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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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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

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