Mary McCarthy (Magill's Literary Annual 1989)
Sooner or later, every writer, actor, politician, or other public figure seems to find a thoroughly sympathetic biographer. Mary McCarthy, who was treated less kindly in an earlier study by Doris Grumbach (The Company She Kept, 1967), has found such an advocate in Carol Gelderman, whose previous book was a life of automaker Henry Ford.
Mary McCarthy seemed to burst on the New York literary scene in the early 1930’s, fresh from Vassar College. Her earlier years, spent in Seattle and Minneapolis, receive only brief treatment in Gelderman’s book; McCarthy wrote memorably about her own childhood and adolescence in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), perhaps her most successful book, and in How I Grew (1987), and Gelderman wisely summarizes these years without trying to improve on McCarthy’s own account.
McCarthy and her three younger siblings were orphaned by the influenza epidemic in 1918, when she was six years old, and she spent the next seven years in Minneapolis with a harsh aunt and uncle before moving to a more congenial environment at her maternal grandparents’ home in Seattle, where she remained until she enrolled at Vassar at the age of seventeen. In college she made a strong impression on her teachers, who perceived her writing talent as well as her rebelliousness, although they did not foresee for her a career as a writer of fiction. At Vassar, she began to make firm contacts with the intellectual world of New York—especially theatrical and political circles—through her lover, the aspiring playwright Harold Johnsrud.
When she left Vassar, McCarthy considered herself to be ready for marriage and a career. Married to Johnsrud, she soon began to write for such journals as The Nation and The New Republic, gaining widespread notoriety for a series of articles attacking virtually all contemporary critics and reviewers. Almost by accident, she became attached to the somewhat amorphous group of radicals who constituted an anti-Stalinist Left in the New York political world. Having left Johnsrud, she lived for a while with Philip Rahv, one of the editors of a revived Partisan Review, a journal intended as a liberal-radical counterbalance to the pro-Soviet journals of the time. McCarthy was an editor of Partisan Review for a short time and wrote theatrical criticism for the magazine for many years.
In 1937, while living with Rahv, she began seeing Edmund Wilson, already the most famous of American literary critics, and early in 1938 the two were married. The marriage lasted through seven hectic and sometimes violent years, during which they established a home on Cape Cod, began rearing their only child, Reuel, and fought almost continually. Despite her separation from the New York literary scene, motherhood, and an unhappy marriage, with Wilson’s encouragement of her literary efforts, McCarthy wrote a number of stories during these years, several of which went to make up her first collection, The Company She Keeps (1942). Like much of her other fiction, it seemed to make sometimes scandalous use of her own experiences and her own friends and acquaintances.
Divorced from Wilson in 1945, she moved back to New York and resumed an independent career. She taught for brief periods at the progressive and experimental Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College, became involved in political battles once more, and began to make a career as a novelist, publishing The Oasis in 1949, as well as a collection of stories called Cast a Cold Eye in 1950. She attracted a considerable amount of attention with The Groves of Academe (1952), a harshly satiric fictional account of life among the faculty of a progressive college, much like those at which she had taught. In 1946, she married Bowden Broadwater.
Much of McCarthy’s life during the next decade was focused on the political struggles of the time. She was deeply involved in the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other organizations set up to counteract what was regarded as excessive Communist influence on writers and intellectuals. She became an important member of a circle of friends who shared mutual interests in literature and politics; others in the group included the brilliant and controversial political philosopher Hannah Arendt and her professor husband, Heinrich Blucher; the editor of the short-lived journal politics, Dwight Macdonald, and his second wife; and Nicola Chiaromonte, a refugee from Fascist Italy whose ideas on politics and literature strongly influenced McCarthy, especially in her admiration of the novels of Leo Tolstoy and her determination to regard skeptically all doctrines, psychological or political.
By the mid-1950’s, McCarthy had been asked by George and Rosamond Bernier, owners of a European publishing venture, to write a...
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Analysis (Magill Book Reviews)
The odds against publishing a successful account of McCarthy’s life must have seemed formidable to the author when she first approached her subject, “uninvited,” for permission to begin the task. McCarthy did indeed invite Gelderman for tea, but she was “uneasy with the idea of a biography of a living subject.” McCarthy was not only alive, but she also had written two partial autobiographies, MEMORIES OF A CATHOLIC GIRLHOOD, published in 1957, and, in 1987, HOW I GREW. To compound Gelderman’s problems, McCarthy is at present working to complete her life story. While McCarthy was “sympathetic” to the biographer’s request to speak to the principals of her story, she apparently did not submit to detailed questioning, and two friends who knew McCarthy well, Nicola Chiaromonte and Hannah Arendt, had already died. Finally, Gelderman’s only previous biography--on Henry Ford--could serve her only peripherally as a model for a subject so deeply involved in literary criticism and socio-cultural history.
Nevertheless, Gelderman’s book is a triumph of searching investigation, of good common sense, and--most admirable--of a secure grasp of the literary scene of the times, especially of the 1930’s. Like most commentators on McCarthy, Gelderman has to address the apparent contradiction between her subject’s abrasive writing and personal charm. Genial in social interaction, even vulnerably sensitive, McCarthy has been a loyal and generous friend to many...
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