Harper's Finest — June 30, 2014, 11:00 am

Mary McCarthy’s “Artists in Uniform” (1953)

This introduction to “Artists in Uniform” was first published in Radiant Truths, edited by Jeff Sharlet and published by Yale University Press in 2014.

“Artists in Uniform” originally appeared in the March 1953 issue of Harper’s Magazine as “Artists in Uniform: A Story by Mary McCarthy.” Almost a year later, in the February 1954 edition of the magazine, McCarthy, a novelist and essayist today remembered best for her Memoirs of a Catholic Schoolgirl, published an addendum. An essay of its own, actually, called “Settling the Colonel’s Hash.” In it she addresses the questions sent to her by readers about “the chief moral or meaning” of the original piece, in which McCarthy describes her encounter with an anti-Semitic colonel and the lunch at which he orders hash. The hash, she explains, is not a symbol of anything; it’s what the colonel ordered. And there are nuns in the piece because there were nuns on the train she shared with the colonel, and the “Mary McCarthy” in the story is depicted as wearing a green dress because McCarthy wore a green dress. That is all.

From Harper’s Magazine, March 1953

From Harper’s Magazine, March 1953

That’s true only if there’s no deeper level to our experience of the world than what you see. But “Artists in Uniform,” a study of perception and its faults, suggests otherwise. McCarthy repeatedly emphasizes the colonel’s “hawklike” face, first as expressive of his cruel manner, then as a contrast to the dull limits of his understanding.

Meanwhile, she worries that he’ll see her green dress as a symbol of bohemianism that will undermine the cool reason of her case against anti-Semitism. She then frets that her alleged bohemianism does, in fact, undermine her cool reason. She works herself up to a theological fervor in her arguments with the colonel only to collapse into confused disbelief. What if the colonel’s anti-Semitism isn’t a matter of “religion”? What if her “anti-anti-Semitism” is its own kind of religious conviction?

Asking these questions, and answering them in the form of a story in which “the chief interest,” she later wrote, “lay in the fact that it happened,” goes to the essence of the fiction of literary nonfiction. “Fiction,” after all, means “to arrange.” McCarthy takes the facts of her encounter and arranges them. She does not make them up. She did wear a green dress. But she tells us about this dress, and then tells us again, shows it to us through her eyes and through her imagination of the colonel’s perception. Likewise the colonel’s ideas about Jews. He actually said these awful things. But the story is McCarthy’s arrangement of the colonel’s utterance of the words and of her changing perception of their meaning. That is, what they mean to the colonel and what they mean to her and what they might mean to you, the reader, observing the pair at lunch, McCarthy with her face “like a map of Ireland” and the colonel with his hash, between them a cloud of perception and misperception they both label “the Jews.”

Read “Artists in Uniform”

Share
Single Page

More from Jeff Sharlet:

From the October 2013 issue

The Blazing Facts

Filming Uganda’s homophobic fits

From the September 2010 issue

Straight Man’s Burden

The American roots of Uganda’s anti-gay persecutions

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

Bee-Brained

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Mothers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Facing the Furies

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

MAHARIDGE

It was a frigid winter, and the Manhattan loft was cold — very cold. Something was wrong with the gas line and there was no heat. In a corner, surrounding the bed, sheets had been hung from cords to form a de facto tent with a small electric heater running inside. But the oddities didn’t end there: when I talked to the woman who lived in the loft about her work, she made me take the battery out of my cell phone and stash the device in her refrigerator. People who have dated in New York City for any length of time believe that they’ve seen everything — this was something new.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Our ongoing coverage of Donald Trump's presidency

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Samuel Donkoh had just turned ten when he began to slip away. His brother Martin, two years his senior, first realized something was wrong during a game of soccer with a group of kids from the neighborhood. One minute Samuel was fine, dribbling the ball, and the next he was doubled over in spasms of laughter, as if reacting to a joke nobody else had heard. His teammates, baffled by the bizarre display, chuckled along with him, a response Samuel took for mockery. He grew threatening and belligerent, and Martin was forced to drag him home.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The final two contestants of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held just outside Washington last May, had gone head-to-head for ten rounds. Nihar Janga, a toothy eleven-year-old with a bowl cut and the vocal pitch of a cartoon character, delighted the audience by breaking with custom: instead of asking the official pronouncer for definitions, he provided them himself. Taoiseach: “Is this an Irish prime minister?” (Yes.) Biniou: “Is this a Breton bagpipe?” (Right again.) His opponent, Jairam Hathwar, a stoic thirteen-year-old, had been favored to win, in large part because his older brother, Sriram, had won in 2014.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Amount Greece’s ruling Syriza party believes that Germany owes Greece in war reparations:

$172,000,000,000

Americans of both sexes prefer the body odors of people with similar political beliefs.

Tens of thousands of people marched to promote science in cities across the world, and Trump issued an Earth Day statement in which he did not mention climate change.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today