I wasn’t going to go through this week’s New York Times “Books Update” newsletter which arrived yesterday by email, but I’m glad I reconsidered this morning, for there in my inbox was Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978).
Because Miss McGinley is the mind behind “The Year without a Santa Claus”, which was originally “How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas” and also several other Christmas titles and poems (one of which I used last year for Poetry Friday). But it’s not because of her holiday writings that Phyllis McGinley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, makes the paper this week. Rather, it’s because she was once, as Time Magazine called her, the poet laureate of suburbia (and also “the literary protagonist of the point of view that the keeper of the home is the most important woman in the world”); in 1950, she sang its praises in “Suburbia: Of Thee I Sing”. In her New York Times essay, television critic Ginia Bellafante writes [links mine, as usual]:
McGinley is almost entirely forgotten today, and while her anonymity is attributable in part to the disappearance of light verse, it seems equally a function of our refusal to believe that anyone living on the manicured fringes of a major American city in the middle of the 20th century might have been genuinely pleased to be there. McGinley received her Pulitzer the same year that Richard Yates’s “Revolutionary Road,” the basis for Sam Mendes’s new movie, made its debut. To Yates, Connecticut wasn’t dull; it was tragic, the end of something. Since the ’60s, versions of the same idea have prevailed almost without interruption — in fiction, in film, on television, in the countless illustrations of grinning fathers presiding over barbecues, kitschy images in which we are meant to see portraits of mournful delusion. From Cheever to “American Beauty,” we have tended to read mythologies of suburban lament as if they were reportage.
McGinley loved Westchester in no small measure because it was so much easier than the place she came from. Born to a struggling land speculator and his pianist wife in 1903, she moved with her family from Oregon to Colorado, where she was put to work farming at a young age. When she was 12, her father died and the family moved again, to live with a widowed aunt in Utah. “We never had a home,” McGinley told Time in 1965, “and to have a home, after I got married, was just marvelous.” McGinley was not thrown into marriage by default. Having taken to musical theater at the University of Utah and won college poetry prizes, she came to New York in her 20s and found work writing commercial jingles and later teaching. Having married happily at 33, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her. McGinley’s life with her husband, Bill Hayden, was, her daughter Patsy Blake told me recently, “a sanguine, benign, adorable version of ‘Mad Men.’ ” The couple entertained avidly: the regular guest list included Bennett Cerf, the drama critic Walter Kerr and leading advertising executives of the day.
(One would be remiss not to mention that the genial dinners would also have included Bennett Cerf’s wife, Phyllis — Ginger Roger’s cousin, Dr. Seuss’s collaborator and ad agency colleague, and the mover behind Random House’s “Beginner Books” series for children — as well as her neighbor Walter’s wife, the playwright and humorist Jean Kerr, author of the very, very funny Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Snake Has All the Lines, Penny Candy, and How I Got to Be Perfect. Oh, to have been a martini shaker on the wet bar…)
But what caught my eye in Ms. Bellafante’s essay was this:
“A liberal arts education is not a tool like a hoe . . . or an electric mixer,” McGinley wrote [in her volume of essays, Sixpence in Her Shoe], dismayed at a world she thought was conspiring to make women feel as though any acquired erudition would be wasted in a life of riffling through recipe cards. “It is a true and precious stone which can glow as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter.” She went on to dismiss the already benighted suggestion that Bryn Mawr was a threat to what ought to get done in a kitchen. “Surely the ability to enjoy Heine’s exquisite melancholy in the original German,” she wrote, “will not cripple a girl’s talent for making chocolate brownies.”
McGinley’s point, an eternally divisive one, was clear: a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions. McGinley was a Democrat and socially liberal — in 1968 Nelson Rockefeller appointed her to a bipartisan committee to study the abortion issue, and she came out resolutely on the side of choice. And yet she shared with Phyllis Schlafly the paradox of promoting traditionalism (in Schlafly’s case virulently) as she pursued a more digressive course for herself. It was McGinley’s salary, according to her daughter Patsy, that allowed Patsy and her sister to attend private school in Greenwich, Conn., and later Wellesley and Radcliffe. In “The Feminine Mystique,” Friedan chided McGinley, her Larchmont friend the playwright Jean Kerr and Shirley Jackson for betraying women, and themselves, by refusing to emphasize their sizable aspirations.
The Time interview mentioned above was part of the magazine’s June 1965 cover story on Miss McGinley, “The Telltale Hearth”, still available in the archives and including a bit more from Sixpence,
“A liberal arts education,” she writes in Sixpence, “is a true and precious stone which can glow just as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter. To what barbarian plane are we descending when we demand that it serve only the economy?”
I’ll leave the last words to Miss McGinley. First, some advice to writers which I read aloud in the kitchen today now that we’re in thank-you-note season,
“I’m sure there are many gifted women who could write, but don’t have the discipline. You have to make yourself do things that are cruelly difficult. The only difference between a man and a woman is that a woman puts her family first, but the actual discipline is a cruel thing.”
And lastly, this little ditty,
Stir the eggnog, lift the toddy.
Happy New Year, everybody!