Mary McCarthy’s Unsparing Honesty

Taking Sides

Mary McCarthy’s unsparing honesty.


In the winter of 1960, Mary McCarthy—the writer whom Norman Mailer once described as “our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword”—gave a series of lectures in Europe sponsored by the US State Department. McCarthy was 47. Having published four well-received novels, she was struggling with a new one, about eight Vassar graduates living through the political and economic upheavals of 1930s New York.

McCarthy never knew just who would be in the audience that winter—they might be university students, children, intellectuals, retirees—so she rarely bothered to prepare a formal speech. Instead, she spoke in an impromptu fashion about the challenges of writing novels in the second half of the 20th century—after the golden age of realism, after modernism’s explosion, after Auschwitz. “The writing of a novel has become problematic today,” she declared in “The Fact in Fiction,” an essay she published based on her lectures. Novelists had turned away from the social world; they were no longer concerned “with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, events, and statistics.” They did not “stoop to gossip,” as the great novelists—Austen, Joyce, Kafka—once did. Instead, in 1960, the average writer was credentialed and professionalized; he lived in a world composed largely of “other writers and his girl friends” (and, perhaps lamentably, colleagues in a university English department). This was why the novel was so moribund in America. But McCarthy thought that a new generation of writers could reverse this trend: “someone may be able to believe again in the reality, the factuality, of the world.”

“The Fact in Fiction” offers the best of Mary McCarthy: her considered criticism of writers, her careful taxonomies, her bold and withering condemnations, and her impeccable, almost fastidious sentences. These were the qualities that made her one of the most respected—and feared—critics of her generation. They also reveal what she valued in fiction, both in what she read and what she wrote. Verisimilitude was paramount. Depicting a social world was more valuable than rendering a subjective consciousness, unless that consciousness was itself given to observations about the social world. A novelist could entertain, she could illuminate, but she must never swerve from the world as it is experienced. “Factuality,” her word for a precise and honest accounting of the observable world, was both McCarthy’s literary standard and her lodestar.

McCarthy’s fiction, collected by the Library of America in two new volumes, shows how her preoccupation with factuality shaped her art. The collection includes all seven of her novels—the first published in 1942, the last in 1979—as well as collected and uncollected stories and an essay on “the novels that got away.” Through it all, we see McCarthy’s fixation on the surface details that distinguish class and character: a middle-aged man from the Midwest who is given to wearing Brooks Brothers suits; a Yale man working at a leftist magazine who sports a “well-cut brown suit that needed pressing”; bohemian couples living on Cape Cod who drink too much and don’t bother keeping house. We learn that it was a status symbol in 1930s New York for a Vassar graduate to serve coffee with real cream.

But this emphasis on accuracy was more than just a literary aesthetic; it was a moral and political position, a principle to live by. McCarthy was allergic to groupthink in all its forms, as skeptical of the small political sects of the 1930s as she was of mass culture in the 1950s. She participated briefly in Communist Party activities and was on the left her entire life, but she never surrendered her independent mind in the name of solidarity.

In her fiction, McCarthy offered unsparing portraits of the people in her circle—thus risking, and sometimes losing, the support and affection of friends. (She shamelessly “stooped to gossip.”) For her, the responsibilities of the novelist were the same as those of the intellectual: to observe the world carefully and to discern and communicate the truth, unpopular as it may be. In her criticism, she delivered devastating evaluations of new fiction and theater. Of Eugene O’Neill, she once wrote: He “belongs to that group of American authors, which includes Farrell and Dreiser, whose choice of vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these men possessed the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of the beat.”

She was helplessly, hopelessly honest, even when it wasn’t in her best interest. When her biographer dropped by for an interview, McCarthy was so forthright that she later worried she could be sued for libel. After her death in 1989, her close friend Elizabeth Hardwick tried to explain McCarthy’s adherence to fact: “If one would sometimes take the liberty of suggesting caution to her, advising prudence or mere practicality, she would look puzzled and answer: But it’s the truth.” McCarthy believed in precision in all things, and she abhorred shortcuts. She tried to take in all the details of her surroundings and produced work that serves as a document of its time. Reading her collected fiction, we may marvel at how much her cold eye saw—but we may also note the things it missed.

At least some of McCarthy’s political and aesthetic commitments can be attributed to Catholicism, the religion of her youth. Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912 to an Irish Catholic father and a half-Protestant, half-Jewish mother. Her father, Roy, was charming, a bit wayward, and devoted to his children. Her mother, Tess, was a great beauty who converted to Catholicism at the time of her marriage. She was also, as her daughter remembered it, more enthusiastic about her adopted faith: She “made us feel that it was a special treat to be a Catholic…. Our religion was a present to us from God.”

