Sunday, June 15, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 231: Mary McCarthy, General Macbeth (#231)

Mary McCarthy, "General Macbeth" (1962) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:
He is a general and has just won a battle; he enters the scene making a remark about the weather. “So foul and fair a day I have not seen.” On this flat note Macbeth’s character tone is set. “Terrible weather we’re having.” “The sun can’t seem to make up its mind.” “Is it hot /cold /wet enough for you?”
The headnote in this book summarizes this piece, so you might be tempted to skip reading it, but holy heck, look at that opening gauntlet that Mary McCarthy throws down. I can't blame the headnote writer for summarizing her piece when she just launches into it right away: Macbeth isn't a tragic, larger-than-life figure, he's a middle-class yutz trying to keep up with the Joneses in his own murderous way. This is Macbeth as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. There's tragedy here, but it's smaller-than-life.

In this first paragraph, McCarthy employs one of her deadliest rhetorical tricks against the stuffed shirt, overblown tragedy of the characters, which is to rephrase what they say in 1950s suburban business everyman speech. Sure, this was written in the 60s, but McCarthy's target here is that 1950s corporatist, conformist attitude, a world where "true religion has been silenced." When she goes on to note that Macbeth has a modern, bourgeois "social outlook," she sounds like William Whyte in The Organization Man or David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd: Macbeth is just a 1950s guy, afraid of responsibility, full of common-place platitudes, and always ready to try to fit in.

Which brings us to at least one fun and arguable point in her essay, when she argues that what would be poetry in other situations, in the mouth of Macbeth turns to empty rhetoric: words sans feeling. I say this is arguable in that McCarthy presents this as something uncertain; it's the only part of the essay where she says that this is her opinion and she introduces the subject by noting the slipperiness of the boundary between poetry and rhetoric.

Still, she returns to the main point she made in the opening: Macbeth is the most modern of Shakespeare's villains, not so much a villain or a tragic figure or a fallen hero, as just a yutz, a Babbitt, worried about what others are saying about him. In the end, she reverses this math: Macbeth is modern, but that also means that the moderns around her are all Macbeths in their own way. In that way, she gets Shakespeare to condemn the entire grasping suburban business-man-world of the mid-century.

Lastly, as an aside, I heard the editor, James Shapiro, discuss this book on the New York Times Book Review podcast; and this is the first new LoA book that sounds very interesting to me. So if you don't want to take the plunge yet and buy it, you could do worse than listen to Shapiro talk about how this book came about and what he attempts to do with it.

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