Mary McCarthy (1912-1989)
Contributing Editor: Wendy Martin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students will be interested in discussing McCarthy's depiction of social roles and norms and will want to relate her questioning of traditional beliefs to the social changes of the twentieth century. However, while this is a fruitful course of discussion for McCarthy's work, it is important not to lose sight of the literary artistry of her work. Students should learn to be attentive to the nuances of language, the symbolism and carefully controlled diction that characterize McCarthy's prose and make her a superb literary stylist as well as a chronicler of her times.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Mary McCarthy's life extended across most of the twentieth century, and her writing is as multifaceted as the rapidly changing American society in which she lived. She was concerned with issues of social justice and responsibility, and this concern manifests itself in her work in the form of repeated examinations of assumptions about gender, race, and class. For example, her novel The Group (1963) explores the irony, and sometimes the ugliness, in the lives of two decades of American women, dealing openly with adultery, misogyny, divorce, and insanity. The novel ridicules traditional notions of femininity and suggests new ways of conceptualizing marriage, work, and love.
Although McCarthy's work seems to be informed by a feminist sensibility, she asserted that she was not a feminist. While it is important to establish the political and social background of the leftist intellectual circles in which she moved, it is also important to recognize that McCarthy was always an independent thinker who resisted easy categorization.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
McCarthy's writing took a variety of forms, from early theater columns for the Partisan Review to incisive political essays on Vietnam and Watergate. Her best-known works are her novels and her collection of short autobiographical narratives, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, from which the selection "Names" is taken. This collection is both a product of and a deviation from previous American autobiographical narratives. In revisiting her own life, McCarthy exposes the silences and boundaries in the lives of the traditional women who inhabited her childhood. McCarthy undertakes two projects simultaneously; she demystifies cultural assumptions of silent and passive femininity, while simultaneously building up her own autobiographical persona. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood stands as an important model for American women's autobiography in a century of dramatic social change for women.
McCarthy wrote for a wide audience. She was, at one point, a staff writer for the New Yorker. The Group, her best-selling novel, has sold over five million copies worldwide. In general, both her fiction and her essays are meant to appeal to progressive and open-minded women and men, and to encourage these readers to question social traditions and assumptions that arbitrarily limit their lives.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
McCarthy's intellectual background could be provided through the works of her close friend, Hannah Arendt, whose book The Life of the Mind McCarthy spent two years editing. Another interesting source of background material would be the literary criticism of her second husband, Edmund Wilson.
McCarthy said herself that John Dos Passos's The 42nd Parallel, which she read while at Vassar, was one of her most important influences. She met Dos Passos when she joined a group of radical writers living in Greenwich Village during the late thirties; other writers she met living in the Village were Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, and Upton Sinclair. The political and intellectual debates that she participated in during this period were important formative influences for the ideas that would later appear in her writing. It would be useful to compare and contrast the work of these male radicals with McCarthy's vision.
McCarthy also stated that she had read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Jo's Boys. These works and the fiction of other earlier women writers, such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, could be used to establish the tradition of white women's literature in which she wrote, and which she transformed to fit her individual needs. In addition, a comparison and contrast could be developed between Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and, for example, Report from Part One, the autobiographical narrative of McCarthy's contemporary, Gwendolyn Brooks.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Many of the major issues of McCarthy's writing can be touched on in a discussion of "Names." Questions for discussion could include: What is the significance of the "frontier" setting of the narrative? How does the ethnic mix of names in the convent relate to the narrator's self-perception? How does the institutional structure of the convent force the narrator to be deceptive about "becoming a woman"? Why is she renamed at the same time that the incident with the blood occurs, and why does she say that the name "Cye" becomes her "new patron saint"? Discussion of these questions should bring out McCarthy's concern with exposing the reality beneath social surfaces and with the ways that social pressures affect the construction of the self. Another topic for discussion would be McCarthy's treatment of the women in the female society of the convent. How does she portray the various girls? The nuns?
2. McCarthy's prose at first seems light and readable, but on closer inspection it turns out to be quite dense and laden with interconnected levels of meaning. Having students write on brief passages gives them an opportunity to explore this richness of meaning. Ask students to make connections between seemingly disparate passages. For example, what does the passage at the beginning of "Names," where she describes the society of Puget Sound, have to do with the passage at the end, in which she says, "What I wanted was a fresh start . . ."? Students should be able to discover how the theme of recreated identity, treated both seriously and with irony, runs throughout "Names."
For a concise overview of McCarthy's life and work, see Wendy Martin, "Mary McCarthy," in Modern American Women Writers, edited by Elaine Showalter et. al. (1991). For biographical information, see Carol W. Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life (1988), and Doris Grumbach, The Company She Kept (1967). For a study of her autobiographical writings, such as "Names," see Gordon O. Taylor, "The Word for Mirror: Mary McCarthy," in Chapters of Experience: Studies in Twentieth-Century American Autobiography (1983). For a more general treatment of McCarthy's artistry, see Wendy Martin, "The Satire and Moral Vision of Mary McCarthy," in Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen (1978).