Mary McCarthy

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Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1942)

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SOURCE: "Bad Company," in The New Republic, Vol. CVI, No. 21, May 25, 1942, p. 737.

[A prominent American critic, Cowley made several valuable contributions to contemporary letters with his editions of important American authors (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner), his writings for the New Republic, and above all, his chronicles and criticism of modern American literature. In the following review, he concedes that "The Company She Keeps is not a likable book, nor is it very well put together, but it has the still unusual quality of having been lived. "]

In the first episode of The Company She Keeps, the heroine deceives and deserts her husband for no reason, apparently, except that she loves a dramatic situation. Her moment of rapture comes when she tells him what she is doing. "They walked out of the restaurant together and through the streets, hand in hand, tears streaming 'unchecked,' she whispered to herself, down their faces."

In the second episode, she is working for an art dealer who would like to swindle his customers and live outside the law, but who is forced by circumstances to be a moderately honest man. Of all the characters in the book, he is the only one she unaffectedly likes.

In the third episode, she gets herself seduced by a man in a Brooks Brothers shirt whom she doesn't like at all, but who gives her "a feeling of uniqueness and identity," not to mention a rather pleasant sense of self-sacrifice. "Quickly she helped him take off the black dress, and stretched herself out on the berth like a slab of white lamb on an altar."

In the fourth episode, she goes to dinner at a house where each of the guests has been selected, not for what he is, but for what he might be taken to represent. "Tonight there was John Peterson, who stood for criticism and also for official Communism. There was Jim Berolzheimer, a bright young man in one of the great banking houses, who represented capitalism, and his wife who painted pictures and was going to have a baby, and was therefore both art and motherhood." The heroine represents Trotskyism, and dutifully plays her part like everybody else.

In the fifth episode, she has a very brief affair with a liberal journalist from Yale, and it changes his whole career. Long afterwards, when he is drawing a big salary from Fortune, he gets tight at a party and tries to explain what she had meant to him. "Oh, thank you," she says, widening her eyes. "I'll have a brass plaque made to hang around my neck, saying, 'Jim Barnett slept here'."

The book so far has been a comedy of life among the New York intellectuals—clever and wicked, but not quite wickedly clever; psychologically acute, but never seeming to go much below the surface. The characters have had a peculiar air of coming from nowhere, having no relatives and believing in nothing, as if their well cut opinions were delivered in a box with their clothes. Like the guests at poor Pflaumen's party, each of them is acting out an assigned role—the Liberal Editor, the Party Liner, the Publisher Who Flirts with His Authors, the Girl on the Make—but although they gesture with animation and often convince their audience, they never convince themselves. And the heroine who keeps such bad company is perhaps the worst of the lot—the most snobbish and affected and spiteful, the least certain that she has any personality of her own or even exists outside the book...

(This entire section contains 1162 words.)

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she keeps rewriting.

In the sixth and last episode, she is married again, this time to a prosperous architect, and is enjoying the well deserved luxury of a nervous breakdown. Lying on a couch in a psychoanalyst's study, she tells the story of her life. We hadn't even known that it was a puzzle, but now the pieces are fitted together, and the picture that emerges is a little different from anything we had been expecting.

It seems that her mother had died when Meg Sargent was still a little girl. Her father, a successful Oregon lawyer and a Protestant, had left her in care of her mother's piously Catholic sister, who made her feel like a prisoner in the second story of the big family house. Meg believed, however, that she was being justly punished for some innate fault, and she continued to love her father, even though she regarded him as her jailer. At the age of fifteen, she rebelled. She quarreled with her aunt, left the Church and came East to school, where she established a totally new life for herself; and yet in her heart she never believed it was real. Always she was trying desperately to recapture the pattern of her childhood.

After this story told in the psychoanalyst's study, the five earlier episodes assume a different meaning; they are now something more than a comedy of bad manners. Meg had deserted her first husband not only because she loved a dramatic situation but also because he was too forgiving, and because she had to do something violent to justify her lasting sense of guilt. She sympathized with the art dealer because she pictured herself in the same ambiguous relationship to society. The man in the Brooks Brothers shirt was like her father; that was why she obeyed him and then ran away. Pflaumen's parties, with their falseness, were the symbol of her life in New York. Her motive for despising the liberal journalist was that she knew him too well; his middle-class opinions were essentially her own.

But although the heroine accepts this diagnosis, she does not confuse it with a cure. She feels at the end of the novel that the mind is powerless to save her; only men could do that. "Now for the first time she saw her own extremity, saw that it was some failure in self-love that obliged her to snatch blindly at the love of others, hoping to love herself through them. . . . And yet, she thought, walking on, she could still detect her own frauds." It is this scrupulous honesty toward herself and others that is the redeeming side of her character.

It is also the redeeming side of a novel that would otherwise be only one unit in the long production line of stories about young provincials adrift in Paris or London or New York. All these books set out to tell the truth, but few of them succeed. Miss McCarthy has learned the difficult art of setting down everything as it might have happened, without telling a single self-protective lie and without even failing, in the midst of a seduction, to mention the safety pin that holds up the heroine's badly mended underwear. The Company She Keeps is not a likable book, nor is it very well put together, but it has the still unusual quality of having been lived.


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McCarthy, Mary 1912-1989

(Full name Mary Therese McCarthy) American novelist, short story writer, and critic.

Considered one of America's most eminent intellectuals, McCarthy was renowned for her outspokenness and her opposition to what she perceived as hypocrisy. She rose to prominence in the 1930s as part of a group of New York City intellectuals that included Edmund Wilson Philip Rahv, and Lillian Hellman, and became known for her commitment to political issues. McCarthy's writing—both fiction and non-fiction—is characterized by a spare, elegant style but also by a caustic wit that earned her both high praise and notoriety. For literary inspiration she drew from her life and from the lives of friends and acquaintances, and she made little effort to disguise her sources. Some of her stories shocked contemporary audiences with their sexual candor, and the fact that her subject matter was known to be autobiographical made McCarthy herself into something of a legendary figure. Favoring the presentation of ideas through fiction, she used her sometimes merciless character portraits to dig deeply into the philosophical basis underlying behavior and attitudes.

Biographical Information

Born in Seattle, McCarthy was orphaned at the age of six when her parents died after contracting an illness while in the process of relocating the family to Minneapolis. She spent several years in the care of abusive relatives, an experience she later recounted in the much-praised memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Rescued from her plight by sympathetic grandparents living in Seattle, Mc-Carthy attended schools in the Northwest and eventually became an aspiring young writer studying at Vassar College, which she entered in 1929. This second phase of her life has been described in How I Grew, which some have called her intellectual autobiography. In 1933 McCarthy graduated and moved to New York City, where she quickly became a professional writer whose essays and sometimes scathing reviews appeared in many respected publications, including the New Republic, Nation, and Partisan Review. Her work at the Nation earned McCarthy some recognition. She joined the staff of the Partisan Review in 1937, where she worked as editor until the next year, continuing to contribute drama criticism for several years thereafter. It was during this time that McCarthy came to know the noted literary figures Edmund Wilson (who became her second husband), Philip Rahv, and Lillian Hellman, among others.

McCarthy began writing fiction at the encouragement of Wilson, shortly after their marriage in 1938. On one occasion he confined his wife to a room until she produced something, and in this manner she wrote her first short story, "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment." McCarthy's first book came about when she noticed a relationship between several stories that she had originally written separately. She worked these stories into a unified framework, and the result was The Company She Keeps. McCarthy's marriage to Wilson was tempestuous from the start, and it ended in divorce after seven years. Scenes from their marriage served as inspiration for short stories even while she still lived with Wilson, and later became material used in her novels. McCarthy taught for a short time at Bard College but resigned in order to devote more time to writing. By 1955 she had published the novella The Oasis, the short story collection Cast a Cold Eye, and two novels. Her early works received considerable attention in literary circles and established McCarthy as a writer with a keen critical sense and as a social satirist who focused on the intellectual elite. But it was The Group, a novel about eight Vassar girls in the 1930s, that became a bestseller in the U.S. and abroad, earning McCarthy much wider recognition than than she had enjoyed previously.

In the late 1960s McCarthy interrupted a novel in progress to take action against the Vietnam war. She visited Southeast Asia twice, travelling to Saigon in 1967 and to Hanoi in 1968. Her essays based on these trips were later collected in her books Vietnam and Hanoi. Medina, a third book of essays about the war, addresses the trial of the U.S. army captain in command of the soldiers who massacred South Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai in 1968. McCarthy also wrote about the Watergate scandal in Masks of State. She continued to publish essays and memoirs even as her health failed in the 1980s. She died of cancer in 1989.

Major Works of Short Fiction

McCarthy published her first short stories in the Southern Review and in the Partisan Review between 1939 and 1941. She then assembled these stories into The Company She Keeps, which is ostensibly a novel, by weaving the same female protagonist through them. Some of the individual chapters are among her best short fiction. "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt" is the tale of a woman aboard a train to Reno, where she will divorce her husband. She meets a man in the club car and gets drunk with him. Waking the next morning, the woman thinks nothing has happened, then remembers in a rush having had humiliating sex with him. This has all the hallmarks of McCarthy's style—unflinching narration of deeply intimate material, often involving characters who are spiritually or psychologically adrift. William Peden has described the female protagonist of these stories in this way: "Shrewd, perceptive, intelligent, supercilious, arrogant, uncertain beneath her cockiness, coldly analytical, always the insider viewing outsiders with disdain yet simultaneously 'always wanting something exciting and romantic to happen,' Margaret is the new woman, a women's libber two decades before the term came into everyday speech." The short fiction in Cast a Cold Eye shares the bleak, disenchanting quality of the stories in The Company She Keeps. "The Weeds" is the grim portrait of a wife who fails to leave a stifling marriage. Set on a train in Italy, "The Cicerone" tells of a young American couple who meet up with an Italian gentleman. The Italian seems to detest them, but nevertheless refuses to leave them alone. They are unable to communicate clearly with him—partially because of his uncertain grasp of English, partially because the two parties have too little in common—and their failure leaves them with a dismal emptiness. The stories comprising the second half of Cast a Cold Eye are memoirs that were later included in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. These are perhaps McCarthy's most effective short stories. "Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?" and "The Tin Butterfly" have been praised for an emotional depth unmatched in most of McCarthy's fiction. The novella The Oasis satirizes a failed Utopian experiment set in New York. Readers readily recognized this work as a thinly veiled account of the individuals and experiences that McCarthy herself observed while participating in the founding of a commune started by intellectuals.

