Mary McCarthy

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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

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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, à la Vasari, all in a swift, energetic and highly charged style. Its excellence lies in part in the way things are made to hang together; the city, that work of art, and its works of art, is seen in firm relation to the checkerwork of its history. Its excellence also lies in the visual pleasure it has to give us. The look of things, the grand joy of Italy after all, is wonderfully caught, from the "enchanted economy" of Italian gardens and the plotted colors of the countryside to Florence at its stoniest. (pp. 14-15)

Shying off somewhat from that almost unbelievable unicorn that the Renaissance has a way of seeming to us, with its profundities of many-mindedness, magnificence and daring, giving, in fact, almost more emphasis to the iron-tempered time preceding it, of Guelph and Ghibelline frays and feuds, she brings a fresh insight—and an interpretation unexpected (at least to me)—on Florence, with its "wise ruling of space—the only kind of government the Florentines ever mastered," when she says that it has about it the look of the ideal city of reason and justice as dreamed of by the Greeks and Dante, and that its great statues in the Bargello and in the Piazza della Signoria are like "admonitory lessons or 'examples' in civics, a part of the very fabric of the city—the res publica." (p. 15)

Jean Garrigue, "Books: 'The Stones of Florence'," in Arts Magazine (© 1960 by The Arts Digest, Inc.), Vol. 34, No. 6, March, 1960, pp. 14-15.


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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;...

(This entire section contains 739 words.)

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it is wrong to take advantage of innocence, no matter whether the innocent is a college president or a college girl. Clever Martha Sinnott inA 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 Group is to center her attention upon a clique of Vassar girls making its postgraduate way in New York in the mid-1930s. None of the members of the clique can be described as dumb, and each is solvent enough to experience the Depression as an "exciting period," rather than as a disaster. This in itself would provide an old-style Marxist moralist with a text for a sermon on the sin of obliviousness. And Miss McCarthy's reluctance to mention that sin may well disconcert more than a few readers of non-Marxist persuasion…. No doubt a direct comment on the triviality of [her characters'] agonies compared with the sufferings of non-groupers of the period would be excessively flat—but shouldn't the writer hint that the absurdities of the rich sometimes do spring from feelings of powerlessness and guilt?

Perhaps—but hints of that sort would open this dramatized Alumnae News to foreclosures, bankruptcies, unemployment statistics, and a mass of other facts whose moral meaning, if any, remains obscure. And Miss McCarthy is too fond of the moralist's position to run that risk. Keeping a cool distance between herself and her characters, using history largely for color rather than as a force shaping human behavior, she tells the interlinked stories of her girls as though each were free to choose between good and evil, and wholly unjustified in blaming failures of humanity and intelligence upon the age. (p. 98)

[The] pleasure afforded by The Group resembles that afforded by an eighteenth-century novel. The reader always knows where he is in moral terms. Each of the contemporary objects that crowd the pages—prescription Scotch, Forward House at Macy's, Russel Wright cocktail shakers, Jones Beach, Radio City, the Communist party, Venetian blinds—seems to point a moral. (The moral is that liberation, progress, and folk art from the factory are but dreams of naïveté.) Each of the pathetically Modern seductions, assignations, and sexual experiments thrusts forward an "improving" lesson. (The lesson is that stupidity alone seeks to transform sex or any other ancient area of human experience into a technical problem.)…

Yet for all its ingenuity, The Group fails to put every reservation to rest; its moral clarity often seems too mechanical to trust…. Miss McCarthy is a knowing woman, a shrewd reporter and entertainer, and among the most original—and most readable—Puritans this country has produced for years. She is, however, at once a shade too clear, too unforgiving, and too conscious of fashion for her art's own good. (p. 102)

Benjamin DeMott, "Poets, Presidents, and Preceptors," in Harper's (copyright © 1963 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the October, 1963 issue by special permission), Vol. 227, No. 1361, October, 1963, pp. 98-110.

