How I Grew

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

In this collection of autobiographical sketches, most of which were published as separate pieces in magazines, Mary McCarthy extends the self-examination she began with her popular memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She assumes that readers of How I Grew will be familiar with at least the rough outlines of the childhood described in her earlier work: her pampered early days in Seattle, the death of her parents of influenza when she was six, the years of abuse she and her three brothers suffered at the hands of their guardians (a grandaunt and her husband), and her eventual rescue by her maternal grandparents. In the present volume, she describes the period following her return to Seattle, the years between thirteen and twenty-one, when she developed her identity as a thinking person. Earlier, as a result of the arbitrary, unpredictable behavior of the adults around her, she had made no attempt to “organize those painful experiences”; instead, she had retreated into dreaming. As she grew older, she was to use laughter as a way of dealing with her pain, but this, too, had its cost, as this work and her others show:Laughter is the great antidote for self-pity, maybe a specific for the malady. Yet probably it does tend to dry one’s feelings out a little, as if by exposing them to a vigorous wind. So that something must be subtracted from the compensation I seem to have received for injuries sustained. There is no dampness in my emotions, and some moisture, I think, is needed to produce the deeper, the tragic notes.

The organization of the work is roughly chronological. It begins with a chapter on her childhood reading, then moves on to her year at Garfield, a public high school, and three years at the Annie Wright Seminary, with an interlude recounting her first sexual experience—at fourteen—with a man nine years older than she. The second half of the book treats her years at Vassar College and her relationship with Harold Johnsrud, the young actor whom she married shortly after her graduation from college. This chronological plan suggests a tighter organization than the book really has. Within each chapter, McCarthy incorporates character sketches of teachers and acquaintances, notes on her reading, brief passages of self-examination, details of social activities and clothes, and comments addressed in nineteenth century fashion to “Reader.” At times the organizing principle seems to be free association; McCarthy occasionally has to draw herself forcibly back to the subject with which she began. While this narrative style establishes a casual, conversational relationship with her readers, it contributes to the impression that the book is a collection of fragments rather than a fully conceived autobiography. It is the reader’s task, rather than the writer’s, to pull together a rounded portrait of the young Mary from the details provided.

Perhaps the strongest impression that emerges is her essential solitude in the midst of a large circle of family members and acquaintances. In writing of her childhood, she makes note of “a crucial problem for my development, the real obstacle to the birth of a mind in my teeming brain—the fact that I had no friends.” She was gradually to make friends, but as she describes her life even they seem rather remote. Her grandparents belonged to a different, stricter generation. She recognized and valued their devotion to her, but she could not confide in them and early learned to lie to protect herself from their disapproval of her social activities. Her young Uncle Harold and his friends paid attention to her but were just enough older not to take her seriously. Her intelligence and her early experiences separated her from most of her schoolmates, and certainly the men in her life offered her little beyond sexual exploitation.

Perhaps this detachment from others can be at least partially attributed to the fact that she always felt herself to be an outsider, though she made a place for herself at each of her schools. Her family’s social position made her more privileged than most of her Garfield classmates but less so than the elite at Annie Wright; her Jewish and Irish blood, as well as her Western home, separated her from the New York and New England socialites of her Vassar “group.” While she expresses regret over her youthful snobbery and anti-Semitism (she repressed her Jewish ties, particularly during the Vassar years), she still, writing in her seventies, devotes a surprising amount of attention to the social status of her acquaintances, suggesting that the issue has never been fully resolved for her.

One way she sought acceptance within the various circles in which she found herself was in relationships, both real and fantasized, with men. First it was twenty-three-year-old Forrest Crosby, who initiated her into sexuality in the back of his roadster in the fall of her sophomore year at Annie Wright. Then she announced to her classmates that she was engaged to a friend of her Uncle Harold, a young college journalist named Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was fond of her and wrote to her regularly—she speculates that he enjoyed an audience for his writing and was genuinely interested in her intellectual development—but he planned to marry someone else. At sixteen she carried on a clandestine affair with a Seattle artist. She met Harold Johnsrud between her junior and senior years at Annie Wright and considered herself more or less engaged all through her four years at Vassar, though she dated others from time to time. In all these relationships she depicts herself as the weaker, exploited partner, though she also describes later encounters with both Sullivan and Crosby in which she takes considerable satisfaction in rejecting their advances.

Running parallel to this picture of a young woman craving social acceptance is the portrait of one growing intellectually into the future novelist, essayist, and critic. It is this theme that occasions the musings on her early reading in the first chapter and the frequent discussions of books and teachers throughout the work. Being “bright” was an essential part of her self-image from her earliest childhood, and she acknowledges that she must have used her...

(The entire section is 2552 words.)