McCarthy was the first of the couple’s four children and the only girl. In the fall of 1918, in the midst of a flu epidemic, the McCarthy family moved from Seattle back to Minneapolis, where Roy’s family lived. All six were stricken with the flu; the children recovered, but Roy and Tess died. “Poor Roy’s children” went to live with two middle-aged guardians, a great-aunt and her husband, in the house that their paternal grandparents had purchased for Roy’s family.

In a series of memoirs, later collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), McCarthy recounted the deprivation and cruelty that marked her childhood. Whippings were frequent, and reading was forbidden. Myers, their great-uncle, spent many winter days making candy, but the children never tasted a single sweet. When McCarthy won a prize for a school essay, Myers beat her with a razor strop—“to teach me a lesson, he said, lest I become stuck-up.” McCarthy and her brother Kevin took turns running away from home; they had “evolved an identical project—to get ourselves placed in an orphan asylum.” Eventually, McCarthy managed to persuade her maternal grandparents to take her in; Kevin and Preston went to their paternal grandparents, while Sheridan, the youngest, stayed with the guardians. Years later, in earlier chapters of Memories, McCarthy wondered why her paternal grandparents, who lived just two blocks away, hadn’t intervened earlier. By the time Memories was published, she’d learned that her grandfather had spent over $40,000 caring for her and her brothers, and she included this new information in one of the book’s many corrective interludes. McCarthy was the kind of writer who fact-checked her own memoir.

McCarthy attended the Sacred Heart convent school, where she experienced something of an aesthetic awakening. She was awed by the “sound of the French words…the luster of the wide moire ribbons cutting, military-wise, across young bosoms, the curtained beds in the dormitories, the soft step of the girls, the curtsies to the floor, the white hands of the music master…. The cricket played in the playground, the wooden rattle of the surveillante’s clapper.” She admired the orchestration, the precision, the school’s emphasis on doing the right things the right way. “I felt as though I stood on the outskirts and observed the ritual of a cult,” she later wrote, “a cult of fashion and elegance in the sphere of religion.”

At her high school, she fell in love with literature and got the idea of going to Vassar. There, McCarthy befriended some literary women, including Elizabeth Bishop, and produced a “rebel literary magazine.” She pursued an older actor, Harold Johnsrud, whom she married shortly after graduation. (McCarthy would later mine these college and postcollege years in her best-selling novel The Group.) She reviewed a few books for Malcolm Cowley at the New Republic, and a few more for The Nation.

But it wasn’t until she divorced Johnsrud and fell in with the intellectuals associated with the Partisan Review that she honed her political principles. She wrote theater reviews for the magazine and socialized with its editors and writers—Dwight Macdonald, Delmore Schwartz, and Philip Rahv—and even lived with Rahv for part of this time.

McCarthy also found herself taking sides in intra-left debates. At a party at the novelist James Farrell’s apartment, McCarthy sided with some of her new friends, who believed that the then-exiled Trotsky should be entitled to a trial; four days later, she found her name on the letterhead of something called the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. She was furious that the committee had used her name, but once acquaintances started to discourage her from taking up Trotsky’s cause, she resolved to stay and threw herself into the cause. In “The Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” a chapter in The Company She Keeps, a “gay divorcée” committed to Trotsky is seen from the Yale man’s point of view: “She looked stubborn and angry. All at once, Jim was sure that he liked her, for she was going to fight back, he saw, and it took courage to do that.”

McCarthy didn’t turn to fiction until she married Edmund Wilson in 1938. The marriage was tumultuous and violent: Wilson drank, and he would beat McCarthy, then accuse her of delusions and psychosis. (She was hospitalized following one of these beatings, an episode she fictionalized in The Group.) But she got two things out of the marriage: her son, Reuel, and the time and space to become a novelist. Indeed, McCarthy was by far the better novelist of the two, and the couple’s decision to move away from the bustle of New York granted her the ability to write more freely, which Wilson, to his credit, encouraged.