Gordon O. Taylor

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'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 gradually become charged, stress-points in a structure through which McCarthy begins to negotiate the issue of her own Americanness in relation to American acts or attitudes she is attacking. This web of self-reference is further complicated as it expands by the developing relationship between author and reader, a relationship with its own points of presumed contact or tension. 'I' and 'you', 'we' and 'they'—the problematical quality as well as the grammatical necessity of such designations emerges early as a condition of McCarthy's probing of relations between her subjective resources and her objective aims. Early suggestions also arise of a mind deflected inward by, as well as reacting outward to, its encounters; of involuntary as well as deliberate forays into the personal past for perspective on the national present. (pp. 104-05)

At times [McCarthy] wishes to explode by the force of her disgust the Americanized surface, verbal strategy appropriate to a cultural impact as violent as any bomb-crater. At times it is a matter of 'excavating' an imaginative truth by careful siftings of immediate observation through memory or association, the strategy now an 'archaeological' procedure of patient verbal brushwork. (p. 105)

[In Hanoi,] the questionings of a more prominent self are from the first more central to the shape, tone and pace of the discussion, borne inward by the pressure of personal implications: 'Quite a few of the questions one does not, as an American liberal, want to put in Hanoi are addressed to oneself.' (p. 106)

Just as there is no real solution to McCarthy's immediate problem of social behaviour, there is no clear solution to her vaguer sense of a problem of symbolic meaning. Wedded … to a personal predicament of association with and aversion to the war—in some ways a microcosm of the national dilemma—she can settle the 'score', solve the 'mystery', only, if at all, by an inquiry into the nature of her responsibilities as a writer in relation to the material of these volumes. (p. 108)

[The] claim to objectivity, the certainty of being able to write out of that aspect of oneself, has over the course of the volume been 'shrinking', not so much disappearing as being compressed by experience into a different substance, a 'cherry stone' of self in which acknowledgment of complex personal interests is the prime literary source: 'a subject, an "I", asserting itself.' (p. 110)

A trip initially undertaken for 'my own peace of mind'—as if using one's literary influence might help end the war and restore one's life to normal—becomes an inward search for 'my own salvation', the fossil remains of a Catholic girlhood yielding up the phrase. Salvation, such as it is for this American writer as she confronts the interior consequences of an American 'crime', consists in possessing the aluminium ring, never forgetting even if not wearing it. (The aluminium POW bracelets so popular for a time tended rather to be conspicuously worn, then easily discarded.) McCarthy knows—aiong with the heroes and heroines of Henry James—that 'Nothing will be the same again, if only because of the awful self-recognitions', not least her own, 'the war has enforced'….

Later, having contracted to report on the Medina trial, McCarthy brings to this ostensibly straightforward assignment, through the continuing assertion of a cumulatively shaped 'I', her experience as author-protagonist of the earlier books. Even without the epilogue to Hanoi, having travelled a psychological as well as geographical distance to and from Vietnam, she would inevitably be drawn to this dimension of American self-encounter on home ground. (p. 111)

[Medina is] a single statement of the protagonist self as well as an observer's report on the trial. If the personal presence seems more static than in Hanoi, it is because McCarthy now seems the possessor rather than the pursuer of her literary soul vis-à-vis the war as a literary subject. She knows who 'I' is, having learned through the process of the preceding texts, at some psychic risk and cost…. If McCarthy's voice in Medina is more dispassionate than in Hanoi—even cold, as it becomes apparent that the test of acknowledgement will fail—it is not necessarily therefore less personal. If she subsides from the subjective intensities of Hanoi, she does not revert to the formal argumentation of Vietnam.

The courtroom atmosphere is familiar to McCarthy's persona: one of boredom as pervasive and enervating as August heat in Georgia, where the trial is situated, or in Saigon. Seeming to fix the participants in tableaux of ennui, threatening to numb an observing intelligence, this atmosphere nonetheless begins to communicate its message. She is rasped into noticing fragments of the truth which the proceedings seem designed to ignore more than to deny. (pp. 111-12)

Medina is available to McCarthy as a 'transition figure' through whom the military abstraction was not so much distorted as inevitably translated into the human horror. 'A figure of speech, overworked, takes its revenge by coming to life', she had written in Hanoi of the dehumanized reiterations of propaganda on both sides. A moral vocabulary without reference to consequences, its weaponry in words as well as ordnance, will eventually have the consequences it denies. (p. 113)

Mary McCarthy's particular personality, an opposite attitude the key to the growth of its literary design in these volumes, has been felt throughout as the precipitating energy of her narrative. Now at the end—her final 'Amen' bearing personal witness to a record of experience uneasily sustained—that force seems to have united the books, ringlike, interlocking the orbits of their prose. (p. 114)

Gordon O. Taylor, "Cast a Cold 'I': Mary McCarthy on Vietnam," in Journal of American Studies (© Cambridge University Press 1975), Vol. 9, No. 1, April, 1975, pp. 103-14.

