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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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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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