner contradiction.

Manhattan, When I Was Young, in many ways a loving portrait of New York City, is the strongest of the three books, I feel, but my view may be biased. My mother, like Cantwell, was born in 1930 and lived in New York during the same period. I myself was born in Manhattan. Many of Cantwell's images are familiar from my childhood and from stories I've heard of my mother's life in Manhattan during the period. In some instances, the overlaps are uncanny. Two stores Cantwell mentions by name as places she frequented are Cheese of All Nations and The Pottery Barn (in its early days as what today would be called an outlet store, specializing in inexpensive ceramic ware, mostly seconds). As a child, I remember visiting both stores with my brother and parents. I remember Cheese of All Nations as a large barn-like room (was there straw strewn on the floor?) with capacious cases full of cheese, cheese hanging overhead, and strings of national flags along the walls. We joked about Limburger being the smelliest cheese on Earth and delighted in sticking our noses into the cases to smell it and grimace. We bought our Finnish Arabia dinnerware at The Pottery Barn. I remember the stacks of bowls and dishes and coffee cups, mostly in white or yellow or deep green. I remember my mother checking each piece, looking for the best ones among the seconds. Much of the background here reminds me of my own childhood. It's of interest to me for the same reason that Mad Men (which takes place in New York in the same period) interests me. In it I can see my own past.

Those associations aside, Cantwell's account in Manhattan, When I Was Young is a fascinating intertwining of three main threads--the course of her career (first at Mademoiselle, later at Vogue), of her marriage and its slow death, and of the growth of her two daughters (with literary agent Robert Lescher--referred to throughout only as "B." Her daughters Katharine and Margaret, too, are given code names--"SnowWhite" and "Rose Red"). It is both painful and fascinating to watch the marriage decay, in part because of an odd paralysis in Cantwell, often but not always relating to sexual relations. She is impressively capable of careful self-observation and analysis but exasperatingly often she is incapable of doing what she recognizes she wants to do or knows she should do. She talks of seeing her own emotions only in retrospect and she makes the disjunct palpable. At times you get the sense that Cantwell finds a morbid satisfaction in watching her own helplessness--and that she finds herself repulsive at those times while nevertheless being incapable of changing. She displays an odd mix of passive dependence--always seeking approval from her husband even as he drifts away from her--and determined independence, which frequently takes the form of accepting unpopular foreign assignments at work. She takes every opportunity her work affords to travel, to go somewhere--anywhere. At one point, you can feel her approaching mental illness, but she pulls back, she copes--which, I suppose, is all any of us can do. Travel seems to provide her only real escape.

Speaking With Strangers picks up where the previous volume leaves off. It covers the period following her divorce, when she is raising her children alone in New York. Cantwell's career is blossoming but she suffers from a persistent inner sadness. Her work assignments take her to fairly remote and unglamorous places, but she accepts them happily (often seeking out those that seem least appealing), apparently in the hope of finding some sort of solace. Repeatedly she ends up far away, lonely, sometimes frightened, and deeply depressed, and praying for the strength to get home, to get back to her children, which she guiltily vows never to leave again--until she does, on her next assignment. She finds freedom in these odd places, among strangers, yet she is never untethered from New York City (which comes to define her as much as her home town has) or from the experiences of her early years, her fondly remembered childhood in Bristol. For a period she finds something resembling love in the arms of one she cryptically refers to as "the balding man." We are told only that he is a married, Southern writer of note (in reality, poet James Dickey). Ultimately he abandons her for another woman after his wife dies, but she has been using him for her own purposes, too. His affection is something of a trophy for her; it was for both of them an arrangement of convenience. Cantwell, we see, had never really let go of her past sufficiently to allow herself the luxury of fully believing she might have had a future with Dickey.

To the end, Cantwell is guarded yet deeply revealing, hopeful yet depressed, acutely aware of the great blessings she has enjoyed in her life while exposing the unhealed wounds she has struggled with. She is a contradiction. She gives us a study in coping, a study in being human. If you set aside the fact that Cantwell's problems are petty compared with the undeserved, heartbreaking cruelties that a good slice of humanity daily faces, if you accept that hers was just one particular kind of life and of a particular era in small town New England and in New York City (a bountiful life by world standards), these three volumes are a moving look inside that life. Like all people, Cantwell was a bounded infinity. It's rare to be allowed such an intimate look inside the boundaries of such an infinity. Recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails