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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Mary (Therese) McCarthy (1912-1989)


Witty and sophisticated American writer and theater critic, noted for her satirical commentaries on marriage, intellectuals, and the role of women. McCarthy's novels were often drawn from autobiographical sources; she put friends, enemies, ex-husbands, thinly disguised, into her fiction. Her bestselling novel, The Group (1963), was about her classmates at Vassar and their subsequent lives. McCarthy's seven novels appeared between the years 1942 and 1979. Most of her fiction and nonfiction explored the response of intellectuals to political and moral problems. McCarthy's attraction to Communism ended in 1936-37, but in the mid-1960s she re-emerged as a political essayist, writing against the Vietnam War.

"When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over, till finally, you will discover, through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you. It works, I guarantee you, this sure-fire guilt-eradicator, like a homeopathic medicine - like in small doses applied to like. It works, but I am not sure that it is a good thing." (from How I Grew, 1987)

Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle, WA. Orphaned at the age of six, when both her parents died in the great flu epidemic of 1918-1819, she was brought up by her rigid aunt and uncle in Minneapolis, where she spent six miserable years, after which her rich grandparents took care of her. Her virginity McCarthy lost at the age of 14 in the front seat of a Marmon roadster to a man twice her age. McCarthy was educated at the Annie Wright Seminary, Tacoma, Washington and Vassar College, New York, where she studied literature and met Elizabeth Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser. After graduating with honors aged 21, she married the first of her husbands, the playwright Harold Johnsrud, and moved to New York. After the marriage ended, she had a series of affairs, writing later provocatively that at one point she stopped counting the number of men she slept with in her Greenwich Village apartment.

During the 1930s McCarthy was active on the American left, becoming a Trotskyist and an anti-Stalinist. She worked as an editor in Covici-Friede publishers in 1936-37, and then coedited with Philip Rahv Partisan Review for a short time, and had also an affair with him. From 1938 to 1962 McCathy wrote theater reviews for PR, the premier journal of the New York intellectuals; she was also the only woman of her Vassar friends, who was accepted in the inner circle of the magazine.

In 1938 McCarthy married her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), with whom she had her only child. McCarthy was Wilson's wife number three. In Intellectual Memoirs (1992) she confessed, that she never loved him, an "old" man who was "fat, puffing" and had bad breath. They looked strikingly different – McCarthy slim, twenty-five, and Wilson two hundred pounds, and forty-two, when they met. "So finally I agreed to marry Wilson as my punishment for having gone to bed with him..." she wrote. Both became soon experts in attacking each other's weak points. It has been claimed, that Wilson beat her up in 1938, after which she suffered a mental breakdown. During World War II, McCarthy began to support the war effort but Wilson remained skeptical. They divorced in 1946. The couple lived for several years in Wellfleet, a small community south of Provincetown on Cape Cod. During her Wellfleet years, McCarthy commuted regularly to New York City to escape from her husbands overpowering presence and to meet her lovers.

McCarthy's first book, The Company She Keeps (1942), was a collection of loosely linked stories. The satire about New York intellectuals depicted the failure of a marriage, and the search for personal identity through psychoanalysis. McCarthy herself had a new psychiatrist in the early 1940s, who had been analyzed by Freud. Vladimir Nabokov praised McCarthy's novel in his letters to her husband.

The Oasis (1949) was a short novel about artists and intellectuals living in a utopian society. The Group (1963) was a sexually outspoken depiction of eight Vassar graduates in the 1930s. It followed the group of friends through their first sexual experiences, marriage, and domestic duties. Intended to be a partial parody, it portrays women as they embrace or oppose ideas of political and social progress fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s. The book was made into a movie in 1966. Comically titled Birds of America  (1971) focused on a young American named Peter Levi whose harpsichordist mother refuses to accept modern conveniences. Peter travels to Paris with a copy of Kant's Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, asking himself what Kant would do in his position. He concludes, "Maybe the categorical imperative is not the best guide for Americans abroad." At the end, in delirium he is ready to step beyond his mother's views of "progress". A melancholy Kant tells him, "Perhaps you have guessed it. Nature is dead, mein Kind."

McCarthy met in 1944 the philosopher Hannah Arendt in a hotel bar, a year later they quarreled, but eventually they settled their differences and became dear friends, confidantes, and devoted correspondents. Their correspondence was later collected in Between Friends  (1995). When Arendt was attacked by the Jewish community for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) McCarthy rushed to her aid and wrote a defence of her views in Partisan Review: "To me, Eichmann in Jerusalem, despite all the horrors in it, was morally exhilarating. I freely confess that it gave me joy and I too heard a paean in it – not a hate-paean to totalitarianism but a paen of transcendence, heavenly music, like that of the final chorus of Figaro or the Messiah." Arendt herself was a German-born Jew. As a result of the storm following the publication of the book, Arendt lost many friends, but not McCarthy.

In 1967 McCarthy made trips to South Vietnam, recording her views of the war in essays in the New York Review of Books. After visiting Hanoi, McCarthy wrote favorably about the Vietcong. The two collections of her essays, Report from Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), received less attention than she expected. Years later she admitted, "My dear, I arrived in Hanoi wearing a Chanel suit, and carrying many suitcases!"

