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Edmund Wilson’s Cape Cod Landscape

ISSUE:  Winter 2004
Beginning in the summer of 1920, when he came to see Edna St. Vincent Millay in Truro, Massachusetts, my father, Edmund Wilson, made a habit of visiting the Cape Cod shoreline. He was fascinated by the Cape’s unique mixture of forest, marsh, bay, and sea. Provincetown, at the very end of Cape Cod, became his summer base of operations in the twenties and thirties. Its narrow streets and breathtaking sea vistas beckoned city dwellers, while offering the vitality of a still viable fishing community. During the summer it attracted crowds of artistic and would-be artistic people. In 1941, Wilson bought a house in Wellfleet, fourteen miles south of Provincetown. He would keep the house on Money Hill until his death in 1972, and it was here that he first moved in with his third wife, my mother, Mary McCarthy, and me (age three).

Over his lifetime, roughly half of which he spent on Cape Cod, Wilson kept a personal diary that, although maintained intermittently and sometimes written in haste, he intended for publication. Many of its entries concern people, and these tend to be anecdotal; some describe nature and landscapes—these are often carefully fashioned word pictures. Wilson was well versed in nature and could name most of the flora and fauna he observed in the wild. During the forties he kept an aquarium/terrarium in the hall outside his Wellfleet study. The specimens of pond life that he collected there fared poorly as a rule, although I remember he had some success nurturing tadpoles, or pollywogs as he called them, into frogs. During the summers of my childhood and early adolescence, Wilson often joined his family for an afternoon swim at Gull Pond. Each trip to the pond followed the same ritual: first my father plunged into the water, then, reborn as a blustering water demon, he vigorously splashed water in my direction and that of any other children who might have been present. Only a little scared, we shrieked in feigned terror at the onslaught of this all-too-benign spirit of evil. After this short performance he took a quick swim, describing a few circles in the water using a peculiar flailing one-arm sidestroke. After swimming, he donned an old oxford short-sleeved shirt over his brown bathing trunks and a worn brown fedora hat—to depart on a long nature walk around the pond.

In the early journals Wilson shows a predilection for seascapes on the New Jersey coast near his family home in Redbank; then the focus gradually shifts to Cape Cod. The Cape also surfaces in Wilson’s poetry, for he was an avid writer of verse, light as well as elegaic. Night Thoughts (1953), a collection of assorted poetry with a few prose pieces, incorporates six poems (two of them ambitious in scope) on Cape Cod themes. Among the papers that Wilson sold to Yale in 1968 is a corpus of unpublished, and in some cases unfinished, work entitled “Wellfleet Poetry.” The texts, written in the forties during, and after, his marriage to Mary McCarthy, reveal some of the darker confines of his psyche. I should emphasize that he wrote poetry and the diaries “with his left hand.” This kind of writing was mostly done in intervals between concentrated work on more demanding projects. Wilson never did write about Cape Cod in his fiction, although he planned to stage one episode of a (never written) novel in Provincetown. His long-standing friend John Dos Passos, for many years a Provincetown resident, also seems to have treated the Cape as a place to write, rather than write about. A few minor writers who lived on Cape Cod have written about it quite well. Among these are Susan Glaspell, Mary Heaton Vorse, and Harry Kemp (all part of Wilson’s Provincetown circle in the twenties and thirties), John Peale Bishop, his Princeton classmate, and the Canadian writer Marie Claire Blais, whom Wilson introduced to Wellfleet and the American reading public.

The Cape Cod where I grew up is not quite the same today as it was then. To be sure, the solid nineteenth-century house (built by a sea captain) is still there, as is the adjacent cottage, once the wing of a sister house across the street, that Elena Wilson (Wilson’s fourth wife) so kindly bought and set up for me and her son, Henry Thornton. Long gone, however, are the days of a tranquil Route 6 where just in front of our house our dog Rex used to sleep extended full length in the sun. He responded only grudgingly to the impatient honking of those motorists who chose not to circumvent him.

