McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 3)
McCarthy, Mary 1912–
American novelist, essayist, and short story writer, Ms. McCarthy is a topical writer, and her concerns encompass literary, social, and political affairs. She has been called America's only living woman of letters, and is best known for her novel, The Group. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
It is odd to notice how one's praise of Miss McCarthy tends to be expressed first in negative terms. How pleasant it is to find a woman writer who is not sentimental, whose sensibility is not lush, who does not explore with exquisite tenderness a heroine's first or second or fifteenth love affair. There are positive things to be said too: how much one admires her wit and her considered, self-conscious, yet fluidly elegant style, and the sensibility that is always present although not on parade. Yet one comes back always to those awkward questions of Mr. Penn Warren's about the standards that should be implicit in satire, the real right thing that one's exposure of the false thing should, must, be in aid of. What, for Miss McCarthy, is the real right thing? Once it was a theory of political action, but that was long ago. What is it now? Or is she really no more than a most elegant cat among the clumsy academic, political, literary pigeons?… [Miss McCarthy] is not happy using the form of the novel. But a writer so ingenious and so intelligent will surely at last evolve a form to fit her delight in playing with ideas and her outstanding wit and elegance in the use of words.
Julian Symons, "That Elegant Miss McCarthy" (1957), in his Critical Occasions, Hamish Hamilton, 1966, pp. 90-8.
[In Mary McCarthy] we have a young woman (one will always think of her as young as long as she retains her engaging insouciance and her killer instinct) who has written five satirical novels and a collection of shorter fictional essays in controlled malice without any conscious recognition of the disparity between her professed beliefs and the actual touchstones that give point to her ironies. Three of the novels—The Company She Keeps, The Oasis, The Groves of Academe—are first-rate in their candid and witty exposure of types of fashionable radicals; and the shorter fictions (see the purely fictional first half of Cast a Cold Eye) have the merit of sustained mood pieces carried out with a cauterizing detachment…. The Group … sometimes deserts satire for a straight realism that is infused with a surprisingly poignant tenderness, but insofar as it is a satirical story of what it was like to come of age in the New Deal decade it makes an implicit case for an older America that is not sustained when Miss McCarthy speaks in what she calls her "own voice." Another novel, A Charmed Life, which preceded The Group in point of writing, is full of incidental good things, but it must rank as an ambitious failure for the simple reason that the heroine (if that is the word for Martha Sinnott) never quite comes into focus. Yet even in A Charmed Life Miss McCarthy's fiction is living proof that one can be good, and sometimes very good, without quite being conscious of one's actual frame of moral reference. One can build better than one knows….
[The] realism of Miss McCarthy's political economy is not at issue here, [but] its actual aesthetic relevance to her stories must be questioned. The point is that Mary McCarthy's fiction never achieves its force or meaning from her professed political orientation. Her utopia is never really brought to bear on her subject matter. And her conclusions follow, not from her romantic identification with Trotskyism (in an earlier phase) or with "libertarian socialism" (in a later), but from an unconscious application of far less revolutionary common sense. She achieves Waugh-like effects because, actually, she respects a rather traditional sense of personal morality. And it may be significant that she had a Catholic upbringing….
Since all of Mary McCarthy's novels are the products of a keen, if somewhat unanchored, intelligence, it is hardly to be wondered at that Mary McCarthy is her own best critic on occasion. The feminine novel, which is long on bric-a-brac, is not for Miss McCarthy; she insists on structure and idea. Her defense of Jane Austen cuts through the nonsense of those Janeites who think of Miss Austen as the progenitor of the Anglican tea-time manner in describing things of purely feminine interest. As Mary McCarthy insists, Jane Austen is always possessed of an idea…. In assessing Jane Austen for what she was at a time when the novel was young, Mary McCarthy points the way to a comparably valid assessment of her own work now that the novel is older. The Company She Keeps is a judgment on the playgirl as romantic revolutionary; The Oasis is a preachment on the futility of political escape; The Groves of Academe insists that teaching should not be left to those who think that the discipline of "keeping school" is an outmoded Victorian prejudice; A Charmed Life, though its heroine is unmotivated, has something to say about the folly of rearing a marriage on doubt; The Group says that it is better for a woman to be a woman, but having a good man might help. Austenish novels, all of them, even though the bite and savor of Mary McCarthy is a far cry from Miss Austen's far gentler irony.
