McCarthy’s introductory chapter is a whirlwind tour which ranges from her early childhood preciosity to the last of her disastrous attempts at acting while at Vassar. Throughout, the adult comments on the youth, often as the reader follows the author on her multipronged attempts to secure a memory. The texture of memory—of multiple, contradictory memories—is as much McCarthy’s theme as her ostensible content, such as her final recognition that she was not destined to be an actress or her adult comment that this ambition probably reflected a desire to be considered beautiful. McCarthy carefully questions each reminiscence: An early recollection of a precocious questioning of language usage is swiftly followed by a recognition that this event was perhaps not as artless as remembered; she finally decides that she had been mimicking the artlessness of the child for effect.
This introductory chapter telescopes the movement from light to darkness brought about by becoming an orphan at age five (the subject of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) into a few pages in a style characterized by a deadpan dryness. The anecdote about the precocious questions at prayers is quickly followed by the information that her prayers soon changed to include her parents in heaven. A brief reminiscence of the physical abuse that she received in Minneapolis provokes the adult comment that she has earned the right to satirize her abusers. Laughter, she admits, does dry out the feelings, allowing her to forgive, but removing the moisture needed not only for self-pity but for tragedy as well. Thus McCarthy provides a comment on her self-perceived limitations as a writer.
The move from Minneapolis to Seattle is a move again into light, from material and spiritual poverty into riches. McCarthy recounts how she devoured books (and bananas, another formerly forbidden pleasure) in the libraries that opened to her after the move. Some classic writers, she notes, such as Rudyard Kipling and Sir Walter Scott, are lost to her; she is now too old to embrace them. She recalls that her tastes ran to books written for young boys, as well as to adult escapist literature such as True Confessions.
McCarthy frames her account of her schooling and intellectual friendships with two ideas: that the choice of secondary school, though often haphazard, marks one’s destiny and that friendships are necessary to the development of an intellectual. The heart of the text is the story of her years at Annie Wright Seminary. She notes that she alone was prepared to benefit from the elite education to be received there because she had already become an intellectual, ironically through a year at public high school in Seattle. In a chapter devoted to the year at Garfield, she examines her close friendship with Ethel (Ted) Rosenberg, with whom she shared books, but not tastes. In a later chapter, Ted introduces McCarthy to bohemian life in Seattle.
The year at Garfield includes tales of theatricals and of an early crush on Larry Judson, with whom McCarthy acted. The account leads McCarthy to consider how it was that she eventually found out that he, like Ted Rosenberg, was Jewish. This series of recollections provides McCarthy with an opportunity to inventory her attitudes toward Jews and to uncover the memory of her own share of the prevailing anti-Semitism of the day, a theme which will preoccupy...
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Bennett, Joy, and Gabriella Hochmann. Mary McCarthy: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1992. This bibliography contains summaries of critical responses to How I Grew at the time of its publication, as well as to McCarthy’s work as a whole.
Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. In a well-researched biography that was written with McCarthy’s cooperation, Gelderman attempts to show how McCarthy’s public persona in her autobiographical writing does not always correspond to her life.
Grumbach, Doris. The Company She Kept. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967. This early biography analyzes McCarthy’s novel The Group, relating it to her Vassar years, and describes her studies at convent schools and at Annie Wright Seminary. Includes examples of McCarthy’s early essays written at Vassar.
McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957. This earlier autobiographical work by McCarthy covers some of the same years and influences as How I Grew, with a different thematic emphasis on how the narrator of memory constructs the narration in particular ways.
McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966. McKenzie relates McCarthy’s fiction and nonfiction to autobiographical materials—for example, tying McCarthy’s choice of satire as a literary mode to possible influences from her Latin studies.