In those easier days the whip-poor-wills sounded their haunting refrain every night in the woods outside my window. They and the cheeky bobwhites have disappeared from Money Hill, where I still occupy the cottage. Gone too is the noon siren at the Wellfleet curtain factory, which Rex echoed with primordial howling in our yard. The curtain factory was closed and turned into a candle factory/gift shop, finally to be recast as the upscale municipal library we know today. The Cape vegetation, once sparse, has dramatically increased since my childhood. The “salt and pepper churches” (as my father called them) in Truro are no longer visible from Route 6. The trains, which plied back and forth from Hyannis to Provincetown, have fallen silent. In his diaries Wilson notes their whistling, shrieking, and baying. In a May 1956 entry he reports that “the one train a day whistling in the afternoon silence … still makes me think of Edna.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay was Wilson’s first lover. They met in New York early in the year 1920. That summer she invited him to visit her in Truro, where she, her mother, and her sisters were renting a cottage just behind the ocean beach at Longnook. Wilson took the train both ways. During that (to him) fateful visit he asked the poet to marry him. Her response was noncommittal. The next weekend his old pal John Peale Bishop was the Millays’ houseguest. The rivalry over Millay, who liked them both but loved neither, did not affect the Wilson-Bishop friendship.

If a woman first brought Wilson to Cape Cod, he kept returning, at least in part, because of its natural beauty. Another important consideration in his decision to buy a house there was the low cost of living—and Wilson was perpetually hard up for money. During the twenties and thirties he moved with Provincetown’s freewheeling bohemians. Fuelled by a deadly home brew called “alky,” the drinking sessions often deteriorated into violent confrontations between participants. In his diary Wilson reports on all of this with an increasing sense of déjà vu. During the Prohibition years Provincetonians had to make their own alcohol or buy it from others. The Dos Passoses had a still in their house that needed day and night monitoring. The naturally restrained Dos (as his friends called him) and his witty, good-looking, and poised wife Katy held their liquor well, however. Their household represented a stable island amid the town’s tidal flow of booze.

When Wilson came to Provincetown in 1922, he described it with a painterly attention to nuance rendered more telling by his skillful use of simile and metaphor. As the years passed he would continue to evoke Provincetown Harbor with its ever-wheeling seagulls and its subtle tones that shift with the changing light and the tides. In the first Provincetown entry for 1922 he speaks of the “yellow rim of sand that seems to lock the town in a world of its own.” We encounter the notion of Provincetown as a self-contained “world of its own” in the writing of its other chroniclers. The circle was also reinforced by its unique geographical position, the “otherness” of its Yankee and Portuguese inhabitants, as well as by its haunting renderings on canvas by such artists as Charles Demuth, Ross Moffett, Edwin Dickinson, Bruce McCain, and W. H. W. Bicknell. In one of his 1922 word paintings of the town Wilson describes “the water all buff and blue and lavendar and green in the shallows when the tide is out and with yellow islands of sand on bleaker, less vivid days; the great unshadowable dunes like enormous snowdrifts or tinily crow’s-footed by the sprouting lips of moss, which in time puts forth little yellow flowers as if it had sucked from the arid sand its last drops of vital pigment-whiffs of faint balm from patches of bay—little white-bellied sandpipers gliding along as if they were running on wheels—the great sea unfurrowed and bright blue, frothing whitely over the bright yellow beach, which it chews and spits out and chews again like a dog worrying a bird… .”

In its tints and contours nature is beautiful, but Wilson’s personifications of it are hardly idealizing—i.e., the “crow’s-footed” dunes, the “sprouting” (and sucking) “lips of moss,” the “frothing” sea that “chews and spits out” the beach. The mixture of the agreeable and disagreeable elements often lends pungency to Wilson’s descriptions, which move well beyond realism. The above-quoted 1922 entry continues: “[Eugene] O’Neill’s house with its wide square rooms decorated in the colors of the landscape—the light but vivid yellows and blues of the sand and the sky and in the living room, with its set of big plates each one pictured with a different kind of fish: droll conventionalized flounders and butterfish—the mottled white and brown cat which had come in on the wreck of a barge that was smashed at their very door and which produced a snow-white kitten… .”

