Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The sixth book of a prolific and prominent American writer, this collection includes eight essays interspersed with shorter pieces of commentary and preceded by an introduction. All but two of the eight chapters and the preface were first published, from 1946 to 1957, in The New Yorker, some in slightly altered form. The chapter title “Names” did not have prior publication, nor did the introduction, titled “To the Reader.”

The book, like Mary McCarthy’s childhood, is divided between two locales. The first two chapters center on Minneapolis, where Mary and her three brothers lived for five years with their paternal grandparents after the four young children were orphaned during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Mary, the oldest, was six when her parents died.

In the preface, the author describes her parents and their backgrounds, family life in Seattle, and the nature and importance of her religious faith as she was maturing. Briefly, she discusses her readers’ various and conflicting responses to the essays as they were published separately, and she discourses on the difficulties of writing about her life when her principal resource was her own memory, a lively imagination, and a vague, sometimes faulty knowledge of certain facts. For example, she never knew her brothers as children after they were separated, and all the principal adult figures in her early life were dead or unavailable by the time she was writing these memoirs.

The remainder of the book is composed of recollections of her years in Seattle, where she lived with her mother’s parents, the Prestons, the three boys having remained in Minneapolis. The period of time covered by this chronicle is approximately twelve years. Each chapter has a focus—each title suggesting an aspect of McCarthy’s life at a particular time—and each (except for the last one) is followed by a brief essay in which the writer meditates on some of the events and persons presented in the chapter and on the difficulty of distinguishing among truth, unreliable memory, and fantasy; this problem constitutes a principal theme of the book. Another concerns her Catholic upbringing; the third is the universal theme of growing from childhood to the verge of young womanhood.