Mary Hawthorne

Mary Hawthorne is on the staff of the New Yorker.

Disconnected Realities: In the Munro mould

Mary Hawthorne, 17 February 2005

If you open a road atlas at Ontario, you can see that the roads charted by the thin red and blue lines of Huron County, adhere to the geometry and history of acreage, drawing rectangles in a sprawl of rural sameness. At one intersection is the tiny town of Wingham (population c.2952), where Alice Munro was born in 1931, and twenty miles to the south, another tiny town: Clinton (population

Baudelairean: The Luck of Walker Evans

Mary Hawthorne, 5 February 2004

The early photographs of Walker Evans are now so familiar that it is easy to forget how radically different they seemed at the time, and to take their subtle influence for granted, or, now that the collective longing appears to be for nothing so much as to be relieved of the burden of thinking or remembering at all, to fail to discern it altogether. By the late 1950s, Evans was hovering on...

Wild-Eyed and Ready to Die: Dawn Powell

Mary Hawthorne, 22 February 2001

For more than thirty years, until her death in 1965, Dawn Powell lived and worked ceaselessly in Greenwich Village. She produced 15 novels, set in Manhattan or the small towns of her native Ohio, half a dozen plays, more than a hundred short stories and countless reviews and magazine articles (she regarded her work for Mademoiselle and the New Yorker with equal disdain). I had lived in...

A Traveller in Residence

Mary Hawthorne, 13 November 1997

On the 20th Floor of the old offices of the New Yorker, at 25 West 43rd Street, the elevators let out onto a narrow, desolate vestibule. Its floor was set with dirty beige linoleum tiles that matched the colour of its blank walls; a lumpish chair upholstered in cracked black leather and a scarred wooden table with a glass top and a glass ashtray resting on it stood next to a door that led to the offices inside. At one end, a receptionist sat in a tiny cubicle behind a Plexiglas partition, with a small sliding door to receive deliveries and a cut-out circle to talk through. One day not long after I had been hired, in 1981, I came out of the elevator to find a very small woman with pulled back, unwashed grey hair sitting in the chair and staring at the floor. She was wearing a black, oversized jacket and a black rumpled skirt that was very long – so long that I can’t remember her shoes. When the receptionist pressed the button to unlock the door and I passed by, the woman did not look up. When I went out at lunchtime, she was still sitting there, and she was there when I returned – in the same position, as though she hadn’t moved at all. She was gone when I left at the end of the day. I went home and forgot about the woman but, to my surprise, the following morning I again found her seated in the chair, examining the floor. As I waited for the elevator that evening, I watched her slowly rise from the chair to leave. All the while, she continued her expressionless musing, never raising her eyes. There was a paper cup with some left-over coffee in it on the table, and some stamped-out cigarettes in the ashtray. I never saw her again.’

Diary: Remembering Joseph Mitchell

Mary Hawthorne, 1 August 1996

Though we both came to the offices of the New Yorker nearly every day for 15 years, Joseph Mitchell and I were never introduced and we never introduced ourselves. I seldom saw him; mostly he stayed in his office with the door shut. But I knew who he was, almost from the day I was hired, and over time he came to know who I was too. Usually we ran into each other in the elevator, most often in the summer. He was an immaculate man who always seemed to be wearing the same plain clothes, year in and year out – a white cotton shirt, a dark tie, a tan poplin suit, a coconut-straw hat with a maroon and navy striped band. He was an avid reader of newspapers – his knowledge was said to be encyclopedic – and he always carried one around with him. One time I noticed it was the Irish Times; another, the Financial Times. He had a face that was more beautiful, because of what was behind it, than handsome, though it was that too. It was set with large, vivid-blue eyes that opened wide in pleased surprise when he encountered you. He would look into my face and smile sweetly and say, ‘Well, hello!’ When we parted, he would say, ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you.’ He had a Southern accent and his voice was smooth and lyrical; a colleague likened it to Bing Crosby’s. Now and then he would say something nice about an article I had written in the magazine or in one of his papers, and these comments filled me with a childish joy. He died on 24 May, of cancer, at the age of 87.’

Carry on Camping

Mary Hawthorne, 6 April 1995

Jayne Anne Phillips’s first novel of more than a decade ago, Machine Dreams, reconstructed the history of three generations of a single middle-class, small-town American family over the course of some fifty years. From the perspective, by turns, of parents and children, she contemplated the complexities and banalities of relations among family members against the political background of the time, focusing on the far-ranging effects that were brought to bear by the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The book’s scope was seemingly broad, but it was Phillips’s rendering of ordinariness that made it resonate. The locale might have been virtually any small town in America, for she recalled the universals of American culture – especially those of the Sixties – with such accuracy that any reader who, like the author herself, had come of age then was bound to find his own childhood returning to him in electric shocks of memory. It was her eye that conjured up the past contained so mysteriously in objects: the gloomy paraphernalia of military service locked away in a water-stained trunk in the attic; the parade float fashioned out of chicken wire and crepe paper inching along a Main Street strewn with candy; the high horizontal windows of a ranch-house bedroom.’


Mary Hawthorne, 10 November 1994

‘Something I think about when I’m watching things like Olympic meets,’ Andy Warhol wrote, ‘is When will a person not break a record? If somebody runs at 2.2, does that mean that people will next be able to do it at 2.1 and 2.0 and 1.9 and so on until they can do it in 0.0? So at what point will they not break a record? Will they have to change the time or change the record?’ The line of inquiry might be applied to Bret Easton Ellis (for one), who, in pushing to the limit the current parameters of literary transgression, effectively landed us in the vicinity of zero with his last book, American Psycho:


Mary Hawthorne, 23 June 1994

Tom Murphy’s play Too Late for Logic centres on the response of a psychically disintegrated family to the death of one of its members. An oracular, disembodied voiceover gives the summation: ‘A group of porcupines on a cold winter’s day crowded close together to save themselves from freezing by their mutual warmth. Soon, however, they felt each other’s spines, and this drove them apart again. Whenever their need brought them more closely together, this – evil – intervened, until, thrown this way and that, between the cold and the spines, they found a moderate distance from one another at which they could survive best.’ This same ‘evil’ – the quills of competing demands and interests with which the members of a family cannot help poking and pricking one another and which, keeping them separate, rule out the possibility of abiding love, though not the desire for it – is also at the heart of Murphy’s new book, a first novel, The Seduction of Morality.

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