Mary McCarthy Essay - McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 1)

McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 1)

McCarthy, Mary 1912–

American novelist, short story writer, and critic, Miss McCarthy is the author of The Group. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Good] people, helpless or otherwise, are not in Mary McCarthy's line. Neither, for that matter, are bad ones; she seems to me quite indifferent to the ordinary moral categories. Like any good satirist, she creates her own heaven and hell. In the world of Mary McCarthy all activities are equally absurd, all people equally ridiculous…. At first glance, nothing distinguishes the saint from the sinner. There is, however, one traditional virtue which never stimulates Miss McCarthy to suspicion and ridicule—and that is honesty, the will to face the truth about oneself, the desire and ability to be critical of one's own motives. This kind of honesty is, of course, an "intellectual" virtue, presupposing as it does an unusual degree of analytic power. Which is precisely the point: the major distinction Miss McCarthy makes with regard to people, the only distinction that has force and reality to her, is between the intelligent and the stupid. But the intelligent are not those who have read many books or who are always concerned with ideas. They are the people who refuse to harbor illusions about themselves, who are vigilant and severe in flaying the self-deception out of their souls.

Of this virtue Miss McCarthy's heroines are always possessed…. [But] the more a Mary McCarthy heroine knows about herself, the less she is able to control her actions…. She is driven by impulses that seem to have no relation to what she feels herself to be. To take the most salient example—and the most frequently recurring situation in Miss McCarthy's work—the heroine never goes willingly to bed with a man; she always "finds herself" in bed with someone she dislikes and often hates….

In general, it might be said that [Miss McCarthy's heroines] dramatize the disjunction—or rather, the hostility—between Reason and Impulse. This is Miss McCarthy's true subject, a theme which underlies her satirical castigations, which calls forth all her famous brilliance, which gives point to her acerbity, and depth to her apparently gratuitous bitterness. She has seen the special relevance of the idea for the contemporary world.

Norman Podhoretz, "Gibbsville and New Leeds" (1956), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 76-87.

There is a profoundly conservative side to Mary McCarthy, which has been there from the beginning and which has gone largely unnoticed—perhaps because she has always been considered a product of the radical-bohemian milieu that used to center around Partisan Review. It is a conservatism that takes many forms (including the unseemly fascination with upper-class life she exhibits [in The Group]), but it flows ultimately from an ineluctable skepticism about the ability of people to control their own destinies by force of will and idea. Show Mary McCarthy a person with spiritual or moral aspirations—a type she delights to write about—and her eye will immediately and unerringly fly to the discrepancy between these high aspirations and the meanness of his natural impulses. Show Mary McCarthy a person venturing to transcend himself or to overcome the limitations of his background, and she will give you back a contemptible poseur—or a pathetic one, if her mood is benevolent. Show Mary McCarthy an ideal, and she will read you a lecture on Original Sin.

This skepticism of hers goes hand in hand with a sentimental belief in the possibility of saintliness—that is, goodness that comes naturally, as though by Divine Grace. Most Mary McCarthy characters are bad, but, like the little girls in the nursery rhyme, when they are good, they are very very good. So it has been in all her novels and stories, and so it is in The Group.

Norman Podhoretz, "Miss McCarthy and the Leopard's Spots" (1963), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 87-93.

Almost every description of Mary McCarthy's fiction includes such terms as "honest," "intellectual," "savage," "witty," "satiric," or "dispassionate." Notwithstanding the dangers inherent in attaching labels to a writer, it is certainly accurate to point out that Miss McCarthy reflects all of these qualities, and that her reputation as a writer is based as much on her relentless pursuit of these traits as it is on the purely external trappings of her novels and stories…. In one sense, she is not even a novelist; the autobiographical content and extraneous padding found in some of her books would appear to place her in a category all her own, that of a highly intelligent woman reflecting upon her own past life, and able, through some kind of near-total recall, to incorporate such nostalgic glimpses into highly competent short stories, some of which are expanded, printed, and sold as novels….