The animating force of Mary McCarthy's "lively natural style" (her own phrase) derives from an intransigent will to candor. She will have no idols beyond the idol of the writer as dedicated non-careerist and non-politician when it comes to practicing his vocation. The defect of this insistence on purity is that it becomes self-conscious to the point of destroying compassion for compromising mortals.
John Chamberlain, "The Novels of Mary McCarthy" (© 1963 by John Chamberlain; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 241-55.
[What] is surprising is not that The Group may cost Miss McCarthy her intellectual reputation, but that, in view of some of the novels and stories she has previously written, she should have any intellectual reputation left to lose. After all, she has been well known for years to the small highbrow public as a writer of fiction that is considered to be merciless in its treatment of various aspects of the intellectual life. She is infamous for making it a habit to include in her fiction equally merciless portraits of real people—former husbands and lovers, old friends and acquaintances, strange men who engaged her in stupid conversations or dared to make passes at her at parties and on trains, and presumably even stranger (and stupider) men who did not dare. One would have thought—human nature being what it is—that she would long ago have begun to suffer the consequences that normally follow from doing this kind of thing. By all logic people should have despised her, taken revenge upon her, perhaps even done her bodily harm, and a good many of her victims would have been quite capable of being just as merciless as she….
Yet incredibly enough, nothing of the sort has happened to Miss McCarthy. Regardless of what she has had to say about them individually or collectively, she has gone right on being the darling of American intellectuals. They continue—with whatever mixed sensations of delight and foreboding—to read her books and discuss them seriously. They continue to mention her name as often and in as many different places as a writer of her kind can expect to be mentioned. The more deeply she wounds them, the more they appear to admire and honor her. In fact, they have been so strangely undisturbed, even so strangely pleased, by her attacks upon them that one cannot help but wonder just how deeply, after all, she does wound, whether indeed there may not be just a touch of dullness somewhere along that formidable cutting edge….
"Nobody is quite so smart as Mary" is the simple, unaffected message of all [Miss McCarthy's] writing. In fact, her characteristic tone of voice as a writer is that of a self-righteous little girl lecturing her elders on matters that they have grown too morally soggy and mentally fatty to comprehend, and her strategy is to browbeat her readers into such a humiliating sense of their personal unworthiness that they will grant her anything, if only she will allow them to breathe the same heady air she breathes.
The very opaqueness and inconclusiveness of some of her work fortifies this impression of Miss McCarthy's sibylline powers, and so too does her enormous reputation for profundity. People come to her novels in very much the way that pioneer readers of the early twenties came to Ulysses and The Waste Land: in a state of prearranged bafflement, with their minds already made up that they are not going to be able to understand. They expect to plunge over their heads into deep intellectual waters, and they expect, even hope, to drown. Hence, when they discover that the work in question seems to fail in some odd fashion to cohere, that they are having trouble keeping the characters straight, or are unable to make out just what is happening and why, their best expectations are confirmed: they assume at once that the fault is in them, and they respectfully conclude that they are in the presence of "profundity."…
It should be evident by now that I think the reports of Miss McCarthy's overpowering distinction as a thinker, wit, and satirist have been greatly exaggerated. I do not deny that she is an extremely intelligent writer or that her satirical treatment of the intellectual life is often highly entertaining and very much to the point. Certainly, she has written more cleverly about the comedy of intellectual manners than any other American writer of the present or any previous time. Certainly too, she may be justly regarded as the foremost woman of letters in America, and the authority of the title need not come under too much disparagement just because the competition for it happens to be slight. Yet it does seem necessary to suggest that Miss McCarthy has for a long time been widely considered to be better than she is, and that because of the cloak of immunity that has shrouded her work up to now, she has been less stringently examined than her present position would seem to warrant. It is not that she has been getting away with murder. But she has been getting away with a reputation for murder that she has not entirely earned—and that should lead us to inquire whether there are in fact real corpses buried in her garden, or whether only the garden is real and the corpses are imaginary….
