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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. 

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