The War of Words

My diary for Dec. 10, 1982, has me in Paris attending a “noisy, spirited” conference of Polish dissidents. A year after Gen. Jaruzelski’s suppression of Solidarity, and a few weeks into Andropov’s rule of the Soviet Union, writers like Leszek Kolakowski and Konstanty Jeleński were debating the best way forward for supporters of democracy and for Warsaw’s timid archbishop, Józef Glemp. I had been brought to the Polish Library on the Quai d’Orléans by the novelist Mary McCarthy, my friend and mentor, recently turned 70, whom the diary describes as being that day “full of schoolgirlish enthusiasm . . . She likes to applaud and say bravo and wave and shake hands with all she recognizes.”

Mary was displaying a more relaxed version of the élan she had brought to New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on March 25, 1949, when she and her friends on the democratic left disrupted the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, a gathering organized by the Soviet Cominform and embraced by a large assortment of fellow-traveling American intellectuals and entertainers. When McCarthy and her confederates— Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick and Dwight Macdonald among them—wanted to ask a skeptical or combative question, they forced recognition by tapping umbrellas, in unison, on the floor.

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