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Solve the Mystery!
September 16, 2008 7:38 AM   Subscribe

45 year old literary blind item - can you identify the subject?

I'm reading a 1964 essay by Pauline Kael wherein she snarks:

There's a woman writer I'd be tempted to call a three-time loser: she's Catholic, Communist, and a lesbian; but she comes on more like a triple threat. She's in with so many groups that her books are rarely panned.

Any ideas?
posted by moxiedoll to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Charming.

Maybe Valentine Ackland?
posted by iconomy at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Simone de Beauvoir was raised a Catholic, was said to embrace communism and was understood to have relationships with women as well as men.
posted by creeky at 7:57 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I suppose she could be talking about Mary McCarthy. The 'Catholic' and 'Communist' labels would certainly apply, although Kael also famously called her "The cultural heroine of my generation... before feminist writing got bogged down in victimisation."
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:58 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


What about Katherine Anne Porter? Lefty, Catholic...but argh I don't think she was a lesbian.

I like the Mary McCarthy guess but she was pretty stridently anti-Communist by the 50s/60s.
posted by bcwinters at 8:19 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mary McCarthy was anti-stalinist, I don't think she was anti-communist.
posted by rainy at 9:18 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mary McCarthy was my first thought, as well. But that's just a gut feeling, not an Answer.
posted by rtha at 9:40 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd say Mary McCarthy or Carson McCullers.
posted by mattbucher at 9:49 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think it's Mary McCarthy, too. If it's her, then Kael isn't saying she's literally a Communist or a lesbian, she's just being snide.
posted by lemuria at 9:56 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mary McCarthy was my guess as well.
posted by languagehat at 10:05 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't think it would be Mary McCarthy. It's kinda pointless to sneer "lesbian" at someone unless they're at least sorta suspected of being a lesbian.

My first thought was Simone de Beauvoir too, except that weren't her writings in the 60s met with mixed reviews?
posted by desuetude at 10:31 AM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's absolutely not Mary McCarthy, who was never rumored to be a lesbian or bisexual, was famously an atheist and an anti-Catholic despite (or as she said, because of) a Catholic upbringing, and was on the outs with the Communist Party long before 1964.

Also, her books were frequently panned, especially after her divorce in the late 40s or early 50s from influential critic Edmund Wilson.

Simone de Beauvoir is a good suggestion--Catholic, bisexual, Communist, and in 1964, she was a critical darling in the US. On the other hand, her affair with Nelson Algren was still going on (it ended that year), and it was a big scandal within the literary world, so it would seem odd for Kael to call her a "lesbian" at that particular moment.

Two writers who were lesbian, Catholic, communist and well-reviewed in the US at that time:

- Sybille Bedford (who had published four well-selling books between 1956 and 1963, so it's quite possible she might have been on Kael's mind)

- Josephine Herbst (although she had stopped publishing in the mid-1950s, she was still a lion of the New York literary scene)

Two writers who were lesbian and communist, well-reviewed in the US, and whom Kael might have believed to be Catholic:

- May Sarton (her parents had emigrated from very Catholic Belgium, but they were freethinkers--Sarton was very popular with the Catholic intellectuals of the day, despite her loose affiliation with the Unitarian Church)

- Mary Renault (a high Anglican, a/k/a "Anglo-Catholic")


And then she could have been referring to someone who had one or two well-reviewed books and then disappeared from the literary limelight forever.

It's complicated. I'm not sure we'll ever know whom she meant.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:38 AM on September 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


Simone de Beauvoir is a good suggestion--Catholic, bisexual, Communist, and in 1964, she was a critical darling in the US. On the other hand, her affair with Nelson Algren was still going on (it ended that year), and it was a big scandal within the literary world, so it would seem odd for Kael to call her a "lesbian" at that particular moment.

Hmm. Or it could be seen as more cutting to call her a lesbian while she's having an affair with a man, plus it would further support the "in with so many groups" thing.
posted by desuetude at 12:28 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Or it could be seen as more cutting to call her a lesbian while she's having an affair with a man

Pauline Kael was kind of skittish about homosexuality and lesbianism, but it's very unlikely that anyone in the mid-1960s would call someone a "lesbian" when they were famously married-in-all-but-law with one prominent man and having a torrid sexual affair with another.

Remember, too, that most of de Beauvoir's relationships with women happened later in her life, and they weren't widely known about until the 1980s--I don't see how Kael could have known about them in 1964.

It occurs to me that she could have meant Janet Flanner. Or Carson McCullers. I wouldn't describe either as "Communist" but they were generally left-wing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:47 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil, I totally bow to your greater knowledge.
posted by desuetude at 2:16 PM on September 16, 2008


Me too. My guess was wrongety-wrong-wrong-wrong.
posted by languagehat at 2:37 PM on September 16, 2008


McCullers might not have been a card-carrying communist, but she did live in a commune.
posted by mattbucher at 2:52 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is fascinating! The jab was so detailed that I thought someone familiar with the scene at the time would just know. I had no idea that well-regarded writers who were arguably Catholic, Communist lesbians were so thick on the ground!
posted by moxiedoll at 6:10 PM on September 16, 2008


I don't know why she would say anything unpleasant about her, but perhaps Penelope Gilliatt? Was this around the time they were both writing for the New Yorker?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:08 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wrong as well - I think Sidhedevil's got it.
posted by rtha at 7:39 AM on September 17, 2008


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