Miss McCarthy has something in her fiction for almost everybody, but all …, I believe, would agree in describing her approach to writing as reflective of the Modern American Bitch. The best term to describe her particular approach to writing, however, is dissection; ruthlessly, she cuts beneath the layers of accumulated social pretense and hypocrisy, to the core of contemporary man and woman. Lying thus, naked to the marrow, that man and woman become experiments in which Miss McCarthy attempts to determine why certain patterns of behavior occur; but after the dissection, it is no wonder that the pieces rarely fit together well enough to make a recognizable human being again. Her interest, then, is not in human beings qua human beings, but as objects from which a better understanding of human psychology and physiology can be derived….

It might legitimately be asked, then, whether or not Miss McCarthy is really a novelist. Her dependence on autobiographical or semi-autobiographical materials is not in itself a deficiency (although one wonders whether she could write a novel not based on events in her own life), but her technique is. Her enormous vocabulary and erudition show on every page; indeed, scarcely a page appears without some italicized French phrase or esoteric term. But this witty, highly intelligent fondness for words for their own sake sometimes makes of a relatively short narrative a book of several hundred pages. Her treatment of characters, with rare exceptions, serves as a pulpit or platform from which she can lecture on some evil in humanity or some cause célèbre with which she is no longer personally involved. Indeed, so cavalier is she with characters, even central ones, that she disposes of them in the best deus ex machina fashion; when all else fails, kill them off; it's neater that way, and it saves her the chore of figuring out some logical means of ending the novel….

Despite the intellectualism, the clarity of insight into character, the satire of others' foibles, the dispassionate wit of her books, they ultimately lack a foundation, perhaps a moral foundation, on which great art must be based. Without this foundation, Miss McCarthy's novels are as ultimately sterile and animalistic as, say, the world Lear saw (the parallel is obvious) when he shouted, "Let copulation thrive!" Or, in other words, dissection sometimes requires more than enthusiasm and a sharp knife.

Paul Schlueter, "The Dissections of Mary McCarthy" (© 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore, Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 54-62.

The drive of a yang intellect emphasizes the essential femininity of Mary McCarthy's work, though it is a pity that The Group found so big an audience—by reason of its supposed sensationalism—among readers unqualified to appreciate the brilliance of The Company She Keeps and The Groves of Academe. The Group spoke with utter frankness about the sexual needs and aspirations of a clique of educated American women: one awed male critic has said that Miss McCarthy has done for the contraceptive what Melville did for the whale. We meet in her a new, very contemporary, phenomenon—the woman who sacrifices nothing of her female birthright when competing with, and often trouncing, men on their chosen ground of intellectual assertion.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 123-24.

[Though] all [of Mary McCarthy's] novels are not equally successful, each has so much life and truth, and is written in a prose so spare, vigorous, and natural, and yet at the same time so witty, graceful, and, in a certain way, poetic, that it becomes a matter for wonder that she is not generally named among the finest American novelists of her period…. The reason, I think, is that she is a sort of neoclassicist in a country of romantics. The sprightliness and detachment of her prose, her preference for sense over sensibility, her satirical eye for the hidden ego in our intellectual pretensions are qualities we are not comfortable with in this country. (p. 5)

Her novels have been called "essayistic," for instance—designed to persuade us of ideas rather than to present living characters and felt experiences…. [But whenever] her characters express ideas, something of more urgent human interest is also going on, whether they know it or not. And though her novels, like most of those which are nowadays taken seriously, are meaningfully organized, it is no simple polemical formula that turns out to be their meaning. It is rather the kind of vision, precisely the novelist's, which moves us, which enlarges our sympathies, and which brings us closer to a complex reality. The fact is, if one remembers her novels freshly at all, it is surely characters and not ideas which their titles bring first to mind. (pp. 5-6)

As for [the not uncommon charge] that she is a heartless satirist whose chief interest is to demonstrate her own superiority to the silliness of her victims—this is just as mistaken. While she does indeed make characters out of people she regards as morally weak or ugly or dangerous, and makes them with a bold thrust toward grotesque extremes that recalls another writer she admires, Dickens, the norms of sense or decency which such people violate are equally vivid in her novels. We see these norms both in the passionate indignation between her lines and in the large number of her characters who cannot live without struggling toward them or becoming their champions. In fact, it is precisely one of her distinctions that she has succeeded in creating good people—even out of twentieth-century intellectuals!—who are at once convincing and attractive. (pp. 6-7)

