McCarthy, Mary 1912–
An American novelist, essayist, short story writer, and critic, Ms McCarthy is known for her social and political criticism as well as for her popular novels The Group and Birds of America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Though hardly an allegorist, Mary McCarthy is one example of what I mean by the academic novelist. An abrasive critical intelligence and a formidably incisive prose writer, Miss McCarthy has not written a first-rate novel. Mainly she has not because she is unable (or unwilling) to create characters capable of defying their maker. They are not quite like some of Robert Penn Warren's, embodied abstractions; but for all their simulation of a kind of life, they are not quite human beings either; they are artifacts of real people. Miss McCarthy holds them up to the fluoroscope of her critical intelligence and finds them sterile and absurd, mean and pretentious, deceitful and corrupt, and worse. How comic and unpleasant we all are! And the secret is, she knew it all the time. She has schemed her characters as moral deformities in the first place. The best of her novels, The Groves of Academe, treats with nice comic distance the machinations of an academic failure who makes himself seem a victim of persecution in order to retain his small position in a college that seems as hypocritical, mediocre and unpleasant as the man himself. Written with a cold Augustan eye, a scrupulous aversion for mortal weakness, Groves of Academe is a vicious and amusing satire, unbloodied by any real traces of human behavior. For all the wit and intelligence that informs her fictional world, it is devoid of compassion, an unlovely wasteland. And what comfort to feel superior to her people! What small, hateful comfort! It is not so much a vision of the world that Miss McCarthy gives us but an attitude, a series of rigidly preconceived attitudes, which denies her characters the limited freedom of self-motion, and in the process the possibility of discovery which is the miracle of the novel's art. (pp. 8-9)
Jonathan Baumbach, "Introduction" to his The Landscape of Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1965 by New York University), New York University Press, 1965, pp. 8-9.
Whole sections of Birds of America read like a valentine to Fanny Farmer.
Picking one's way through the author's loving, Whitmanesque lists of foods, flowers, and other impedimenta of a lost domestic paradise, one wonders at times if this is a novel or a course in home economics. One wonders, too, if we—both Mary McCarthy and her readers—have not seriously misjudged her real ambitions as a writer. Is it possible that our leading bitch-intellectual, so renowned for her cold-blooded hatchetwork on the pieties of the liberal mind, has all along been harboring a desire to assume the mantle of Mrs. Beeton? Unserious questions, you may say. But alas, this is the kind of mental tick-tack-toe the reader of Birds of America is reduced to for pages—for chapters—at a time.
There are, to be sure, some characters in this novel, though they are distinctly less important—less real—to the author than are things….
There is also, in a manner of speaking, a plot—a small, poor, badly undernourished, somewhat dehydrated little cliché of a plot, but a plot all the same…. Despite the hailstorm of "ideas" that can be heard hitting the roof—all those long, long thoughts about nature, taste, progress, democracy, and America—all we are really offered in Birds of America is a few pathetic scraps from the Jamesian banquet.
Still, better novels have been written on flimsier and no less hackneyed materials. The dispiriting quality of Birds of America owes as much to its style as to its theme. For the truth is—dare one say it?—that Mary McCarthy cannot write a novel. She lacks the essential fictional gift: She cannot imagine others. Missing from the powerful arsenal of her literary talents is some fundamental mimetic sympathy. We can no more imagine her being haunted by one of her characters than we can imagine Proust, say, not being haunted by one of his. There is, indeed, a more vivid sense of character in almost any one of her literary or political essays than in her fiction, and for a very good reason. In her essays, Miss McCarthy is not obliged to do the impossible: invent the people she is writing about.
To understand the method and the texture of a Mary McCarthy novel, one must go back to the beginnings of her literary career—to the bright, brittle, wickedly snobbish reviews of Broadway shows she once wrote for Partisan Review. For the fact is, she has never stopped writing these reviews, even in her novels. But whereas even third-rate Broadway comedies once provided the theater critic with substantial enough characters to write about, the novelist must create her own, and this Miss McCarthy cannot do. In Birds of America, neither Peter Levi nor his silly mother is ever really there; the author simply "reviews" their ideas and their actions at stupefying length. They do not even enjoy the kind of reality that, in most of Mary McCarthy's writing, is given to the butts of her satire, for the author is more than a little in love with these characters. The satirical thrust is reserved for their adversaries in taste.
Really, it is all too tedious to be endured. Although—as always in Miss McCarthy's writing—there is a good deal of free-floating snobbery in the book, the issue of snobbery as a social or spiritual value is never joined. We shall have to look elsewhere for the novel we need on this theme.
Nor can Birds of America be said to have a value as social reportage, for its account of the sociology of taste is totally out of date. While the entire country is half-mad with dreams of culinary glory, with herb gardens flourishing, and the smallest hardware stores in the tiniest villages of Maine boasting ample supplies of preserving jars by the dozens, Mary McCarthy imagines that all these things belong to some prehistoric past. This is really the only good joke to be found in this novel—that its author is so preposterously out of date about the objects of her concern. (p. 2)
Hilton Kramer, in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 23, 1971.
Birds of America strikes me as another book that has gone wrong…. [My] complaint is that [Mary McCarthy] tries to fit a running political, social, and ecological commentary-cum-satire into the form of a novel that cannot or will not sustain it. At best, it strives to become a contemporary Candide, but hardly succeeds, mainly because Peter's innocence is more irksome than it is refreshing: he seems badly in need of a father as well as a mother. (pp. 463-64)
Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring, 1973.