Mary Gordon

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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 unsentimental voice, to the problem of witness and political responsibility among nonprofessional men of good will. For McCarthy, terrorism is disturbing in the same way that sexual promiscuity would have been for Emily Brontë: it is political activity without manners, without form; therefore it is incapable of yielding much meaning and is inevitably without hope. (p. 33)

The most important achievement of "Cannibals and Missionaries" is McCarthy's understanding of the psychology of terrorism, the perception … that terrorism is the product of despair, "the ultimate sin against the Holy Ghost." Once again, McCarthy is asking the difficult question, confronting the difficult problem. For surely, terrorism threatens us all, not only physically and politically, but morally and intellectually as well. It postulates a system of oblique correspondences, a violent disproportion between ends and means, against which we have no recourse. She comes to terms as well with our peculiar but irrefutable tendency to see human beings as replaceable, works of art unique. For the lover of formal beauty who is also a moralist, it is the most vexed of questions. I'm not sure McCarthy has anything new to say on the subject, but she does not imply that she does.

Often, artists have responded to the prospect of atrocity by creating a well-crafted work of art…. In response to the truly frightful prospect of anarchic terrorism, Mary McCarthy has written one of the most shapely novels to have come out in recent years: a well-made book. It is delightful to observe her balancing, winnowing, fitting in the pieces of her plot.

The tone of "Cannibals and Missionaries" is a lively pessimism. Its difficult conclusion is that to be a human being at this time is a sad fate: even the revolutionaries have no hope for the future, and virtue is in the hands of the unremarkable, who alone remain unscathed. (pp. 34-5)

Mary Gordon, "A Novel of Terrorism," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1979, pp. 1, 33-5.

Pearl K. Bell

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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 McCarthy's case, belligerent—opinions about politics, society, culture, and woman's estate. Their fiction displayed such perfect command of an intellectual "position" that the well-heeled bohemians of Miss McCarthy's A Charmed Life and the academic voyeurs of Miss Hardwick's The Simple Truth seemed encased in preconception.

Now each of them has again produced a novel, testing her strengths against more complex structures—more complex because the novel form has been declared exhausted, and the political world has lost its simpler faiths—and one has the opportunity to judge whether their large critical gifts have worked for or against their imaginative vitality….

At first reading, [Miss Hardwick's] Sleepless Nights appears to be a haphazard assemblage of fragmentary portraits, anecdotes, aphorisms, meditative generalizations, wayward bits and pieces of "transformed and even distorted memory," and it is extremely puzzling. Its elegantly wrought randomness and calculated air of improvisation yield almost no clues to the author's intentions. (p. 65)

In sharp contrast to Elizabeth Hardwick's fascination with subjective experience, Mary McCarthy's Cannibals and Missionaries, her first novel in eight years, is a sort of thriller about terrorism and hijacking—albeit a thriller with high intellectual gloss. What the story lacks (at least until the genuinely spectacular denouement) in manipulative tricks of suspense, it makes up for in a wealth of information—some of that wealth no figure of speech.

