Mary McCarthy Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The most prominent woman among what came to be called the New York intellectuals, notorious for her acerbic tongue and for rather stormy relations with her male colleagues, McCarthy brought great vigor and insight and an uncompromising set of standards to American criticism and fiction.

Early Life

Mary Therese McCarthy’s earliest years took their color from her charming alcoholic father and her devoted, beautiful mother. Her secure childhood in Seattle, in the home of a father who had apparently reformed for love of his wife, and within 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 live in Minneapolis, taken care of by relatives who apparently pocketed most of the funds intended for the support of Mary and her brother Kevin. She describes this period with chilling effectiveness in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957).

In her memories of her earliest years, McCarthy would 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 demonstrated an intense interest in literature at Vassar College (she was graduated in 1933) but no remarkable talent. She first found work as a book reviewer for The Nation and The New Republic, but it was not until the mid-1930’s, after a series of affairs which culminated in a short marriage to theater director Harold Johnsrud and a liaison with the critic Philip Rahv, that she began to develop her own literary style and point of view.

These male figures served as mentors, especially the truculent Rahv, one of the editors of The Partisan Review, which was arguably the most influential intellectual journal of its time. The journal had begun as a Marxist, pro-Soviet organ, but by the late 1930’s it had adopted an anti-Stalinist position and championed the work of the great modernist writers. In this feisty, combative milieu, McCarthy honed her skills as drama editor and critic, exciting the interest of Edmund Wilson, the dean of American literary critics. McCarthy’s stormy marriage to Wilson lasted eight years (1938-1946). With his encouragement, she wrote her first fiction, The Company She Keeps (1942), an incisive portrayal of a bohemian, intellectual young woman.

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, Trotskyites, and so on. Yet Rahv seemed to love McCarthy for herself, a quality she evidently found rare in the men who were attracted to her.

Life’s Work

Mary McCarthy is best known for her astringent critical writing and her best-selling novel The Group (1963), which details the lives and sexual affairs of eight Vassar College graduates. She often reviewed films and plays and was notorious for her negative reviews. In private life, she had an equally sharp tongue that made her a fearsome presence on the New York literary scene. She was also a much-admired debunker of the fashionable and facile products of American culture.

McCarthy began to hit her stride in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s. She married Bowden Broadwater, who catered to her love of gossip, often supplying the background for scenes that would become a part of The Group. During her marriage to Broadwater (1946-1961), she published three novels that reflect her critical and imaginative grasp of the canvas of American Life. The Oasis (1949) is a sharp, satiric portrayal of a utopia established by a group of intellectuals on a mountaintop. It reveals her witty grasp of group dynamics, of the way intellectuals feed upon and destroy one another as ideas are perverted by warring personalities. The Groves of Academe (1952) is another satire set in her favorite territory, a liberal arts college for women. Similarly, A Charmed Life (1955) takes place in an artist’s colony in which the putative creators become destroyers. In much of her fiction, McCarthy dramatizes the inability of intellectuals to sustain a cohesive community; the acid of their intellectuality seems to corrode their humanity.

The Group...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)