Critical Reception

Voicing an objection that has been directed at McCarthy's writing as a whole, several reviewers of The Oasis complained that McCarthy was preoccupied with intellectuals and their ideas. Nevertheless, most discussions of her short fiction has revolved around debate about the appeal of her literary style. In a review of Cast a Cold Eye, George Miles attributed both heartlessness and a detached analytical manner to the author when he spoke of her as "the psychologist and the executioner." Similarly, Jeffrey Walker has remarked that "The reader is aware of McCarthy's own cold eye in presenting these stories of social relationships. . . . All reveal the coldness of their central characters and form a satiric indictment of urban relationships." Ultimately, approval of McCarthy's writing style appears to depend heavily on personal preference, with critics seemingly split on the issue. The Company She Keeps was subject to the same dispute about artistic merit as Cast a Cold Eye. In addition, numerous commentators have taken issue with the book's dubious classification as a novel, finding the individual chapters much more effective when considered independent narratives.

Christopher Isherwood (essay date 1942)

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SOURCE: "Her Name Is Legion," in The Nation, Vol. 154, June 20, 1942, p. 714.

[Isherwood is an English-born man of letters who is known for his largely autobiographical accounts of pre-Nazi Berlin and for his detached, humorous observations on human nature and manners. As a young man during the 1930s, he was a member of the Marxist-oriented Oxford group of poets that included Stephen Spender and W. H. Auden. In the following review, Isherwood questions McCarthy's artistic intention in The Company She Keeps but nevertheless hails the six portraits that comprise the volume.]

The publishers' somewhat pretentious synopsis and Miss McCarthy's amusing foreword unintentionally do their best to mislead us as to the character of [The Company She Keeps]. So let us begin with a synopsis of our own.

The Company She Keeps is divided into six episodes. The first, "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment," describes, with the disgusted objectivity of a dyspeptic anthropologist, the various stages of an adultery which lead to divorce and the decision not to marry the other man. Neither the girl, the husband, nor the lover is given a name; passion is purely algebraical; the authoress unfolds her theme with the gusto of a scientist developing a favorite thesis. The result is brilliant and highly convincing, but it is the weakest thing in the book.

In "Rogue's Gallery" we meet Mr. Sheer, a dealer in doubtful antiques, who gives the girl her first job. (This episode is, of course, a flashback to Margaret's earlier pre-marital life.) Mr. Sheer, with his debts and deceits and baroque imagination, is quite somebody. We see far too little of him. Miss McCarthy could easily have expanded this portrait into a short novel. That she has not done so shows either the folly of a literary spendthrift or the liberality of vast inventive wealth. Here is a figure who might have stood beside the Great Gatsby.

And now we are on a westbound train. Margaret is traveling to visit an aunt in Portland—to tell her that she is going to marry again. Once more, however, she changes her mind: this time because of her encounter with "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt." Here is a little masterpiece, carried through in perfect detail from the come-on to the brush-off—the classic study of the Business Man conquering the Tired Bohemian Girl. Even those who have never been seduced in a railway compartment will recognize here the accents of utter and awful truth.

"The Genial Host" is another portrait, crueller but equally well balanced, of one of those arachnidan entertainers who weave spider's webs around their guests and exact from each a character performance in exchange for a good dinner. Margaret, growing weary of this technique, tries to walk out of her role, but is promptly lassoed and yanked back into position by a silky thread.

"Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man" is good, too. Its central figure is Jim Barnett, the clean-limbed Bright Young Pinkist whom everybody likes; in the end, of course, he sells out to weekly pluto-imperio-reportagejournalism—accepts, in other words, the Facts of Life. Margaret appears here at second remove. She is seen through his eyes. She is his bad conscience: sexually, because Jim has an affair with her while his wife is in childbed; politically, because in the obstinate integrity of her Trotskyism she seems to him to symbolize loyalty, idealism, honorable poverty, and freedom.

But Margaret, when we see her last, in the consulting room of a psychoanalyst, is neither loyal, idealistic, nor free. Remarried at last to a successful architect, she is no longer even poor. "Ghostly Father, I Confess" is the annotated report of a typical hour spent with Dr. James—the annotations being Margaret's childhood memories. "Here," says Simon and Schuster's back flap, "for the first time, we see the girl plain and whole. . .. Psychologically she has come to a dead end and can only act and reenact the childhood drama of estrangement that has left her permanently in doubt as to her moral identity, turned her into a human chameleon who can only know herself vicariously, through those whose company she keeps."

This kind of talk seems to me, as I have said above, misleading and anyhow superficial. There is nothing special, or inviting to pity and terror, about Margaret's case; we are all "human chameleons," every one of us. The stupid are not aware of this fact, the wise accept it, and the rest make a terrible fuss. The search for what Miss McCarthy calls "the ordinary indispensable self is as futile as the "search" for one's own reflection in a mirror: the object sought is infinitely protean, and it can never be grasped or possessed, since it moves on another plane of being. Between the eternity of the animal, which is reproduction, and the eternity of the spirit, which is awareness of its life in ultimate reality, there is nothing firm, nothing solid, nothing "indispensable." The personality, which we value so much, is only a swirling nebula, a looking-glass at a fair—or, as the Hindus put it, the skins of the onion, which, when they are peeled of leave nothing at all. "But," the reader will object, "surely you'll admit that the 'ordinary indispensable self,' however illusory it may be in our human life, is very real in fiction, Surely this is the paradox of the novelist's art: in his work he must square the convention of 'the personality' with his empirical knowledge that the personality does not, in any final sense, 'exist'."

Needless to say, I agree. And I am bound to add that this was really Miss McCarthy's original artistic intention and not a regrettable highbrow afterthought, I think she has made a very bad job of it. Margaret does not appear as a series of striking contrasts and apparent contradictions; in fact, this idea seems hardly to have been exploited at all. Actually, she is a somewhat colorless though sympathetic and attractive minor figure who serves as a stooge for feats of really dazzling social analysis or as second fiddle to the principal characters.

But why carp? Why be ungrateful? Never mind if the book is wrongly presented; never mind the slightly dated almost twentyish intellectualism. Miss McCarthy has given us Mr. Sheer and Mr. Breen and Pflaumen and Jim Barnes and Dr. James. She is a real novelist, a vivid original talent whose warmth and charity and insight need no pompous introductions. We should rejoice in her, and wait eagerly for more.

Principal Works

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Short Fiction

*The Company She Keeps 1942

The Oasis (novella) 1949

Cast a Cold Eye 1950

‡The Hounds of Summer, and Other Stories 1981

Other Major Works

The Groves of Academe (novel) 1952

A Charmed Life (novel) 1955

Venice Observed (criticism) 1956

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (memoir) 1957

Sights and Spectacles: Theatre Chronicles 1937-1956 (criticism) 1957

The Stones of Florence (criticism) 1959

On the Contrary (essays) 1961

The Group (novel) 1963

Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962 (criticism) 1963

Vietnam (essays) 1967

Hanoi (essays) 1968

The Writing on the Wall (essays) 1970

Birds of America (novel) 1971

Medina (essay) 1972

The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (essays) 1974

The Seventeenth Degree (essays and memoir) 1975

Cannibals and Missionaries (novel) 1979

Ideas and the Novel (essays) 1980

Occasional Prose (essays) 1985

How I Grew (memoir) 1987

Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 (memoir) 1992

*This work is considered by some critics as a novel and my others as a collection of stories.

†Includes seven stories from Cast a Cold Eye and two that had been published previously in The New Yorker, "The Appalachian Revolution" (1954) and "The Hounds of Summer" (1963).

Alexander Klein (essay date 1949)

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SOURCE: "Satirist's Utopia," in The New Republic, Vol. 121, No. 23, December 5, 1949, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Klein asserts that the novella The Oasis is artificial and forced.)

With sharp wit, high spirits and a talent for epigram and capsule characterization, Mary McCarthy offers us in this roman à clef a satirical portrayal of intellectuals at bay. In essence, The Oasis is a series of vignettes hung on a forced framework of several contrived moral crises, most of which are either basically false or far too neat and complete. The result, despite specific true elements, is not truth larger than life-size but the exaggerations of falsehood.

There is still another reason why these flareups, planned as focusing highlights, actually reveal much less than the keen bits of analysis sprinkled liberally throughout. Miss McCarthy's depiction of character suffers from the intrinsic shallowness of all chiefly cerebral fabrications, even when these are documented by carefully chosen details from observation. As long as imagination, empathy and introjection of a high order are largely absent from the creative process, what is produced is mere attitudes and figures, and crises between attitudes and figures cannot engender tension, cannot achieve emotional significance or true and universal characterization. (By contrast—I cite it for its kind, not degree, of achievement—there is Dostoevsky's Foma Opiskin in his short novel, The Friend of the Family.)

In Miss McCarthy's fable a variety of idealists and critical realists (the chief of whom are said to be modeled closely on editors of two "elite" leftist cultural periodicals), enmeshed in a continuing struggle to keep their egos and political theories afloat, form a Utopian colony vaguely dedicated to the maintenance of liberal ideals against the flood tide of war and anti-intellectualism. It is never clear to Miss McCarthy, to the reader or to the Utopians themselves precisely how they can achieve their misty, undefined objectives. I take it that this, in one sense, is the cream of the jest, the implication being that the real-life counterparts of these Utopians, both celebrated and unknown, are similarly lacking in direction. At any rate, this New England hilltop retreat is foredoomed by the dissension between its two major factions, the Realists and the Purists.

The first moral skirmish occurs when the committee on admissions almost succumbs to the sin of Sectarianism. Then comes the near-expulsion of a colonist on highly dubious grounds, an incident, unbelievable from its inception, that is too plainly made to occur by the author to supply the needed action and underscore a simple point. This is followed by the complete fiasco of another colonist's dream-project, "Operation Peace," as every member in puppet fashion (almost as if the episode had been written by a pro-Soviet leftist intent on proving what frauds anti-Soviet leftists invariably are) shrinks from fulfilling his pledge when concrete action is broached. The well-telegraphed, too cunningly arranged disintegrating climax is the Battle of Strawberry Patch, in which the "revolutionary" members of Utopia are found unequal (morally and physically) to the defense of the colony's strawberries against three invading members of the Lumpenproletariat. Several less inhibited and high-minded colonists send the three scurrying, leaving the strawberries for the Utopians, whose moral precepts and injured egos are freely stained by the ripe fruit's juice. As any reader could predict by this time, it is the lone capitalist Utopian who expresses indignation at the anti-humanitarian "violation" of the rights of the invading proletarian pickers.

This charade is narrated in a lucid, finely controlled style, shot through with a filigree of intellectual sinew and, frequently, true insights and fresh abstractions rather than psychological jargon. Miss McCarthy also displays a courageous willingness to slay dragons evidently long grazing in her own backyard, a quality seen earlier in her remarkably successful collection of stories, The Company She Keeps. Occasionally, however, she sticks cruel pins into pitiable, defenseless, uninteresting people, hardly fit objects for lampooning. Except for rare moments, she displays a personal animus and a lack of sympathy that limit understanding and reduce most of The Oasis to surface satire that depends for its full effect on the reader's successful identification of the models for her characters.

