Mary McCarthy would have turned 90 on June 21, a fact that is itself astonishing to those who remember her flagrant youth, when her sharp style made her the most feared and forthright writer in New York. Her birthday was marked by a symposium at CUNY's Center for the Humanities and, soon afterward, the publication of an excellent new selection of her essays, A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays (New York Review Books, $24.95), edited, with a penetrating introduction, by A.O. Scott.
McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912, lost both her parents to the flu epidemic six years later and, after graduating from Vassar in 1933, began publishing witty, acid, even wrongheaded reviews in The Nation and The New Republic. (In one review, for example, she missed the strength of Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, easily one of his best books, out of sheer dislike for proletarian realism.) In 1937 she helped revive Partisan Review as an anti-Stalinist journal and became its theater critic, but soon, with the publication of The Company She Keeps in 1942, she found herself more celebrated for her fiction than for her critical writing, a balance that would shift by the late 1960s. She reigned for decades as one of America's most brilliant intellectuals, until she died of cancer in 1989.
I didn't really know Mary McCarthy, though I visited her on two memorable occasions when I was teaching in Paris in 1981. But from the early 1960s I knew her work intimately, and I was enthralled by its rare combination of abrasive intelligence and sexual bravado. I thought of her as not one but many writers–the endlessly self-questioning independent woman of her best book, The Company She Keeps; the keenly observant satirist of The Oasis, The Groves of Academe and The Group, with a highly developed sense of the ridiculous; the autobiographer who re-created her abused and orphaned childhood in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood; the richly cultivated traveler of her books on Florence and Venice; and the prose stylist of dazzling clarity in many literary and personal essays, written with a scalpel as much as a pen.
Thanks in part to the weakness of her last novels, the consensus seems to have hardened that in her fiction McCarthy somehow failed to impose herself, and that she will be remembered primarily as an essayist. Despite her formidable gifts as a polemical and discursive writer, this makes very little sense. First, for all her reputation as an intellectual who sacrificed feeling to intelligence, what powers McCarthy's best essays, by and large, are her fictional rather than strictly intellectual gifts. Again and again she makes her points by telling stories, or by way of vivid description, arresting images, subtle characterization. Unlike many of her Partisan Review contemporaries, there are no special ideas we associate with her name. As a thinker she was the perpetually bright-eyed student, enormously impressive without really leaving a mark. "A Bolt From the Blue," her ingenious dissection of Nabokov's Pale Fire, may be the best term paper ever written, a marvel of ingenuity but not much more. Realistically, she made only modest claims for her theater criticism, and was quite amusing about how she fell into it. (Her first husband was an actor and playwright, she tells us, and the "boys" at PR didn't take theater very seriously.)