The house in question was a former “lifesaving” or coast guard station on the Peaked Hill dunes overlooking the open Atlantic. It was over an hour’s walk from Provincetown; less by horse cart. Mabel Dodge, the rich socialite who supported leftist causes, had tastefully decorated the house for a New York millionaire who bought it but never lived in it. (Incidentally, John Reed, Dodge’s protege and lover, spent time with her in Provincetown in the summer of 1916, just before he departed for Russia with another lover, Louise Bryant, who had also summered in Provincetown.)

Eugene O’Neill’s father bought the newly renovated coast guard station for him as a wedding gift. After his divorce, O’Neill gave it to his son by an earlier marriage, who rented it out. Wilson’s description of the O’Neill house peculiarly omits reference to any human occupants, while placing the cats at center stage. The diary entry resumes with the narrator now walking the streets back in town: “… the Portuguese of the town, dark, beady-eyed, and squat-nosed; the houses close and thick along either side of the street, with their single row of windows looking out from under vast brooding roofs built sloping against the wind; enormous box-like buildings to store fish; a high square chocolate-colored house—as if the chocolate were moldy and melting—sounding a sudden and ungraceful note of ornate respectability with old dirty flowered window curtains and two rusty old urns at the foot of the steps of the entrance—a white horse grazes on the unkempt weeds of the lawn: the house belonged to a miser, recently dead, who shut up the top floor and confined himself to the lower part—his sister used to be seen picking up driftwood on the shore; blue-silver sheets of water that lay like broken mirrors on the sand.” The signs of Cape Cod neglect and decay, the cubist architectural forms, the lone white horse, the broken-mirror water, all convey an eerie surreal reflection of a broken and hollow world.

In 1923 Wilson married the actress Mary Blair, who would bear their daughter, my half-sister Rosalind, seven months later. The couple separated in 1925 and divorced in 1930. Mary Blair acted in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, and through her Wilson met the acclaimed playwright, whose career began in Provincetown in 1916. In the summer of 1927 Wilson would, through John Francis, Provincetown’s amiable and politically savvy real estate agent, rent the O’Neill house at the Peaked Hill bars. Rosalind and her nurse Stella joined him there for the summer.

Undaunted by the long walk over the dunes into town, Wilson led an active social life. That August he took a boat to Boston, just across Cape Cod Bay, for a three-day visit with Louise and Henrietta Fort, a zany pair of sisters from Chicago. He would later become romantically involved with Louise, who was married by then.
Wilson’s sojourn in Boston was overshadowed by the news of Sacco and Vanzetti’s imminent execution there. For whatever reasons, he chose not to join many of his libertarian friends who had gathered in Boston to demand a stay of execution for the two anarchists. These friends included John Dos Passos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Provincetowners Frank Shay, Susan Glaspell, and Mary Heaton Vorse, the labor activist and journalist who would, with Wilson and other leftist intellectuals, try to help the striking miners in Pinewood, Kentucky, in 1932. Wilson returned to Provincetown two or three days before the demonstration, during which Millay and others were arrested.

The summer entries for 1927 also note the changing weather at Peaked Hill. On a “gray misty day” the ocean is smelly and ugly, but transcendently beautiful on the dawn of a good day: “… the sea so smooth, such faint and tender blue and, in the light-blue sky above, a few clouds tinting delicately pink like shells—the faint surf fringing the silk of the sea with a light swish and a little silver.” He also mentions a bed-time game that he has played with Rosalind (when he mimics a “grasshopper faint from shipwreck” that needs her ministrations) and a story about an “old man with three green birds.” (Rosalind, he has learned from his neighbors, the Uffords, has promised to give their daughters the birds from her father’s story.) Probably out of deference for the adult Rosalind’s sensibilities, Wilson omitted this passage from the published version of The Twenties. Although he doesn’t refer to it in the diaries, Wilson must have given the legendary nonparty that same summer of 1927. This could well have been the party to which he rather untactfully invited Dos Passos, who was then in Boston organizing the above-mentioned protest on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. In any case, Wilson was sighted, on the afternoon of his planned festivity, leaving Provincetown with a large block of ice on his back. According to one version, the sun melted all the ice before he reached Peaked Hill; in another variant he arrived with at least some of the ice intact, but then proceeded to mix drinks for himself. By the time the guests arrived, they found the doors locked and all quiet within. The story is plausible, for Wilson had little inclination to postpone gratification, especially in matters relating to alcohol. As legend, the story had a very long life. During a short stay in Provincetown in 1939, Fred Dupee, an editor at Partisan Review, to which Mary McCarthy regularly contributed, heard the tale and mentioned it in a letter to McCarthy, now Wilson’s wife. I myself heard the story from a Wellfleet old-timer in the 1980s.