Her work is about the painful mixed blessing of freedom for her kind of people—for intellectuals—and in particular, about how hard it has been for intellectuals in our time to behave decently and humanly. For to be free and clever has often meant only to be able to escape from difficult, limiting reality into the realm of flattering abstractions. And yet … if she shows what makes her kind go wrong, she shows just as vividly what makes them go right. She shows that sometimes, even in intellectuals free to please themselves, there arises a love for reality that is greater than love of self. This development, because it means that the self must be willing to suffer for something it values more than its own ease, can be one of the moving and beautiful events of a human life—it can be heroic. At any rate, the conflict between these two tendencies of the mind is at the center of all Miss McCarthy's novels. (p. 9)

The Group (1963) was Miss McCarthy's first best seller, but to many critics it was an embarrassing failure. There were two main objections to the book. The first was that it exhibited a descent, surprising in so "intellectual" a writer, to the preoccupations and the language of women's magazines. The second was that its characters were "dummies," all alike and all created merely to be "humiliated." Now it is true that the success of the book is not uniform throughout, but to speak of that kind of "descent" was possible only to those who took literally what was intended as irony, who ascribed to the author preoccupations and language of which the whole point is that they testify to the limitations of the characters…. Where each previous novel had been about some problem of a committed intellectual (though her heroines did indeed yearn toward the more centrally human), The Group is about the characteristic attitudes and life patterns of a whole social class, as shown in the loves, jobs, marriages, and housekeeping, as well as the clichés of thought and language, of a group of more or less ordinary girls.

To this one must immediately add, however, that the girls in her group are upper-middle-class college graduates of the thirties, which is to say they belong to a species one of whose main characteristics is a pride in keeping up with advanced ideas. In fact, these girls are a suitable subject for their author because their chief problem is another version of Miss McCarthy's permanent problem: the danger to the emotional and moral life, when the guidance of family ties and traditions has disappeared, of the freedom to live by ideas. (pp. 35-6)

Irvin Stock, in his Mary McCarthy ("University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers," No. 72), University of Minnesota Press, © 1968 (and in Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Scribner's, © 1973).

Before she can bring her armoury of reading lists, class rituals, eating habits and language into play, Miss McCarthy has to credit the reader with a degree of superior knowingness. You, she seems to say, will see how trivial or pretentious these attitudes are. Since her readership must be largely composed of the kind of people who inhabit her books, she involves herself in a paradox, flattering our intellectual snobbery on the one hand, and attacking it on the other. She makes accomplices of us all, inviting us to watch her characters make fools of themselves from a height of unearned and vicarious sophistication. At the same time one is forced to admit that a major aspect of modern culture has been catalogued with deadly accuracy. As a novelist of manners, Miss McCarthy manages to touch the pulse of the dominant social class of her time, but she often raises a secondary question: can she be accused of cheating in her performance?

Jonathan Raban, in his The Technique of Modern Fiction, Edward Arnold, 1968, p. 100.

[Mary McCarthy] is not a serious novelist, and I doubt that she takes herself seriously as a novelist. She is one of our most valuable journalists: her reports, criticisms and appreciations are those of an intelligent and knowledgeable witness who is independent of intellectual fashion almost as often as not; but as a novelist she has neither the resources nor the inclination to be independent….

Mary McCarthy, as her essays and autobiographies show both by their explicit content and by the quality of their prose, is neither indifferent nor insensitive to the art of writing; she is not one to prefer H. G. Wells to Henry James; but when she writes novels you'd think she was. Her characters are little more than allegorical representations of attitudes, values, cultures, points of view, ways of life; the situations in which she puts them serve chiefly as occasions for debate; their conversations, being debates, are of a kind that kills parties and novels; and the novels are little more than series of such debates…. Mary McCarthy seems to write novels just as a way of blowing off steam.

J. Mitchell Morse, in Hudson Review, Autumn, 1971, pp. 529-31.