Last Updated on December 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1905
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.
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.
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 exemplifies McCarthy’s expertise at delineating social manners and the ideas of her time. It is perhaps her most ambitious work because it essays an interpretation of a whole generation. Yet it has also been faulted for its shallow characterizations. One of her biographers, Carol Brightman, contends that only in memoirs such as Memories of a Catholic Girlhood was McCarthy able to concentrate on a character (herself) who grew over time and developed in depth and complexity.
Brightman also 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. Yet the fact that McCarthy stayed close to her real-life models also made the novels extraordinarily authentic as documents of their age, and her fiction remains valid as a brand of social history.
Perhaps because criticism by its nature does not demand warmth and charity (although some critics have been known to be kind), McCarthy’s scathing attacks have been accepted more readily in her criticism than in her fiction, where her assaults on intellectuals and opinion makers wear thin because human character seems to be manipulated merely to serve the points she wants to make. What the novels lack is psychological profundity, a certain mystery or ambiguity that would enliven and complicate her characters. Instead, too many of those characters are contemptible.
As a cultural and political critic, however, critics agree that McCarthy deserves a very high place in America literature. Her theater reviews, collected in Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956 (1956) and in Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962 (1963), demonstrate a discriminating, if severe, standard for American drama. They are often characterized as witty, a quality that often makes them more interesting than the plays they criticized.
McCarthy’s later works—particularly Vietnam (1967), Hanoi (1968), and The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974)—show her courage in taking on controversial political events. She was a fierce critic of the American government, and she opposed the Vietnam War and the policies created in its aftermath as steadfastly as she had castigated the hypocrisy of intellectuals. She also turned to fiction again in Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), an uneven novel about the hijacking of a plane carrying a motley group to the Shah’s Iran. Once again, McCarthy was focusing on the dynamics of group behavior, seeing in the group a metaphor for the politics that she saw pervading human interaction. Similarly, she continued to examine generational conflicts in her novel Birds of America (1971), which depicts the strained relations between a mother and her son.
Almost all of McCarthy’s writing has been about a clarification of values and an exposure of those who purvey false precepts. By the mid-1930’s, McCarthy had jettisoned a brief fascination with Marxism, realizing that Stalin’s Moscow trials (in which the founders of the Soviet state were accused of treason) were a sham and that the communists would not be able to deliver on their promise of a new and democratic free world based on human equality. When many writers of her generation persisted in their Stalinism, they confirmed her skeptical view of intellectuals and the dishonest uses to which they put their dialectical skills.
Less important are her travel books, Venice Observed (1956) and The Stones of Florence (1959), which show a more relaxed, appreciative side of McCarthy’s character. They are a product of her extensive travels, continued during her last and enduring marriage in 1961 to the diplomat James West. It was a happy union, but McCarthy was restless, constantly on the move from New York to Paris to Castine, Maine (where she and West had a summer home), to various parts of Italy, and to Saigon and Hanoi during the Vietnam War, when she made herself extremely unpopular with the U.S. government.
Her last autobiographical books, How I Grew (1987) and Intellectual Memories (1993), continue the story of Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, but they do not have that volume’s verve and do not rank with it as classics of American autobiography. Ideas and the Novel (1980) is an impressive recapitulation of her long-held views on the nature of fiction and its potential as an intellectual instrument.
Mary McCarthy was not a standard-definition feminist. She belonged to a generation growing up in the 1920’s and 1930’s that took for granted and ignored the advances achieved by late nineteenth and twentieth century feminists. As she moved beyond the college campus and the boundaries of conventional marriage, McCarthy sought her freedom in the city among intellectuals and bohemians. She was influenced by powerful male mentors, but she soon developed an independent viewpoint and outspoken positions on literary and political matters.
McCarthy would have disliked the tag woman writer, for like many of her generation she wanted to be considered a writer first and to be judged by her work, not by her sex. Yet her very ability to compete with and often surpass her male colleagues made an impact on other women, showing them what could be accomplished even in the fiercely competitive milieu of New York male intellectuals. She was an outsider, by virtue of her sex and her sharp tongue, yet she was a part of this group. This simultaneous inside/outside perspective of hers gave her great insight into how groups define themselves and choose their members. By virtue of her sex, she was a minority member, yet her superiority as a critic gave her an edge in assessing the peculiar characteristics of the group she had joined. Perhaps her greatest gift to women was to show that they could be thoroughly absorbed in the culture of their times and yet remain intact and independent.
Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992. A full-length, sensitive, well-balanced account of McCarthy’s life and work. A friend of McCarthy, Brightman is very sympathetic toward her subject, but she does not overlook the faults of her work and her character. A biographical glossary, extensive notes, and an index are included.
Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Written with McCarthy’s cooperation, this is a solid and reliable full-length biography. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. A View of My Own: Essays in Literature and Society. New York: Noonday Press, 1963. Contains a chapter on McCarthy which is an excellent, succinct appraisal of her character and her work by a close friend.
McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966. An introductory study with chapters on McCarthy’s life, intellectual development, fiction, and nonfiction. Includes a chronology, notes, an annotated bibliography, and an index.
Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. A long biographical and critical essay emphasizing McCarthy’s fiction. A selected bibliography is included.
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