Mary McCarthy Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The most prominent woman among what came to be called the New York intellectuals, notorious for her acerbic tongue and for rather stormy relations with her male colleagues, McCarthy brought great vigor and insight and an uncompromising set of standards to American criticism and fiction.

Early Life

Mary Therese McCarthy’s earliest years took their color from her charming alcoholic father and her devoted, beautiful mother. Her secure childhood in Seattle, in the home of a father who had apparently reformed for love of his wife, and within the environs of an influential, wealthy family, graced by the rather romantic figure of her vibrant Jewish grandmother, was shattered during the flu epidemic of World War I. McCarthy lost both of her parents at the age of six and was wrenched from the comfort of Seattle to live in Minneapolis, taken care of by relatives who apparently pocketed most of the funds intended for the support of Mary and her brother Kevin. She describes this period with chilling effectiveness in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957).

In her memories of her earliest years, McCarthy would often put a high gloss on her father’s figure, refusing to see the flaws that were painfully apparent to family members who had had to support him during his drinking bouts. Something of a loner, McCarthy demonstrated an intense interest in literature at Vassar College (she was graduated in 1933) but no remarkable talent. She first found work as a book reviewer for The Nation and The New Republic, but it was not until the mid-1930’s, after a series of affairs which culminated in a short marriage to theater director Harold Johnsrud and a liaison with the critic Philip Rahv, that she began to develop her own literary style and point of view.

These male figures served as mentors, especially the truculent Rahv, one of the editors of The Partisan Review, which was arguably the most influential intellectual journal of its time. The journal had begun as a Marxist, pro-Soviet organ, but by the late 1930’s it had adopted an anti-Stalinist position and championed the work of the great modernist writers. In this feisty, combative milieu, McCarthy honed her skills as drama editor and critic, exciting the interest of Edmund Wilson, the dean of American literary critics. McCarthy’s stormy marriage to Wilson lasted eight years (1938-1946). With his encouragement, she wrote her first fiction, The Company She Keeps (1942), an incisive portrayal of a bohemian, intellectual young woman.

Rahv, McCarthy later admitted, would never have encouraged her to write novels, and he was incapable of removing her from the intense but curiously provincial milieu of New York intellectuals who spent too much of their time in sectarian fights among liberals, Stalinists, anti-Stalinists, Trotskyites, and so on. Yet Rahv seemed to love McCarthy for herself, a quality she evidently found rare in the men who were attracted to her.

Life’s Work

Mary McCarthy is best known for her astringent critical writing and her best-selling novel The Group (1963), which details the lives and sexual affairs of eight Vassar College graduates. She often reviewed films and plays and was notorious for her negative reviews. In private life, she had an equally sharp tongue that made her a fearsome presence on the New York literary scene. She was also a much-admired debunker of the fashionable and facile products of American culture.

McCarthy began to hit her stride in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s. She married Bowden Broadwater, who catered to her love of gossip, often supplying the background for scenes that would become a part of The Group. During her marriage to Broadwater (1946-1961), she published three novels that reflect her critical and imaginative grasp of the canvas of American Life. The Oasis (1949) is a sharp, satiric portrayal of a utopia established by a group of intellectuals on a mountaintop. It reveals her witty grasp of group dynamics, of the way intellectuals feed upon and destroy one another as ideas are perverted by warring personalities. The Groves of Academe (1952) is another satire set in her favorite territory, a liberal arts college for women. Similarly, A Charmed Life (1955) takes place in an artist’s colony in which the putative creators become destroyers. In much of her fiction, McCarthy dramatizes the inability of intellectuals to sustain a cohesive community; the acid of their intellectuality seems to corrode their humanity.

The Group...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226267-Mccarthy_M.jpg Mary McCarthy Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Novelist, short-story writer, essayist, drama critic, and poet, Mary Therese McCarthy was born the first of four children to Therese Preston and Roy Winfield McCarthy on June 21, 1912, in Seattle, Washington. Although the first six years of her childhood were nurtured within her close-knit family, McCarthy’s life changed abruptly when her parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic.

For the next five years, McCarthy and her brothers were forced as orphans to live in a deceit-filled, irrational, abusive Minneapolis house. This atmosphere, as well as the never-mentioned death of her parents, conditioned McCarthy to detach from her emotions, to distrust others, to see herself as an outsider, and to avoid intimacy. She also learned to depend upon her Roman Catholic religion and her mind in order to survive. At eight years old, she began writing poetry. Satire became her weapon against despair.

The children were rescued in 1923 by their grandfather Preston; the boys were separated from their sister, who joined the Protestant Preston household before attending a Catholic boarding school, Forest Ridge Convent. Again, McCarthy was isolated. This isolation continued throughout her college preparatory education as she struggled to discover the means to acceptance. Exploring options that ranged from joining a convent to committing suicide, the adolescent repeatedly reinforced her self-antagonism by trying to conform. During McCarthy’s one year in a...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

McCarthy’s literary career was fraught with controversy. Her novels that earned the greatest public acclaim received the worst critical response. Nevertheless, through satire, she continued to fictionalize the people and the events in her life out of her fascination with human motivation.

Writing primarily about the intelligentsia, she has nevertheless managed to capture the imagination of the American public and the attention of honored American literary institutions. Her attention to detail, her painstaking research, her rapier wit, and her understated use of humorous devices fuse into a literary style uniquely her own.

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mary Therese McCarthy’s biography is unusually significant for understanding her fiction, since various clusters of biographical details seem to generate all her stories and characters. McCarthy’s childhood began in Seattle with a doting, extravagant mother and a romantic, imaginative father. Her early life was an eden of picnics, parties, and stories that ended abruptly in 1918, when the flu killed both her parents within the same week. McCarthy was then remanded to the harsh and punitive custody of her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Myers, but she survived in this new environment, which included beatings and deprivation, by excelling in school. These early triumphs led her to Vassar College, the crucible of her imaginative life and...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary Therese McCarthy was born into an affluent family of mixed Irish and Jewish heritage on June 21, 1912, in Seattle, Washington, and had a segmented childhood. After six years of what she called a “fairy-tale” existence of happiness, both parents died of influenza in 1918 during a move to Minneapolis. McCarthy and her three younger brothers, placed with their grandaunt and uncle, then entered a bleak phase of intense, strict Catholicism, which McCarthy described in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

In 1923, McCarthy’s grandparents moved her to a convent school in Seattle for the seventh and eighth grades; she spent her ninth grade year in a public school and then her remaining high school years at the...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Mary McCarthy was a gifted, controversial writer. Admired by many for her intellectual perception and blunt honesty, she also aroused intense dislike in those who felt the sting of her candor. She had been praised for her writing talent throughout school. After graduation from Vassar, she married Harold Johnsrud and moved to New York, where she began her career, writing reviews for magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic.

She was a demanding critic, analyzing each work without deference to the author’s reputation. She first came to the attention of the literary world in 1935 with a series of essays for The Nation, criticizing some of the most prominent book reviewers in the...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

Mary McCarthy Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most versatile and outspoken writers of the twentieth century, Mary Therese McCarthy was born in Seattle, Washington, on June 21, 1912. She was the first child and only daughter of Roy Winfield and Therese (Preston) McCarthy, who were married despite the strong opposition, mainly on religious grounds, of their parents. Roy was handsome, entertaining, and charming, although he was at times an invalid. His wife was a famous beauty and completely devoted to her husband and their four children.

In her memoirs, McCarthy described her early childhood as idyllic, but when she was six years old both parents died during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and that happy period of her life came to an abrupt, bewildering...

(The entire section is 949 words.)