[It] is perhaps brutishly unchivalrous to say that Miss McCarthy's satire is neither very penetrating nor very funny. Yet in view of her reputation for ferocious wit, it seems about time some brute said it. A great deal of the satire in her novels (and again I distinguish between her novels and her relatively better work in the short story) has the exclusive, closed-circuit quality of an in-group joke, the kind of joke one might find immensely entertaining if only one knew the people involved. But since one does not know the people, it all seems rather pretentious and more than a little irritating, as any gossip about complete strangers is bound to seem.
John W. Aldridge, "Mary McCarthy: Princess Among the Trolls" (1965), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 95-132.
When The Group appeared in 1963, it seemed just barely possible that Mary McCarthy had in fact written the major novel everybody knew she would one day write. The book, first of all, was physically large, and that had its portent in a culture which has always equated literary significance with poundage. Second, it represented a radical departure from the kind of novels Miss McCarthy had previously done, those stiff, claustrophobic little studies of the intellectual life that were so crammed with cerebration and bitchiness and finally so empty, but that had won her a reputation for brilliance as unassailable as it was inexplicable.
The Group differed from these novels not only in possessing far greater bulk but in developing a theme of potentially major dimension within a form which had come over the years to be certified as the official form in American fiction for the expression of a major theme. In living behind the comedy of intellectual manners, Miss McCarthy had ventured for the first time into a field one might suppose she would have thought vulgar, the field of the big panoramic social novel in which, as Dos Passos and John O'Hara had already shown, the spirit of an entire epoch might, with sufficient talent and luck, be characterized through the lives of people who could be seen as its representative types….
[Yet] The Group was not a great novel. It was not even a major novel. On careful reading it came, in fact, to seem a curiously limited novel, as imaginatively constipated as any of the earlier fiction, as dead at the center, as pretentious and self-indulgent about the stylish surfaces of behavior, as pinched, arid, and cold in its responsiveness to the realities of emotion and human relationship. The problem was, like most literary problems, a failure both of feeling and nerve, but oddly enough for a writer of Miss McCarthy's intellectual distinction, it was coupled here with an even more drastic failure of sensibility. For what was finally trouble-some about The Group was the disparity between the sophistication of its style and tone and the essential banality of its perceptions of life….
[The] list-making tendency of Miss McCarthy's is a principal reason why The Group was a hollow book, and it is discernible again in Birds of America, where the result is very much the same. The preoccupation throughout with objects, life styles, and classifications of attitude serves to trivialize material of potentially great significance.
John W. Aldridge, "Egalitarian Snobs," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 8, 1971, p. 21.
First it was Trotskyite periodicals, and psychoanalysis, and cocktail parties; next, progressive education and McCarthyism; then diaphragms, casseroles, Venetian blinds and enlightened pediatrics; now it is conservation, the Generation Gap and Vietnam: Mary McCarthy's tireless notation of the American Scene continues. Her new novel, "Birds of America," provokes a peculiar double effect: here, we exclaim, is something we can point to in the year 2000 and find, embalmed in it, the very air of 1970; and yet this light and bright topicality of Miss McCarthy's, to judge by the fate of her earlier novels, has, like other radiant things, a very short half-life, and, fictionally speaking, turns rapidly to lead, its occasion once past….
A relentless eye for detail—physical, social and linguistic—combined with a sharp and critical tongue, has taken Miss McCarthy very far, but these advantages cannot quite make up for an emptiness at the center—least felt, it is true, when Miss McCarthy is her own heroine and does not try too hard to invent other people. Her odd temperamental combination of malice and apology, contempt and excuse, is given free play when she is her own subject, agonizing over the black comedy of sex in a Pullman car, the puritanism of contraceptive free love, or the grotesque results of a literal following of Kantian morality.
Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 16, 1971, pp. 1, 16, 18.