In her first short story, “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,” which would become the opening chapter in her debut novel, The Company She Keeps, an unnamed young woman—presumably the heroine of the novel, Margaret Sargent—engages in an extramarital affair in order to enliven her boring married life. Every move is made for its social effect; the protagonist thinks of her romantic life as a kind of performance—for the two men involved, for her female friends, and for herself. Acutely observed and psychologically rich, the narrative is one of McCarthy’s best. It also manages to be unpitying but not entirely unsympathetic, as it compellingly portrays the constraints in which women live. “The terror of spinsterhood hangs over [women] from adolescence on,” the protagonist muses as she travels by rail away from both her lover and her soon-to-be ex-husband:

When they do get married it seems to them a sort of miracle, and, after they have been married for a time, though in retrospect the whole process looks perfectly natural and inevitable, they retain a certain unarticulated pride in the wonder they have performed. Finally, however, the terror of spinsterhood has been so thoroughly exorcised that they forget even having been haunted by it, and it is at this stage that they contemplate divorce. “How could I have forgotten?” she said to herself and began to wonder what she would do.

McCarthy never signed on to the women’s movement: “As for Women’s Lib, it bores me,” she once said. “Of course I believe in equal pay and equality before the law and so on, but this whole myth about how different the world would have been if it had been female-dominated…seems like a complete fantasy to me.” Still, in her early fiction, she offered compelling accounts of the challenges facing young, intelligent women—women smart enough to know better and yet powerless to alter sexism’s script.

Like many of her novels, The Company She Keeps was controversial when it was published because its characters were drawn so closely from life. (John Chamberlain, an editor and critic whom McCarthy had earlier savaged in The Nation, surely knew that he was the intellectual “Yale man” whose voice on the page was “that of a man in an advertisement letting another man in on a new high-test gasoline.”)

Undaunted, McCarthy continued to use her friends and acquaintances as the foundations for her characters. The Oasis (1949), a brief satirical account of a failed intentional community, featured her ex-lover Philip Rahv (called Will Taub) and Dwight Macdonald (Macdougal Macdermott). A Charmed Life (1955) is set in a place that closely resembles Wellfleet, Massachusetts—McCarthy had returned there with her third husband, Bowden Broadwater—and includes a character based on Wilson. The novel is so skeptical of the town’s pseudo-intellectualism that Broadwater was worried they’d never be able to return there once the book was published. (They did not.)

McCarthy was unapologetic about mining her life for material. This, she believed, was what novelists were supposed to do. But she was irked by readers who spent all their energy matching fictional characters to real-life intellectuals. “What I really do is take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake,” she once told an interviewer. “If you’re interested in the cake, you get rather annoyed with people saying what species the real plum was.”

Some of McCarthy’s critics have accused her of being too gossipy, but a set of overarching themes emerges clearly from her fiction: self-
deceiving intellectuals and ideologues, the mixed outcomes of social progress, idylls won and lost. Many of her novels and stories focus on small, self-selecting groups: the mothers of “The Appalachian Revolution,” who scheme at ways to protect their perfect beach from human and animal invasion; the Pollys and Dotties and Lakeys of The Group, who experiment with book reviewing and birth control; the humanities scholars at Jocelyn College, the setting of The Groves of Academe (1952), who defend a colleague during a “witch hunt”; the well-meaning liberals of Cannibals and Missionaries, who are at the mercy of a group of hijackers. The last novel, one of her best-
researched, was also her least successful: She made sure to render accurately the seating arrangements of a 747 jet, but she failed to imagine convincing interpersonal relations for its characters or a compelling conclusion to the novel. (The deus ex machina that liberates the kidnapped missionaries would be more appropriate on bad television.)

The Oasis, her satire of a group of utopians who settle in Vermont, offers one of the most acute studies of the dynamics within self-styled political groups. The story—McCarthy didn’t think it was a proper novel—starts with the division between the “realist party,” who make pragmatic arguments about the survival of the colony, and the “purist faction,” who believe in upholding the colony’s principles at all costs. (These squabbles will be all too familiar to anyone on the left who has attended an organizing meeting.)

At the end of the novel, realists and idealists alike are undermined by a group of local strawberry pickers, who refuse to be dissuaded by the colonists’ gentle requests that they refrain from picking on their property. (The colonists’ socialism doesn’t seem to preclude policing the borders of their land.) Eventually, a couple of the colony’s men scare off the locals with some stray gunshots, and the colonists carry on with a strawberry picnic they have planned. As the day draws to a close, Katy—an alter ego for McCarthy—lies back in the grass and reflects on the colony’s inevitable failure. She imagines that the colony might have had a shot at enduring if it managed to produce “a commodity more tangible than morality…cheese, wine, books, glass, furniture.” “Morality,” she wryly observes, “did not keep well.”