Another major flaw is highlighted by the fact that the tragedy of impending war (World War III), which forms the backdrop to and inspiration for the colony, is too close a reality today. Miss McCarthy's continued amusement when she finally reveals her colonists as so many disciples of Nero (though subtler fiddlers) borders on the ghoulish. The satire's narrow, personal compass becomes picayune and the tone of high-spirited burlesque and ironic comedy no longer suits her underlying subject matter: the failure of leftist intellectuals (and, by implication, of all of us) to unite theory with practice and counteract "the resignation of a public which, despite the ballot box, looked upon wars and social catastrophes as the medieval peasant looked upon cholera and earthquake, as manifestations of fatality, afflictions from the Beyond."

Of one of her characters Miss McCarthy writes that "he lacked audience-sense to an almost fatal degree." One could justly say of Miss McCarthy that she possesses audience-sense to an almost fatal degree. In fact, she is a victim of one of the diseases of our age: the bounden necessity to be clever and tough before all else. On that score she ranks high, but the price she pays for it might, conceivably, have purchased her passage on a deeper-plowing, wider-ranging vessel. Of course, the dangers of foundering would have been greater and the odds much longer against ringing encomia greeting one at the dock. Perhaps, therefore, it would be unfair to ask one ironic soul—admittedly hardy, but more of a Utopian herself than one might at first imagine—to venture that far out of port. To this critic, however, the penchant (or is it compulsion?) of many of the better writers working today—Sylvia Townsend Warner and Ernest Hemingway, to name two disparate examples—carefully to hew to the line of their preconceived limitations is more deplorable than the frequently scored temerity of the writer who aims at the moon and lands in a fishpond.

Charles Poore (essay date 1950)

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SOURCE: A review of Cast a Cold Eye, in The New York Times, September 21, 1950, p. 29.

[In the following review, Poore judges the stories of Cast a Cold Eye to be brilliant character sketches.]

Scott Fitzgerald's memorable observation on writing short stories—"begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created nothing"—comes frequently to mind as you read Mary McCarthy's new collection of rather remorselessly satiric tales, Cast a Cold Eye. Miss McCarthy will be remembered as that source of the southpaw intellectuals whose Utopian lampoon, The Oasis, drew blood all over the Marx-and-Kafka set, about a year ago. Also as the author of "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit," and other aspects of The Company She Keeps.

Also as the author of "Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?" a profoundly moving story of orphaned childhood, last encountered in that fine anthology, 55 Short Stories from The New Yorker, which appears again, we are happy to say, in Cast a Cold Eye, along with these stories: "The Weeds," "The Friend of the Family," "C. Y. E.," "The Blackguard," and "The Cicerone."

Since Miss McCarthy's types are devastating, it is natural enough to find that sometimes they scarcely seem to exist as individuals. Yet they're never quite devastated right off the face of the earth. You keep remembering their obsessions, even if you've forgotten what they look like.

You wish, for example, that the tormented wife in "The Weeds" who kept trying to get away from her husband could have encountered the sad-sack man-about-town in "The Friend of the Family" when she made her brief and characteristically feckless flight to New York.

Those two had a lot in common. The stories they appear in, though, have a more striking affinity. For while "The Weeds" is busy kicking the living daylights out of a marriage, "The Friend of the Family" has many a brutally unkind thing to say about people who live alone and do or do not like it.

You won't find many cheery moonbeams in Cast a Cold Eye, but you will see that there are brilliant sketches here by a brilliant writer. Even the young man in "The Old Men" has to stop and ask himself in the hospital: "Am I a monster?" And the desperately puzzled convent girl of "C. Y. E." felt she suffered from "a kind of miserable effluvium of the spirit that the ordinary sieves of report cards and weekly confessions had been powerless to catch."

Somehow, the ultimate point of "The Cicerone"—a story of Americans in Italy, than which there is nothing rifer in contemporary literature, led by Mr. Hemingway, right now—seems to apply widely to the people in this book: "The relation between pursuer and pursued had been confounded, by a dialectic too subtle for their eyes."

Further Reading

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Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: C. N. Potter, 1992, 714 p.

Depicts McCarthy in the context of her intellectual milieu.

Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988, 430 p.

Shows the writer in relation to her family, friends, enemies, and lovers.


Dickstein, Morris. "A Glint of Malice." The Threepenny Review XV, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 29-30.

Frequently refers to stories in McCarthy's The Company She Keeps while examining the reasons for the rise and gradual decline of McCarthy's literary reputation.

Eisinger, Chester E. "Mary McCarthy as the Sceptical New Liberal." In his Fiction of the Forties, pp. 128-35. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Contends that McCarthy was an author who displayed the attitude of a sceptical new liberal, meaning that she was suspicious not only of political creed and moral code but also of human reason. Eisinger uses The Company She Keeps, Cast a Cold Eye, and the novella The Oasis to support his claim.

Fitch, Robert E. "The Cold Eye of Mary McCarthy." The New Republic 138, No. 18 (5 May 1958): 17-19.

Maintains that McCarthy's fiction suffers because it focuses on the intellectual and physical dimensions of humans while excluding consideration of compassion, affection, and "moral emotion." Fitch mentions several stories and the novella The Oasis.

Fitts, Dudley. "Portraits Cut in Acid." The New York Times Book Review (24 September 1950): 9.

Favorable review of Cast a Cold Eye. Fitts admires the style of the writing in particular.

Gay, Robert M. A review of The Company She Keeps. The Atlantic Monthly CLXX (August 1942): 109.

Adding to the debate about the classification of The Company She Keeps as a novel or short story collection, Gay states: "The method and structure give the impression that the chapters were written without reference to one another and then were somewhat highhandedly brought together by means of the tenuous theme of lost personality. The result is discontinuity and lack of cumulative effect."

Gottfried, Alex, and Davidson, Sue. "Utopia's Children: An Interpretation of Three Political Novels." Western Political Quarterly XV, No. 1 (March 1962): 17-32.

Contrasts the novella The Oasis to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance and Harvey Swados's False Coin, all of which are about "Utopian experiments carried out in an American setting contemporary with the author's time."

Halsband, Robert. "Jaundiced Eye .... " The Saturday Review 33, No. 40 (7 October 1950): 23.

Highly complimentary assessment of Cast a Cold Eye, which is cited as proof that McCarthy "has a terrifying talent." Halsband states: "Miss McCarthy casts a distinctly jaundiced eye on all the characters who pass before her, including—and this is her saving grace—herself."

Hardy, Willene Schaefer. The Company She Keeps. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981, 214 p.

Contains chapters on The Company She Keeps and the novella The Oasis.

Marshall, Margaret. A review of The Oasis. The Nation CLXIX (17 September 1949): 281-82.

Claims that The Oasis "is not serious either as a work of art or as the satiric comment it purports to be on our contemporary intellectual and political life."

Munson, Gorham. "Parlor Pinks Playing Utopia." The Saturday Review of Literature XXXII (20 August 1949): 12.

Judges The Oasis to be a comedy. According to Munson, "Some advance readers have called it a satire but [McCarthy] seems to me too close to her material, too much identified with it herself to gain a satiric point of view toward it."

Rago, Henry. A review of The Oasis. Commonweal L (9 September 1949): 536-37.

Faults The Oasis as detached and intellectualized. As Rago states: "You settle for a kind of intellectual slapstick . . . in Mary McCarthy's best fiction (except in that wonderful short story 'The Cicerone')."

Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968, 47 p.

Stock focuses on McCarthy's novels but does mention her other works. This study, with slight revision, was published as "The Novels of Mary McCarthy" in Fiction as Wisdom: From Goethe to Bellow.

Warren, Robert Penn. "Button, Button." Partisan Review IX, No. 6 (November-December 1942): 535-40.

'Describes The Company She Keeps as "a shrewd, witty, malicious, original, and often brilliantly written book" but expresses some uncertainty about the purported intention of McCarthy's satire and the heroine's search for identity.

Wilford, Hugh. "An Oasis: The New York Intellectuals in the Late 1940s." Journal of American Studies 28, No. 2 (August 1944): 209-23.

Proposes that "The Oasis should be read not as an indictment of radicalism, but rather as a sympathetic—and very perceptive—imaginative enquiry into the causes of radical failure."

Additional coverage of McCarthy's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8 (rev. ed.), 129; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 16, 50; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 14, 24, 39, 59; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; and Major 20th-century Writers.

Lorine Pruette (essay date 1950)

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SOURCE: "Stories Told in Cold Fury and Disciplined Hatred," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, September 24, 1950, p. 8.

[In the following favorable review of Cast a Cold Eye, Pruette judges McCarthy's writing style well suited to her harsh stories.]

Whatever Mary McCarthy writes has its own authenticity. Her veritable signature lies squarely across each of these stories as it did upon The Company She Keeps and The Oasis. Several of the stories [in Cast a Cold Eye] are unforgettable; all are interesting; all have the flavor that one associates with bitter aloes, without quite knowing what that is. They appear to be concerned with incidents on the periphery of existence, footnotes to the daily struggles and complications; yet in the end the reader shudders back from their impact and wonders: Is this, then, the essence, the distilled and acrid essence of man's life?

The title is excellent, for there is a coldness here. The victim in the powerful but somehow banning "The Old Men," quotes from Yeats's tombstone, "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by." In exploring her deep but narrow vein of first-grade ore, Mary McCarthy records the intimate wretchedness of the solitary individual, without pity, almost without concern. She shows no two people observing each other with tenderness or putting out a kindly hand. In fact, she shows no communication, no possibility of communication, between any two separate individuals, and in her cosmology all are separate.

The McCarthy pictures have horror in them, and all her characters live in hell, but there is nothing depressing about reading her stories. Her style has such verve and swiftness, is so compelling, that the reader follows after her, on the scavenger hunt for the revealing incident, the ultimate perception that will give away another person and deliver him, naked and quivering, into his understanding. There is an intellectual satisfaction to be found here, gratification in a style that is so perfect a tool for its purpose.

In the first story, "The Weeds," the opening reads: "She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunia had bloomed." There follows an impalement of the neurotic female, her alibis, her false gestures toward freedom, and finally her passivity and paralysis, by which she achieves a permanent state of being injured. In "The Friend of the Family" Francis Cleary is "the perfect sanforized man" in a civilization where "people, like sheets, came preshrunk."

"The Cicerone" requires the two young American lovers to listen to the account of the wealthy Miss Grabbe's one night of love, if it may be called so: one of the most brutal and degraded episodes to be encountered in a long life of misspent reading. "The Old Men" is a magnificent exploration into the validities of personality: "To exist, he suddenly became convinced, was an act of deliberate impersonation." This ends with a sudden ferocity, as the next, "Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?"—also excellent, ends with a sharp Irony. Speaking of the hideously mistreated children, she writes "We thought it only natural that grandparents should know and do nothing, for did not God in the Mansions of Heaven look down upon human suffering and allow it to take its course?"

