Mary McCarthy’s exceptional skill as a writer won her immediate recognition. An essay she wrote for the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) was published anonymously in a CEEB journal of the early 1930’s as an example of a high-scoring essay. Recognition for her excellence includes the 1949 Horizon literary prize for The Oasis (1949), an O. Henry short-story prize in 1957 for “Yellowstone Park,” and in 1984 both the National Medal of Literature and the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contributions to literature. McCarthy, a Guggenheim Fellow in both 1949 and 1959, was a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters from 1960 until her death. Recognized for her astute observation of literary works, she was a judge for a number of fiction awards, including the Prix Formentor, the Booker Prize, and the National Book Award.
McCarthy’s own writing style is classic: her sentences, architectural structures of balance and cadence; her rebellious point of view, a rainbow prism of satiric wit. The typical McCarthy story is realistic and satirical, revealing the self-deception of the supposedly intelligent and well educated. Her fiction is peopled with veiled portraits of those whom she knew well. Critical opinion tends to cast each of McCarthy’s husbands, except James Raymond West, as the model for one or more of her male “antagonists”: Harold Johnsrud for Harald Peterson in The Group and the husband in “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment”; Edmund Wilson for Miles Murphy in A Charmed Life (1955) and a legion of short-story husbands; and Bowden Broadwater for John Sinnot in A Charmed Life and a young American in “The Cicerone.” Generally, McCarthy’s characters are viewed ironically from a vantage point of cool detachment.