In her famous essay, "The Fact in Fiction," Miss McCarthy argued that "the distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics." By this touchstone, Cannibals and Missionaries is a novel with a vengeance. (Whether it is also the political novel she seems at times to have had in mind is another matter.) The book is as densely packed with fastidiously researched data—about everything from varieties of helicopter landing-gear to the brush strokes of Vermeer—as a computer print-out. Unlike the tedious accounting of clothes, furniture, luggage, cooking, and contraceptives in The Group, which sometimes seemed less a work of fiction than a household inventory, much of the factual plenty in her new novel is pertinent and amusing. But it is dispensed with too zealous a hand, and there is just too much of it. (p. 66)

Miss McCarthy operates the complicated machinery of her plot skillfully, but one wonders what has become of her once bright clear voice and unsleeping indignation, the scourge of hypocrites here, intellectual poseurs there, and fools everywhere. That Mary McCarthy is not entirely absent from this talky "thriller," but her witty and aggressive self-confidence is not what it used to be. Her satiric lance has a dull edge, and her thrusts are neither well-aimed nor damaging. Indeed, she seems surprisingly out of touch with the prototypes of her character, who appear out of sync with the present-day realities they are meant to represent. For example, one liberal is allegedly the president of a "good New England women's college," but this chattering goose, with her busy earrings and artful makeup, sounds like a provincial teacher of high school French; she is inconceivable as the president of Wellesley or Smith…. The art-loving plutocrats are in the main anachronisms who belong not to the America of 1975 but to New Yorker cartoons of the 40's. As for the "New Left" journalist traveling with the liberals, she is beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, and erudite, and during her captivity she fills a journal with arresting comments on art, life, and love (so she will have something to read the next day). This intriguing woman, one would guess, far from resembling any New Left journalist of the moment, is a hindsight and somewhat gilded version of the young Mary McCarthy.

What is especially strange about the novel is the superficial attention Miss McCarthy pays to the political and moral aspects of terrorism—an opportunity she would not have missed in the old days—and the excessive space and energy she devotes to the paintings and the fine points of collecting. She has chosen a political topic but failed to write a political novel, perhaps because she is not completely sure where her sympathies lie…. In Cannibals and Missionaries—the title comes from an old puzzle: how to ferry three cannibals and three missionaries across a river, in a boat for two, without having cannibals outnumber missionaries at any stage—political ideas are subordinated to pedagogical gamesmanship. The serious intent of the book—and I don't doubt that she started out with one—remains cloudy.

Elizabeth Hardwick's critical sensibility is the source of a venturesome effort to work out a new aesthetic idea, and as a result her novel is hobbled by the abstract severity of that idea. Contrarily, Cannibals and Missionaries suffers from its author's failure to decide what she wants the story to mean. Can it be that Mary McCarthy, surely for the first time in her life, has been unable to make up her mind? (p. 67)

Pearl K. Bell, "Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 68, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 65-7.∗


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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 commit murder or use extreme violence on someone they've gotten to know….

It's true, I suppose that I have a certain sympathy for the main terrorist character in my novel: it would be hard not to respond to his kind of total dedication and self-sacrifice, though not of course to extorting sacrifice from others. But I also show how terrorists paint themselves into a corner because their aims are impossible—that's the whole point.

Actually it wasn't really hijackings which got me started on the book. People aren't the only hostages in the story: there are works of art…. [The] whole question of the value people put on works of art is very interesting, especially for someone who cares about art and beauty in every way, as I do.

I think really my criterion is aesthetic or I think the aesthetic and the ethical are the same—to me, a beautiful action is a good action and a good action cannot be ugly. Nevertheless, one can't help questioning one's own way of life and one's principles, the fact that one cares so much about art and about the appearance of things….

[The] main thing that came home to me while I was in daily contact, amid the air-alerts, with the North Vietnamese was religious—their current religion was Marxism-Leninism though with a wayback Buddhist background; and this made me realise how much I was a Christian. It was not even a matter of confronting it, but, let's say, of noticing it. I don't believe in God—that's just a fact, it's not an act of will; I can't even conceive of God, so there it is. But ethics came to me in the frame of Christian teaching, and even though I don't believe in an afterlife I'm still concerned with the salvation of my soul. I'm quite incapable of switching to an atheist's ethics, if there is such a thing….

Aside from Christian doctrine, the thing that has most formed my cast of mind has probably been Shakespeare. Whether the two are connected in some way I'm not sure, but it seems to me that throughout Shakespeare there is a deep rejection of the will. The will naturally allies itself with abstractions, and abstractions in Shakespeare are always wrong. In comedy they simply lead to comic conclusions, beginning with 'Love's Labour's Lost' where the young men make their absurd vow and try to stick to it. And anyone who thinks that he embodies what Ibsen called 'the claim of the ideal' is shown to be wrong in Shakespeare, like Angelo in 'Measure for Measure' or Lear or Coriolanus or Shylock with his insistent idea of a pound of flesh—a bloodless abstraction, evidently.