The last two stories concern the miseries and triumphs of a young girl in a convent school, the second ending with a characteristically ferocious attack upon the integrity of the personality of the young girl. It is this cold fury, this disciplined hatred, that casts an enigmatic light upon the cold title, the cold stories. There is fire in Mary McCarthy. If it could burst forth into any sort of flame it might make a light to reveal even to her some shreds of dignity in the human beings she writes about.

Seymour Krim (essay date 1951)

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SOURCE: "Short Stories by Six," in The Hudson Review, Vol. III, No. 4, Winter, 1951, pp. 626-33.

[Since the late 1950s Krim has been writing freewheeling, hardhitting, and deeply personal essays in which he explores the vicissitudes of his own life not only as a means of deriving therapy from art but also as a way of examining contemporary American life and literature. In spirit, style, and purpose these writings are strongly influenced by the Beats and are often openly hostile to the highly formal, analytical literary criticism of the New York intellectual elit. In the following excerpt, Krim finds Cast a Cold Eye pedantic]

Artfulness . . . is hardly a deficiency in Mary McCarthy, especially as regards her style and the way in which her material is conceived, if not in the actual working-out of the story itself... . Cast A Cold Eye is her third book; yet, thus far, she has not written one sustained book in the accustomed sense. Her first, The Company She Keeps, was called a novel (despite Mr. Eliot), but was only so, in any strict terminology, by virtue of the autobiographical heroine's appearance in each of the episodes; the whole was united only by her presence, and the material was not integrated to make a narrative that develops in time and meaning as well. Its merit, apart from the conspicuously articulate and finished writing, lay in the keen observations of the author, who displayed an almost masculine intelligence at work roasting the game that a female sensibility had trapped. The Oasis, Miss McCarthy's next book, was much less distinguished than the first; again, this was called a "novel," but was hardly novella length and showed little skill with the traditional elements of fiction. Its satire, of a political utopia mismanaged by New York intellectuals, was often ponderous and suffered from what Henry James called "the platitude of mere statement"; apparently there was relish involved if readers knew who the characters were based upon, but aside from this gossip interest, necessarily lost to non-sect members, the book did not "come off." Cast A Cold Eye is the third of these not-entirely-a-book books; it is composed of approximately half short stories and half New Yorker "I Remember Mama" pieces. In general, it may be compared to a series of classic poses struck by a superbly composed and expensive model, so audience-conscious, however, that her face is a mask.

The esthetic emotions aroused by such a sight as that described above are considerable and in a noble tradition; but when applied to Miss McCarthy's fiction, the very flawlessness seems to vitiate mobility and interest within the context of any given story. The author's unusually keen perceptions are evident in each story, but like so much of what can most easily be called Partisan Review fiction, the intelligence does not seem to be worked into the narrative invention proper, but resides rather in the critical faculty of the author. The result is that readers can admire Miss McCarthy, but not her stories. When she writes in her own person it is difficult not to be struck by the balance, precision and often the weight of her thought (inflexible though her scale often is); she is never relaxed or unguarded as a writer, but her very composure is queenly enough to command attention. In the stories proper, however, Miss McCarthy's large style is not sufficient to conceal the fact that thus far she has displayed weak powers of narrative invention; more important, the author seems to have imposed upon herself none of that necessary dirty work that goes on within the lively story.

Considered in a broader perspective for a moment, Miss McCarthy might be taken as a not entirely fair example of a school of fiction-writers which Partisan Review has, by its temper if not its express wish, encouraged, and whose selfconscious, highly intellectualized work has regularly appeared in that magazine. (Miss McCarthy surely is not representative as regards her aristocratic air, her considered style, and her cold eye; and yet the author definitely seems to qualify by virtue of what might be called her 100 Great Books binding, which prevents her stooping to put some "story" into her stories.) Much of the tediousness of these writers seems to come from an inability, thus far, to transmute their heavy load of ideas into an appropriate art; what the reader is often presented with, in the guise of fiction, has the total effect of a Paper that might be read at the Rand School (or, as in several of Miss McCarthy's pieces, at Sarah Lawrence); the whole adds up to a genuinely new pedantry in American fiction. The pedantry seems hardly the result of too much literary intelligence, which would think twice before permitting itself to wear a beard in this culture (except the Be-bop kind). It seems rather to come from an understandable, but hardly condonable, transvestism: namely, the attempt to put European clothes on an American body. Natural as this perversion may have seemed to a generation suckled on Freud (as well as Marx, Kafka, Joyce and all the other Big Berthas of Europe), a paragraph in Women's Wear Daily notes that sport clothes are being worn all year round, now. . . .

Mary McCarthy with Elisabeth Niebuhr (interview date 1962)

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SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, No. 27, 196?, pp. 58-94.

[In the following excerpt from an interview that was conducted in the winter of 1961, McCarthy discusses her writing, literary influences, and politics.]

[NIEBUHR]: Iremember that you published parts of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood as one section in Cast a Cold Eye. You changed the story about your nickname a great deal, reducing it to just a small incident in Catholic Girlhood.

[MCCARTHY]: I couldn't bear that one! It had appeared years ago in Mademoiselle, and when I put it in Cast a Cold Eye, I didn't realize how much I disliked it. When I came to put Catholic Girlhood together, I simply couldn't stand it, and when I was reading the book in proof, I decided to tear it out, to reduce it to a tiny tiny incident. As it stood, it was just impossible, much too rhetorical.

When you publish chapters of a book separately on their own, do you think of them as chapters, or as independent short stories?

As chapters, but if somebody, a magazine editor, thought they were what Partisan Review calls a "self-contained chapter," all right, but I've never tried to make them into separate units. If one happens to be, all right—if they want to publish it as such. The New Yorker has given me surprises: they've printed things that I would never have thought could stand by themselves. But they thought so.

Did you, when you saw them in print?

Surprisingly, yes.

What about in your first novel,The Company She Keeps?

Those chapters were written originally as short stories. About half-way through, I began to think of them as a kind of unified story. The same character kept reappearing, and so on. I decided finally to call it a novel, in that it does in a sense tell a story, one story. But the first chapters were written without any idea of there being a novel. It was when I was doing the one about the Yale man that I decided to put the heroine of the earlier stories in that story too. The story of the Yale man is not a bit autobiographical, but the heroine appears anyway, in order to make a unity for the book.

Were you also interested simply in the problem of writing one story from various different points of view, in experimenting with the different voices?

There were no voices in that. I don't think I was really very much interested in the technical side of it. It was the first piece of fiction I had ever written, I mean I'd never made any experiments before. I was too inexperienced to worry about technical problems.

You hadn't written any fiction before then?

No. Well, in college I had written the tiniest amount of fiction: very bad short stories, very unrealized short stories, for courses, and that was all. I once started a detective story to make money—but I couldn't get the murder to take place! At the end of three chapters I was still describing the characters and the milieu, so I thought, this is not going to work. No corpse! And that was all. Then I simply did The Company She Keeps, and was only interested in the technical side from the point of view of establishing the truth, of trying to recreate what happened. For instance, the art gallery story was written in the first person because that's the way you write that kind of story—a study of a curious individual.

You imply that most of the stories were distinctly autobiographical.

They all are more or less, except the one about the Yale man.

Is this distinction between autobiography and fiction clear in your mind before you begin writing a story, or does it become so as you write? Or is there no such distinction?

Well, I think it depends on what you're doing. Let's be frank. Take "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt": in that case it was an attempt to describe something that really happened—though naturally you have to do a bit of name-changing and city-changing. And the first story, the one about the divorce: that was a stylization—there were no proper names in it or anything—but still, it was an attempt to be as exact as possible about something that had happened. The Yale Man was based on a real person. John Chamberlain, actually, whom I didn't know very well. But there it was an attempt to make this real man a broad type. You know, to use John Chamberlain's boyish looks and a few of the features of his career, and then draw all sorts of other Yale men into it. Then the heroine was put in, in an imaginary love affair, which had to be because she had to be in the story. I always thought that was all very hard on John Chamberlain, who was married. But of course he knew it wasn't true, and he knew that I didn't know him very well, and that therefore in the story he was just a kind of good-looking clothes-hanger. Anything else that I've written later—I may make a mistake—has been on the whole a fiction. Though it may have autobiographical elements in it that I'm conscious of, it has been conceived as a fiction, even a thing like The Oasis, that's supposed to have all these real people in it. The whole story is a complete fiction. Nothing of the kind ever happened; after all, it happens in the future. But in general, with characters, I do try at least to be as exact as possible about the essence of a person, to find the key that works the person both in real life and in the fiction. . . .

Could I go back for a moment to what you said about your early writing at college? I think you said thatThe Company She Keepswas the first fiction you ever wrote, but that was some years after you left Vassar, wasn't it?

Oh yes. You know, I had been terribly discouraged when I was at Vassar, and later, by being told that I was really a critical mind, and that I had no creative talent. Who knows? they may have been right. This was done in a generous spirit, I don't mean that it was harsh. Anyway, I hadn't found any way at all, when I was in college, of expressing anything in the form of short stories. We had a rebel literary magazine that Elizabeth Bishop and Eleanor Clark were on, and Muriel Rukeyser and I. I wrote, not fiction, but sort of strange things for this publication.

A rebel magazine?

There was an official literary magazine, which we were all against. Our magazine was anonymous. It was called Con Spirito. It caused a great sort of scandal. I don't know why—it was one of these perfectly innocent undertakings. But people said, "How awful, it's anonymous." The idea of anonymity was of course to keep the judgment clear, especially the editorial board's judgment—to make people read these things absolutely on their merits. Well anyway, Con Spirito lasted for only a few numbers. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful story for it which I still remember called "Then Came the Poor." It was about a revolution, a fantasy that took place in modern bourgeois society, when the poor invade, and take over a house.

When you left Vassar, what then?

Well, I went to New York, and I began reviewing for the New Republic and the Nation—right away. I wrote these little book reviews. Then there was a series about the critics. The Nation wanted a large-scale attack on critics and book-reviewers, chiefly those in the Herald Tribune, the Times, and the Saturday Review, and so on. I had been doing some rather harsh reviews, so they chose me as the person to do this. But I was so young, I think I was twenty-two, that they didn't trust me. So they got Margaret Marshall, who was the assistant literary editor then, to do it with me: actually we divided the work up and did separate pieces. But she was older and was supposed to be—I don't know—a restraining influence on me: anyway, someone more responsible. That series was a great sensation at the time, and it made people very mad. I continued just to do book reviews, maybe one other piece about the theater, something like the one on the literary critics. And then nothing more until Partisan Review started. That was when I tried to write the detective story—before Partison Review. To be exact, Partisan Review had existed as a Stalinist magazine, and then it had died, gone to limbo. But after the Moscow trials, the PR boys, Rahv and Phillips, revived it, got a backer, merged with some other people—Dwight Macdonald and others—and started it again. As an anti-Stalinist magazine. I had been married to an actor, and was supposed to know something about the theater, so I began writing a theater column for them. I didn't have any other ambitions at all. Then I married Edmund Wilson, and after we'd been married about a week, he said, "I think you have a talent for writing fiction." And he put me in a little room. He didn't literally lock the door, but he said, "Stay in there!" And I did. I just sat down, and it just came. It was the first story I had ever written, really: the first story in The Company She Keeps. Robert Penn Warren published it in the Southern Review. And I found myself writing fiction to my great surprise.