In 1928 Wilson met Margaret Canby, a divorced Californian whom he would marry in 1930. Their courtship and marriage involved periods of geographical separation. Margaret would die as the result of an accidental fall in 1932, while she was living alone with her son Jimmy in Santa Barbara. In the late summer of 1929, Wilson, Rosalind, and her nurse Stella were back on Cape Cod, staying at the Nobscusset Hotel in Dennis. During their stay, probably about three weeks, Wilson noted seascapes in his diary—the varied forms of marine life and the sensuous forms of adolescents frolicking on the beach.
After their marriage, the Wilsons rented the O’Neill house at Peaked Hill for the summer of 1930. While there, he finished Axel’s Castle. He would subsequently return to Provincetown for every summer of the thirties, except that of 1935, when he was in the Soviet Union. According to his daughter Rosalind’s memoirs, she and her stepbrother Jimmy Canby had a glorious time that summer at Peaked Hill. Her father rented a pony called Betsy to board with them, and the children were well treated by the coast guards at the new station just down the beach. The O’Neill house was now partially inundated with sand, which had rendered the bathroom inoperative, except for the bathtub, now converted into a receptacle for home brew. The children seem to have been blissfully unaware that their parents were enjoying an active and inventive sex life, much of it outdoors and in daylight hours.

On August 12, 1930, Wilson accompanied the local fishermen when they cleared their traps in the bay. They embarked well before dawn. Seen first as “dark-faced shapeless figures” on the wharf, the men silently “rowed out toward the traps with regular heavy and funereal rhythm of oars.” When the fish are hauled on board, the scene is orchestrated by “the butterfish, great flapping silver flakes, making a smacking crepitation of fireworks when they were thrown onto the floor of the boat.” Then we hear the luckless squid, which squeak in contrast to the smacking of the other fish: “… they seemed so futile, so unpleasantly uncannily incomplete flimsy forms of life, with their round expressionless eyes, like eyes painted—a white iris with a black spot—on some naive toy, their plumes like ostrich feathers of some Renaissance woman of the court in an engraving by Callot… .” The epic catalogue of fish continues. When they return to Provincetown, the sun has already set. Now “The blue shirts and yellow oilcloth of the five fishermen matched the sky and the sea and the unseen presence of the sand.”

At summer’s end E. E. Cummings and his wife Anne came to stay with the Wilsons at Peaked Hill. After weathering a bad storm, the foursome, joined by other assorted visitors, spent time beachcombing and imbibing. Two photographs taken at the time show the Cummingses together on the beach. They are rather comical: the poet, visibly inebriated, seems to ignore his statuesque consort. Cummings, an accomplished artist with a penchant for caricature, gave his host three sketches inspired by the visit. One of these shows a beach scene where a portly little figure, clearly Wilson, is draining a bottle; another shows a sinuous Cummings-figure with an outsized head. The latter is holding his stomach and grimacing; nearby a stern policeman is doing a little caper. Wilson later put a caption on the picture: “Probably Cummings after drinking all the Provincetown alcohol.” On September 2, 1930, writing from his farm in New Hampshire, Cummings recapitulated the visit in an artfully devised and highly amusing bread-and-butter letter.

Edmund and Margaret left Provincetown for New York in mid-September. She then returned to the West Coast while he went back to the Peaked Hill house, which he now shared with a young artist called “Blazy,” the current boyfriend of Hazel Hawthorne, a writer who lived in a neighboring shack. Blazy did all the cooking; his repertoire consisted mostly of clam chowder and applesauce. (Wilson never learned to cook or drive a car.) In January 1931 Margaret came east again and the couple stayed at the Dos Passoses’ in Provincetown. By this time an autumn storm had struck the O’Neill house and pitched it to the bottom of its now sea-eroded dune. The Dos Passoses, Hapgoods, Wilsons, and others trekked out to the doomed house in order to salvage its contents. Hutchins Hapgood writes in his autobiography that Wilson got himself stuck in the turret window and had to be extricated by the Hapgood children. In the fall of 1931 Wilson returned to Provincetown after a trip to California. He lived alone for a while in Susan Glaspell’s house and then took a hilltop rental with Margaret. In November he recorded a long evening walk with Katy Dos Passos. (Margaret had not yet come on from California.) The diary entry reads:

