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.
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.
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.