One of the refreshing qualities of Mary McCarthy's charming … novel [Birds of America] is its adroit sidestepping of the all but inevitable clichés of the Bildungsroman: here is an account of a young man's archetypal passage from adolescence to maturity which bypasses sexual encounters as briskly and logically as it avoids the customary sequence of disillusionment and lost ideals. Peter Levi, Miss McCarthy's earnest, reclusive, half-Jewish, half-Gentile Candide-like hero, retains his purity even as he loses his intellectual (if not sexual) innocence. Despite his exposure to experiences which confront him with the certain knowledge that this is not the best of all possible worlds, he doesn't deviate from trying to conduct his life according to egalitarian, Kantian ethics….
In its interest in art and travel and culture and the general life of the intellect, in its plentiful literary allusions and its references to Eastern boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, and in its concern with radical (or at least liberal) politics, Birds of America clearly bears its author's stamp, incorporating as it does virtually all of the absorptions of previous publications. But the book particularly recalls (is, in fact, a kind of companion piece to) The Company She Keeps, Miss McCarthy's first novel. Birds of America reflects the political and intellectual zeitgeist of the 60s as richly as the earlier book spoke for the 30s. Peter Levi is every bit as engaged by the events of his time—Viet Nam, civil rights, pollution—as Meg Sargent was involved in the issues of her era—Marxism, socialism. Both characters are a mixture of egalitarian ideals and private school separatism; both confront problems of adjustment which are a result of their fine perception and intellect. Miss McCarthy's leisurely pace allows sufficient time for the characters to express their views on current events—one chapter in Birds of America is large devoted to a many-sided debate on Viet Nam, but the political opinions are used as a reflection, an extension, of character, and not for any directly polemical purposes….
Miss McCarthy is clearly very close to the experiences recorded in both books, but Peter, a young male, is much less directly a repository for her own observations and self-analysis than the earlier protagonist. In replacing the overwrought, theatrical, self-lacerating, guilt-ridden Meg Sargent with the sober, purity-seeking Peter Levi, the author has established a more secure aesthetic distance from her material. The flamboyance of the first book is exchanged for the wiser, mellower, more detached tone here: the book's serenity is reflected in the unfalteringly sturdy and graceful prose, the fluid, rolling style, the beautifully poised periodic sentences. Birds of America was written by a lovely person.
Foster Hirsch, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 3, 1971, pp. 459-60.
Mary MacCarthy's [novel, Birds of America] seems to suffer from a deeply American romanticism. It is a book of great charm and tenderness, which are qualities one would not perhaps expect from her….
There are some superb comic moments…. But the symbolism is generally heavy and almost superstitiously evident.
Elaine Feinstein, "Loneliness is Cold," in London Magazine, February-March, 1972, pp. 177-80.
The Group virtually destroyed Mary McCarthy's literary and intellectual reputation. By the time Hollywood got hold of it. Pauline Kael reports in "The Making of The Group," McCarthy herself was regarded as "poison … she's competitive"; the book was interpreted as proof that higher education made women aggressive and neurotic.
Yet there is great irony in McCarthy's fall as a "militant feminist," for the chorus of women's voices in her fiction creates a veritable symphony of female self-hatred. McCarthy is only merciless with her own sex; it is to the women in her narratives that she directs her most relentless mockery. In her famous short story "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," the Babbitty man on the train emerges with considerable dignity and integrity, despite his crude middle-class tastes; it is the autobiographical arty heroine who is stripped of all self-respect and pretension. Similarly, in The Group, the female characters internalize all their aggressions against men…. They do not confront their men, much less defeat them….
Since The Group, we have heard no more about women from McCarthy. Her subsequent books, a report from Vietnam, and a recent novel, Birds of America, narrated by an expatriate college boy obsessed with ecology, have found more favor.
Elaine Showalter, "Killing the Angel in the House: The Autonomy of Women Writers" (© 1973 by The Antioch Review, Inc.; first published in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 3; reprinted by permission of the editors), in The Antioch Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, 1973, pp. 339-53.
[Mary McCarthy] is essentially a brilliant culture critic, with the critic's irritable sense of mental independence, who stolidly taught herself to write fiction as a way of putting into relief one woman's unassimilability. There is always one theme in Mary McCarthy's fictions: none of these awful people is going to catch me. The heroine is always distinctly right, and gives herself all possible marks for taste, integrity and indomitability. Other people are somehow material to be written up.
Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, p. 188.