This focus on the superficial and the tangible—on what could be seen and touched—both enlivened McCarthy’s fiction and limited it. Her work is rich with detail: “a single silver-pink climbing rose,” plucked from a trellis; a woman wearing “bright glass-bead jewelry, her angora sweater, and shoulder-strap leather handbag, all Italian as the merceria.” These are not lyric visions but matter-of-fact observations; their aim is not to beautify or even appreciate, but to show that one is alive to the world. The worst thing, in McCarthy’s fictional universe, is to be a character lost in thought, especially to be a man given over to abstractions.

At times, these details overwhelm her fiction, making it more like sociology than art. Reading McCarthy, we learn how an upper-class urban woman dresses, where she shops, and what she cooks, but we don’t always understand why a woman might do these things, or how she feels about doing them. This partly reflects McCarthy’s understanding of the forces of history. People are shaped by their times; it’s the rare individual who is not swept along by the currents of the moment. Why someone wouldn’t conform to her time and place was perhaps not a question that McCarthy felt was worth asking. But she sometimes did write about those who resisted their era’s conformity—or at least tried to. In “The Weeds,” a woman finally leaves her marriage, only to encounter the terror of an unscripted life. “She had no plans,” McCarthy writes, in her favored close third person. “Her imagination, working (how long?) in secret, had carried her only this far; she had conceived of the future, simply, as a hand, still wearing its glove, reaching out for a hotel phone.” It’s no surprise that on her sixth day away, just as she has begun to imagine a life alone, the woman sees her husband waiting for her in the hotel lobby, and she eventually returns home.

McCarthy’s aversion to warm, ambiguous, imprecise feelings is one of her most distinguishing features. She has long been called an unsentimental or “cold” writer. Her contemporaries praised her with words that connoted a certain menace or violence: “cutting,” “sharp,” “acidulous.” The verdict is just: Not many authors would kill off their heroine in a novel’s final paragraph. (Martha Sinnott, the McCarthy figure in A Charmed Life, dies in a car crash just after she’s solved a personal crisis.) Cast a Cold Eye, the title of her short-fiction collection, could equally serve as a description of her literary technique.

Yet what made her coldness on the page all the more remarkable was that she was so warm in person. McCarthy was a good friend and a generous host: The adjective that her friends often used to describe her was “girlish.” But like her friend Hannah Arendt, McCarthy refused to validate emotion as the primary way to respond to the suffering of others; she believed it served as a bad foundation for one’s politics. Instead, as the scholar Deborah Nelson has noted, female intellectuals like McCarthy and Susan Sontag cultivated an aesthetic of toughness. This was a deliberate choice at the midcentury. “They sought not relief from pain but heightened sensitivity to what they called ‘reality,’” Nelson writes. “Perversely or not, they imagined the consolations for pain in intimacy, empathy, and solidarity as anesthetic.”

This commitment to reality explains McCarthy’s chosen aesthetic as well as her political philosophy. For her, “reality” was objective, not subjective. “I do not think she would have agreed it was only her truth,” Hardwick wrote in a remembrance of her friend. “Instead she often said she looked upon her writing as a mirror.” The right action should be as clear and incontrovertible as the sight of a blackbird on blue water. McCarthy held herself to a standard of objectivity, even when she was personally involved. Reflecting on her youthful participation in the Communist Party, McCarthy later imagined how she and her comrades appeared to an observer. “I had watched those parades in Minneapolis,” she recalled, but now she saw herself as someone marching in the parade, and she proceeded to engage in a thoroughgoing evaluation. The best way to understand political activity wasn’t to ask about the ideas motivating the people involved, but rather to look at it very closely and describe what you saw.

But there are truths that cannot be arrived at through reason alone, and that do not manifest themselves in the observable world. What McCarthy missed about communal experience is the way that feeling—imprecise and inarticulate though it may be—can reveal as much as it conceals. There is much to be gained from imagining how it feels to be a person different from oneself; the picture of the social world becomes more complete. The observer, too, comes to know herself better: She recognizes shared qualities, or crucial differences, between herself and another. Both the observer and the observed become “rounded characters,” in the terms of literary criticism—that is, believable and real. Empathy, in other words, produces its own kind of truth.

McCarthy never dispensed with her trademark skepticism. To her, the chant “FelLOW WORKers, join our RANKS!” (as she rendered it in her memoir of 1930s New York) could only be comic, as words said in unison so often are. But what she did not see, or could not hear, in that May Day parade is the force of fellow feeling, the way it brings to light certain commonalities—real, shared interests that the powerful want to erase. For better or for worse, politics, like fiction, trades upon our capacities to feel solidarity, anger, and pride, and her novels as well as her politics might have benefited from more engagement with these powerful emotions. Mary McCarthy gave us the world as it was, with all its embarrassing inconsistencies, but she left it to others to feel their way toward something new.

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