Thursday, June 21, 2012

This Day in Literary History (Birth of Mary McCarthy, Witty Novelist-Critic)

June 21, 1912—Mary McCarthy, whose savage wit and feathery literary style made her a force to be reckoned with in fiction, essays, and memoirs, was born in Seattle, Wash., the eldest of four children of a charming young couple. Their death, en route to a new home in Minnesota, amid the 1918 influenza epidemic, thrust her into a childhood out of the Brothers Grimm—one that, characteristically, she recalled with irony.

Mary was not told what had happened to her parents—she had to ferret it out on her own several years later. Her grandparents placed her in the care of a childless aunt and uncle. The latter, in particular, was abusive, not only making her stand outside in the bitterly cold Minnesota winter but taking the strap to her when she won a prize at school, the better to stamp out any incipient pride.

The treatment, of course, didn’t work. Not only did she come to despise her aunt and uncle, but the self-confidence and the capacity to stand absolutely alone against anything became her most marked characteristics in adulthood. 

In time, her grandparents placed her with a more tolerant aunt and uncle. Her subsequent education was decidedly ecumenical, given the different religious attachments among her relatives. In successive order, she would attend convent school, an Episcopal secondary school, and Vassar College.

In a retrospective on the centennial of her birth, Weekly Standard contributor Jonathan Leaf spelled out the consequences of the youthful trauma McCarthy recalled in her classic Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957): “Few childhoods have been stranger: mixed with heaping portions of Dickensian privation, upper-class WASP refinement, Roman Catholic catechism, and Jewish maternal devotion. It is as if someone had a rearing combining Oliver Twist and the Main Line—and this given to a girl with a supremely swift mind, a convent school education, and the libido of a male member of the Kennedy clan.”

Leaf, as well as at least a few other writers I have come across, believes that some trauma (sexual abuse has been mentioned) in childhood or youth, hidden within the more apparent one of her orphanhood, accounted for her lack of stability, her admitted promiscuity, her self-absorption. There is a quote that would account for all of these situations, as well as, simply, her lifelong independence. It comes from Josephine Hart’s novel Damage: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.”

That sense of danger carried over into nearly all of McCarthy’s literary endeavors. In her productivity, her writing in multiple genres, and her propensity for controversy, she diverged from the frequent American writer’s tendency to work obsessively on a few Big Projects. She actually fit better into the European tradition of belles-lettres, as a kind of modern, female counterpart to Voltaire.

McCarthy occupies an ambiguous position in American literature: She is rarely taught in college English courses, even less than Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell, authors she thought, quite simply, could not write. 

Yet some of her fiction—notably, the scandalous 1963 bestseller, The Group (a novel of female interaction that might today have been called Sex and the College)—continues to be read; her three memoirs look better and better in a genre that, over the last decade or so, has become increasingly riddled with composite characters and other assorted fakeries; and her sentences flash almost effortlessly with easily worn erudition, acute details, and asperity.

If you were a male writer of McCarthy’s generation, you couldn't help noticing two things about her. One was that ironic asperity; the other was her good looks. Even as these males couldn’t resist her (she admitted, in her late-life Intellectual Memoirs, that in one 24-hour period she slept with three different men), they feared how she would size them up. Even her good friend Dwight Macdonald, a critic who himself never quailed at going against the grain, joked uneasily about McCarthy: “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.”

Whether in the bedroom or at the typewriter, these men believed, they just couldn’t measure up to her standards. Even from male critics who should not have minded taking as good as they gave, that sense of aggrievement against McCarthy surfaces. In what other light, for instance, should one consider Alfred Kazin’s comment about McCarthy’s “unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure—surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity.”

Kazin presents a case for the prosecution against McCarthy. A (partial) case in her defense was given by novelist-critic Thomas Flanagan, who, in an assessment of her work in his essay collection There You Are, noted that she was continually "busy with the pruning sheers of wit, irony and skepticism."

No sacred cow was safe once McCarthy picked up her pen. In one sense, the nuns who instilled, early on, in her a love of reading did their jobs too well: they excited her curiosity to seek out authors who led her to shake off the Catholic faith of her Irish ancestors.