I find MMcC too full of herself when she writes of wars and military trials and great events [in The Seventeenth Degree], so that one sees her figure looming large in the foreground of her fine prose, hears her too-certain, too-loud voice sounding out over the roar of guns and planes and testimony of soldiers in the background, and this grows irritating after a while. One paragraph of the first essay will illustrate this. Even if your ear is poor you will not be able to miss the dominance of the first-person pronoun, her ego over the matter…. As always, MMcC is her own favorite story. (p. 33)
Doris Grumbach, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 25, 1974.
Mary McCarthy is an American novelist who was known, chiefly, to a small band of other novelists, whose novels she respectfully reviewed in small literary magazines and who respectfully reviewed hers, until she broke out of that rarified circle and, momentarily, into the real world of Hemingway and Steinbeck (the latter whom she refers to in The Seventeenth Degree as a "fool"), when she came up with one called The Group. Buried in it was a passing account of a lesbian, which attracted a film company, because in those pre-Jacqueline Susann days, lesbians were few and far between in novels by respectable lady authors. With that episode highly emphasised, the film was a hit and the titillated rushed out to buy the book, only to find those passages too vague to get much of a kick from, and so Miss McCarthy went back to writing novels which were read by reviewers in the little literary magazines and hardly anyone else. She was reputed to have a private income.
She was, of course, devoted to John F. Kennedy and was prepared, one assumes, for there is no evidence to the contrary, to be as devoted to Lyndon Johnson, until she noticed Vietnam. It had been there all along, of course, under Kennedy, but it was not an important war, not important enough, at any rate, to arouse the tigress in Miss McCarthy. No important numbers of Vietnamese were being slaughtered, and not much American money was being spent. But when Johnson followed, to the letter, Kennedy's battle plans (perfected by his previous military adventure, the Bay of Pigs), and the loss of lives and money became noticeable, Miss McCarthy, suddenly aflame, demanded that he stop. Johnson didn't stop, if indeed he ever heard of her demand, any more than Kennedy or any other Commander-in-Chief would have. Even when Robert Lowell, a poet whose blank verse sways 8,765 Americans, refused to attend a White House Festival of the Arts unless his host stopped that war forthwith, the Festival simply chugged along without him.
Miss McCarthy, Mr. Lowell, and many other of our most prestigious military planners, took out full-pages in the New York Times, denouncing the President as a blood-drinking colossus, obsessed with destroying the little brown people of the world when it was perfectly clear that Vietnam was a nagging circumstance he had inherited from the Kennedys that he didn't know what in hell to do with, except somehow to win, and that his towering achievement, the achievement closest to his damaged heart, was the civil rights legislation, which the Kennedys and the McCarthys and the Lowells had long whined about and done nothing about, but which he wheedled and bullied through Congress to give dignity, at long last, to the black and brown people of America.
There were lots of Mary McCarthys around in the 'sixties and early' seventies; Jane Fonda and Joan Baez were the best known. They said and wrote much which they are, understandably, embarrassed by today, but not our Mary. She wrote pamphlet after pamphlet in those days. She should be grateful today that they were ignored even by her friends on the little literary magazines, and that nobody bought them, but like a surly fighter who fought a wild and foolish fight, and lost, she insists on running the videotapes of her performance again in this collection [The Seventeenth Degree] and to the same empty rooms. The running theme of this new collection is that the North Vietnamese (and their allies, the Russians, the Chinese and the Viet Cong) were saints and the Americans and the South Vietnamese were bums. The disorder of Saigon disgusted her. The perfect order of Hanoi charmed her….
It was in Hanoi "we heard Johnson's abdication speech. All of us … dancing … kissing, hugging each other, took a bit of credit for ourselves. We had helped to bring the war to an end. It could not last much longer."
What the Mary McCarthys helped to do was bring Nixon into the White House and prolong the war four bloody years longer.
Al Capp, "American Farce," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 15, 1975, p. 182.
The Vietnam war and its subsequent wrangles turned Mary McCarthy into a pamphleteer. Until 1964, when she became interested and eventually obsessed by America's part in the war, her writing was characterised by a patrician wit and a humane political sense. She did not cease to be humane with her concern in the war—far from it—but her forthrightness became blunter still and her writing almost wilfully inelegant. And something else, a mingling of new tones, the first a zealous and enterprising Mother Superior's ('This belief of mine was what was prompting me, like an apostolic "call", to put aside my normal work and go'), the second reminiscent of the chatty radicalism of the Princess Casamassima ('At my desk I had rather pleasant reveries of going to jail. It could be peaceful: no telephone'). In this collection of long, related pieces [The Seventeenth Degree] two are new and three have already appeared in book form. They are all linked in some way to Vietnam and though none is news they constitute a thoughtful appraisal of what is by no means an ended war. How right she was. (p. 311)
For anyone who doubts the value of Mary McCarthy's survey, charging her with republishing something that has outworn its usefulness, it is well to remember that President Ford is urging Congress to increase military aid. No supply of arms can possibly be handed over without men to act as advisers, and we could well be back to the days of 1963, before—as Orwell put it—we were jerked out of our deep sleep by the roar of bombs. If that happens, Ms McCarthy's book will not be history but prophecy, and there is no question that this is part of her pamphleteering intention. (p. 312)
Paul Theroux, "Mother Superior," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 7, 1975, pp. 311-12.