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Mary McCarthy was a fiction and nonfiction writer renowned for her outspokenness and her opposition to what she perceived as hypocrisy. Considered one of America’s most eminent intellectuals, she favored the presentation of ideas through fiction and used her sometimes merciless character portraits to dig deeply into the philosophical basis underlying behavior and attitudes.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Conflicting and Troubled Childhood
Coloring all of Mary McCarthy’s work are the events of her childhood. The eldest of four children, she was born in Seattle, Washington, on June 21, 1912. Her maternal grandmother, Augusta Morganstern Preston, was a beautiful Jewish woman from San Francisco, and her maternal grandfather, Harold Preston, was a Seattle lawyer whose Protestant ancestors came from New England. Her paternal grandparents were wealthy Irish Catholics from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they operated a grain elevator business. Her mother, Therese Preston, was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism after marrying Roy McCarthy, a man ten years her senior and a victim of progressive heart disease. The conflicts between the reactionary Catholicism of the McCarthys and the more humane Protestantism of the Prestons, as well as the Jewish heritage of her maternal grandmother, emerge as significant motifs in McCarthy’s later writings.
Both of Mary’s parents died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918, a devastating worldwide event that resulted in more deaths than all the casualties of World War I. Though many people in modern times associate the flu with only moderate illness, some strains of influenza— coupled with a lack of vaccinations among the general population—can prove to be both highly contagious and potentially deadly.
Mary’s Minnesota grandparents assumed the guardianship of the children and placed them in the care of a great aunt, Margaret, and her stern, authoritarian husband, Meyers Shriver. Mary and her brothers were forced to live amid barren conditions, and they received harsh treatment at the hands of their guardians. Although Mary and her brother Kevin occasionally ran away to their grandparents’ house in Minneapolis, nothing was done to change conditions for the children until 1923 when Mary’s grandfather Preston took her back to live with him in Seattle, sent Kevin and her brother Preston to Catholic boarding schools, and left the youngest boy, Sheridan, with the Shrivers. Although life was more pleasant with her Seattle grandparents, she was never able completely to erase the memories of life in Minnesota. The sense of loss, rejection, and abandonment, and the emotional sterility of the life she endured are recurring echoes in much of McCarthy’s fiction.
Becoming a Writer
After moving to Seattle, McCarthy attended schools in the Northwest and eventually became an aspiring young writer studying at Vassar College, which she entered in 1929. In 1933 McCarthy graduated and moved to New York City, where she quickly became a professional writer whose essays and sometimes scathing reviews appeared in many respected publications, including the New Republic, Nation, and Partisan Review. Her work at the Nation earned McCarthy some recognition. She joined the staff of the Partisan Review in 1937, where she worked as editor until the next year, continuing to contribute drama criticism for several years thereafter. It was during this time that McCarthy came to know the noted literary figures Edmund Wilson (who later became her second husband), Philip Rahv, and Lillian Hellman, among others.
McCarthy began writing fiction at the encouragement of Wilson, shortly after their marriage in 1938. McCarthy’s marriage to Wilson was tempestuous from the start, and it ended in divorce after seven years. Scenes from their marriage served as inspiration for short stories even while she still lived with Wilson, and later became material used in her novels. McCarthy taught for a short time at Bard College, but resigned so she could devote more time to writing. By 1955, she had published the novella The Oasis (1949), the short story collection Cast a Cold Eye (1950), and two novels. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, she wrote fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs and published her best-known and most critically-acclaimed book, The Group (1963).
Vietnam and Watergate
With the international acclaim brought on by the publication of The Group, McCarthy felt the need to turn away from the voice of fiction and speak again in her own voice. The war in Vietnam stirred her liberal political interests, and she interrupted a novel in progress to take two trips to Vietnam to get a firsthand look at the situation. Her essays based on these trips were later collected in her books Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968). Medina (1972), a third book of essays about the war, addresses the trial of the U.S. Army captain in command of the soldiers who massacred South Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai in 1968. McCarthy also wrote about the Watergate scandal in The Mask of State (1974). McCarthy remained politically committed throughout the remainder of her life, continuing to publish essays and memoirs even as her health failed in the 1980s. She died of cancer in 1989.
Works in Literary Context
McCarthy rose to prominence in the 1930s as part of a group of New York City intellectuals that became known for its commitment to political issues. McCarthy’s writing— both fiction and nonfiction—is characterized by a spare, elegant style but also by a caustic wit that earned her both high praise and notoriety.
Life as Inspiration
For literary inspiration, McCarthy often drew from her life and from the lives of friends and acquaintances, and she made little effort to disguise her sources. Some of her stories shocked contemporary audiences with their sexual candor, and the fact that her subject matter was known to be autobiographical made McCarthy herself into something of a legendary figure. An important element of her style is her bleak view of modern life and her sense of the grotesque and the comic.
Telling, Not Showing
McCarthy has been noted for the brutal honesty of her confrontations. Not known for her storytelling abilities, McCarthy’s writing has its roots in a neoclassical tradition where art instructs while it delights. In a literary world influenced by romantic traditions and whose critical standards ask fiction to “show” and not “tell,” her work has been labeled not courageous enough. Many of her fictional works have been criticized for using long philosophical discussions to tell about a problem rather than dramatizing it. Yet, there is wide agreement that she is a master of the English sentence and her prose style is exceptionally fine.
Works in Critical Context
Debating the Appeal of McCarthy’s Style Most discussions of McCarthy’s fiction have revolved around debate about the appeal of her literary style. In a review of Cast a Cold Eye, George Miles attributed both heartlessness and a detached analytical manner to the author when he spoke of her as ”the psychologist and the executioner.” Similarly, Jeffrey Walker has remarked that ”The reader is aware of McCarthy’s own cold eye in presenting these stories of social relationships. …All reveal the coldness of their central characters and form a satiric indictment of urban relationships.” Ultimately, approval of McCarthy’s writing style appears to depend heavily on personal preference, with critics seemingly split on the issue. The Company She Kept was subject to the same dispute about artistic merit as Cast a Cold Eye.
McCarthy’s early works received considerable attention in literary circles and established her as a writer with a keen critical sense and as a social satirist who focused on the intellectual elite, but it was publication of The Group, a novel about eight Vassar girls in the 1930s, that became a bestseller in the U.S. and abroad, which earned McCarthy much wider recognition than she had enjoyed previously. For the very reasons it became popular, critics denounced the book. Some called it nothing more than feminine gossip; some objected to the “shocking” sexual scenes; some maintained that while depicting the surfaces of life brilliantly, she failed to plumb the depths of her material for the larger meanings. Norman Mailer felt that the book was ”full of promise,” but failed to go far enough and penetrate the ”central horror” of our society.
- Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992.
- Gelderman, Carol W. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
- Gelderman, Carol W. Conversations with Mary McCarthy. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
- Grumbach, Doris. The Company She Kept. New York: Coward-McCann, 1976.
- Hardy, Willene Schaefer. Mary McCarthy. New York: Ungar, 1981.
- McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966.
- Moore, Harry T., ed. Contemporary American Novelists. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964.
- Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.
- Brower, Brock. ”Mary McCarthyism.” Esquire (July 1962): 62-67, 113.
- Mailer, Norman. ”The Mary McCarthy Case.” New York Review of Books (October 17, 1963): 1-3.
- Niebuhr, Elizabeth. ”The Art of Fiction XXVII: Mary McCarthy.” Paris Review (Winter-Spring 1962): 58-94.
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