Mary McCarthy was a preeminent American literary figure for some 40 years. Well known for her biting, satiric novels and criticism, McCarthy, who moved within the circles of leading left-wing writers and intellectuals in the United States and Europe, can best be understood as an exceptional essayist. In terms of tone, style, and personal opinion, her numerous articles published in periodicals fit well within the essay form.
Moreover, as one biographer, Doris Grumbach (1967), puts it, “McCarthy’s fiction is very close to the spirit of the essay.”
McCarthy began writing caustic book reviews for the Nation and the New Republic and ferocious theatrical criticism for the Partisan Review in the 1930s. She established a reputation for memorable glibness, writing of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire that “his work reeks of literary ambition as the apartment [in which the play is set] reeks of cheap perfume.” McCarthy shifted to fiction at the insistence of Edmund Wilson, an influential critic who was the second of her four husbands. Her work overall offers a brilliant but somewhat unconventional and occasionally malicious look at American culture as seen through the eyes of the intellectual set with which she was identified. With cool intelligence and humor infused by a firm conviction of her own honesty and morality, she chronicles her personal involvement in and reaction to key social and political issues of her era, including sexual emancipation, communism, civic liberty, academic conformity, nuclear weapons, Vietnam, and Watergate. In a display of her depth of her knowledge, however, two of McCarthy’s outstanding books lie in the field of cultural history (Venice Observed, 1956; The Stones of Florence, 1959).
Often drawn from autobiographical sources, many of the themes she developed in seven novels (published 1942–79) and various short stories were initially sketched in magazine articles. For example, McCarthy’s most popular work, the bestselling novel The Group (1963), describes in scathing, sexually explicit detail the lives of eight graduates of Vassar College, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in 1933. Intended to be a partial parody, it portrays the women, thought to be thinly disguised versions of herself and her classmates, as they embrace or oppose ideas of political and social progress fashionable among intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. To a degree it draws on material presented in “The Vassar Girl” (1951), first published in Holiday and included in her most significant essay collection, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946–1961
(1961). In “The Vassar Girl,” McCarthy makes witty reference to scenes from her own anguished, orphaned childhood in Seattle and Minneapolis, which were later elaborated upon in her painful autobiography, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), itself mainly a collection of articles that appeared from 1946 to 1955 in the New Yorker. Some critics called it her finest book. Along with two successive volumes of autobiography—How I Grew (1987) and Intellectual Memoirs (1992)—as well as fictional heroines who seemed much like herself, Memories served to mythologize her own life.
On the Contrary offers an overview of McCarthy’s wide range of interests as an essayist. Divided into three sections, “Politics and the Social Scene,” “Woman,” and “Literature and the Arts,” it displays her ability to dissect subjects ranging from comments in the United States on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi to the work of contemporary playwrights and novelists. In one of her most provocative essays, “America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub,” originally published in 1947 in Commentary, she writes that the American experience rests on “a pseudo-equality, that is, in standardization, in an equality of things rather than of persons. The inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness appear, in practice, to have become the inalienable right to a bathtub, a flush toilet, and a can of Spam.” Nevertheless, as Carol Brightman (1992) points out, McCarthy did not simply echo the prevailing left-wing view that capitalism had turned Americans into a nation of soulless consumers. Instead, she summed up in her epigrammatic style the conservative argument that consumerism represented an unobtainable dream of social equality: “We are a nation of twenty million bathrooms, with a humanist in every tub.” In another essay, “The Fact in Fiction,” based on lectures given in Europe in 1960, McCarthy argues that modern novelists, including herself, have become cut off from “common sense in terms of broad experience” and that, consequently, novels are dividing into component parts, the essay based on facts on the one hand, and the fictional tale on the other, instead of integrating the imagination with details of actual life.
As a writer, McCarthy was influenced by the classical education she had received in a convent school and an Episcopalian seminary in the state of Washington as well as at Vassar. To her Catholic upbringing she attributed her love of Latin, once commenting, “Writing with a Latinate turn, compressed, analytic, and yet having a certain extravagance or oratorical flourish sounded in my ears like a natural, spoken language” (Current Biography, 1969). At her death, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick was quoted as calling McCarthy’s voice both “urbane and puritanical, an original and often daunting mixture” (Time, 6 November 1989).
Mary Therese McCarthy. Born 21 June 1912 in Seattle, Washington. Studied at the Annie Wright Seminary, Tacoma, Washington; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, A.B., 1933 (Phi Beta Kappa). Married Harold Johnsrud, 1933 (divorced, 1936). Book reviewer, the Nation and the New Republic; editor, Covici Friede publishers, New York, 1936–37;
editor, 1937–38, and drama critic, 1938–62, Partisan Review. Married the writer Edmund Wilson, 1938 (divorced, 1946): one son. Taught or lectured at Bard College, Annandaleon- Hudson, New York, 1945–46 and 1986, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1948, University College, London, 1980, and Vassar College, 1982. Contributor to many journals and newspapers, including the New York Review of Books, the Observer, and the Sunday Times. Married Bowden Broadwater, 1946 (divorced, 1961), and James Raymond West, 1961. Lived in Paris and in Castine, Maine. Subject of a defamation suit by the writer Lillian Hellman: suit dropped after Hellman’s death, 1984.
Awards: three grants and fellowships; Edward MacDowell Medal, 1984; National Medal of Literature, 1984; First Rochester Literary Award, 1985; honorary degrees from six universities.
Member, American Academy, National Institute of Arts and Letters. Died (of cancer) in New York, 25 October 1989.
Essays and Related Prose
Sights and Spectacles, 1937–1956, 1956; enlarged edition, as Sights and Spectacles:
Theatre Chronicles, 1937–1958, 1959; enlarged edition, as Theatre Chronicles, 1937– 1962, 1963
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (autobiography), 1957
On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946–1961, 1961
The Humanist in the Bathtub, 1964
The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays, 1970
The Seventeenth Degree (includes Vietnam, Hanoi, and Medina), 1974
The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits, 1974
Ideas and the Novel, 1980
Occasional Prose, 1985
Other writings: seven novels (The Company She Keeps, 1942; The Oasis, 1949; The Groves of Academe, 1952; A Charmed Life, 1955; The Group, 1963; Birds of America,
1971; Cannibals and Missionaries, 1979), short stories, two further volumes of autobiography (How I Grew, 1987; Intellectual Memoirs, 1992), and books of travel and cultural history.
Bennett, Joy, and Gabriella Hochmann, Mary McCarthy: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1992
Goldman, Sherli, Mary McCarthy: A Bibliography, New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968
Brightman, Carol, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992; London: Lime Tree, 1993
Gelderman, Carol, Mary McCarthy: A Life, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988; London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1989
Grumbach, Doris, The Company She Kept: A Revealing Portrait of Mary McCarthy, New York: Coward McCann, 1967; as The Company She Kept: A Study of Mary McCarthy,
London: Bodley Head, 1967
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