Shakespeare's view of the will and its capacity for abstractions, as opposed to the things of nature, to the instinctive and the concrete, spoke to me very young and still speaks to me. I believe in humility, in a certain modesty towards what is outside, towards what is not I. Or not me. The assertion of any absolute idea is really a claim on the part of the mind to control the world, to control reality. It's a proclamation of sovereignty, and I don't want that, I don't believe in it; I think one must respect the created world which has its own laws, including unjust laws, and its own harmony. We must listen to messages from that world, and this comes over very strongly in Shakespeare where the rustics are always right, they have the last word. The rustics and the clowns and even the fools. That corresponds to my sense of the way things ought to be….

Every time I write a book I face the problem that people—and that includes book-reviewers—can't read any more. In my last novel, for example, the hero is attacked by a black swan. One reviewer described it as a white swan, another as a goose. And in the very first review I read of my new novel, I found one of the characters described as 'a narrow, venal woman.' This is the poor dumpy collector who tries to lay down her life for her painting. This is terribly discouraging….

I do think that people have lost touch with language, which is, after all, a kind of silting in of human knowledge and of the human capacity for definition and identification….

I've said to myself that 'Cannibals and Missionaries' is my last novel. Something I've observed is that one loses one's social perceptions, they get blunted and dimmer as one gets older—it's partly a matter of eyesight. You can continue writing poetry and essays and so on, but to be a novelist you have to have this alert social thing.

I've started working on a new book, but it's not a novel. It's what my publisher calls an intellectual autobiography. But again, you're working from memory, which doesn't improve with the years. I've always had a very good memory—though I wish I hadn't lost the letters from a crucial period of my life, in the 1930s: I didn't pay my storage bill, they were in a trunk. But anyway, that's what I'm doing. You know, one only has this much time on earth.

Mary McCarthy, "A World Out of Joint," in an interview with Miriam Gross, in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9816, October 14, 1979, p. 35.

Robert M. Adams

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['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 different readings, of which the author clearly intended to render none definitive….

As always, Miss McCarthy writes crisp, unsentimental prose, with a cruel eye for weakness and inauthenticity. Her title comes from a parlor game, which already suggests a measure of ironic detachment. If anything, the acerbity of her manner would seem likely to incline her toward sympathy with cannibals rather than missionaries; in fact, she seems to prefer the milder of the hijackers and the tougher-minded of their victims. But the catalyst of the situation, which by its mere presence changes the chemistry of the whole social mix, is an important work of art. (p. 38)

From the book's early pages, [we dangle] over an abyss of threatened violence, and to have it finally done with in [the cataclysm of the denouement] is a genuine relief: the carnage is larger than that in the fifth act of Hamlet. For most of the novel, the terrorists despite their menacing demeanor have been agreeably restrained. On the other hand, the liberals have been so self-important, the rich so spineless, and the terrorists so incompetent, it's hard for the reader to feel that anybody deserves to survive. As it is, the rich suffer no casualties at all, the liberals fairly heavy ones, and the terrorists are wiped out to a man. Does this distribution result from accident, moral judgment, or fictional convention? Once again, the author suggests no answer that I can see.

Most to be regretted is the lost Vermeer. Whether Miss McCarthy meant it this way or not, that is how the reader feels. Most of the people are commonplace, easily replaceable types…. Most of them remain paper characters on a paper page: we could see them going to wholesale slaughter, if the plot demanded it, without a twinge of compunction. But a genuine Vermeer! If it were not a museum-quality forgery (even that is left open to question), it would be one of no more than forty Vermeers; it would be a quiet, perfectly fulfilled instant of time, air, and light. By what she says of the painting and of people's reactions to it, Miss McCarthy persuades us that it is precious beyond any of the comedians standing around and gaping at it. (pp. 39-40)

Mary McCarthy has produced a carnival of such petty egotisms and, unlikely as some of it may seem, her clear swift prose and slightly mordant humor carry the reader around it, hoping that the intimations of significance will amount to something more. The reader can take pleasure in her precision of language about people who lack precision in their ideas. What is hardest to believe in the end is that there is much to be learned from this particular set of cannibals and missionaries. (p. 40)

Robert M. Adams, "Unhappy Landings," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 16, October 25, 1979, pp. 38-40.