This was when you became involved in politics, wasn't it?

No. Earlier. In 1936, at the time of the Moscow trials. That changed absolutely everything. I got swept into the whole Trotskyite movement. But by accident. I was at a party. I knew Jim Farrell—I'd reviewed one of his books, I think it was Studs Lonigan—in any case, I knew Jim Farrell, and I was asked to a party given by his publisher for Art Young, the old Masses cartoonist. There were a lot of Communists at this party. Anyway, Farrell went around asking people whether they thought Trotsky was entitled to a hearing and to the right of asylum. I said yes, and that was all. The next thing I discovered I was on the letterhead of something calling itself the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. I was furious, of course, at this use of my name. Not that my name had any consequence, but still, it was mine. Just as I was about to make some sort of protest, I began to get all sorts of calls from Stalinists, telling me to get off the committee. I began to see that other people were falling off the committee, like Freda Kirchwey—she was the first to go, I think—and this cowardice impressed me so unfavorably that naturally I didn't say anything about my name having got on there by accident, or at least without my realizing. So I stayed. I began to know all the people on the committee. We'd attend meetings. It was a completely different world. Serious, you know. Anyway, that's how I got to know the PR boys. They hadn't yet revived the Partisan Review, but they were both on the Trotsky committee, at least Philip was. We—the committee, that is—used to meet in Farrell's apartment. I remember once when we met on St. Valentine's Day and I thought, Oh, this is so strange, because I'm the only person in this room who realizes that it's Valentine's Day. It was true! I had a lot of rather rich Stalinist friends, and I was always on the defensive with them, about the Moscow Trial question, Trotsky, and so on. So I had to inform myself, really, in order to conduct the argument. I found that I was reading more and more, getting more and more involved in this business. At the same time I got a job at Covici Friede, a rather left-wing publishing house now out of business, also full of Stalinists. I began to see Philip Rahv again because Covici Friede needed some readers' opinions on Russian books, and I remembered that he read Russian, so he came around to the office, and we began to see each other. When Partisan Review was revived I appeared as a sort of fifth wheel—there may have been more than that—but in any case as a kind of appendage of Partisan Review.

Then you hadn 't really been interested in politics before the Moscow trials?

No, not really. My first husband had worked at the Theater Union, which was a radical group downtown that put on proletarian plays, and there were lots of Communists in that. Very few Socialists. And so I knew all these people; I knew that kind of person. But I wasn't very sympathetic to them. We used to see each other, and there were a lot of jokes. I even marched in May Day parades. Things like that. But it was all . . . fun. It was all done in that spirit. And I remained, as the Partisan Review boys said, absolutely bourgeois throughout. They always said to me very sternly, "You're really a throwback. You're really a Twenties figure."

How did you react to that?

Well, I suppose I was wounded. I was a sort of gay, good-time girl, from their point of view. And they were men of the Thirties. Very serious. That's why my position was so insecure on Partisan Review; it wasn't exactly insecure, but. . . lowly. I mean, in fact. And that was why they let me write about the theater, because they thought the theater was of absolutely no consequence.

How did the outbreak of the war affect your political opinion? The Partisan Review group split apart, didn't it?

At the beginning of the war we were all isolationists, the whole group. Then I think the summer after the fall of France—certainly before Pearl Harbor—Philip Rahv wrote an article in which he said in a measured sentence, "In a certain sense, this is our war." The rest of us were deeply shocked by this, because we regarded it as a useless imperialist war. You couldn't beat Fascism that way: "Fight the enemy at home," and so on. In other words, we reacted to the war rather in the manner as if it had been World War I. This was after Munich, after the so-called "Phony War." There was some reason for having certain doubts about the war, at least about the efficacy of the war. So when Philip wrote this article, a long controversy began on Partisan Review. It split between those who supported the war, and those who didn't. I was among those who didn't—Edmund Wilson also, though for slightly different reasons. Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg split off, and Dwight founded his own magazine Politics, which started out as a Trotskyite magazine, and then became a libertarian, semi-anarchist one. Meyer Schapiro was in this group, and I forget who else. Edmund was really an unreconstructed isolationist. The others were either Marxist or libertarian. Of course there was a split in the Trotskyite movement at that period.

Toward the end of the war, I began to realize that there was something hypocritical about my position—that I was really supporting the war. I'd go to a movic—there was a marvelous documentary called Desert Victory about the British victory over Rommel's Africa Corps—and I'd find myself weeping madly when Montgomery's bagpipers went through to El Alamein. In other words, cheering the war, and on the other hand, being absolutely against Bundles for Britain, against Lend Lease—this was after Lend Lease, of course—against every practical thing. And suddenly, I remember—it must have been the summer of '45 that I first said this aloud—I remember it was on the Cape, at Truro. There were a lot of friends, Chiaromonte, Lionel Abel, Dwight, et cetera, at my house—by this time I was divorced from Edmund, or separated anyway. And I said, "You know, I think I, and all of us, are really for the war." This was the first time this had been said aloud by me. Dwight indignantly denied it. "I'm not for the war!" he said. But he was. Then I decided I wanted to give a blood transfusion. And I practically had to get cleared! Now no one was making me do this, but I felt I had to go and get cleared by my friends first. Was it wrong of me to support the war effort by giving a blood transfusion? It was agreed that it was all right. All this fuss! So I gave a blood transfusion, just one. Some other people were doing it too, I believe, independently, at the same time, people of more or less this tendency. That is the end of that story. Years later, I realized I really thought that Philip had been right, and that the rest of us had been wrong. Of course we didn't know about the concentration camps: the death camps hadn't started at the beginning. All that news came in fairly late. But once this news was in, it became clear—at least to me, and I still believe it—that the only way to have stopped it was in a military way. That only the military defeat of Hitler could stop this, and it had to be stopped. But it took a long, long time to come to this view. You're always afraid of making the same mistake over again. But the trouble is you can always correct an earlier mistake like our taking the attitude to World War II as if it were World War I, but if you ever try to project the correction of a mistake into the future, you may make a different one. That is, many people now are talking about World War III as if it were World War II. . . .

In speaking of your own writing, . . . you attribute its "style" to your earlier critical workthen you don't feel the influence of other writers of fiction?

I don't think I have any influences. I think my first story, the first one in The Company She Keeps, definitely shows the Jamesian influence—James is so terribly catching. But beyond that, I can't find any influence. That is, I can't as a detached person—as detached as I can be—look at my work and see where it came from from the point of view of literary sources.

There must be certain writers, though, that you are drawn to more than others.

Oh yes! But I don't think I write like them. The writer I really like best is Tolstoy, and I know I don't write like Tolstoy. I wish I did! Perhaps the best English prose is Thomas Nash. I don't write at all like Thomas Nash.

It would seem also, from hints you give us in your books, that you like Roman writers as well.

I did when I was young, very much. At least, I adored Catullus, and Juvenal; those were the two I really passionately loved. And Caesar, when I was a girl. But you couldn't say that I had been influenced by Catullus! No! And Stendhal i like very very much. Again, I would be happy to write like Stendhal, but I don't. There are certain sentences in Stendhal that come to mind as how to do it if one could. I can't. A certain kind of clarity and brevity—the author's attitude summed up in a sentence, and done so simply, done without patronizing. Some sort of joy.

Doris Grumbach (essay date 1967)

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SOURCE: "Rare Birds of New York," in The Company She Kept, The Bodley Head, 1967, pp. 111-14.

[Grumbach is an American novelist, critic, and biographer. Her novels involve a process of constant reflection and reinterpretation of facts, paralleled by the reflection of her characters upon their own lives and professions. Often placed in academic environments, these characters are intelligent but unable to use their knowledge to lead satisfying lives or enjoy fulfilling relationships. In the following excerpt from her book-length study of McCarthy, Grumbach remarks on McCarthy's treatment of emotion in "The Company Is Not Responsible" and "The Unspoiled Reaction. "]

There was considerable doubt about whether or not The Company She Keeps was a novel. A series of stories held together by a metamorphosing heroine seemed to some critics not to qualify. One called it "thinly disguised autobiography," a good and amusing parallel to the critic who was later to call Memories of a Catholic Girlhood thinly disguised fiction. Whether or not the stories added up to a novel, they stood well alone, and in the years between this book and the next, a number of other short stories appeared, among them"The Company Is Not Responsible," in The New Yorker in 1944 and "The Unspoiled Reaction" two years later in the Atlantic Monthly. These are not especially significant; they might better be described as sketches with a slight core of emotion suggested to the reader but not fully communicated, so removed that the reader has the curious sense that he is being told at second hand about the events. The narrator stands in his way.

"The Company Is Not Responsible" tells of a bus trip the author took from New York to Wellfleet during World War II. After an initial cataloguing of the persons aboard, and a wait until the connecting bus arrives, the bus moves on toward Provincetown. The author listens to the unusual "lark" spirit of the war years, the good-naturedness of the sailor, the girls, Margie and Ann, the Harvard boys, a man named George, the driver called Mac, and the others, but she waits with some dread for the inevitable "detestable person," the "disagreeableness, the bad part" that often breaks out when diverse persons are grouped together and confined. A near-crisis is reached (although only in the mind of the author) when the Harvard boys begin to sing "Die Lorelei" in German. "'Will someone object?' I thought; 'is this where the trouble will come?' I held my breath, but no patriot censor intervened." On the contrary, the others join in singing, even the "outsider" author. The boys get off at their stop, bidding everyone good-bye by name, everyone but the author: "I felt a slight stab of envious regret that they did not know my name." Once at home, she begins to disbelieve in the brief experience, until on the return trip she hears George's voice, sees Margie in the crowded bus, and knows her short acquaintanceship with human goodness was not something she "had made up." Slight as the story is, it suggests the changing moods of dread, exultation, distrust, and relief that things are not always as bad as one expects them to be. The form of the sketch is prophetic, a group of persons sequestered for a brief span of time in a limited space, and then observed carefully for their reactions, a form to be used again in The Oasis, The Groves of Academe, A Charmed Life and finally in The Group. The location of the author is interesting too: the outsider, regretting her stance, feeling disconnected from the group and yet harboring a yearning to be part of it, fearing its potential ugliness yet left with a nostalgia for its unexpected goodness. It is the only example, in Mary McCarthy's work, of a small Eden preserved. Her skepticism was to create a number of other idylls, but "the bad part" always comes upon them.

