Mary McCarthy McCarthy, Mary (Therese) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary (Therese) McCarthy 1912–

American critic, novelist, and short story writer.

McCarthy's critical work incorporates sophistication, wit, satire, and a caustic frankness that has also characterized much of her critically-acclaimed fiction. Much of McCarthy's criticism focuses on the weaknesses of playwrights and novelists and exhibits a contempt for modern literature.

McCarthy's first book, Sights and Spectacles, is a collection of drama reviews written for Partisan Review. It contains many of the elements of her later criticism, including her insight into the practices of the American theater and her opinionated assessment of popular dramatists. In her recent book, Ideas and the Novel, McCarthy praises "the novel of ideas" and contends that it has declined in significance beginning with Henry James and Virginia Woolf.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary McCarthy has a remarkable insight into the weaknesses of others. This is not a clumsy wisecrack but a simple statement of a simple fact. Give her a book or a play or an acquaintance to fictionalize and she spots with unerring accuracy a cloven hoof, an Achilles heel, or a fly in the ointment. And, as the play reviews in her book "Sights and Spectacles" long ago demonstrated (some were written as far back as 1937), her diagnoses are usually sound as far as they go. The fault she has to find is nearly always there. What she says is nearly always true even though it is often only the harshest part of the truth.

Unlike other notable hatchet-women (Dorothy Parker for instance), Miss McCarthy is not a Sophisticate but an Intellectual…. [Though] time and circumstance cast her in with the young radicals for whom Marxian criticism of "the system" furnished that rationalization of their discontents which the previous generation had found in the war against "provinciality," she never committed herself wholeheartedly to that either. In fact, if she ever discovered what she believed, admired, or wanted she never devoted much time to praising or expounding it. But she can justify her contempt for what she does not like—and that is almost everything including other intellectuals—with telling thrusts and shrewd analyses.

As her preface here frankly admits, this is precisely what Partisan Review wanted her to do when it appointed her its drama critic. The editors did not think the theatre important even as a...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Richard Hayes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Mary McCarthy, whose disenchantment is private as well as cosmic, offers these Theatre Chronicles [in Sights and Spectacles] … with a bleak and remote indifference. Positively, they do not give her pleasure: if they possess any value, it is chiefly as "a report to a minority by one of their number from a front that was very distant, almost exotic." She sees in them, quintessentially, a blend of person and place. Nor, from the lucid plateau of middle life, does Miss McCarthy look upon this early person with favor: coolly she laments her ready tone of cockiness and unsupported hauteur. Without flinching, she exposes the particular egotism of the whole enterprise: "The notion that abstract reasoning can crush a fact (e.g., a successful play, a political phenomenon), a wholly unMarxist notion, was nonetheless the principle on which most of our criticism was practiced…. I felt myself at the helm of authority…. I was determined to make good…."

Inevitably, it chills; might not (a fatuous suggestion) Miss McCarthy allow her youth some softening haze of high audacity and cleansing scorn? For her image has charm: the salient heroine of The Company She Keeps, intolerably free, intolerably bound—"I remember," she writes, "how uneasy I felt when I decided that I liked Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Was I starting to sell out?"—handsome and hatless, climbing to the balcony with her bought ticket, confident in the virtue of her position of attack. Nor did she lack for targets, the period directly before the war being a rich mine of liberal lunacies….

The wartime theater, in its feverish, expensive nullity, next sustained Miss McCarthy's scrutiny, and here too she smoked out cant and viscous insincerity, with intermittent pauses at the healing oases of Shakespeare and Chekhov and Shaw. The rather inflated 'sense of social occasion' which pervades the earlier notices has declined; Miss McCarthy's sensibility to the chequered texture of reality is deeper, her will less insistent: she moves altogether in a freer ironic climate. Yet I would note parenthetically that the aspect of Miss McCarthy's criticism which her publishers most celebrate—her concern with theater as "pathology," as "event," as "a branch of social history"—seems to me the least substantial. Criticism projected on such terms has a certain chic and nervous stylishness; one moves, in a trance of grace, through a montage of allusions and names, inferences, frail implications of value, but all the while the object is receding:...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)

John Gassner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mary McCarthy introduces [Sights and Spectacles: 1937–1956] as "a report to a minority by one of their number," and this superbly, indeed formidably, intelligent author almost succeeds in drawing out the sting from possible criticism of her book by inserting her own keen sting into it. Not quite, however, because it is not the admitted callowness of her early reviews (not quite as callow, incidentally, as her prefatory comment on them would lead one to believe), but her current judgments that are apt to make drama critics question the soundness of her opinions. "The truth is," she says, "that I simply do not respond to the playwrights and popular actors that many other people find exciting," and she proceeds to declare that "American playwrights, on the whole, cannot write." Miss McCarthy applies the charge to Williams, Miller and Odets, among others, and inevitably she does not spare O'Neill….

After such wisdom what forgiveness? None perhaps if a reviewer possessed the author's insouciance in formulating judgments, or took as much pleasure in verbal slaughter as Miss McCarthy. But in the midst of questionable evaluations and analyses, one encounters so many brilliant perceptions that our gratification with the volume should greatly exceed our irritation. To count some of our blessings, I would cite the penetrating comments on The Iceman Cometh and O'Neill, The Wild Duck and Ibsen, Love for Love, Love's...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Pamela Hansford Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A collection of essays, like ["On the Contrary"], often serves to throw the personality of the writer into sharper relief than any one single work. It is like seeing him in a many-sided glass, catching an unexpected aspect of the profile, some peculiar structure of bone, some glint of unanticipated color in the hitherto familiar eye. Mary McCarthy's personality—her literary personality, I mean—has always interested and puzzled me: that voice sometimes a little too much de haut en bas, those brilliant flashes of insight, those descents into fractiousness, that delight in the topsy-turvy for its own sake, that basic, irrepressible common sense intruding at the precise moment when flights of contrariness seem hard to bear—it is difficult to make these things add up.

