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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mary McCarthy

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.”

McCarthy’s 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: Watergate Portraits.

As 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.

During 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.

Following 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.

Throughout 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.

McCarthy 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.

The 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.

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graduate School

In the Heath Anthology
from Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
      Names (1957)

Other Works
Sights and Spectacles (1937 - 1956)
The Oasis (1949)
Cast a Cold Eye (1950)
The Groves of Academe (1952)
A Charmed Life (1955)
Venice Observed (1956)
The Stories of Florence (1959)
On the Contrary (1961)
Mary McCarthy's Theater Chronicles (1963)
The Group (1964)
Birds of America (1965)
Vietnam (1967)
Hanoi (1968)
The Company She Keeps (1970)
The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (1970)
Medina (1972)
The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974)
The Seventeenth Degree (1974)
Cannibals and Missionaries (1979)
Ideas and the Novel (1980)
The Hounds of Summer and Other Stories (1981)
How I Grew (1985)
Occasional Prose (1985)
Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 (1992)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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