Another story, "The Unspoiled Reaction," has, oddly enough, been reprinted in a collection called Masters and Masterpieces of the Short Story. Whatever the truth of the first part of this title for Mary McCarthy, the second part does not, clearly, apply to this story; it is in no sense a masterpiece. The title refers to what is expected of children at a puppet show, what indeed does occur. The sketch contains the curious, disembodied voice of the narrator, presumably the author who, with her young son, is present at a puppet performance of Little Red Riding Hood in a shabby, near-empty theatre in New York on a rainy Monday morning. The sketch is told, without internal evidence of the presence of the author, and this gives it the same removed feeling I have mentioned, as if emotion were perceived from a great distance. Here primitive fear of a mad, unexplained emotion, suddenly let loose, is felt immediately by both the children, their parents, but only at a distance by the reader. A child in the audience, urged on by his teacher, approaches the puppet and an hysterical human voice, not the falsetto of the puppet, inexplicably frightened by the child's approach, screams out, "You horrible, horrible children," and chases him from the stage. Parents and children are routed from the theatre, the sentence of the outraged teacher ringing in their ears: "That is no way to talk to a child" The story ends with the observation that the sentence is "pronounced by the teacher in a tone of peculiar piety and reverence, her voice genuflecting to it as to the Host."

What happens in "The Unspoiled Reaction" is that an erratic performer whose job is entertaining children as a puppet cracks up in full view of the audience. Her disguised madness breaks forth and shatters the air of childlike trust that had pervaded the theatre. In a way, what happens in this sketch is precisely what does not happen in "The Company Is Not Responsible," where the threat of unpleasantness and evil (in this case nationalism) is contained by the workings of a spirit of goodwill; here, despite the presence of well-meaning parents and "unspoiled" children, evil (madness) breaks through, horrifyingly. "The Unspoiled Reaction" is close in spirit to The Oasis, and might almost be said to be a preparatory sketch for it. But the story, lacks direction and focus. Its suddenly revealed moment of emotion is given no explanation, no roots, and few results. It is, it threatens the peace of mind of those present, and ultimately the reader's. Nothing more.

Most curious of all is the final sentence I have quoted which seems a simile out of all proportion to the event. The effect of it is that at the very last moment a new note is sounded, a high reverence for the shattered children, and the sudden, new direction of the story stuns the reader. Here, perhaps, its use was incongruous, but this kind of religious imagery crops up often in Mary McCarthy's writing, under all sorts of conditions. In The Company She Keeps the safety pin in Meg's underwear seemed to her to be like "a symbol of moral fastidiousness, just as the sores of a mendicant saint can, if thought of in the right way, testify to his moral health." The reliance upon religious imagery . . . becomes even more frequent in the novels to come.

Francis Gillen (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "The Failure of Ritual in The Unspoiled Reaction'," in Renascence, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, Spring, 1972, pp. 155-58.

[In the following excerpt, Gillen explores themes of religious faith and ritual in the short story "The Unspoiled Reaction. "]

Mary McCarthy's "The Unspoiled Reaction" deals with the interaction between the "knowing" world of adults and the relatively unsophisticated and, to that extent, innocent world of children. Taken to attend a puppet show of Little Red Riding Hood one rainy Monday afternoon, the children find themselves warmly greeted by an entrepreneuse who asks each child's name. Separated from the parents and teachers so that the puppeteers may obtain an "unspoiled reaction" from the children, these youngsters are amazed when the puppet Sunny appears and greets each of them by name. Encouraged to participate, the boys and girls exchange repartees with Sunny and loudly take sides in the play, some choosing the part of the grandmother and others encouraging the wolf to make a good meal of her. Suddenly a child, who with his teacher and classmates from a progressive school had arrived late for the performance, reacts with the "natural" enthusiasm Sunny had encouraged, goes up on stage and attempts to touch Sunny. Sunny's falsetto voice becomes an agonized woman's scream: "Sunny doesn't like that." Startled by the reality and the aversion in the voice, the boy slips backward into the orchestra pit. After a few agonizing minutes when the boy is recovered unhurt and the parents wait to see if the show's illusion has been irremediably destroyed, Sunny reappears, seemingly as affable as ever—"Bygones were bygones, all was forgiven, . . ." Now, however, the children's reaction is no longer unspoiled or natural. They look to their parents, find the correct reaction as the more docile begin to imitate the adults who have "screwed their own faces into grimaces of pleasure." Soon the children are caught up in the play once again and all seems to go smoothly until after the final curtain when the same boy receives his teacher's permission to go backstage and handle the puppet. There he and the other children who follow him encounter the entrepreneuse, screaming now, no longer in Sunny's, but in her own voice: "Get out, get out of here . . . You dreadful, horrible children." The children run, and they and their guardians flee in shame and silence out into the rain.

As has been noted by several critics, Miss McCarthy's story touches then on several themes: the exploitation of the children by those who care nothing for them, the concurrence of the adults in this deception, the loss of innocence and the expulsion from childhood's paradise. A further ambiguity is added by the fact that the children's "unspoiled reaction" is not wholly innocent, that some, siding with the wolf, grow so unrestrained that the rational control of the adults is not wholly unadmirable and is perhaps necessary. Beyond these important themes, however, I would like to suggest that Miss McCarthy's story deals with the idea of theatre as ritual, with the lack of genuine ritual in the modern world, and the consequence of this lack on today's theatre. What the entrepreneuse desires or seems to desire from the children is their ritualistic participation in the play, the breaking down of the fourth wall of the theatre. In commenting on this active involvement, the narrator notes that "the reciprocity between player and audience, lost to us since the medieval mysteries, and mourned by every theoretician of the drama, was here recovered. . . ." The medieval mysteries referred to, of course, are those plays depicting events from the Bible which were originally performed as part of the ritual of the Roman Catholic Mass. The difference between such ritual and the play performed for the children by the puppets lies in the matter of belief. Noting the frank, often ribald and sometimes blasphemous language of players and audience alike, Parrott and Ball in their account of these mysteries write: "People then believed so implicitly in the Bible story that they were ready to allow themselves the frankest familiarity with Bible characters" (A Short View of Elizabethan Drama). What was enacted before them was the panorama of God's genuine interest in man, of man's creation, original sin, expulsion from Eden, and his reconciliation with God. By contrast there is no genuine adult belief in the sincerity of Sunny's friendliness or his interest in the children. When the entrepreneuse's smiling and tender greeting of each child seems to bring the parent within the circle of "the holy miracle of his child's identity," that lady feels obliged to nudge the parent and let him in on the utilitarian motive. In the auditorium, the nonbelieving adults must be separated from their credulous children so that their lack of belief will not be infectious. After her reference to the medieval mysteries, the narrator, continues ironically: "And what did it matter if the production was a mockery, a cartoon of the art of drama."

Several of Mary McCarthy's critical writings lend support, I believe, to this interpretation. In her description of St. Mark's in Venice Observed, Miss McCarthy suggests that the vivid colors in which hell is painted in the mosaic, the "Universal Judgment," imply that the Venetians took the idea of judgement and damnation as story rather than as fact. She contrasts this mosaic with the impression of solid belief one gets when one looks at the altar and continues: "Something of this obstinate faith survives in the redhaired boy who explains the mosaics. He heard me one afternoon explaining them myself to a friend, and it cannot have been professional rivalry that caused him to interrupt. 'After the Crucifixion,' I was saying, 'Christ is supposed to have gone to Limbo—.' 'Not "supposed": He did,' the boy cut in, peremptorily."

Similarly, in a review of three plays produced in the 1944 season, she complains that though each—Harvey, The Streets are Guarded, and A Bell for Adono—suggests a pattern of belief, external doubt and renewed faith, each play fails to stand up to intellectual analysis because, outside of the play, no one can believe in the validity of the objects of belief. She writes: "Now this is an old enough pattern of drama or fiction; it is, after all, the story of the New Testament. What is remarkable in these three plays is that the virtue resides, not in the object, but in the believer. It makes no difference, according to these authors, whether the belief is objectively a delusion." Somewhat sadly she continues:

The truth is (and the weakness of these plays demonstrates it) that the drama is incorrigibly concrete; it cannot, like the movies, deal in shadows, or in reverie, like the novel. It demands that its conflicts be settled; it cannot, by its very nature, dissolve them away, as the camera can. It is the only one of the arts whose medium is the living flesh, and this sets a certain limit on belief—one is always more conscious of what is excessive in a stage performance than one is of the same kind of thing in a movie or a novel. In fact the very plainness, conclusiveness and realism of the stage have unfitted it to deal with this period of irresolution, evasion and ambiguity (Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962).

When we return to "The Unspoiled Reaction" with this distinction between genuine and spurious ritual in mind, we see that many events in the story parallel the ritual of the medieval mysteries. In the theatre lobby, there exists the initial friendliness between the entrepreneuse and the children, as there existed in Eden an initial friendliness between God and man. The adults, however, are "the snake in this paradise of innocence." Lacking faith, they see the badly lighted, damp, mostly empty theatre only as "this house of death." When the boy wanders onto the stage and attempts to touch Sunny, there is a breach between Sunny and the children as there was a breach between Adam and Eve and God. Retreating from Sunny, the boy stumbles and falls into a pit. Seemingly, too, there is redemption, for when Sunny returns, he is "cordial as ever. . . . Bygones were bygones, all was forgiven." After the play, however, the validity of this redemption is tested: "The drama was not quite over; a reconciliation must follow between the puppet and the child. . . ." Only then, in the curse of the old white-haired woman, "'You dreadful, horrible children,'" and her continued rage, is the spuriousness of the apparent reconciliation revealed, and the distinction between this and effective medieval rituals revealed. In these mysteries there was no fourth wall; the forgiveness was genuine because that which was enacted was, to player and audience alike, real.

Miss McCarthy seems to suggest, then, that the loss of faith has also meant the loss of affirmative ritualistic theatre. Incurably realistic, the theatre demands faith in the objects of belief it propounds. Lacking such belief itself, the modern adult world sees faith as suitable for children—fairy tales, Santa Claus, etc.—but, in the presence of other adults, especially is embarrassed and uneasy over the fraud. Nevertheless its continued, though somewhat uneasy, investing in childhood many of the values formerly associated with belief—innocence, forgiveness, kindness, and a certain nostalgia—suggests its own feelings of separation and desire for reconciliation, for genuine ritual. "In shame and silence, it [the audience] fled out into the rain, pursued by the sound of weeping which intermingled with the word child, as pronounced by the teacher in a tone of peculiar piety and reverence, her voice genuflecting to it as though to the Host" (final emphasis mine).

Barbara McKenzie (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: "The Arid Plain of 'The Cicerone'," in The Process of Fiction: Contemporary Stories and Criticism, Second Edition, edited by Barbara McKenzie, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 72-116.

