Mary McCarthy

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Many Catholics reacted negatively to Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Several decades later, does this kind of reaction seem justified?

Discuss McCarthy’s use of irony in The Groves of Academe, beginning with its title.

Is it unfortunate for McCarthy’s reputation that she is best known for The Group?

What features of McCarthy’s style are most responsible for her success as a novelist?

Do the autobiographical elements in McCarthy’s novels generally enhance or detract from them?

Other Literary Forms

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Mary McCarthy began writing as a drama critic for the Partisan Review. She wrote six novels. The Group (1963), the most widely read of these, was subsequently made into a film in Hollywood. She also wrote two autobiographies as well as numerous articles and books on art and politics. Most ground-breaking among her nonfiction is the autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), an idiosyncratic combination of fiction and nonfiction. In italicized bridges between each essay/story, McCarthy comments on the proportions of fact and fantasy in each selection. In her second autobiography, How I Grew (1987), she presents her life as an artist. Reviewers responded quite well to the second autobiography but typically noted the superiority of the first. McCarthy’s literary criticism for The New Republic and The Nation earned her an important place in American literature.


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Mary McCarthy’s exceptional skill as a writer won her immediate recognition. An essay she wrote for the College Entrance Examination Board (CEEB) was published anonymously in a CEEB journal of the early 1930’s as an example of a high-scoring essay. Recognition for her excellence includes the 1949 Horizon literary prize for The Oasis (1949), an O. Henry short-story prize in 1957 for “Yellowstone Park,” and in 1984 both the National Medal of Literature and the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contributions to literature. McCarthy, a Guggenheim Fellow in both 1949 and 1959, was a member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters from 1960 until her death. Recognized for her astute observation of literary works, she was a judge for a number of fiction awards, including the Prix Formentor, the Booker Prize, and the National Book Award.

McCarthy’s own writing style is classic: her sentences, architectural structures of balance and cadence; her rebellious point of view, a rainbow prism of satiric wit. The typical McCarthy story is realistic and satirical, revealing the self-deception of the supposedly intelligent and well educated. Her fiction is peopled with veiled portraits of those whom she knew well. Critical opinion tends to cast each of McCarthy’s husbands, except James Raymond West, as the model for one or more of her male “antagonists”: Harold Johnsrud for Harald Peterson in The Group and the husband in “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment”; Edmund Wilson for Miles Murphy in A Charmed Life (1955) and a legion of short-story husbands; and Bowden Broadwater for John Sinnot in A Charmed Life and a young American in “The Cicerone.” Generally, McCarthy’s characters are viewed ironically from a vantage point of cool detachment.

Other literary forms

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First known as a book reviewer, drama critic, and essayist, Mary McCarthy also wrote short stories, collected in The Company She Keeps (1942), Cast a Cold Eye (1950), and The Hounds of Summer, and Other Stories (1981). Her drama criticism is collected in Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956 (1956) and in Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962 (1963). Venice Observed (1956) and The Stones of Florence (1959) are books of travel and art history. The Writing on the Wall, and Other Literary Essays (1970) and Ideas and the Novel (1980) are literary essays and lectures. On the Contrary: Articles of Belief (1961) contains autobiographical essays and literary criticism.

(This entire section contains 149 words.)

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(1961) contains autobiographical essays and literary criticism.Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and How I Grew (1987) are memoirs of her childhood and youth. Her books Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968) oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, an interest that she continued in Medina (1972) and in The Seventeenth Degree (1974). The Mask of State (1974) presents impressions of the Watergate affair hearings.


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From the appearance of her first book reviews, when she was just out of college, to the time of her death, Mary McCarthy was one of the leading figures of the American literary scene. In her novels as much as in her essays and reviews, she was above all a critic, a sharp observer of contemporary society. For students of twentieth century American culture, her work is indispensable.


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Arendt, Hannah and Mary McCarthy. Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992. Supplements but does not supersede Carol W. Gelderman’s earlier biography. Like Gelderman, Brightman was able to interview her subject, and her book reflects not only inside knowledge but also (as its subtitle suggests) a strong grasp of the period in which McCarthy published. Includes a biographical glossary and notes.

Epstein, Joseph. “Mary McCarthy in Retrospect.” Commentary 95 (May, 1993): 41-47. Provides a summary of McCarthy’s work; comments on her role in intellectual life in America; discusses the relationship of her life to her fiction.

Gelderman, Carol W. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Gelderman offers an objective biography of McCarthy. Although much of the narrative is familiar, the book is well written and amply documented. The photographs provide important perspective on McCarthy’s childhood and a satisfying glimpse into her adult life. This biography makes good reading for a general audience as well as for a student of McCarthy.

Gelderman, Carol W., ed. Conversations with Mary McCarthy. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. A series of interviews with the author, dating from 1962 to 1989.

Goldman, Sherli Evens. Mary McCarthy: A Bibliography. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968. Goldman explains that Mary McCarthy was “more collaborator than subject” in this work. The book is divided into five categories: books, contributions to books, contributions to periodicals, translations into foreign languages, and appendix of miscellanea. The appendix lists interviews, McCarthy;s own translations of French works, and Braille and recorded editions of books by McCarthy.

Kiernan, Frances. Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. A comprehensive biography full of vivid details and anecdotes but marred by a lack of focus on certain essential aspects of McCarthy’s life and work.

Kufrin, Joan. Uncommon Women. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1981. In a book that examines women who have succeeded within several different fields, McCarthy is “The Novelist” for the chapter so named. The portrayal of the writer is friendly and informal, largely the transcription of an interview in McCarthy’s home in Maine. McCarthy comments on her writing process of extensive revision. The two photographs capture a sense of fun and humor in McCarthy. A light and readable piece.

McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966. McKenzie offers a one-page chronology of McCarthy’s life as well as an opening chapter titled “The Fact in Biography.” The fourth chapter, titled “The Key That Works the Person,” concerns the short stories in The Company She Keeps and Cast a Cold Eye. The final chapter assesses McCarthy’s overall contribution to literature. McKenzie’s book, with notes, a bibliography, and an index, would benefit the serious student of McCarthy’s work.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including McCarthy, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.

Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Stock’s forty-seven-page essay includes overall critical comment on McCarthy’s work, noting the moral concerns evident in her fiction. Stock also provides a brief biography. He summarizes and then provides analysis of The Company She Keeps, Cast a Cold Eye, The Oasis, The Groves of Academe, and The Group. Stock’s character studies are particularly good.

Stwertka, Eve, and Margo Viscusi, eds. Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Part of the Contributions to the Study of World Literature series, this volume is based on essays presented at a conference on the author at Bard College in 1993.

Wilford, Hugh. “An Oasis: The New York Intellectuals in the Late 1940’s.” Journal of American Studies 28 (August, 1994): 209-223. In this discussion, Wilford analyzes Mary McCarthy’s fictional portrayal of Europe-America Groups, a political organization created by New York intellectuals.


Critical Essays