Walk with Katy in Provincetown in early November—Hawthorne’s hilltop: lawn, the [pilgrim] monument—queer, strong, but mild and almost warm wind blowing—white square steeples down below in the darkness—a night of plain rumpled beauty, shadows dark and white. Milky, milk stains.—winter—big white square churches and white high—keeled houses built like ships.—Katy said it was like something in a book—Katy’s little green socks and untied gray leather moccasins.

Sensitive, as ever, to gradations of light and architectural contours when describing the inanimate world, Wilson’s glance finally zeros in on his companion’s footwear. Like Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet whom he so admired, he was very susceptible to the charms of women’s feet. Under his lasting attachment to Katy Dos Passos there doubtless ran a current of physical attraction. She valued his friendship highly and would later find her dear “Antichrist” an inseparable companion in Provincetown when Dos was covering the war in the Pacific in 1945. Wilson himself had assumed the persona of “Hiram K. Antichrist” in his correspondence with the Dos Passoses and they began their letters to him “Dear Antichrist,” or “Dear AntiX.” See the photograph he sent them of himself with hand-drawn beard and glasses ‘e0 la Marx. It bears the inscription: “Yours till the In’t. steeple topples!”

Wilson and Rosalind spent the summer of 1932 in Provincetown, but without Margaret, who could not afford to make the trip east with her son. He records the ongoing vagaries of his drinking companions and describes a morning spent at sea with the Truro fishermen (whose economic hardships he notes sympathetically). His journal of that summer also contains a lengthy profession de foi explaining his decision to vote Communist in the forthcoming election, as well as notes for a play, a modern farce called Beppo and Beth, which would include a character based on Harry Kemp, Provincetown’s antic “bard of the dunes.” Margaret’s death that September would impose a heavy burden of guilt on Wilson, who had been a less than model husband to her. Doubtless preferring Provincetown to Santa Barbara, Wilson had chosen not to spend the summer of 1932 with Margaret in California. When they were together he, by his own admission, sometimes treated her badly. After her death he recalled such behavior in his journal: “When I hurt her once or twice she was stunned and simply nodded with her head, as if it were going to drop… . Perhaps I had gotten more like her father: extravagance, drinking, arrogance and tyranny.” Nor was Wilson faithful to his second wife. While in New York by himself in the fall of 1931, as well as in the late summer of 1932, he resumed a sexual relationship with Frances (called “Anna” in the published journals), a working-class woman with a young child. Wilson contributed money to help support Frances over the entire time of his marriage to Margaret. Wilson was back in Provincetown in the summer of 1933. At this time he was continuing an active love affair with Louise Fort (now Connor), who lived in Topsfield, Massachusetts, with her husband and son. He had also recently initiated a torrid affair with Elizabeth Waugh. Her husband, Colton Waugh, was an artist; his father, Frederick, was a painter of marine landscapes and occupied a grand house (later bought by Hans Hoffman) in Provincetown’s West End. The younger Waughs ran a shop in the town’s oldest house nearby. According to Rosalind Wilson, who was close to the family, everyone thought the beautiful and high-strung Elizabeth was a model of domestic virtue. Little did they know! Her infatuated and often near-hysterical letters to Wilson tell a very different story. I should point out that during the twenties and thirties the author of I Thought of Daisy maintained ongoing sexual relationships with a number of adventurous women.

Wilson also spent the summer of 1934 in Provincetown, where he initially rented Frank Shay’s house. (Book dealer, editor, and sometime writer, the voluble Shay was, because of his organizational skills, an invaluable impresario. He would marry Katy Dos Passos’ best friend, Edith Foley.) Without identifying her by name, Wilson recorded in his journal a brief tryst he had there with Louise Connor. Although he was diligently reading up on socialism and the Soviet Union at the time, Wilson’s 1934 summer journal entries are given over to recorded conversations and gossip.

