Seeing Venice through the eyes of Mary McCarthy

A Seattle writer in Italy finds terrific company in former Seattleite Mary McCarthy's 'Venice Observed.'
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A Seattle writer in Italy finds terrific company in former Seattleite Mary McCarthy's 'Venice Observed.'

When you're wandering Venice, there's no better sidekick than the Mary McCarthy who wrote Venice Observed. The Seattle-born author had a Northwest willingness to puncture pretensions, wring sentimentality dry, and see with bristling clarity the world she first learned to love as a Puget Sound native. She helps you get a grip on a fairytale city. It's too easy to get lost in Venice — in more ways than one, bedazzled on the mazy canals and paths among fantastic marble palaces and churches, all seeming to float atop the centuries-old pilings driven into the seabed.

I have no sense of direction here, and Venice doesn't, either. McCarthy does. But she won't steer anyone through a logical or rapturous catalog of must-sees, like other travel writers, or help you find your way home from Trattoria Ae Do Marie. She'd rather pursue threads of meaning. They trail sometimes unexpectedly from what she encounters, and she ties them together — art with economics, history, and the character of her manipulative, intrusive, impoverished Venetian aristocrat landlady — to make compelling new kinds of sense.

Her volume on Venice is just one example of the many celebrated works she produced in her lifetime (1912-1989) out of a staggering range and depth of intellectual interests, from American campus culture to the mores of mid-20th-century Manhattan, from Vietnam to the psychology of terrorism, from philosophy to the theater. So it's hardly surprising that a travel book by a writer many consider one of the greatest literary intellectuals of 20th-century America wouldn't resemble other books about visiting famous cities. McCarthy is good company instead of a guide, cocking her eye curiously at the things she comes across and mulling them over, conversing with the reader instead of saying don't miss this or that.

This fresh, inquiring mind of McCarthy's first woke up at Garfield High, according to two autobiographical narratives she wrote for The New Yorker in 1986, which later went into her memoir How I Grew. In her earlier, more famous Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), McCarthy had told about the frightening deaths of her parents during the 1918 flu epidemic in Seattle, when she was 6, and being sent to live in Minneapolis with her paternal grandparents, who were straitlaced, bigoted, and frequently cruel. After five years of misery she persuaded her maternal grandfather, Harold Preston (founder of the law firm that became known as Preston Gates & Ellis), to bring her back to the Seattle family home. McCarthy lived there until she went East to Vassar in 1929.

In Seattle she attended a Catholic school for girls, at the Sacred Heart Convent in Forest Ridge for two years, and then enrolled as a freshman at Garfield at the age of 13. “It was in public high school that I became conscious for the first time of a type of person we would now call an intellectual,” McCarthy wrote in the New Yorker narrative. Though the term wasn't familiar in 1925, “the thing existed and was recognized.” It was during her sole year at Garfield, between longer stints at Sacred Heart and Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, that she felt “the onset of intellectual interests.”

Academic achievement was valued at the private schools she attended, but, she wrote, “Rough plebeian democracy is the breeding ground of intellectuals.... [T]hanks to Garfield's plebeian incentives, I was an intellectual by the time I reached Annie Wright. And no one else was.”

In McCarthy's view, “An intellectual cannot be the product of an elite education.” There were “no intellectuals in the Convent, unless I count the Mistress of Studies,” she wrote in The New Yorker. “There had been none in my family, and I would not find any at Annie Wright.” Academic achievement was valued at the private schools she attended, but, she wrote, “Rough plebeian democracy is the breeding ground of intellectuals.... [T]hanks to Garfield's plebeian incentives, I was an intellectual by the time I reached Annie Wright. And no one else was.”

McCarthy conceded that the teaching at her private schools was better than at her public school, but Garfield was the only place before Vassar to give her the bracing, rough-and-tumble company of people her own age who read and loved to quarrel with Mencken, Dreiser, and Nietzsche. For the rest of her life she would draw a bright line between “intellectuals” and “academics.”

The 1920s era in Seattle influenced McCarthy's development in many ways, says James Eldin Reed, a Harvard historian whose book-in-progress, Pacific Northwest Renaissance: Religion and Cultural Modernism in an Unfinished Landscape, explores the mid-century flowering of modernist ideas and art in the region. According to Reed, young McCarthy attended performances at the newly founded Seattle Rep and Seattle Symphony. She took a summer course in drama at Cornish School, where she saw Martha Graham, the school's dance teacher at the time, perform. She met Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, and other Northwest modernist painters.

Restlessly she walked from the big Preston family home in Madrona around the city and rode Seattle's streetcars to the limits of every district, wishing her address was on Queen Anne, a neighborhood she admired. She absorbed the character of the Puget Sound landscape and enjoyed visiting the Olympic Peninsula.

In Venice, once you see a few things through McCarthy's sharp eyes, you start seeing more in everything you come across. The author muses about how it could be that beautiful Venice got built by materialistic merchants: “A commercial people who lived solely for gain — how could they create a city [as] lovely as a dream or fairy tale?” Yet there's “no contradiction, once you stop to think what images of beauty arise from fairy tales. They are images of money. Gold, caskets of gold, caskets of silver, … the Queen's lovely daughter whose hair is black as ebony and lips are red as rubies, treasure buried in the forest.” This, says McCarthy, “is the spirit of enchantment under which Venice lies.”

This pre-eminent satirist of mainstream American culture leaves it to readers to contrast the world of Venice with our own, where wealth is often celebrated as the length of the trail of zeros attaching to numbers in bank accounts. No one today expects a significant part of one's fabulous personal income to be invested in marble, oils, enduring design, and the livelihoods of artists making divine things for one's city. (Fourteenth-century Venice had universal health care, too.)

The author is more interested in tying the thread of her thoughts about Venice's mercantile materialism to what she saw in Venetian painting. Venetians knew “the feel of stuffs, brocades and silks and damasks, long before there was a Venetian school,” she wrote. Clothing in Tuscan art has an aristocratically well-worn patina, but in Venice's paintings an elaborate show of bright, expensive fabrics parades “through Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and Veronese, straight up to … Tiepolo,” the painters' “madonnas and St Lucys and St Catherines dressed in brand-new materials fresh from the bolt. Venetian painting from beginning to end is a riot of dress goods.”

This may have been a more original and striking observation when McCarthy made it than it is today, in an age of materialist art criticism. If we haven't heard much of this about the Venetian painters, we've certainly heard it about the Dutch. But McCarthy saw it early, for herself.

McCarthy knew virtually nothing about art when she started drafting her books about Florence and Venice, Professor Reed told me in a recent email, writing that “when she began her Italian books she couldn't tell the difference between a Titian and a Tintoretto.” A biased Puget Sounder might be forgiven for choosing to believe that the critical strengths which became McCarthy's aesthetic were homegrown: born and first exercised in Seattle, Washington.

Her understanding of art would eventually mature through a love of study and reading that was disciplined by Vassar and by years of deep involvement with East Coast intellectual elites. But it feels rooted in the distinction she first drew at Garfield High (even if not, at the time, in these particular terms) between intellectuals and academics. McCarthy's reflections on art are not academic, are not the views of a specialist trained in the subtleties of Renaissance perspective or brush technique. Her insights grow from a passionate attentiveness to the countless forms reality takes, a keen mind ready to quarrel with conventional wisdom for the sake of seeing freshly, and a tart, frank, humorous, unselfconscious self-awareness. A readiness to be interested in everything she ran into didn't hurt, either.


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