Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Analysis

Mary McCarthy

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.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood contains eight personal narrative essays, most of which were originally published in The New Yorker, about Mary McCarthy’s childhood years, beginning with being orphaned, along with her three brothers, when her parents died from influenza. Besides a preface entitled “To the Reader,” seven italicized commentaries follow all but the last essay, which McCarthy admits was the most difficult essay for her to write because it is about her Grandmother Preston, who, for McCarthy, holds the real key to knowing herself. Several black-and-white photographs of family members are located in the middle of the book. Although many women had written narrative autobiographies before Memories of a Catholic Girlhood was published, McCarthy’s book was refreshingly innovative in at least two ways—its choice of topics and its use of commentaries to question the authenticity, in terms of truthful autobiography, of each essay.

As McCarthy says in the preface, the book was compiled partly because so many people who responded to the essays in The New Yorker were incredulous either about the believability of the people and events in her narratives or about her seeming cynicism about Catholicism. The two most shocking essays are “C’est le Premier Pas Qui Coute,” in which McCarthy describes her loss of faith, and “Names,” in which McCarthy relates her onset of menses. Such topics were rarely...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although some critics have argued that the untruths revealed in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood are indicative of women’s inability to tell the truth given the fact they live and write under patriarchal domination, others have argued that the book is not in the form of an autobiography expected of a woman because of its lack of sentimentality. McCarthy does not even make the death of her parents, and the subsequent orphaning of herself and her siblings, a maudlin event. Although no one ever told them that their parents were dead, the children eventually stopped asking to see them, so that “without tears or tantrums, we came to know they were dead.” McCarthy speaks of knowing that their time of being pampered was over, but she also points out that children survive by conforming and by making do.

Because of the unconventionality of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, with its thought-provoking topics and its interspersed commentaries on truth and memory, it helped to create a new platform of possibilities for autobiographical writing. Women writers, especially, seem to have taken advantage of these new possibilities, particularly the mixing of traditionally fictional elements into the tradition of autobiographical writing. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) are all examples of McCarthy’s unconventional autobiographical style being shaped into various complex narratives.

McCarthy has been recognized for her work, especially in fiction, being most noted for her novel The Group (1963), which was condemned by many critics because it was written about women’s concerns, especially sexuality and relationships, from a woman’s perspective. She was awarded the National Medal for Literature in 1984.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992. This biography’s prologue sets the sexual, investigative tone of the book, attempting to divine from McCarthy’s prose her attitudes and beliefs about her own sexuality. Part 1 deals with McCarthy’s life as explained by McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

Eakin, Paul John. “Fiction in Autobiography: Ask Mary McCarthy No Questions.” In Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985. This chapter examines McCarthy’s autobiographical essays—especially those contained in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood—and argues that “autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving content in an intricate process of self-discovery and self-creation.”

Hardy, Willene Schaefer. Mary McCarthy. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. The second chapter of this biography examines Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in some depth, examining each essay and comparing elements within the autobiography to those in McCarthy’s fiction.

Rose, Barbara. “I’ll Tell You No Lies: Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and the Fictions of Authority.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 9, no. 1 (Spring, 1990): 107-126. This essay discusses the dilemma inherent in traditional views of gender when it comes to autobiography. Because men often describe their individuality via their contrast with others, women who choose to imitate male patterns of autobiography are paradoxically placed as “other” in their own stories. Rose argues that, because of this skewed perception, women’s autobiographies are more often scrutinized for “truth” than are men’s.

Rudikoff, Sonya. “An American Woman of Letters.” The Hudson Review 42, no. 1 (Spring, 1989): 45-55. This essay argues that McCarthy’s need, as an orphan, to organize her life and to invent her own history through her autobiographical writings relates directly to her denial of ever having been confronted with the problem of being a woman. Rudikoff undermines McCarthy’s denial to show that her writing is best understood in the context of being a woman and sharing her life with other women.