In 1936, Wilson enlisted the editor Betty Huling, longtime friend and former lover, to drive him from New York to Provincetown in a third-hand Stutz-Bearcat that he had purchased for the occasion. They were accompanied by Rosalind, her new nurse Hatty, and at least one of Hatty’s grandchildren. They rented the Dos Passos house at 571 Commercial Street, while the owners retreated to Katy’s property in nearby Truro. Here Dos cultivated a garden and enjoyed the solitude. He had a sweeping view of Truro’s rolling moorlands and the bay-the landscape that Edward Hopper painted. Katy later sold the house to the Australian-American writer Joan Colebrook. Although they were never close friends, Wilson gave Colebrook valuable advice about her writing and helped her to publish it.

In October 1937, Wilson met Mary McCarthy, who was then working at Covici Friede Publishers in New York. For better and worse their casually initiated liaison was cemented by matrimony the following year. I was born on Christmas Day, 1938. In August 1938, the Wilsons spent a few days in Provincetown in the vacant Dos Passos house. In his diary Wilson notes that times spent in that same house, as recently as two years ago, now seem part of a distant past. He writes: “and Mary’s being there no doubt made it possible to enjoy the thought of a past when I had actually been less happy than I now was. I had forgotten how dreamlike it was to have the harbor right outside the back living-room windows.”

The couple also visited Wilson’s old friends Charles and Adelaide Walker in Wellfleet as well as John Peale Bishop in South Chatham. The Bishops had sold their ch’e2teau in France and built a house, “Sea Change,” overlooking Nantucket Sound. The architect of the house was another Princetonian. (Today, sadly enough, it is a rental property that goes by the name of “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald was a close friend of both Bishop and Wilson and both writers wrote poems lamenting Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.) Wilson found the Bishops’ “colonial-plantation-ch’e2teau” pretentious, although I found it quite charming when I saw it a couple of years ago. Some of the elegant furniture that the Bishops brought back from France is still there. Wilson also took a dim view of his Chatham hosts’ stuffy social set, nor did he care much for his friend’s wife Margaret, whom he found overbearing. Nonetheless, the friendship, as literary as it was personal, lasted until Bishop’s death in 1945. He named Wilson and Allen Tate as his literary executors. The former would go on to edit and publish a large volume of his friend’s collected essays.
During the winter of 1940, the Wilsons rented the Boydon house in Truro Center. Known for her liberated sexuality, hard drinking, and Stalinist views, Polly Boydon was a decidedly minor writer; her husband Bud was a lawyer from Chicago who would opt for early retirement on Cape Cod. The Boydons had a picturesque, comfortably furnished house and a tennis court (one of only two in Truro). That winter Wilson had to get on with his book on the Russian Revolution (To the Finland Station). His diary for March 23, 1940, describes a full moon seen through the window on a stormy night. The couple looks at “the inky clouds driven rapidly across it, showing their silver hems as they passed, and then the bright complete white (blinding) moon showing through the dark gauze fringe and swimming clear, complete and bright again… . The moon remained fixed and supreme. Mary said she always thought it was moving-I always thought it was standing still.” Although the disagreement was amicable here, their relationship would become increasingly discordant after they moved to Wellfleet the next year. Probably because of the troubled nature of the marriage, Wilson failed to keep much of a diary from 1941 to 1945 (the year they separated). The unpublished “Wellfleet Poetry” at Yale’s Beinecke Library, however, gives some insight into this chaotic period of his life.

On June 21, 1942, Wilson addressed a birthday poem to his beautiful young wife. He was deeply attached to her and did not want to lose her. Begun during her first visit to Wilson’s rented house in Stamford, Connecticut, the McCarthy-Wilson relationship would prove to be precarious for both parties. Their quarrels, with all the charges and countercharges about the other partner’s misbehavior, have received wide coverage in recent books about the two writers. There is little doubt, however, that Wilson had an almost pathological tendency to mistreat his wives, even when they seemed to be getting on well together. His daughter Rosalind writes about his attempts “systematically [to] destroy” his last wife, Elena. Rosalind explains: “What he did when he set about destroying a woman was almost incommunicable because it combined the conscious with the unconscious to such an extent on his part and constant criticizing from morning to night.” Clearly Wilson and McCarthy could bring out the worst in one another. McCarthy portrayed Wilson as a chronic abuser; Wilson described her as hovering on the brink of mental illness. They could nonetheless find each other’s company stimulating. Eben and Phyllis Given, whom the Wilsons frequently visited in Truro (they lived next door to the Boydons), remembered that when;: they were,. “on” the couple could electrify listeners with sustained exchanges of witty repartee. There were times during the marriage when Wilson sought to convince McCarthy of his ongoing love and admiration; such a mood inspired the following poem, typed on three sheets bearing the letterhead: Edmund Wilson, Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

