Growing up American

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Birds of America is supposed to be Mary McCarthy’s weakest novel, though it was her own favourite. Yet it is a fine book – a brilliant study of a clever, odd teenager growing into a man. And like all good books it seems to get better each time I read it.

The boy is Peter Levi, ‘a tall boy with a long nose and gaunt features’, but with his mother’s grey eyes, vaguely Jewish on his father’s side, even more vaguely Christian on his mother’s. During the first third of the novel he is living with his mother, Rosamund Brown, a musician, in a small North American town called Rocky Port, after the break-up of her second marriage to a man who teaches Physics at Berkeley. Her first husband, Peter’s father, known as the babbo, a refugee from Italy, teaches History at Wellesley. Peter loves Nature; his moral and spiritual guide is Kant, and he carries in his wallet a card on which he has written: ‘The Other is always an End: Thy Maxim.’

Rosamund Brown is – I have always assumed – a self-portrait of Mary McCarthy herself: ironic, fierce, brave, much married, mainly rational, a passionate purist as a cook, hating anything prefaced by ‘convenience’ (stores and food especially). I had assumed, therefore, that Peter Levi himself must be an affectionate portrait of the son, Reuel, whom she had with her second husband, Edmund Wilson. But it turns out that other models were youngsters she knew, one of whom told her, as a joke, that he took his potted geranium for a daily walk to give it some sunshine (he was thinking of Gérard de Nerval who tried to shock the bourgeoisie by taking his pet lobster for a walk on a lead). His joke was made into a characteristic of Peter Levi.

The first part of the novel ends when Peter and his mother are arrested for standing up to a policeman who is trying to make them put back a sign for tourists that the landlady wants on the front of their rented house; the argument escalates, and Rosamund

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About the contributor

C. J. Driver’s latest book is So Far: Selected Poems, 1960–2004. He has recently become honorary senior lecturer in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

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