Mary McCarthy McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCarthy, Mary 1912–

McCarthy is an American novelist, essayist, short story writer, critic, and travel writer. Her work is highly moral in tone and temperament, revealing the writer's concern for an aesthetic encompassing political, social, and philosophical beliefs. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Jean Garrigue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contrast is all: Mary McCarthy starts off [The Stones of Florence] with a racy, highhanded fault-finding. As if from the petulant mouth of the tourist, she speaks; hustling a cranky mirror down streets, she echoes that never-hypothetical creature's complaints: that the city is drab, provincial, harassed by Vespas, overrun by occupying armies of tourists, stuffy like Boston, not naughty, with too much rusticated stone and too many "academic" masterpieces.

After the reader has been caught and nettled, she changes her stride and her "true" eye takes over. But the tone emerges, ever so often, that launches the book—a kind of talking down to, with tongue in cheek, or a kind of bringing things down to the level we can all understand. Therefore the ambition of the Renaissance artist to excel everyone, even the Ancients, is compared to some millionaire's boast of ordering a building bigger and better than the Parthenon—which is like comparing John D. Rockefeller to Lorenzo the Magnificent. (p. 14)

The Renaissance and Florence, its chiefest lily, have been written about voluminously, and usually with painstaking scholarship and in a spirit of submission to their enchanter powers. Like a cool member of this age, McCarthy stands off from it to just a degree, and delivers a work of another hue. But it is a brilliant assemblage of anecdotes, observations interlaced with history, some accounts of painters' lives,...

(The entire section is 481 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The interest of Mary McCarthy's The Group … stems in part from the ingenuity of its argument that rules aplenty exist in every age, and that old ways of judging people aren't really outmoded. The news will not astonish this writer's followers; a Puritan in Upper Bohemia, Miss McCarthy has for years approached her characters as a stern objective moralist. Sly Professor Mulcahy in The Groves of Academe is a knave; it is wrong to take advantage of innocence, no matter whether the innocent is a college president or a college girl. Clever Martha Sinnott in A Charmed Life receives the wages of sin; it is wrong to commit an act of adultery whether in the name of reason or of passion. The elegant European anti-Americans chided in On The Contrary are irresponsible; it is wrong to deny the connection between American ugliness and European apathy about the education of its poor. These books, like the author's earliest works, regularly invoke standards of decency and propriety that current fashion finds boring and irrelevant. And this consistency has helped Miss McCarthy win regard as a novelist of manners with a better than even chance of achieving moral clarity and significance.

Such clarity never comes cheap, as is well known: novelists of manners buy it by narrowing their social range and emotional sympathies. Sitting in judgment upon poor people, for instance, looks inhumane; the focus must be upon privileged, well-brought-up types who "ought to know what's right," and need not be understood from within. Nor can these types survive much exposure to the times they live in; they have to be kept at a remove from historical events of the kind that drain meaning from personal foibles.

Miss McCarthy's method of meeting these demands in The...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Gordon O. Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'There is always one theme in Mary McCarthy's fictions', writes Alfred Kazin in Bright Bright Book of Life: '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.' Whether or not one accepts this as fair, one is inclined to agree that a pattern of identification exists between the novelist and her fictional heroines. A reader of McCarthy's non-fiction is also often struck, particularly of late, by the extent to which self-portrayal can become central to her treatment of a subject. The inward play of her imaginative response is frequently as much the substance as the servant of her outwardly avowed literary purpose, or the onward momentum of her narrative line. The intellectual, aesthetic or moral assurance of her self-characterization exerts defining pressure on her materials, be they those of the critic or the polemicist, the auto-biographer or the reporter. This pressure of personality indeed relates more than it distinguishes, sometimes even fuses, these various literary roles, along with a number of their respective techniques.

This seems particularly true of Vietnam (1967), Hanoi (1968) and Medina (1972), McCarthy's short books about the American presence in South Vietnam, the impact of the war on the North and the psychic as well as legal aftermath in America of the killing at My Lai…. [These] volumes convey a coherent narrative of experience absorbed as much as observed by McCarthy, and of her shaping personality correspondingly shaped. The circumference of her attention progressively contracts (as her titles suggest) from the abstract illusions underlying American involvement in Vietnam, to a more geographically and humanly specific consideration of the view from Hanoi, finally finding in Captain Medina a 'juncture-point' of the war's contradictions, more accessible to the novelist's than to the professional reporter's eye. So, too, one's sense of McCarthy's personal investment in her accounts progressively intensifies.

