Mary McCarthy was born 100 years ago today. McCarthy’s first book was the semi-autobiographical The Company She Keeps (1942), describing the swirl of ideas, politics, and love found in New York City by a young woman fresh out of college. McCarthy came to New York in 1933, fresh out of Vassar; her linked, tell-almost-all stories “could, for once, rightly be called a sensation,” says Elizabeth Hardwicke, “for candor, for the brilliant lightning flashes of wit, for the bravado, the confidence, and the splendor of the prose style”:
They are often about the clash of theory and practice, taste and ideology. Rich as they are in period details, they transcend the issues, the brand names, the intellectual fads. In “The Portrait of the Artist as a Yale Man,” we have the conflict between abstract ideas and self-advancement, between probity and the wish to embrace the new and fashionable. About a young couple, she writes: “Every social assertion Nancy and Jim made carried its own negation with it, like an Hegelian thesis. Thus it was always being said by Nancy that someone was a Communist but a terribly nice man, while Jim was remarking that someone else worked for Young and Rubicam but was astonishingly liberal.”
Hardwicke’s comments are in her Introduction to McCarthy’s last book, the unfinished and posthumously published Intellectual Memoirs (1992). This is a sort of bookend to McCarthy’s first book, in that the author returns to her 1930s New York life, this time providing entirely unmasked portraits of her men (Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, and others) and times.
McCarthy was in the public eye throughout her fifty years as a writer — in all, twenty-eight books of fiction, essays, and commentary — and would keep company or cross swords with many of the twentieth century’s most influential figures. Hardwicke does not mention Lillian Hellman, the most famous of the latter group (and born yesterday — June 20, 1905), but she does not avoid McCarthy’s taste for such open, if partisan, combat. And if McCarthy could be “in her writing, sometimes a scourge, a Savonarola,” she could not be what’s worse, a bystander or double-talker:
…Mary did not understand even the practical usefulness of an occasional resort to the devious. Her indiscretions were always open and forthright and in many ways one could say she was “like an open book.” Of course, everything interesting depends upon which book is open.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.