Somewhere over Europe, a plane is hijacked, apparently because its passengers include the well-known members of a liberal committee traveling to investigate allegations of torture in Iran—ideal hostages, from the terrorists' point of view…. [The] thirty-two participants in this all-too-common drama [Cannibals and Missionaries] have little option but to learn to live with one another, a situation that provokes a crucial question: Who are the cannibals, and who the missionaries?

This novelistic scheme presents a number of possibilities, and McCarthy takes advantage of it to raise some interesting points about social beliefs and behavior. She is skillful at exposing the subtle hypocrisies of class, and her arguments regarding the dangerous and unnatural position of art in our technological world are well taken. But as a work of fiction, Cannibals and Missionaries suffers from a lack of focus. Despite the exciting plot, the pace is leisurely, full of lengthy pauses during which various ideas are promulgated. Worse, the characters are maddeningly banal; chosen to represent a variety of types, they come to life only when given some concrete action to perform, and just one of them—the leader of the terrorists (a rather frightening choice)—is genuinely sympathetic. (pp. 93-4)

"Life & Letters: 'Cannibals and Missionaries'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1979 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 244, No. 5, November, 1979, pp. 93-4.

Richard Lingeman

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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 and political sophistication—a compelling symposium on a number of issues of our times, plus clashes of class and politics, respectively, between the liberals and the rich, and the liberals and the revolutionaries. In other words, ideas, talk, love, hate—people in the pressure cooker of captivity, in which essential psychological and social juices are sweated out.

Some of that we do get, especially in the first part of the book before the hijacking, as the ad hoc committee of liberals bound for Iran to investigate torture in the Shah's dungeons are assembled. But then, one-quarter into the book, McCarthy must deal with the logistics of the hijack and tinker with the mechanics of the plot; soon our potentially exhilarating mix has dissolved into a rather tepid soup.

When she is writing about people in social situations, McCarthy is fine, but a hijacked 747 is the wrong matrix. These people are the ingredients of a McCarthy-patented realistic intellectual comedy. It is as though they are in search of a 1979 version of Heartbreak House, or maybe a Wildean drawing room, or a grove of academe—a place where talk can flow, the new order confront the old, social types play off against one another. Nothing so lofty as a Magic Mountain, but maybe the Catoctins. And if the author's game is showing a motley group of people thrown together in extremis, then there should be revealing clashes. (p. 470)

[While] McCarthy has evoked the conditions of captivity vividly, one is never terribly worried about the hostages' lives. Only hard-core thriller fiends will mind that, and they shouldn't have picked up a book by Mary McCarthy anyhow. I mention it, though, because it is a small symptom of a larger offhandedness—a glancingness—about this novel. The novel is like an Aspen conference attracting a lot of star academic names that falls flat—or rather drones on inconclusively….

[The] ideas [presented in the novel] are not really engaged; instead they are broken up and scattered about indiscriminately among various characters. (p. 471)

Cannibals and Missionaries describes its own circle and returns to a platitude—or rather the flatness that results when all views sink back into their common element. At the center of a circle is emptiness, and at the center of this novel there is an emptiness—a missing presence, the presence of the passionate heart and mind of the author herself. (p. 472)

Richard Lingeman, "She Gets No Kick in a Plane," in The Nation (copyright 1979 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 229, No. 15, November 10, 1979, pp. 470-72.

Thomas R. Edwards

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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 time—since the early 1950s, in fact, at steady intervals of eight years.

