The Magazine

Quite Contrary

A reintroduction to Mary McCarthy in her centennial year.

Jun 4, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 36 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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The centenary of Mary McCarthy’s birth falls on this year’s summer solstice, and August is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her most famous novel, The Group, which sold more than five million copies by the time of McCarthy’s death in 1989, and continues to sell.

Mary McCarthy

Katherine Eastland

Yet it is rarely assigned—or even well regarded—in colleges; and while highly entertaining, The Group is not generally recognized as a classic, is not romantic, and is not a potboiler. Nor does McCarthy have a partisan cheering section any longer, if she ever had one. Although a lifelong leftist, she is adjudged (if she is thought of by bien-pensant intellectuals at all) as a conceited, viperish figure who took delight in attacking such patron saints as Lillian Hellman. 

Still, there have been at least three full-length biographies of McCarthy, plus a son’s reminiscences, and a Broadway play about her contretemps with Hellman. And there will surely be more accounts of her life both in print and, no doubt, on the screen. So who is right? Her faithful readers or the university intellectuals she so mocked and derided in her essays and novels, and who have belatedly returned the (dis)favor?

Her appeal for biographers derives partly from her beauty and glamour. In this, she is singular. If she could write off her looks by saying that she was merely invariably the prettiest girl at benefits for sharecroppers, let us admit that few admired women writers were ever comely enough to make men stare, or sufficiently informed about fashion that female friends sought their advice on wardrobe and jewelry.

A worthier motive lies in her witty, highly wrought writing. While it’s been a common jest that she left her lover Philip Rahv for her second husband, Edmund Wilson, because Wilson offered better prose, neither one’s came close to hers. Indeed, it may be that no American since Scott Fitzgerald has written so felicitously.

The uncommon union of bitchy cleverness and apposite word choice which characterizes her work caused some of it to be overvalued in her lifetime. An indication of how extreme this could be was evidenced at her death, when the ever-fatuous Gore Vidal asserted that she was America’s preeminent critic. Ponder this remark in light of the fact that (as one writer previously noted) when Mary McCarthy worked as a drama critic, she reviewed the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire at length without mentioning Marlon Brando, and Street Scene without noting its composer, Kurt Weill. Her criticism is fascinatingly subtle but reflective of her character, which was unstable, and her personality, which was brittle and often unsparing. 

Moreover, if she was not emotionally invested in her subject, the result was like a recipe made from the best ingredients but then boiled to death. Thus, her later novels, like Birds of America (1971) and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), are utterly uninvolving when not noticeably factitious. Further, her programmatic anti-Americanism led her towards shameful and dishonest political tracts like her uncritically laudatory account of her visit to North Vietnam, Hanoi (1968). 

But conversely, the singularity and originality of some of McCarthy’s early autobiographical fiction and nonfiction have left them much underappreciated. Somerset Maugham once said that the final test of a novelist was his sales after death. Here is testament that The Group stands up far better than the more lauded titles of, say, James Baldwin or Norman Mailer. And for all the admiration given to Lolita, to read it after reading McCarthy’s debut novel, The Company She Keeps (1942), is a bit like eating a pastry puff after consuming a 14-ounce sirloin. Hers is more substantial stuff.

Both the sublimity and the inadequacy of her work reflect her tortuous upbringing. Few childhoods have been stranger: mixed with heaping portions of Dickensian privation, upper-class WASP refinement, Roman Catholic catechism, and Jewish maternal devotion. It is as if someone had a rearing combining Oliver Twist and the Main Line—and this given to a girl with a supremely swift mind, a convent school education, and the libido of a male member of the Kennedy clan. 

Born in 1912 as the eldest of four children, Mary McCarthy was orphaned at age 6 when her handsome, wastrel father and affectionate-but-neurotic mother died in the influenza epidemic. She and her three brothers were subsequently sent to live with a vindictive and stupendously cheap aunt and uncle in Minnesota. Devout Irish Catholics fond of beating the children with a strop and refusing them food as punishment, this couple had no definite idea what to do with the rebellious and fiercely independent oldest child: Making her a ward of the state and sending her to foster care seems to have been one notion they seriously entertained.

Consequently, when McCarthy’s maternal grandparents turned up in 1923 and offered to take Mary back to their large home in Seattle, the couple was more than happy to consent—so long as it was agreed that she would receive a strict Catholic education. This promise was believed to be necessary because her grandfather, Harold Preston, was a religiously indifferent Protestant lawyer, and her grandmother, Augusta Morgenstern, was a Jew with a practicing sister who regularly stopped by the house. In this manner, McCarthy was separated from her younger siblings, among them the actor Kevin McCarthy. Yet because her grandfather was a partner of the prominent law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, McCarthy’s new adoptive parents could afford to send her to Seattle’s most expensive Catholic girls’ school. There, she learned Latin and became the center of every class discussion, sometimes over and above the instructors.

McCarthy lost her faith when she discovered some persuasive agnostic authors, and she lost her virginity when she discovered college boys. Her rampant promiscuity—which eventually included dozens, if not hundreds, of lovers—raises the question, previously unasked by biographers, of whether she suffered from some bipolar or borderline personality disorder. Her youthful obsession with killing herself, her violent mood swings, her lack of any clear sense of identity in the face of success as a writer, and her longtime combination of nymphomania with a fear of intimacy suggest that she may have been in the grip of either, or both. 

