Back when Public Intellectuals still existed—and their tussles, splashed across the pages of a dozen different journals of note, were avidly consumed by a public not yet stultified by lower-hanging fruit—there lived a writer whose knife cut deeper than anybody’s in the field, wounding friend and foe alike with strokes of remorseless but profound psychological insight. She was at turns America’s most controversial novelist and its most despised war correspondent, the author of a deeply anti-Catholic Catholic memoir and a monumentally popular anti-Vassar Vassar memoir, and an occasionally reformed Trotskyite bemoaned by the Old Left, New Left, and all forms of the Right on offer in mid-twentieth–century America.
Mary McCarthy (1912–1989) lived in the fast grip of memory, where nothing is ever truly Past. It was a propensity that put her constantly at odds with an America that pushed Babbittishly forward by virtue of ignoring the ghosts rapping at the door. In this America, where slick advertising and the cult of the consumer assured you that happiness and fulfillment lay just a self-defrosting refrigerator away, McCarthy was a gadfly of Socratic proportions.
To a country rocking itself to sleep with the virtuous self-mythologizing of Leave It to Beaver, she detailed the sweaty, viscous sex life of the average American. At the radical intellectuals of the 1930s who wanted nothing more than to Blend In and Get By in the Cold War, she shot arrows reminding them of who they once were and might yet be. And for a world that was just beginning to convince itself that religion had charming and traditional answers worth listening to in the wake of atomic warfare and Holocausts, she penned a memoir of religious education that showed its doddering inefficacy in approaching the actual needs and concern of the youths placed in its care.
Orphaned at six, her own youth was spent with an assortment of relatives whose diverse social circumstances and religious beliefs required perception and cunning to navigate. Placed in the charge of her money-grubbing Catholic aunt and uncle, she was eventually passed on to wealthy relatives of a mixed Protestant-Jewish background whose lives of pristine inertia were as maddening as her Catholic relatives’ habits were gauche and uninformed. McCarthy, with the dissecting eye of the perpetual outsider, gathered and catalogued the psychological weaknesses of the individuals and institutions that passed into her life and stored them away, ruminating upon and reinterpreting them in fiction and memoir, fighting the old fights of Memory years and decades on.
A talented if mercurial student from a family of means with a pronounced bent for words and drama, McCarthy was marked for Vassar, where she could at last leave the humiliations of Catholic boarding school and the disaster that was her short time at public school behind her to become a congregation point for unorthodoxy in a sea of upper-bourgeois respectability. Her cutting essays were centerpieces for an anonymously produced newspaper that countered the official school publication, and her personal forays into the sexually tumultuous and creatively alive world of theater people shocked and entranced her fellow students, whose arm’s-length fascination with her antics would become the stuff of her most successful novel two decades later.
Scornful of the false propriety and vapid priorities of her classmates, upon graduation in 1933 she promptly married a playwright of middling promise and proceeded to launch herself as a radical author of Trotskyite leanings. She found work at Partisan Review, a far-left–leaning publication that recognized her talent but mistrusted her upper-class background enough to consign her to its theater-review column, which she promptly turned into one of the periodical’s primary features. Her ability to turn an acidic phrase was the most striking feature of the column, but beneath its obvious appeal there lay a new approach to theater criticism, one focused more on the meaning of the play and psychology of its characters than the star power of the actors.
A critic she might have remained, lashing out against doctrinal Stalinism and American mythology as they thuddingly manifested themselves in creative content, had she not divorced her first husband and married the reigning titan of literary criticism, Edmund Wilson. He saw her talent for description and psychological rendering and compelled her, by virtue of locking her in a room, to write the brilliant fiction he believed was within her.
The technique worked, though the marriage did not. Edmund Wilson was a physically abusive and controlling alcoholic who committed McCarthy for a short time to an asylum as part of a plan to convince her that she was the mentally unstable one in the relationship. Battered, she navigated the years of her Wilson marriage by throwing herself into her literary output, which included a debut short story collection, The Company She Keeps (1942), which contained explicit accounts of infidelity and casual sex that made it a low-key sensation, the proceeds from which Wilson jealously guarded, Fafnir-like, in his own private account.
Not for the first time in her career, the scandal of her work drowned out the craftsmanship of it, and the psychological astuteness of her portrayal of women set loose from the moorings of traditional and religious moral strictures had to wait for a later generation before it would receive its full appreciation. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” in particular, still stands today as a frank and realistic portrayal of the small triumphs and ignominies an intellectual woman must navigate in her social and sexual life, while “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man” skewers the ongoing undergraduate tradition of earnestly wearing the scarf of socialism until such time as money can be made in casting it off.