[In the following essay, McKenzie provides a detailed analysis of "The Cicerone,"focusing on the story's communication of malaise. ]

"English, surely," the young American lady says, eying the "tall, straw-colored" stranger who stood smoking in the corridor of the wagon-lit. Unconvinced, her companion concedes, "If English, then a bounder." Their conversation continues "in an agreeable rattle-rattle" as they discuss the problems of detecting "a bounder in a foreign country." Thus Mary McCarthy begins her story about two young Americans (unnamed and unmarried) traveling together in Europe shortly after the end of World War II. For the most part, she writes from an inside point of view, using as her narrative focus the double consciousness of the American couple. Yet, in reality, this double consciousness is single. Different in their characteristic external responses, the young Americans are basically alike, having come "to think in unison" and needing "the spoken word only for a check."

Intrigued by Europe, they are also puzzled and challenged by its mystery. Although they are tourists and are ostensibly traveling in Italy for pleasure, the couple is determined to penetrate the "Continental standards" that they sense as "mysteriously different" and even, although they question their own seriousness, "to get into European society." Architecture, they believe, provides "the most solid answer to their social curiosity." Thus they seek to understand the Sforzas "through the agency of their Castello" and "to know the Pisani" by visiting Stra, on the Brenta. Putting great stock in appearances, they find their penchant for categorizing thwarted by upper-class Europeans who, trying "to dress like English gentlemen," strike "the inevitable false notes."

But "The Cicerone" is less about the adventures of two Americans in search of Europe than it is about American attitudes toward the Continent. To dramatize this wider purpose, Miss McCarthy uses Rino Sciarappa, the cicerone, and introduces a third American, Polly Grabbe. Basic to the symbolic structure of the story is the assumption that Sciarappa is the personification of post-war Europe. "The mystery of Europe lay in him as solidly as in the stones of Venice, and it was somewhat less worn by previous inquisitive travelers." To the American couple, the Italian is "a city of Catacombs" whose "real life" is conducted in the "tunnel" of his mind. The cicerone's appearance underscores his identification with Europe—in particular, post-war Italy. His slenderness is cadaverous and his quick and light movements, effete. He reminds the young lady and young man "of that horror so often met in Paris, city of beauty, the well-preserved woman in her fifties." Even "the terraced fields" are "like Mr. Sciarappa's wrinkles." Moreover, the land bears "the mark of wisdom—it too had seen life." The different ways in which the young American couple and Miss Grabbe relate to Sciarappa clarify different but similar American attitudes toward Europe. Conversely, the disbelieving and contemptuous Italian expresses a conventional attitude of Europe toward America: '"Ah, you Americans,'" he remarks, "'your streets are paved with dollars.'"

Like Rino Sciarappa, the young American couple behaves in a manner that, similar to "the young lady's large black hat, long gloves, high-heeled shoes, and nylon stockings," acts as "a declaration of nationality." The young man who walks "proudly on the dilapidated streets of Europe" is unabashedly curious. Little interested in people's opinions or in their emotions, he is "passionately, madly curious as to what people did and how they made their money." Uneasy in "his small role as war-profiteer," he nonetheless avoids the black market in favor of cashing "his checks at the regular rate at the bank" for only a single week. The young lady shares the inquisitiveness of her companion. An active verbalizer, she is adept at labeling sentiments, at dissecting shades of feeling, of making subtle distinctions. She is both aggressive and gullible. Being gregarious, she "took the kindest view of everyone" and believed that "she was the only person in the world who told lies."

The relationship that develops between Rino Sciarappa and the two Americans is as deserved as it is bizarre. Since the narrator does not enter the Italian's mind, the Italian is an enigma not only to the young man and young lady but to the reader as well. Stymied by the cicerone's uncertain grasp of English syntax, the Americans seek to ascertain his place in the social hierarchy and thereby to "understand" Europe not through what he says but through more tangible, external means. But neither his appearance nor his professed occupation allows them to turn him into a demonstrable abstraction. Equally unknowable are his reasons for staying with them in the role of cicerone.

The term "cicerone" derives from the name of the Roman orator Cicero and refers to his learning or eloquence. It was first applied to learned Italian antiquarians whose function was to provide visitors with information about the antiquities of a place. Subsequently, the meaning was widened to include ordinary professional guides. But in neither the original nor the later sense is Sciarappa a cicerone, and herein lies the central irony of the story at its literal and satirical levels. Not valuing the art treasures of Italy and, in fact, not valuing post-war Italy, he cannot credit tourism as a legitimate motive for the Americans' being in Italy any more than he can credit as honest their enthusiastic response to Italy's art objects and buildings: "it was as if the devaluation of the currency had, for Mr. Sciarappa's consistent thought, implicated everything Italian; cathedrals, pictures, women had dropped with the lira." Further, since cathedrals, works of art, museums, and palaces maintained by the state were free to all, Sciarappa considers them as valuable to none. Equally peculiar—for a guide—is the "one solid trait" that the two Americans discover in his character, his "rooted abhorrence of the advertised first-rate, of best hotels, top restaurants, principal shopping streets, famous vineyards." In an interplay of internal emotions and external forces, Miss McCarthy balances Sciarappa against the Americans. Neither the Italian nor the Americans can assign each other to a social class. The young man and young lady sense that Sciarappa believes himself to be the victim of an imposture. "But did he believe that they were rich pretending to be poor, or poor pretending to be rich? They could not tell." Their partial understanding of the Italian's hostility does not preclude their lessening sympathy toward him and their increasing impatience at devoting evenings to a "stranger who was continually out of sorts because he could not make up his mind whether they were worth swindling." Later, in Venice, they find themselves in the same kind of situation: "He had become a problem for them in both senses of the word: the impossibility of talking with him was compensated for by the possibilities of talking about him, and the detachment of their attitude was, they felt, atoned for by their neighborliness in the physical sphere."

This kind of balancing, this interplay between abhorrence and attraction, supply and demand, is apparent in other short stories by Miss McCarthy. In "The Genial Host," for example, Margaret Sargent realizes that she exists in a strange symbiotic relationship with Pflaumen the host. His price for providing dinner parties where she meets eligible young men is that she inform him of resulting emotional liaisons. In "The Friend of the Family," the husband and wife discover the usefulness of the unobtrusive and dull Francis Cleary. His company is not sprightly but neither is it demanding or upsetting, and thus they find themselves cultivating this mutually satisfactory friend, even to the point of wooing him in order to maintain the delicate balance of their own social relationship. Further evidence can be found in "The Weeds," where the wife, after trying to break away from her husband and start a new life in New York City, returns to her husband, defeated by the inevitable changes that five years have wrought in herself, her friends, and the social patterns she had known as a single woman. Modifying her demands, she goes back to her insensitive and dogmatic husband because she needs the structured situation he offers her.

In a similar way, the Americans find themselves drawn to the distrustful and uncommunicative cicerone, despite the absence of a common meeting ground. In fact, they need him precisely because he is different from them, for they sense the mystery of Europe in his enigmatic disaffection. If they can understand Sciarappa, they reason, they can understand Europe. Consequently they try to coax the Italian "out into the open." Their bait is Polly Grabbe, a "middling but authentically rich" American whom they are to meet in Venice. Well known for her semi-annual pilgrimages to Europe in search of love and for her collection of garden statuary, the flower-bulb heiress provides a means for them to trap Sciarappa into revealing himself. If he wishes money, Polly Grabbe has enough to precipitate him into some decisive action. If he seeks a mistress, Miss Grabbe is accessible.

But the relationship that develops between Sciarappa and the American heiress fails to reveal the inner nature of the Italian. Shrewd and flighty, relentless in her search for experience and lenient in her judgments of men, Miss Grabbe fails to provoke the cicerone into disclosing his motivation. Throughout, Polly Grabbe refuses to see anything transcendent about the man and interprets his behavior on the basis of her own limitations. Instead of seeing "the problem of Sciarappa," she warns the Americans that he will spoil Venice for them. Commenting on Sciarappa's disappearance on the day of the fiesta, she says, "'I thought you wanted to get rid of him—he has probably found bigger fish.'" At another time, she tells the young man, "'My dear, he simply wants to sell us something."'

It is inevitable, therefore, that she should relate to Sciarappa in her own way—as a convenient directory of people and places and, finally, as a lover. Her graphic confession after a night of lovemaking ("'he is much older than you think'") dramatizes the polarities between her and the young Americans. The young lady begs her to stop because she knows that "this mortal exposé" is not what they had wanted; "on the contrary, they had had in mind something more sociological, more humane—biographical details, Mr. Sciarappa's relation with his parents, his social position, his business, his connection with the Fascist state." The revelation of Miss Grabbe yields only an image of Sciarappa "hunted down, defenseless, surprised in bed by a party of intruders." The motives, status, and true public self of the Italian—"'the really interesting part about him'"—continue to elude them.

As they travel to Florence, they note that the "landscape itself seemed to wear a face baked and disabused as Mr. Sciarappa's own." Geography and man merge when they unexpectedly encounter the cicerone in Florence. Baffled, the young man admits, '"He is following us, but he is ahead.'" In Rome, where their persistent curiosity causes them to "investigate" the address of the Italian, they do so with quickened expectation. "The European enigma and its architectural solution lay just before them, around a bend in the street." Their discovery that his house is "plain and shabby" makes them feel as mortified and embarrassed as when they had listened to Polly Grabbe's confession. "This house too was an obscenity, like the shrunken skin and the scapular, but it was also a shell which Rino Sciarappa did not truly inhabit." Their shame causes them to turn away, aware that "the relation between pursuer and pursued had been confounded, by a dialectic too subtle for their eyes."

What has happened is that their net—architecture—is, like Miss Grabbe's, "too coarse to catch" the mystery of the Italian. The distaste the American couple feels for each other is really an objectifying of what each finds repugnant in himself. In their alikeness, each is subdued by the grossness he sees reflected in the other person. Thus the story folds back on itself, and the two Americans are again standing at a distance from the secrets of Europe, reduced, at least momentarily, from their hopeful curiosity on the wagons-lits or their naive, optimistic belief that someone would "discover them in this dark continent."

The dialectic that confounds the relation between pursuer and pursued has to do with the interchangeability of the two entities. Ostensibly Sciarappa is the pursuer. The American couple and Miss Grabbe see him as wanting something from them. What the young lady and young man discover is that they are also pursuers in a pursuit externalized by their image of the cicerone "hunted down" in Miss Grabbe's bed, by their finding him waiting for them in Florence, and by their "investigation" of his residence in Rome. The dialectic resulting from this exchange of roles is indeed too subtle for their eyes to detect. Externals such as houses and clothes are forever incapable of explaining an entity as elusive as Rino Sciarappa, who had, quite literally, "careened away from them into the inexplicable."

The conclusion of "The Cicerone" makes the formal design of the story apparent. It began with the two young Americans, opened to include Rino Sciarappa (as the first sentence suggested), and then widened to encompass the flower-bulb heiress. After this relative fullness, the story closed in on itself again, finally returning to the isolated consciousness of the American couple. Such formal balancing of plot and characters parallels and enhances the delicate balance of the social relationships that form the story's content.