In her writing, it’s apparent that she could be passionately attracted to men at one moment and ironically observant while making love to them the next. Certainly the ups and downs of her life will provide fodder for future screenwriters: four marriages, numerous abortions, at least one miscarriage, brief institutionalization, a bout of hepatitis, and, through her affairs with wedded lovers, the wrecking of several other marriages.

The frequent alternation between a breathing emotionalism and detachment was essential, of course, to her artistry. Through this union she was able first to understand and then to report. Lacking was a breadth of feeling for others. In consequence, she could not be a novelist like Tolstoy or George Eliot (two of her favorites), writers who provided a view of men and women from a range of classes. She could write sympathetically only about what she had lived herself. 

McCarthy’s most honest book, and the one that is freest of attitudinizing, is her first, The Company She Keeps. A collection of six short stories, it reveals, somewhat in passing, the unhappiness of a troubled young woman who moves from man to man, never finding satisfaction. Barely fictionalized, it is often amusing and ultimately heartrending—no matter that we see that its protagonist is (as she admits) incapable of love, even self-love. It is Portnoy’s Complaint told from a woman’s point of view, ending poignantly and written in a far superior style.

Neither The Group nor her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) offers such consistently astringent truthfulness. But their power cannot be denied. The reasons why The Group has never been properly acknowledged are several: her many enemies, especially among her former friends on the left, the book’s originality, and its subject. To the critics of the time, a novel about the mundane concerns of overeducated spinsters and housewives couldn’t be important, and its humor was lost on them. Norman Mailer wrote it off as “the best novel the editors of the women’s magazines ever conceived in their secret ambition,” missing McCarthy’s intent to create

a kind of compendious history of the faith in progress of the nineteen-thirties. .  .  . Through these eight points of view, all feminine, all consciously enlightened, are refracted .  .  . the novel ideas of the period concerning sex, politics, economics, architecture, city-planning, house-keeping, child-bearing, interior decoration, and art. It is a crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes and idées reçues

This was not Jane Eyre. Nor was it The Lower Depths. Rather, McCarthy presented the reader with something new: a sardonic but realistic and affecting panel portrait of bourgeois women in their daily roles as rivals, betrayed and inconstant lovers, nursing mothers, underpaid office workers, and self-regarding intellectuals. 

The first two-thirds of The Group renders this world more effectively than any account before or since. (The last third is more frequently just good storytelling that closes the tale.) And while the novel had limited appeal to men of Norman Mailer’s generation, it is equally distasteful to many current feminists, as its view of woman is not one in which she is an innocent victim or strong sister but, rather, crafty and scheming, if sometimes easily duped. In writing The Group, McCarthy said that she had earned other women’s enmity by “giv[ing] away trade secrets.” What’s more, she depicts motherhood as natural, central, and rewarding—if occasionally stultifying. The lesbian among the book’s eight central characters, while alluring, is predatory and corrupting. The Group’s design, which permits the goal of limning a generation, has been copied by other women writers but has never been approached for insight, wit, style, entertainment value, or completeness. 

Even so, McCarthy’s most memorable book may be her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. It is also the one in which she expresses her greatest love for another person and where—more than in the depiction of the ironically named heroine of The Group, Kay Strong, or in her damning self-portrait in -A -Charmed Life (1955)—McCarthy gives us her most tragic figure. This was her maternal grandmother. The victim of a routine facelift that went awry, Augusta Morgenstern spent much of her adult life wearing a veil to hide her disfigured looks and lost beauty. All but a few visitors were kept from her house.

Why is this apolitical book little regarded? Hostility towards McCarthy was evident in the academy from very early on in her career—even before her scabrous and somewhat heartless satire of self-infatuated left-wing English professors in The Groves of Academe (1952). A decade earlier, McCarthy had gained the animosity of the Communist party and its fellow travelers through her work for the Trotskyite Partisan Review, and she amplified this mutual antipathy with essays such as “Settling the Colonel’s Hash,” in which she lampooned the preoccupation among literary scholars with symbolism. Here and elsewhere, she advanced the provocative notion that fiction should be judged principally in terms of its merit as storytelling, and read primarily to find out what happens to the hero or heroine.  

Another cause for resentment was her effective demolition of Simone de Beauvoir in “Mlle. Gulliver en Amérique.” Reviewing a Beauvoir volume unavailable in English, McCarthy pointed out its innumerable idiocies: a stated admiration for James “Algee” (Agee), Eugene “O’Neil” (O’Neill), and “Max” Twain; her delight in living in “Greeniwich Village”; and her belief that the shops along New York’s Fifth Avenue were “reserved for the capitalist international.” 

In recent years, Mary McCarthy has been best remembered among the cognoscenti for her remark on an episode of Dick Cavett’s talk show that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was “a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ ” and for the libel suit that ensued. This episode ultimately destroyed Hellman’s reputation, as it proved her mythomania and crookedness. But commendable as this literary defenestration was, it was a small act—and at the hundredth anniversary of her birth, it is time to say that Mary McCarthy’s importance was not realized on the TV screen but on the printed page. 

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.

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