'Facts', those she accepts as given at the outset and reaffirms at the end, together with those she discovers or revises along the way, gradually become internalized, their secure possession by the reader increasingly a matter of McCarthy's self-possession. The 'integrity' of the novelistheroine impugned by Kazin is in these works to be understood as a process through which the author-protagonist integrates the factuality of her material with her sense of herself, strives to complete herself in relation to it. This process, moreover, depends for rhetorical and moral persuasiveness on McCarthy's willingness to risk through self-questioning that safe certainty which Kazin suggests is an unquestioned premise of her fictional self-projections. She is in these books, whatever the case in her novels, 'caught' in situations in which her own 'awfulness' or innocence eventually becomes a central issue, one determinant among many of the 'truthfulness' of her reportage. In order to 'write up' others she must, in the literary situation evolving around her here, write up herself. (pp. 103-04)

McCarthy's own 'interest' as a writer at the outset is to document further an existing case against the war, the prosecution of which case indeed concerns her throughout all three books.

From the start, however, there are signs of more subtle problems and possibilities involving self-representation. Personal pronouns...

(The entire section is 1487 words.)

Mary Gordon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCarthy's voice has always been perfectly reliable; the stirring and disturbing tone of the born truth-teller is hers, whether she is writing essays or fiction. Her perspective is always feminine: Antigone grown up, her absoluteness not diminished as she takes on sex. She has never been easy on herself or her characters, or tried to make anyone look better. (p. 1)

This represents the essence of McCarthy's sensibility: the fineness, the formality, the stance that cannot imagine any but a moral perspective…. [McCarthy's] ease and balance, largely moral, suggest a lost world.

Where are we, then, to place "Cannibals and Missionaries," which its publishers present as "a thriller," in the context of Mary McCarthy's work? She is not the sort of writer who would toss off a book as a lark or a diverting experiment, so why has she done it?

It is clear to me that this, the most political, the least autobiographical of her novels, would have been impossible without her experience of traveling to Vietnam as a reporter. Many of the details of that experience, particularly those about physical fear and communal bonding, find their way into this novel in the accounts of the passengers' ordeal. "Cannibals and Missionaries" is the story, among other things, of a committee of liberals who are hijacked while traveling to Iran to examine the atrocities of the Shah's regime. It speaks, with McCarthy's habitually...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More than thirty years ago, Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy began their literary careers with precocious works of fiction (The Ghostly Lover and The Company She Keeps). Both of them went on to become literary and cultural critics of considerable authority. But in the novels and stories they continued to write (Miss McCarthy has of course been the more prolific novelist), their fierce analytic intelligence often seemed less an asset than a meddlesome intrusion. Their highly developed skills at critical generalization diminished their imaginative freedom; they preferred commentary to the disorder of human experience, and their characters were personifications of the writers' fervent—in Miss...

(The entire section is 950 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Most of my books have been in some way political, but I suppose ["Cannibals and Missionaries"] is the first one which deals directly with what you might call headline material: terrorism, hijacking and so forth….

[Once] I started the book it came to me that I had to show at least one of the terrorists from the inside. I realised that it would be refusing the jumps not to describe such an event from a terrorist's point of view as well. It was as if they were speaking out of the dark: 'Hey, teacher, we're here too.'

I don't think this means I've romanticised them—terrorism is terrifying. But we've seen, after all, that in many of these cases the terrorists find it impossible to...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)

Robert M. Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

['Cannibals and Missionaries'] is an old-fashioned thriller with modern decor and modern overtones. It is a high comedy of mixed motives, inept calculations, and personal weakness; and, by no means incidentally, it is also an informal colloquium on a variety of general topics. No character in the book runs true to form—his own form, or anybody else's estimate of his form; none of the discussions is pushed to a distinct conclusion. Reviewing a macédoine containing so many ingredients and flavorings involves some necessary injustices; if one is to explain the issues, one has to destroy most of the suspense. Because it leaves unresolved so many of its equations, human and intellectual, this novel will get a great many...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Richard Lingeman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading Mary McCarthy's new novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, makes one worry about an apparent shortage of literary settings for novelists who trade in ideas, wit and observation of manners. Why else has McCarthy concocted a novel about an airliner hijacking?…

I can only assume that McCarthy adopted the hijacking device because she was pressed for a suitable fictional venue in which her shrewdly cast group of liberals, wealthy dilettantes and dedicated revolutionaries could perform. With these sharply drawn character types, articulate and representative in the case of the liberals, and devastatingly obtuse in the case of the rich, we might reasonably expect—given McCarthy's intelligence...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, perhaps her finest book, Mary McCarthy describes her youthful hopes for a career in an interesting way. Her ambition was literary, she says, but she does not put it as a yearning to become any one of the things she so notably has become: a novelist, a travel writer, a critical journalist of drama, literature, and public events; she wanted to be "a professional writer." Most people would call her a novelist, I suppose, but fewer than half of her 17 published books are works of fiction, and her latest, Cannibals and Missionaries, encourages the suspicion that she is best considered not as a novelist but as a professional writer who writes a novel from time to...

(The entire section is 982 words.)