Mary McCarthy McCarthy, Mary - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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).

Malcolm Cowley (essay date 1942)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Isherwood (essay date 1942)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Alexander Klein (essay date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Charles Poore (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Lorine Pruette (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Seymour Krim (essay date 1951)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Mary McCarthy with Elisabeth Niebuhr (interview date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

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]: I remember 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...

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Doris Grumbach (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

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. "]


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Francis Gillen (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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. "]

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Barbara McKenzie (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Irvin Stock (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

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