| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Mary McCarthy was an important intellectual writer
whose work addressed many of the critical political issues of the twentieth
century. Her novels and memoirs as well as her numerous collections of essays
demonstrate that she was deeply concerned with social responsibility—a topic
that inevitably involves an analysis of the traditional definitions of race,
class, and gender. McCarthy’s early theatre columns for Partisan Review, her
autobiographical narratives, her fiction, especially her controversial novel
The Group, and her penetrating essays in such collections as On the Contrary
make it clear that she did not shrink from confrontation. Her keen analytical
skills and caustic commentary were focused on national and international issues
such as the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, and the invasion of Cambodia,
as well as domestic concerns such as divorce, female sexuality and birth
control. Her refusal to resort to platitudes in her analyses of subjects as
diverse as corruption in national government and dysfunctional family dynamics
earned her a reputation as being “cold, steely, merciless.” She became known as
the “lady with a switchblade.”
personal life was as complex as her writing. Born in Seattle in 1912, she was
orphaned at the age of six when her parents died in the influenza epidemic that
swept the United States in 1918. With her three younger brothers, Kevin,
Preston, and Sheridan, she was sent to live with her great aunt and uncle. She
recorded her bitter recollections of that time in Memories of a Catholic
Girlhood, How I Grew, and Intellectual Memoirs. Especially distressing was the
cruel treatment she received from Uncle Myers, whose vicious criticisms and
physical cruelty she never forgot. He is the prototype of the bombastic and self-indulgent
men who appear in her fiction from “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” to her
descriptions of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in The Mask of State:
an undergraduate at Vassar from 1929 to 1933, McCarthy was a voracious reader
and an excellent student. After marrying and divorcing in the first three years
after graduation, she embarked on an adventurous life in Greenwich Village
during the Depression. During this time, McCarthy wrote theatre reviews
for Partisan Review and lived with Philip Rahv, one of the editors of the
journal. In 1938 she left Rahv to marry Edmund Wilson, a brilliant literary
critic and essayist. Crediting Wilson with her career as a fiction writer,
McCarthy reported that early in their marriage he insisted that she remain in
her study until she had written a short story. She and Wilson had a son, Reuel,
in 1939, and they divorced six years later. McCarthy married twice more and
lived in Paris for many years with her fourth husband, James West.
the 1930s, McCarthy was involved in political debates between the Stalinists
and the supporters of Trotsky, whom she favored. She brilliantly evokes the
political and social ferment of this period in the short stories “The Genial
Host” and “Portrait of an Intellectual as a Yale Man,” which were included in
The Company She Keeps. The New Yorker responded with enthusiasm to this
collection and invited McCarthy to join its staff of writers.
the Second World War, McCarthy and Hannah Arendt formed a friendship that
lasted 30 years. McCarthy observed in How I Grew that “not love or marriage so
much as friendship has promoted growth.” McCarthy and Arendt became
internationally acclaimed during the years of their friendship. When Arendt
died in 1975, McCarthy devoted two years to editing Arendt’s The Life of the
Mind, which was published in two volumes in 1978.
her life, McCarthy disavowed any association with feminism, as did many women
of her generation; nevertheless, a feminist sensibility underlies her work. One
of the primary themes of her work is the battle of the sexes and the damaging
consequences of the norms of masculine aggression and feminine passivity.
Another of her concerns is the importance of psychological and financial autonomy
for women. Economic and emotional dependence on men results in extraordinary
paralysis in the lives of McCarthy’s women protagonists, who are frequently
caught in a web of feminine self-abnegation disguised as romantic love.
dissected the perils of female passivity in the novel The Group, an immediate
best-seller when published in 1963. The novel begins with the first
inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt and ends with the inauguration of Truman.
McCarthy observed that the novel is “about the idea of progress really, seen in
the female sphere; the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the
bed.” Weaving interconnecting narratives about eight Vassar graduates from the
class of 1933, this novel makes clear that, in spite of optimism about the
possibilities of modern life, these women are as dependent on men for economic
and social survival as their mothers were.
writer Alison Lurie observed that Mary McCarthy invented “herself as a totally
new type of woman who stood for both sense and sensibility; who was both coolly
and professionally intellectual and frankly passionate.” In spite of her
sardonic and satiric view of sexual politics, McCarthy believed that it is
necessary “to choose the self you want.” Her boldly unconventional and
accomplished life is a testament to the modernist credo that the individual is
the locus of authority.
Claremont Graduate School
In the Heath Anthology
from Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
Sights and Spectacles
(1937 - 1956)
Cast a Cold Eye
The Groves of Academe
A Charmed Life
The Stories of Florence
On the Contrary
Mary McCarthy's Theater Chronicles
Birds of America
The Company She Keeps
The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays
The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits
The Seventeenth Degree
Cannibals and Missionaries
Ideas and the Novel
The Hounds of Summer and Other Stories
How I Grew
Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938
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Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975
From the Boston Book Review.
Books and Writers
Biography and a list of selected works.
Mary McCarthy Papers
A description of the Vassar College collection, a biography, and a bibliography.
Carol W. Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life, 1988
Sherli Evans Goldman, Mary McCarthy: A Bibliography, 1968
Willene Schaefer Hardy, Mary McCarthy, 1981
Martha R. Lifson, "Allegory of the Secret: Mary McCarthy," in Biography 4, no. 3: 249-267 (Summer 1981)
Alison Lurie, "Her Achievement" (Review of How I Grew) in the New York Review of Books, ii June 1987: p. 19
Wendy Martin, "The Satire and Moral Vision of Mary McCarthy," in Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, ed. Sarah Blacher Cohen, 1978
Irvin Stock, Mary McCarthy, 1968
Gordon O. Taylor, "The Word for Mirror: Mary McCarthy," in Chapters of Experience: Studies in Twentieth-Century American Autobiography, 1983