Experience is a collection of familiar essays that occasionally spill over into literary criticism. “Familiar” should be read to mean both well-known and within the family. Epstein says of MacCarthy that “intimacy was his keynote as a writer.” His persona is avuncular. He wishes his readers to share his pleasures and his prejudices. He confides in us, but his confidences are not racy or scandalous but pleasing. He assumes we’re all reasonable, well-bred people. He can open an essay like this: “Reading Volume V of Mr. Buckle’s Life of Benjamin Disraeli started me thinking about old age.” I’ve read MacCarthy’s collection in the manner he suggests we read Montaigne’s essays: “Read the book as they were written, by snatches. There are some writers whom you must read consecutively in order to get their full flavor. Montaigne can be read by fits and starts.”
About Emerson his verdict is mixed. MacCarthy says his “philosophy may seem to this generation mere philomory; his candid detachment irritating; his purity too crystalline to be true; his culture the kind most irritating to modern artists,…his pretty fancies (butterflies incased in little glittering blocks of ice) at once too intellectual and too homely to merit admiration,” but concludes: “Such is the reward of writing well.” The judgment is just. At the level of the sentence, Emerson can dazzle. It’s when he starts thinking that he gets in trouble and turns into a Yankee scold or nature mystic, and loses us.
When coasting, MacCarthy can turn fey and faux-folksy, as in the opening sentence of one of his better essays, “Epitaph-Writing”: “As a frequent visitor to churchyards, I have come to the conclusion that the art of epitaph-writing is dying or nearly extinct.” This sounds too much like the late Andy Rooney doing his “Did you ever wonder?” routine. But MacCarthy goes on to cite Dr. Johnson’s “Essay on Epitaphs,” which I quoted in a post last month, and with the aid of his great forebear he rises to the occasion:
“…we are both too self-conscious and too unconventional. We know that the laudatory generalities and lists of attributes which our fathers inscribed above their dead could not describe, except very vaguely and partially, any human being; the convention has been destroyed by lack of faith and a growing sense of the complexity of human-nature. On the other hand, we are too self-conscious to express our grief.”
MacCarthy goes on to quote an excerpt from a very long epitaph on a stone in a Cumberland churchyard which begins: “She was temperate, chaste and charitable; / But she was proud, peevish and passionate.” A visit to a cemetery is always instructive. The lengthy texts our ancestors favored on their gravestones have been replaced by a stark rendering of name and dates, or images associated with the dearly departed – motorcycles, fishing rods, liquor bottles. In contrast, MacCarthy writes: “A noble panegyric which should also comprise instruction was Johnson’s idea of the perfect epitaph.” MacCarthy adds his preferences: a “mood of tenderness” in the inscription and a “sense of personal sorrow which has diffused itself as a friendliness towards the whole world, including the passing stranger.”
While reading MacCarthy I’ve been rereading Isaac Babel in the Norton Critical Edition of his Selected Writings (ed. Gregory Freidin, 2010). In 1934, one year before the publication of Experience, Babel attended the first congress of the Union of Soviet Writers and noted that he was becoming “the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence.” Babel, author of Red Cavalry and the great Odessa stories, was arrested on May 15, 1939, and imprisoned in Lubyanka. The NKVD ranked him as number twelve on a list of 346 “leading members of counter-revolutionary, right-wing Trotskyite, conspiratorial, and foreign intelligence organizations,” and recommended execution. Stalin signed the list: “I am for it.”
On Jan. 26, 1940, Babel was tried and convicted of spying for France and Austria, and for being part of a Trotskyite conspiracy, and was sentenced to death. Early the following morning, in accordance with NKVD protocol, he was executed with a pistol shot to the head. His body was burned and his ashes, with those of other victims of the Communists, were buried at Moscow's Donskoi Monastery. Babel has no epitaph. More than fifty years later, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a plaque was put up that reads, in Russian: “Here lie buried the remains of the innocent, tortured, and executed victims of political repressions. May they never be forgotten.”