Study Guide

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

by Mary McCarthy

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the most deeply passionate of McCarthy’s published writings, is a moving chronicle of her early years, through her adolescence. Beginning her account with a careful, italicized address to the reader, the author sets the tone for the following eight chapters by philosophizing that “to care for the quarrels of the past . . . is to experience a kind of straining against reality, a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America.” Although this was written within the context of discussing the merits of Catholic education, it is also a skillful summary of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, her other writings, and her life.

Discriminating between what she remembers but cannot be corroborated, what has been corroborated, and what is in conflict with her memories, McCarthy painstakingly pieces together the fragments of her early history. Following each chapter except the last, she acknowledges, again in italicized print, the substantiations and the contradictions to her story. This technique imbues Memories of a Catholic Girlhood with an almost indisputable credibility.

Although McCarthy’s presentation is essentially chronological, as with all memories, there occurs an associational movement back and forth in time. Gradually the full picture emerges. Recollections of a favored beginning reveal a period of delightful surprises and unconditional love. Her father, at home because of a chronic heart problem, was an irrepressibly joyful companion. Both parents, deeply in love and married against their families’ wishes, willingly shared that love with their children.

The flu epidemic in 1918 raged through her family when her father’s parents withheld his monthly stipend...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy collected eight memoirs that she had previously published in magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. Her introductory chapter, “To the Reader,” describes her hope to create as accurate a record as possible of her role in her family’s history, from early childhood until she attended Vassar. In fact, she frequently attempted to check the facts that appeared in the articles with another source. However, as an orphan “the chain of recollection—the collective memory of a family—has been broken.” Thus, she compares herself and her brother, Kevin, to archaeologists who search for scraps of information to reconstruct events and discover motives to explain the events of their childhood.

McCarthy’s parents, Roy McCarthy and Therese Preston, both came from wealthy families. Her father’s family were Irish Catholics; she described the men as handsome, imagining they had once been “wreckers,” plundering ships that foundered off the shore of Nova Scotia. Her mother’s parents represented two separate cultural backgrounds. Harold Preston was a well-to-do Episcopalian; he worked as a lawyer. Augusta Morgenstern was a Jewish beauty. In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, McCarthy seeks to find her place in this varied group.

She recalls her early childhood as idyllic. Although her father was at times irresponsible with money, the home was...

(The entire section is 462 words.)