In these articles, written within the past fifteen years, Miss McCarthy is reminiscent, I think, of two English writers: in her harsh, arms-akimbo hoss-sense, of Rebecca West, and in her curious insistence upon the Feminine Self (what colors, what earrings she had on, how her high heels clacked on the floor) of the remorselessly frilly heroines of Iris Murdoch…. Miss McCarthy has less an analytical mind (she speaks too often before she thinks) than a bright, pouncing one; the cat is bang on the bird more often than not. I have been hectoring students myself from time to time and from place to place, whenever they would listen to me, on the ridiculous mania for...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of Miss McCarthy's collection of essays [On the Contrary] suggests an arbitrary contra mundum attitude. Her target, however, is less what people think than what they think they think; her obsession is with the contrast between reality and the fashionable images of reality, whether in politics, magazines, plays or novels. Reality, as she sees it, exists in the spontaneities and unpredictabilities of human experience. Yet all of us, she supposes, are engaged for a multitude of reasons in a conspiracy to escape reality, to tame and falsify it. Mankind evidently can live by cliché alone. Miss McCarthy's effort is to get us off the stuff and restore the capacity for individual perception....

(The entire section is 537 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reputation of "our First Lady of Letters" (as Norman Mailer dubs Miss McCarthy) rests, without question, as solidly on her critical writing as on her fiction. And perhaps she will be best remembered as a critic, for, in a sense, she may be accused of having written little else but criticism, so much are her short stories and novels mockingly and cleverly explanatory. (p. 48)

[In an article published in The Nation entitled "Our Actors and the Critics"], Miss McCarthy contends that drama criticism in America is purblind to acting because the American theater reviewer is unable to distinguish between manuscript and acting and between acting and direction. This failure has resulted in the...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Louis Coxe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An extraordinary collection and collocation in [The Writing on the Wall]. Mary McCarthy, the formidable polymath of letters, rides again and the unwary had better look out because she shoots to kill.

We begin with the essay on Macbeth in which the essayist demonstrates that the protagonist lacks all tragic stature and depth—is in fact a kind of account executive at Dunsinane, with neither imagination nor the guts his wife had, addicted to bombast and fustian. Miss McCarthy does not tell us whether or not she thinks Shakespeare intended such a portrait of the killer king. We don't have to consider matters historical or literary because Miss McCarthy is after another kind of game: she...

(The entire section is 1182 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The brand name tells all. Potential readers do not have to be informed by me of the excellence of ["The Writing on the Wall"]—the acumen, intelligence, clarity, wit and lack of bitchiness. Mary McCarthy's quality is of the kind, nevertheless, that a reviewer is able to demonstrate in apothegmatic droplets. Thus, "As Burroughs knows, the Men in White, when not simple con men, are the fuzz in another uniform." Or "A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British Isles workmanship as a tweed or Tiptree or an Agatha Christie." Or her calling "Pale Fire" a "centaurwork … this merman of the deep." Or "You cannot be a minority and in the majority simultaneously, and this is the current dilemma of Sartre and...

(The entire section is 996 words.)

Francis Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reviewing a collection of book reviews calls for caution. It would be a bold—or a boastful—reviewer who claimed to recognise his own virtues in Miss McCarthy's work [The Writing on the Wall]. Not many of us can swing into action so brightly, or riffle so fast through literature to reinforce a provocative generalisation, or work so closely with a drily cerebral text, as she does at her best. But her faults are the profession's common property. Almost all of us have thrown out a fine opening sentence without considering where it will lead us; have been given more space than we really have thoughts to fill, or not allowed ourselves enough time to fill the space; have allowed a phrase to take over a train of...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Implicit in Mary McCarthy's [Ideas and the Novel] is a historical thesis of the kind called "descendental." Novels used to be wonderful, intelligent things, back in the 19th century, partly because they were full of "explicit ideas"; but today's novel, without ideas, is poorer stuff altogether. There are some minor historical filigrees: Henry James is the turning point, for instance, and Thomas Mann is a 19th-century throwback. But mostly, for Mary McCarthy, the decline of the genre can be charted as a diagonal plunge, from the roman idée of Balzac and Hugo, down through to the dismal present, where the right proportion of idea to narrative is no longer even a dilemma for the novelist. Nowadays, all...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Laurie Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ideas and the Novel reads like notes for an angry letter, the kind banged out after a feverish night, the kind full of arguments that sound brilliant when tossing on the pillow but frenzied when read with a little distance. One senses some gadfly biting Mary McCarthy's haunches…. But the author doesn't name the pest. We're not supposed to notice it, I guess.

McCarthy begins with an attack on Henry James and Virginia Woolf for damning the Victorians and ushering in the art novel. According to McCarthy, James and Woolf pinched the form more than they freed it. They added emotion and sex as subject matter, but purged the novel of thought—of talk about morality and politics. Thus, McCarthy...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Phyllis Grosskurth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ideas and the Novel contains Mary McCarthy's Northcliffe Lectures, delivered at University College London last year. If one actually goes to hear such lectures one can savour the wit, the premeditated pauses, and the charm of the speaker. If one loses the chain of associations, it is almost always because one's own attention has wandered momentarily. To read rather than to listen to them is to lose the immediacy of the speaker's presence, but also to gain the time to ponder the force and plausibility of a particular argument. Ideas and the Novel—covering as it does a wide spectrum both of novels and historical periods—is far too compressed to make a satisfactory book. To have heard the lectures must...

(The entire section is 1240 words.)