Carol Brightman, who wrote a book on the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, a traveler in rarefied literary circles, then wrote another on what might be considered McCarthy’s polar opposite, the Grateful Dead, died on Monday in Damariscotta, Maine. She was 80.
Her daughter, Sarabinh Levy-Brightman, confirmed the death. She said Ms. Brightman had a number of health problems, including advanced dementia.
Early in her varied career Ms. Brightman was known for her involvement in the issues of the 1960s; among other things, she founded Viet Report, an influential newsletter about the Vietnam War, in 1965. She traveled to both North Vietnam and Cuba during that period, one of the few Americans to do so.
But she was perhaps best known for three books. In 1992 she published “Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World,” a biography of the groundbreaking, sometimes controversial author of “The Group” (1963) and other novels. Susan Brownmiller, reviewing “Writing Dangerously” in The Chicago Tribune, called it “a thoughtful, utterly admirable venture, written with the kind of balance and fairness that McCarthy herself was not wont to display.”
Three years later Ms. Brightman edited “Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975.” Her next book, published in 1998, traded that highbrow world for the one inhabited by Deadheads.
Titled “Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure,” the book brought a nonfan’s perspective to the Grateful Dead phenomenon. Ms. Brightman wasn’t a complete outsider — her sister, Candace Brightman, was the band’s lighting designer for many years — but she attended her first Dead concert only in 1972, years after the group had begun to draw attention. In the book she contrasted her own 1960s activism with the Dead’s apolitical, mellow worldview.
“I didn’t know it then,” she wrote in the introduction, describing the 1972 concert she attended at the Academy of Music in New York, “but I was witnessing the genesis of a movement whose takeoff was related to the breakdown of my own. If the climate of the ’60s made you feel things could be changed and were worth changing, the climate of the ’70s, more like today’s, counseled retreat from storms over which you had no control.”
She interviewed not only members of the group but also fans, and she came to appreciate their devotion and their omnipresence.
“Deadheads are everywhere and nowhere,” she wrote, “so much a part of American life as to appear almost invisible.”
Carol Deborah Morton Brightman was born on Oct. 5, 1939, in Baltimore. Her daughter said she was named after an aunt, Deborah Morton, who had in turn been named after an ancestor named Deborah Sampson, who had fought in the Revolutionary War disguised as a man — a connection, she said, from which Ms. Brightman drew inspiration and identity.
Ms. Brightman’s father, Carl Gordon Brightman Jr., worked in sales in the publishing business, and her mother, Lucille Caroline (Hancock) Brightman, was a homemaker. She grew up in Baltimore and in Wilmette and Winnetka, Ill. After graduating from New Trier High School in Winnetka in 1957, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Vassar College in 1961 and a master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1963.
She was a 26-year-old graduate assistant in English at New York University in 1965 when she founded Viet Report.
“Carol was one of the first to make vivid that an antidote to mass media was needed to understand the truth about what was going on in Vietnam,” the novelist Beverly Gologorsky, who was Viet Report’s managing editor, said by email.
The purpose of Viet Report, Ms. Brightman told The New York Times in 1965, was “to inform and not to persuade.” The second issue republished the text of the 1954 Geneva agreements that had ended French rule in Indochina and partitioned Vietnam; other issues reprinted accounts from European publications from inside the war zone, which often gave different views than what the American press was reporting.
In 1967 Ms. Brightman traveled to North Vietnam as part of a contingent of the so-called Russell Tribunal, created by the philosopher Bertrand Russell to examine the possibility that the United States had committed war crimes in Vietnam.
The publication was sent to libraries and sold by groups like the American Friends Service Committee and Students for a Democratic Society. It ended publication in 1968.
The next year Ms. Brightman broadened her aim by helping to found Leviathan, an underground newspaper that, its self-description said, “will serve the Movement as it builds a mass revolutionary force and a new social vision.” It lasted a year and a half.
Ms. Brightman was also a leader of the Venceremos Brigade, which arranged for young Americans to go to Cuba to experience the results of the Cuban revolution first hand, a trip she made herself. She and Sandra Levinson edited a book of writings by participants, “Venceremos Brigade: Young Americans Sharing the Life and Work of Revolutionary Cuba” (1971).
Ms. Brightman taught for a time at Brooklyn College and was an associate editor at Geo magazine. She settled in Walpole, Maine, in the 1980s.
“I really started serious book writing in Maine,” she told The Bangor Daily News in 1999. “I don’t know what the influence is. Up here, I’ve become a writer.”
In the mid-1960s Ms. Brightman married John McDermott, who had helped start Viet Report. They divorced in 1972. She had long-term relationships with Richard Levy, the father of her daughter, and with Michael Uhl, with whom she had a son, Simon Brightman-Uhl. In addition to her son, her daughter and her sister, she is survived by a brother, Chris, and three grandchildren.
Ms. Brightman wrote for various publications over the years, including occasionally for The Times. In 1999 she wrote a frustration-filled essay for the paper’s Book Review about the consequences when her Grateful Dead book was misidentified by some book-listing services under an early, rejected title, “Fat Trip,” a phrase Jerry Garcia, the band’s frontman, used to describe something odd or unexpected.
The mistake, she said, was causing the work to be marketed as a diet book.
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