     Darling do not weep with tears
     My four years of your thirty years:
     I too once felt the scene turn thin,
     The sky come down, the road close in;
     The faces that I had thought my own
     Dull dolts that left me all alone;
     The places where I breathed and fed
     A dismal dump to lie down dead-
     And if today you were to go,
     Were gone, again I should feel so.

     Between two seas a strip not wide
     Splits ocean side from harbor side,
     And keeps apart, with beaten knees,
     The blank unbuilt unplanted seas;
     Or, better, between pond and pond
     The streak of water makes a bond,
     A limpid stream in white sand.
     -And if you say a turtle stalks
     This stream, debating as he walks
     Where best to burrow in the slime,
     To wait the proper snapping time;
     Remember that I say the snails
     That leave their little hollow trails
     Along the bottom that stays white
     Are tiny beasts that do not bite.

     -Mary, this morning when sunrise
     First met your green and lighting eyes
     In debt and d’e8che the way I live,
     I have no other gift to give-
     Nothing to guard our flickering foyer
     Against Judge Otis, paranoia,
     Tovarishch Stalin’s dark apostles,
     The envious reviews of hostiles,
     Against the rank and sallow weeds
     That rise to wreck our ripest seeds;
     That ring the bell and spring the door,
     But never yet have split the floor-
     Nothing to give today but these,
     Across the ponds, between the seas,
     Between the tadpoles and sweet peas:
     Lined words to one who can align ‘em
     Till weaklings cry out, “Quem ad finem
     Sese iactabit-what a gal!-
     Audacia?-the animal!”*

     But failing better coin, my dear,
     Please take these for your thirtieth year;
     And disregard the thinning scene,
     But read the love that lies between.

In this moving poem the older and disillusioned author implores McCarthy not to despair, to appreciate the harmony of wild nature around them. In the finale, he pays homage to her literary skills and bravura. He asks for help in his struggle against penury and a hostile outside world. We can only surmise that he duly gave the poem to its addressee. He makes it clear that this is the only birthday present he can afford to give her. Whether she kept it, however, remains in doubt-the Beinecke poem is clearly the original, and there is no copy among McCarthy’s papers at Vassar College. Eight years later Wilson would dedicate a long elegy, “The White Sand,” to his fourth wife, Elena Mumm Wilson. In this tribute he portrays her, an elegant and graceful European, against a backdrop of Cape Cod sand and water.
The “Wellfleet Poetry,” some of it written in poetic prose, faithfully records his observations of nature, while also giving occasional insight into the writer’s moods of black depression. Here are two separate entries: one suggests contemplation, the other the nether depths of despair. “-Pond, June 4, 1943-The shallow fawn-colored water, in which the procession of herring, purplish above and yellowish below, slightly disassociated the fawn-color into a spectrum, seemed almost transparent, and seemed to repeat the patterns of the ripples on the surface.-the pollen from the pine buds across the pond gave the water a sulphurous rim.” “Dark Sand-But how much was the reflection of my inner darkness. I Hades! Old Horrible Cape-writers who do not write, painters who do not paint.”

Elsewhere, in a poem that was inspired by a fishing expedition taken with McCarthy, Wilson compares the experience of catching a brilliantly colored sunfish with that of a writer plumbing his inner depths for a powerful and startling image. This text would serve as a draft for one section of “The Pickerel Pond: A Double Pastoral.” This discursive poem about Cape Cod duplicates in its rhyme scheme the pond’s mirror reflection of its surroundings. Examples of the amphisbaenics or backward rhymes he uses are: “gulls” rhyming with “slug,” “reed” with “deer.”

