Mary McCarthy is best known for her astringent critical writing and her best-selling novel The Group (1963). She often reviewed films and plays and was notorious for her demolition jobs. In private life, she had an equally sharp tongue that made her a fearsome presence in the New York literary scene. She was also a much admired debunker of the fashionable and facile products of American culture. It is a tribute to Carol Brightman’s biography—winner of the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography/Autobiography—that she maintains sympathy for her subject without stinting in her discussion of McCarthy’s darker and less appealing sides.
McCarthy’s earliest years took their color from her charming alcoholic father and her devoted, beautiful mother. This secure childhood in Seattle, in the home of a father who apparently had reformed for love of his wife and in 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 a niggardly life in Minneapolis, taken care of by relatives who apparently pocketed much of the money intended for the support of Mary and her brother Kevin.
In her memoirs of these years, McCarthy 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 showed early evidence of an intense interest in literature but no remarkable talent until the mid-1930’s, after a series of affairs that culminated in a short marriage to theater director Harold Johnsrud, a liaison with critic Philip Rahv, and a second marriage to Edmund Wilson, the dean of American literary critics.
In retrospect, McCarthy would claim that she had never loved Wilson, that it was his promise to support her writing career, his faith in her ability to write fiction, and his overpowering demand that marriage was the only way they could live together that decided her. Certainly she would regret her abandonment of Rahv, a caustic literary critic and founder, along with William Phillips, of the Partisan Review, a left-wing but anti-Stalinist journal that Wilson disparaged as the “Partisansky Review” in a swipe at Rahv’s Russian ancestry. 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, Trotskyists, and so on. Rahv seemed to love McCarthy for herself, a quality she evidently found rare in the men attracted to her.
Wilson proved to be a brutal husband, beating McCarthy (especially when he had been drinking) and denying her access to her own money (a family inheritance), which he insisted on having deposited into his own account. The stormy marriage ended as the couple bickered over their son Reuel, with Wilson alleging that McCarthy was mentally unstable, a charge he would repeat in his diaries and that would continue to bedevil her in later years.
McCarthy began to hit her stride in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, marrying a younger man, Bowden Broadwater. He catered to her love of gossip, often supplying the background for scenes that would become a part of The Group, McCarthy’s savage and witty rendering of her college years at Vassar that stood atop the best-seller list for two years. The novel showed McCarthy’s expertise at delineating social manners and the ideas of the times, but it also was faulted for its shallow characterizations. Brightman contends that only in her memoirs was McCarthy able to concentrate on a character (herself) who grew over time and developed in depth and complexity.
Brightman suggests that McCarthy was adept at fastening on real-life characters, exaggerating and combining the aspects of several personalities, dressing them up in fiction, so to speak, but ultimately proving unable to transcend her real-life models, who often recognized themselves and were hurt by her biting sarcasm. McCarthy thus failed the test of the greatest novelists: She could not create transcendent characters, selves independent of their creator and their roots in reality.
As a cultural and political critic, however, McCarthy deserves a very high place, in Brightman’s estimation. By the mid-1930’s, McCarthy had jettisoned a brief fascination with Marxism, realizing...
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