On the other hand, some aspects of her education remained. Her deeply learned, effective parries in intellectual debate reflected a woman who cheerfully admitted, “I always enjoying arguing with the clergy.” For a woman used to contending against male Jesuits, shameless Stalinist apologists didn’t stand a chance.

You can see the results of that surprising intellectual outcome in her 1953 essay, “My Confession.” The title was chosen with care to reflect an intellectual memoir of inversion. St. Augustine’s Confessions (plural), an anguished multi-step account of losing and regaining one’s soul, had, centuries later, been turned into a template for melodramatic accounts of betrayal and ideological redemption by ex-Communist spies Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley. 

In contrast, McCarthy never experiences isolation or death. She stumbled into Communism in the mid-1930s, as part of the social scene of her intellectual clique (she and her first husband, “through our professional connections, began to take part in a left-wing life, to which we felt superior, which we laughed at, but which nevertheless was influencing us without our being aware of it”).  Then she stumbled out of the movement, by giving the wrong answer to a question: Was Leon Trotsky “entitled to a hearing”? (The “right” answer, preferred by the Stalinists who dominated that particular cocktail party, was “No.”)

McCarthy’s essay is a confession not to the disloyalty to which Chambers and Bentley admitted, but to the group intellectual fecklessness she satirizes with delicate but unmistakable irony in the following passage:

“On couches with wrinkled slipcovers, little spiky-haired girls, like spiders, dressed in peasant blouses and carapaced with Mexican jewelry, made voracious passes at baby-faced juveniles; it was said that they ‘did it for the Party,’ as a recruiting effort ... All of us, generally, became very drunk; the atmosphere was horribly sordid, with cigarette burns on tables, spilled drinks, ashes everywhere, people passed out on the bed with the coats or necking, you could not be sure which. Nobody cared what happened because there was no host or hostess. The fact that a moneyed person had been simple enough to lend the apartment seemed to make the guests want to desecrate it, to show that they were exercising not a privilege but a right.”

In January 1980, McCarthy—again, quite by accident—plunged into the middle of a controversy involving another Stalinist apologist, playwright Lillian Hellman. Aesthetically, Hellman’s dramas placed her in a group that McCarthy regarded as marked with “oily virtuosity,” and she had called the Hellman-scripted WWII propaganda movie North Star a “tissue of falsehood woven of every variety of untruth.”

All of these past decades of annoyance came out when talk-show host Dick Cavett asked if she regarded any writer as overrated. She mentioned a few--John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, John Hersey--to no discernible effect, then, when prodded slightly by Cavett, elaborated on why Hellman belonged in this group: “I said in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Hellman, who had famously pleaded the First Amendment when refusing to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, didn’t take kindly to another scribe exercising the same privilege, and immediately filed suit. Amazingly enough, a judge refused to throw the case out of court. The proceedings didn’t cease until Hellman’s death in 1984, and they seriously strained McCarthy’s financial resources. (At that point, McCarthy had less than $70,000 in savings, while Hellman not only had her own considerable royalties but those from the estate of her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett.)

The continuation of the suit only induced McCarthy to work harder to expose Hellman, a task helped immensely when another writer’s memoir called into question Hellman’s self-aggrandizing tale in Pentimento of helping her friend “Julia” with anti-Nazi resistance activities. By the time it was all over, Hellman's reputation for courage and truth-telling had taken a hit from which it has never really recovered. It may have been the most difficult, but also most satisfying, of McCarthy's many ideological battles.

(Photo of McCarthy by Dick DeMarsico, New York World-Telegram staff photographer, 1963; part of Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.)


pogomcl said...

here is a link
The Group by Mary McCarthy
On the eve of its reissue, Elizabeth Day assesses Mary McCarthy's seminal novel, The Group, and its influence on other writers
think you will like it

pogomcl said...

Second link-- is bonus day

Mary McCarthy, The Art of Fiction No. 27
Interviewed by Elisabeth Sifton Paris Review

sorry no longer into good citation style. just happy to escape info science. fried my brain.

MikeT said...

Many thanks for the links--and for following this blog.