Wilson continued to incorporate pieces of the Cape Cod landscape into his diaries of the fifties and sixties. During these years he became very fond of the wild and mysterious Spectacle Ponds behind Newcomb’s Hollow. One of the best examples of his late Cape Cod prose is the short diary entry about a beached and dying finback whale. This bears comparison with “The Wellfleet Whale,” a longish poem by Stanley Kunitz based on the same real event. Both writers humanize the whale; both see the helpless leviathan as the victim of Nature’s whim, aggravated by the children who tear its dried skin while their elders gawk. While Kunitz takes an Olympian, romanticizing view of his subject, Wilson presents it succinctly and in tellingly observed detail.

By the end of the forties, Wilson felt critically inclined toward the Cape Cod community, nor did he see himself any longer as an integral part of it. In 1951, the focus of his life quickly began to change with the rediscovery of his mother’s family’s stone house in the hamlet of Talcottville, New York. (He inherited the house when his mother died that year.) There he delighted in upstate New York’s unspoiled rolling landscape with its breathtaking views of the Adirondacks. The rivers, falls, the graceful and commanding stone house, the cow-dotted fields, the homespun locals, some of whom had ties to his family, all gave him a sense of continuity with history. Here was a paradise tinged only with happy childhood memories.

Unfortunately, his wife Elena did not share his enthusiasm for Talcottville, and in the end she refused to be his summertime companion in the old stone house. She could not bear to leave Wellfleet, where her life revolved around the beach, her garden, and easy conversations with friends, many of them young people, around the kitchen table. Although the marriage suffered as the result of their annual separation, Elena stood by her husband until the bitter end. By 1960, their relations had become so strained that Wilson threatened Elena with divorce. When, in the summer of 1959, she had arrived for her annual visit in Talcottville, with Dan Aaron (a professor of American literature and friend of Wilson’s), Wilson was so drunk that he failed to recognize her; he subsequently kept her awake all night telling her “to go to hell.” During the first ten years of their marriage Elena had refrained from criticizing her often abusive, always demanding husband; now she fought back by refusing to run an alternative summer household in Talcottville. Having led a nomadic existence when she was young, Elena had become passionately attached to Cape Cod and the house which she had worked so hard to improve. Wellfleet was the anchor of her universe and she hardly wanted to risk losing it in a divorce. In addition, she genuinely admired her famous husband and enjoyed being the great writer’s wife, confidante, and amanuensis. She once remarked to me that all the discipline my father had at his disposal went into his work, with little left to temper his dealings with family members. Elena had a good point, although Wilson responded well to critical situations-sickness, accidents, etc.-among family members and close friends. At those moments he thought clearly and acted humanely. In any case, it is hardly surprising that, despite his many faults (including late-life sexual antics with other women in Talcottville and New York City), Elena chose to keep the marriage together.

Wilson’s late journal sadly records the passing of old Cape Cod friends: Paul Chavchavadze (whose wife Nina was the grandniece of Russia’s last tsar), Edwin O’Connor (author of the best-selling novel The Last Hurrah and devotee, like Wilson, of magic tricks), Waldo Frank (writer, self-proclaimed genius, and champion of leftist causes whom Wilson had known since the early thirties), Chauncy Hackett (a former lawyer from Washington, D.C., an erudite and original man who, with his wife Mary (Bubbs), had become, as the result of attrition, Wilson’s last remaining friend in Provincetown). Increasingly bad health limited Wilson’s mobility to the point that he could no longer take the nature walks that had always refreshed him at the end of a working day. Now he saw the world mostly from the windows of Elena’s car or those of his Money Hill study, from which he could view an old apple tree, a few birds, and, in springtime, a row of blooming lilacs. But death overtook him in the Talcottville house, on June 12, 1972.

* The Latin means: “To what end will he/she vaunt him/herself … Audacity?” Above “the animal!” Wilson has penned a possible substitution: “but what a pal!”


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Carrie Muniz's picture
Carrie Muniz · 7 years ago

Reuel- I am a 4th Cousin to your step father Bowden Broadwater. I have been doing the family history for over 15 years and recently came upon Mary's story. Thank you for the article. I would love to learn more about Bowden. My email is



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