Among McCarthy's other publications are critical works, travel books, and the autobiographical Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). As important as her fiction are criticism and political reporting, such as The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1971). Cannibals and Missionaries (1979) was a topical novel about the psychology of terrorism. A plane carrying Americans, rich art collectors and politicians, is hijacked by a terrorist. At first the terrorist intends to use the politicians in the flight as hostages, but then decides to trade the art collectors for their artworks. "We all know in our gut that art educates. In other societies, they've aware of the power it has of speaking directly to the masses, teaching them to better socialists, better citizens. The trouble is that with us it's fallen into the wrong hands. Forget the speculators... The concept of the collector is so rotten by now that it stinks." (from Cannibals and Missionaires, 1979)

In her essays McCarthy explored a wide range of subjects from sexual emancipation, communism, nuclear weapons, Vietnam and Watergate to the work of contemporary playwrights and novelists. "Our anti-Communism came to us neither as the fruit of a special wisdom nor as a humiliating awakening from a prolonged deception, but as a natural event, the product of chance and propinquity. One thing followed another, and the will had little to say about it. For my part, during that year, I realized, with a certain wistfulness, that it was too late for me to become any kind of Marxist. Marxism, I saw, from the learned young man I listened to at Committee meetings, was something you had to take up young, like ballet dancing." (from 'My Confession,' 1954) In one of her most controversial essays, 'America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub' (1947), McCarthy wrote that consumerism has created pseudo-equality, "an equality of things rather than of persons... We are nation of twenty million bathrooms, with a humanist in every tub." McCarthy's theatre reviews were published in 1956 under the title Sights and Spectacles  1932-1956.

McCathy taught or lectured at Beard College, Annendale-on-Hudson, New York (1945-1946 and 1986), Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York (1948), University College, London (1980), and Vassar College (1982). From 1962 McCarthy spent with her fourth husband, James West, half of her time in Paris.

Much of the last years of McCarthy's life was dominated by her legal battle with the writer Lillian Hellman. In a taped interview with Dick Cavett, first aired in 1980, McCarthy said about Helman, with only slight hyperbole, that "every word she writes is alie, including and and the." Hellman's defamation suit against McCarthy – she demanded $2.25 million – was dropped after Hellman's death in June 1984 on Martha's Vineyard. ''If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on. I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.''

In 1984 McCarthy had an operation to relieve the pressure of water on her brain. James West once said, that she was "more interested in ideas than in her health." McCarthy died of cancer in New York Hospital, on October 25, 1989. She was a member of the American Academy, National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her several awards include Edward MacDowell Medal (1982), National Medal of Literature (1984), and the first Rochester Literary Award (1985). She had honorary degrees from six universities.

For further reading: Pioneers and Caretakers by L. Auchincloss (1965); The Company she Kept by D. Grumbach (1967); Mary McCarthy by Willene S. Hardy; Mary McCarthy: A Life by Carol Geldeman (1988); Writing Dangerously by Carol Brightman (1992); Mary McCarthy: An Annotated Bibliography by Joy Bennett and Gabriella Hochmann (1993); Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan (2000); Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals by David Laskin (2000); To the Life of the Silver Harbor: Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy on Cape Cod by Reuel K. Wilson (2008); Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil by Deborah Nelson (2017); Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War by Duncan White (2019) - Note: McCarthy was married four times: Harold Johnsrud (1933-1936), Edmund Wilson (1938-46), whom the author called "the monster", Bowden Broadwater (1946-1961), James Raymond West (1961).

Selected works:

  • The Company She Keeps, 1942
  • On the Iliad / Rachel Bespaloff, 1947 (translated from the French by Mary McCarthy)
  • The Oasis, 1949
  • Cast a Cold Eye, 1950
  • The Groves of Academe, 1952
  • A Charmed Life, 1955
    - Lumottu elämä (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1965)
  • Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956, 1956
  • Venice Observed, 1956
  • Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, 1957
  • The Stones of Florence, 1959 (photos. by Evelyn Hofer and others)
  • On the Contrary, 1961
  • The Group, 1962
    - Ryhmä (suom. Antti Salomaa, 1964)
    - film 1966, dir. by Sidney Lumet, screenplay Sidney Buchman, starring Candice Bergen (her film debut), Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Mary-Robin Redd, Jessica Walter, Kahtleen Widdows, Hal Holbrook - "... if it is seriously indeed - it is the worst misfire of a movie in many year... it is so awkwardly and mawkishly played that it seems not only a travesty of the nineteen-thirties but an insult to a generation of human beings." (Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, March 17, 1966)
  • Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962, 1963
  • The Humanist in the Bathtub, 1964
  • Vietnam, 1967
  • Hanoi, 1968
  • The Writing on the Wall, and Other Literary Essays, 1970
  • Winter Visitors, 1970
  • Birds of America, 1971
  • Medina, 1972
  • The Iliad, or, The Poem of Force / Simone Weil, 1973 (translated by Mary McCarthy)
  • The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits, 1974
  • The Seventh Degree, 1974
  • Can There Be a Gothic Literature?, 1975
  • Cannibals and Missionaries, 1979
  • Ideas and the Novel, 1980
  • The Hounds of Summer and Other Stories, 1981
  • Occasional Prose: Essays, 1985
  • How I Grew, 1987
  • Never Too Old to Learn, 1988
  • Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936-1938, 1992 (with a foreword by Elizabeth Hardwick)
  • Conversations with Mary McCarthy, 1993 (edited by Carol Gelderman)
  • Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975, 1995 (edited by Carol Brightman)
  • A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays, 2002 (edited and with an introduction by A.O. Scott)
  • The Oasis, 2013 (introduction by Vivian Gornick)
  • Novels 1963-1979: The Group; Birds of America; Cannibals and Missionaries, 2017 (edited by Thomas Mallon)
  • Novels & Stories 1942-1963: The Company She Keeps; The Oasis; The Groves of Academe; A Charmed Life; Stories, 2017 (edited by Thomas Mallon)

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