The earlier fiction had an obviously close relation to her own experience in the 1930s and early 1940s, as a bright young woman come out of Vassar to make her way in the literary-intellectual life of New York, with its fringes in bohemia, academia, and high society. And her provincial, Catholic background gave her useful ironic leverage upon an intellectual life governed by Freud, Marx, and literary modernism. The Company She Keeps, The Oasis, The Groves of Academe, A Charmed Life, and (later) The Group are skeptical responses to "advanced" attitudes and modes of living that are nonetheless recognized as attractive and necessary alternatives to what otherwise might have been…. The earlier fiction, with its cool, malicious portrayal of recognizable individuals and types, suggests a writer determined not to be fooled and utterly possessed by a life that nevertheless represents a welcome escape from narrow, spiritless possibilities.

This fascinating sense of self-division is much less evident in Birds of America and, now, Cannibals and Missionaries. Her interest has been shifting from personal history to public history, as her writings on Vietnam and Watergate suggest too. But such a change doesn't guarantee stronger novelistic performance, and while Cannibals and Missionaries is a considerable book, full of intelligent speculation about serious contemporary issues, it is not a terribly successful work of fiction….

[The story of the novel] is of course the stuff of thrillers, and McCarthy does provide suspense and a climax of slambang violence. And she has worked hard to achieve the accuracy of surface behind which the larger improbabilities of this fictional genre may decently conceal themselves…. (p. 30)

McCarthy doesn't make her terrorists and their motives seem very convincing…. McCarthy suggests that they're showing off, turning terrorism into a work of art for the admiration of friendly competitors like "Carlos" or the PFLP, but such a notion removes the novel pretty far from real cases. (pp. 30-1)

Nor does McCarthy's picture of how hostages and terrorists get along together seem very credible…. And there's something both unreal and strangely condescending about McCarthy's way of depicting the non-European hijackers—Palestinian and Latin American—as, in effect, amiable, childlike, protective servants of both their comrades and the captives, as if it all were something like a rather edgy house-party down on the old plantation.

Depending on one's own political and moral outlook, it is possible to think of terrorists as common criminals, as crazed fanatics, or as tragic victims or heroic agents of significant political purposes. In each view they figure as extremely dangerous persons. But McCarthy's terrorists are cream puffs…. To the extent that it seeks to represent a frightening reality, Cannibals and Missionaries is fairly preposterous.

The book does better in describing personalities, or personality-types, under the pressures of bewilderment, anxiety, and fear. Here some significant categorizing is detectable. (pp. 31-2)

[The] two characters McCarthy likes best are both failed (or failing) Catholics, as well as being lawyers, successful politicians, poets, and men of the world. One, Senator James Carey, comes uncomfortably close to being a portrait of the author's namesake, Eugene, and it's enough to say here that for all Carey's charm, sophistication, and wisdom, his vanity and cynicism permit him to be killed off at the end. His counterpart, the Dutch statesman Henk Van Vliet de Jonge, has all of Carey's virtues and none of his flaws; he's also a better poet, and he gets out of the story with only a serious concussion. Carey and Van Vliet are the right spectators for the drama McCarthy means to present. Unlike the other hostages, they know how the world works, they can keep cool under pressure, they are humanly interested in their nominal enemies, they know as artists that larger issues are at stake in immediate actions…. Though Van Vliet's faith is lost and Carey's is in some doubt, both have been prepared to see the secular world in the concerned yet detached way the author sees it too.

This may be rather too convenient for McCarthy's purposes, and rather too hard on all the people in the book who haven't had the advantage of a Catholic upbringing…. But though I'm not convinced that the cultivated political man is the finest type our age affords, I must admit that Carey and Van Vliet (and the terrorist Jeroen, their peer on the other side) largely escape the outlines of caricature that enclose most of the novel's characters and achieve a considerable semblance of complex life.

I can't imagine not being interested in anything written by Mary McCarthy, and Cannibals and Missionaries has pleasure and instruction to give to anyone who values wit, intelligence, and seriousness of purpose. But as a realistic novel it isn't very convincing, and I wish that she had given us her thoughts on art, violence, and the inadequacy of most secular roles in some more direct, or more oblique and fantastic, form. (p. 32)

Thomas R. Edwards, "Books and the Arts: 'Cannibals and Missionaries'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 20, November 17, 1979, pp. 30-2.


McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 1)


McCarthy, Mary (Vol. 3)