In commenting on her technique as a writer, Mary McCarthy has said, "With characters, I do try at least to be as exact as possible about the essence of a person, to find the key that works the person both in real life and in the fiction." Yet, despite scrupulous delineation of dress (Miss Grabbe's and the young lady's "costumes"), history (Miss Grabbe's past), mannerisms (the young man's unleashed hilarity), subtleties of feeling (the young lady is a "specialist in sentiments"), the reader remains at considerable psychic distance from the characters. This "gulf is inevitable in the case of Polly Grabbe and the cicerone—characters whose consciousnesses are closed to us. But we are removed even from those characters whose perceptions serve as narrative focus—the young couple. This separation is widened by Miss McCarthy's failure to name her central characters: They are anonymous Americans of cultivated sensibility.

As a fiction writer, however, Miss McCarthy most often bases her characters on persons whom she has known. The facts of her life frequently supply the "facts" of her fiction. Many knowledgeable readers have noted the similarities between Mary McCarthy and the young lady, Miss McCarthy's third husband and the young man, and a famous real-life American heiress and Polly Grabbe. It is as though by drawing them from real-life models Miss Mc-Carthy assumes their "life-likeness" in fiction. In truth, however, the characters in "The Cicerone" are little more than two-dimensional puppets maneuvered into place by the author. A consequence of their "flatness," of the manner in which they are made "real," is their distance from us. In turn, this distance compounds our lack of sympathy toward them.

Ironically, the "person" we are closest to in "The Cicerone" is the implied author—that is, the image of Mary McCarthy we construct from reading the story. In the first paragraph, it is Miss McCarthy (not the young man or young woman) who compares Sciarappa to "an English cigarette," finding that the Italian bears "the same relation to a man that a Gold Flake bears to a normal cigarette." In this same paragraph, it is Miss McCarthy, again speaking directly through her narrator, who likens the young man's eyes to "strange green headlights on an old-fashioned car." Throughout the story, various similes, metaphors, allusions, and turns of phrase come not from the characters but, unfiltered, from the narrator who, serving as the author's agent, displays her brilliant command of language.

Yet Miss McCarthy's unwillingness or inability to create round, sympathetic characters is basic to her method and purpose as a writer. Fundamental to her intention is the depiction of characters that are representative types as well as singular entities. Her ability to see and describe generically is partly responsible for her ability to write satirically. In "The Cicerone," the Americans and Sciarappa are satirical portraits of representative types. Concomitantly, satire allows Miss McCarthy to accomplish her larger social purpose in this story.

For through Sciarappa and the American she is embodying national attributes and attitudes. Parasitic, unyielding, and nervous, Rino Sciarappa is Europe. Remember Polly Grabbe's confession, "'My dear, he is much older than you think.'" He is also faded and secretive. To the Americans, he is "the face of Italian history." Even his purposelessness, his lack of occupation, identifies him with a Europe recovering from a devastating war. Polly Grabbe and her flower-bulb fortune represent more than American materialism, vulgarity, and artistic pretension. Quite literally, Polly Grabbe "grabs" at Europe through the agency of the cicerone. Accepting Sciarappa as a lover, she causes him to strip himself physically in a gesture that parallels her requisitioning of Europe's art treasures. The young American couple wants to strip Europe spiritually and intellectually, but, in their persistence, they are as gross as Miss Grabbe. The tone-deaf young man and the gullible young lady differ in kind but not degree from the heiress in their quest to understand the social hierarchy and heritage of Europe and to lay bare its spiritual essence. That they fail with Sciarappa is symptomatic of their larger failure.

The life depicted in "The Cicerone" is bleak and hopeless. In many ways, the war-torn, humbled, unyielding Europe Miss McCarthy describes has echoes of T. S.

Eliot's The Waste Land, which also imagizes a parched and barren land. Like Eliot's personages, the young Americans are dry and sterile people who intellectualize their experience as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to intellectualize Europe and its mystery. In the manner of the inhabitants of The Waste Land, they have lost touch with the past and cannot participate in its rituals, as their inability to share in the bacchanalian experience of the fiesta suggests. Paralleling Eliot's poem, the failure in sexual relationships in "The Cicerone" suggests the malaise of the wider society. Having recognized the disadvantages of traveling together—"('My dear,' said the young lady, 'a couple looks so complete')"—the young Americans accept their "handicap" like "the best jockey" in a horse race who "scorns to take a lighter weight." Although Rino Sciarappa gives himself to Polly Grabbe in a night of adequate though not extraordinary lovemaking, he rejuvenates neither himself nor his partner. Instead, he leaves Venice the next morning, offering as a reminder of himself a list of second-best restaurants and hotels. That Polly Grabbe stores the devalued currency of Italy in her douchebag is a fitting and final symbol for all that is incongruous and debased in the arid plain of "The Cicerone."

Irvin Stock (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "The Novels of Mary McCarthy," in Fiction as Wisdom: From Goethe to Bellow, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980, pp. 156-89.

[In the following excerpt, Stock discusses the themes of the novella The Oasis.]

McCarthy has defended The Oasis (1949) from the charge that it is not a novel by insisting that it was not intended to be, that it is a conte philosophique. This explains its lack of action, for instead of plot we have slight episodes explored for their large meanings and characters revealed less by what they do than in long satirical descriptions. But it cannot eliminate the sense that the tale's developments, which ought after all to arise by an inner necessity, are sometimes arbitrarily asserted, as if to get things moving. And yet the reminder of an elegant eighteenth-century prose form does point to qualities that will keep the tale, in spite of its imperfections, interesting for a long time. The satirical descriptions do not merely imitate but genuinely duplicate the qualities of eighteenth-century prose masters—the psychological insight, the general wisdom, the witty, epigrammatic, gracefully balanced sentences.

The Oasis is the story of a group of New York intellectuals—based apparently on well-known friends of the author, but to the rest of us recognizable as contemporary types—who, shortly after World War II, form a colony called Utopia in the Taconic Mountains of New York State. The colonists fall mainly into two factions. The "purists" hope the colony will illustrate "certain notions of justice, freedom, and sociability" derived from their Founder, a saintly Italian anarchist lost in "a darkened city of Europe." This group is led by Macdougal Macdermott, a man who rightly senses that he does not naturally belong to "that world of the spirit" which he yearns to enter, but who, "ten years before . . . had made the leap into faith and sacrificed $20,000 a year and a secure career as a paid journalist for the intangible values that eluded his empirical grasp. He had moved down town into Bohemia, painted his walls indigo, dropped the use of capital letters and the practice of wearing a vest" and become the editor of a "libertarian magazine." The "realists," on the other hand, have come only for a holiday from the pressures of real life. They look upon "conspicuous goodness" like the Founder's as a "form of simple-mindedness on a par with vegetarianism, and would have refused admission to Heaven on the ground that it was full of greenhorns and cranks." Moreover, they find absurd the assumption of "human freedom" which underlies all that the purists believe, for they are inheritors of Marxian "scientific socialism," and though they had discarded the dialectic and repudiated the Russian Revolution, "the right of a human being to think that he could resist history, environment, class structure, psychic conditioning was something they denied him with all the ferocity of their own pent-up natures and disappointed hopes." And since "ideological supremacy" has become "essential to their existence," they look forward with pleasure to the colony's failure. They do, however, wish it to fail convincingly, of its own foolishness, and this seduces them into unusually good behavior. Soon Will Taub, their leader, finds that he participates "in the forms of equity with increasing confidence, and though of course he did not take any of it seriously, his heavy and rather lowering nature performed the unaccustomed libertarian movements with a feeling of real sprightliness and wondering self-admiration, as if he had been learning to dance."

In Will Taub we have the first full-fledged example of the enemy in McCarthy's world, the Other to all that she values. He is one who is at home only in the realm of ideas, who is flat-footed in his behavior with children, women—in all nonintellectual relations—who feels pain at the very word "Jew" because "his Jewishness [was] a thing about himself which he was powerless to alter and which seemed to reduce him therefore to a curious dependency on the given." And this rejection of the "given," the real, on behalf of a world of ideas where he can reign supreme involves too a rejection of moral responsibility. It is for the realists a felt oddity in Utopia that "here they were answerable for their deeds to someone and not simply to an historical process." And Taub is even capable, like the later Henry Mulcahy, of beginning to believe his own lie (that an embarrassingly cowardly reaction of his is due to former police persecution) in order to maintain his cherished supremacy.

These two characters, and Joe Lockman, the go-getting businessman who comes to Utopia determined to get more spiritual profit out of it than anyone else, are the tale's most vivid portraits. But it is a fourth, Katy Norell, to whom its chief events tend to happen and out of whose responses its meanings emerge. Katy, a teacher of Greek, suffers from "a strong will and a weak character," an awkward compulsion to tell the truth even when it aggravates her problems, and a readiness to feel guilty when things go wrong. Though it was her "instinctive opinion . . . that the past could be altered and actions, like words, 'taken back,'" her husband's disgust with her, one occasion when it seems serious, gives her a frightening glimpse of life "as a black chain of consequence, in which nothing was lost, forgot, forgiven, redeemed, in which the past was permanent and the present slipping away from her." This character, weak but scrupulous, who wishes life were easy but can't shut out the perception that it is hard, is, of course, a sister of Margaret Sargent [in The Company She Keeps] as well as of the later Martha Sinnott [in A Charmed Life], though, unlike the others, she pays for representing her author's inner life by being one of the less vivid characters in her book. But it is out of her inner contradictions that the book's closing insights come. These insights are initiated by the last of several challenges to the colony's "sociability"—the stealing of their strawberries by some rough interlopers, whom Katy herself, frightened when her pleading is answered with threatening gestures, demands be ejected by force. Taub taunts her with her contradiction, her yielding to "human nature," and at this, lulled or liberated by the dinner wine, she begins to understand. They did wrong, she thinks, to cling to the strawberries without needing them—it was only the idea of the strawberries they cared about. They had let "mental images" possess them as the idea of sex dominates the mind in pornography. But the mind should stick to its own objects, "love, formal beauty, virtue"; they should not have tried to make real things dance to the mind's tune. And this is only a small example of their fundamental error. As the tale draws to an end, she realizes that Utopia is going to fail because of their wish to "embody virtue." If they had been content to manufacture, not virtue, but furniture, it might have survived.

It is a rueful, if not tragic, conclusion. To replace the stubborn complexity of people and society with ideas is the mistake of both parties in Utopia. The cynics who insist that our behavior is determined by history and the "idealists" who believe that man can be what he wishes to be are shown to be equally removed from the life we actually live. And yet those like Katy Norell, who see how both are wrong, who feel and suffer life up close, are better off, if at all, only because it is better to understand. For their superiority consists mainly in desiring a virtue they know they can never attain.


Mary McCarthy Long Fiction Analysis


McCarthy, Mary (Therese)