Divorcing Wilson at last, McCarthy became something of an expatriate, spending as much time as possible in Europe absorbing the past while, in America, the leftist individuals she worked with slowly and resolutely gave in to the pressures of the Cold War and became either witting or unwitting mouthpieces for establishment principles. Escaping into the minutiae of history, McCarthy penned two lavishly produced guidebooks, Venice Observed and The Stones of Florence, that brought life and panache to a dying literary genre, before producing the first of her memoirs, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957).
To those who, unfamiliar with McCarthy’s name, picked up the book hoping for a charming account of the rites of passage experienced by a young Catholic, the book proved a rude awakening, and letters to that effect came pouring into her publisher. Not since Diderot’s The Nun of two centuries earlier had a book so ruthlessly exposed the real daily ignorance and false piety of a Catholic institution. The Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic establishment devoted to the teaching of girls, is a massive international organization today boasting dozens of schools, and it was McCarthy’s mixed fortune to attend one of the branches in Bellevue, Washington. In Memories, she detailed the cliquey social structure of the students as it interleaved with the spotty worldview of the administration to produce an atmosphere survivable only through steady mutual deception.
The most famous chapter focuses on McCarthy’s attempt to gain popularity by faking a Loss of Faith during a school retreat, only to find herself actually losing her faith as she watched the Jesuit scholars and holy sisters fumblingly attempt to justify religious belief. The farce of deeply versed Jesuits being pushed against the ropes by an adolescent who was essentially making up her arguments as she was going along is one of the most delicious and disturbing in the canon of skeptic memoirs, and if she had written not another word, we would have cause to be thankful to her for it alone.
But if you know the name Mary McCarthy, it is likely not for The Company She Keeps, Venice Observed, or even Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, but for the sensational roman à clef The Group, McCarthy’s savage 1963 satire of Vassar graduates that stayed on the bestseller charts for two years on its way to racking up millions of copies sold. As massive a cultural phenomenon as it was (and continues to be—Sex and the City was quite expressly written as a late-twentieth–century update of The Group), and as significant as its insights into sex, birth control, the bureaucracy of childbirth, and the restrictions of mid-century marriages were, McCarthy’s subsequent work turned corners that precious few dared brave.
Whether out of fear that her anti-Stalinism of the thirties had evolved into a too-easily exploited tool of the Cold War or out of genuine horror at the growing debacle, McCarthy’s next great step was to place herself squarely at the center of the Vietnam conflict. Amid revelations that many of the conferences and journals that McCarthy’s circle worked with had been secretly funded for years by the CIA, it was past time for the old intellectual guard to re-assert itself, and McCarthy did this in spectacular fashion by flying to South and North Vietnam and sending back reports from the ground of the societies she saw there, culminating in Vietnam (1967) and the North Vietnam–leaning Hanoi (1968).
McCarthy had hoped that the audience she had gained with The Group would follow her into the challenging issues involved in the Vietnam conflict and her accounting of the ground-level effects of American policy, but in fact sales of both books flagged terribly, and in the two decades remaining to her she would never remotely regain the commercial success of The Group or the critical success of The Company She Keeps.
By the end of her life, McCarthy often wondered if she had done anything of any importance. Unable to direct her popular success into her more radical explorations, and increasingly criticized for the “marionette”-like quality of her fictional prose, she returned to the memoir as the genre that best suited her cult of analytic memory, retreading the ground of her youth in How I Grew (1987) and detailing her sexual and intellectual awakenings in the posthumously published Intellectual Memoirs (1992).
Today, we remember Dorothy Parker but have largely forgotten Mary McCarthy. Equals in pithiness, there is something about the electric sneer of Parker’s stories from the 1920s and 1930s that has lodged in our memory in a way that McCarthy’s dark and complicated prose from the 1940s through 1960s largely has not. Fortunately, the work is all there to be rediscovered—the complicated independence of a woman facing a man in a Brooks Brothers suit, the sweaty unknowing stickiness of a stranger’s apartment in The Group, and the holy incompetence of the blind leading the young in the memoirs, all of it layered in tangles of missed meanings and partially understood motivations that can be the rewarding work of a lifetime to untangle and understand when we find the time, and the guts, to dive in.
FURTHER READING: The Library of America has a marvelous two-volume hardcover collection of McCarthy’s novels and stories, while Harcourt Brace Jovanovich collected all the memoirs together in one volume back in 1993. You won’t find her decades of theater criticism or her wartime journalism there, but as a starting point those two collections are hard to beat. Meanwhile, Carol Brightman’s biography Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (1992) is damn near definitive.