Mary McCarthy, a preeminent voice in mid-twentieth-century American political journalism and literary criticism, was also a bestselling fiction writer. Norman Mailer savaged her and by extension all those whose reviews of her most popular novel, The Group, “came in on wings of gold.” Now that the Library of America has issued her complete fiction in two volumes, all the evidence is in one slipcase. We can decide once and for all if McCarthy wrote “lady-books,” as Mailer so dismissively sniped.
If your last acquaintance with her 1963 succès de scandale about Vassar’s class of 1933 was decades ago, a rereading may not trigger recall so much as wonder. Wonder at, for one thing, such dewy immediacy in eighty-five-year-old characters. And for those who press on into a first encounter with the work that came both before and after her career-defining bestseller, even bigger surprises await. This is a perfect moment, in terms of the progress of our political development as well as the sand through feminism’s hourglass, for the Library of America’s release of McCarthy’s complete fiction. The two volumes comprise a body of work that retains startling and unsettling relevance. Her novelistic output (seven in total, plus several masterful and biting stories) shows the breadth of one of the fiercest minds in American letters. Considered from a new century, the works that span 1942 to 1979 provide a finely calibrated scope through which to assess how much, and how little, has changed. They also demonstrate the singular power of fiction itself to present complexities unavailable to any other mode of writing.
McCarthy (1912–89) produced nonfiction aplenty, reviews, and political commentary for The New Republic, The Nation, Partisan Review, and The New York Review of Books. She ran in powerful intellectual circles, associating with the likes of Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, Philip Rahv and — in this case marrying, too — Edmund Wilson. Her life and influence were the subjects of notable biographies by Frances Kiernan, Carol Brightman, Doris Grumbach, and her own autobiography, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. She published lengthy dissections of Vietnam and Watergate, preceded by critical examinations of the varieties of Communism. Her views often contradicted the prevailing trend and sometimes her previously expressed ideas: she became known as Contrary Mary. For as long as she lived she remained outspoken politically and personally, reserving the right to be “difficult,” long the peculiar slur for women who presume to speak and be heard. (It’s hard not to wish we could have had her around to pronounce on the campaign of the first female major party nominee for president.) Her famous feud with Lillian Hellman turned litigious when she declared, on the Dick Cavett Show, that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” McCarthy may have had genuine ideological differences with Hellman, primarily over Stalinism, but this epic putdown is McCarthy in a quip: lacerating, precise, supremely clever, edged with self-destruction, and above all opportunistic. For McCarthy was a dizzying font of intellect, one that sometimes overran its basin.
In The Group the author drew from real life with the mercilessness that would become legendary — a distressing experience for the classmates who found themselves undressed both literally and figuratively in the novel. Her practice of borrowing others’ lives and animating them to serve her fiction’s social critiques would indeed have been as cruel as her detractors claimed, if she had not also used herself even more brutally. One finds McCarthy, or prismatic parts of her, in characters everywhere. Her first novel, The Company She Keeps, is a collection of interlinked stories about women and men deeply contextualized in the world of ’30s intelligentsia. It heralded one of her abiding themes: the trap of gendered expectations. McCarthy claimed she was not a feminist, but she could disavow only the label; she wrote deeply, and painfully, of having an exquisitely trained mind, one that naturally yearned for real use. Instead, it was a talented woman’s misfortune to be schooled (and especially at Vassar!) for a world that demanded higher education only as finishing-school polish for upper-class females, a string of pearls to be worn in public and taken off at night. And so politics infuses every act in her stories, from choosing a sexual partner to the type of cocktail served; McCarthy was so honestly feminist she used class hypocrisy and the abuse of power in the bedroom, the office, the marriage, in order to postulate its presence in every sphere of human activity.
She wrote at a canter, an artfully controlled gait just shy of a gallop — “How Hemingway would have written had he gone to Vassar,” claimed Jack Paar in 1963. With one telling detail she would illuminate the essence of character, as with the Ivy Leaguer who tries on Das Kapital to discover it’s a good look for him. A stand-in for McCarthy herself, simultaneously satirized and elevated, opines, “Liberty is read by the masses, and the Liberal is read by a lot of self-appointed delegates for the masses whose principal contact with the working class is a colored maid.” (Her work’s frank depiction of sex was enormously shocking for the time; its casual racism is likely more so for ours.)
McCarthy’s is characteristically modern fiction in that it eschews heroes and villains: everyone sucks in some ways, suffers pitiably in others. Everyone, in short, is like McCarthy herself. In the only nonfiction piece in these volumes, a reminiscence titled “The Novels That Got Away,” she sums up her own fractured personality best. (She was not the type to give anyone else the last word, especially about her.) “I was a natural rebel who was also in love with law. This was my autobiography, and it was not going to change.”
Also unchanging is the ever-turning wheel of history, which appears to move forward but merely comes round again. Nearly every circumstance that might otherwise be relegated to a quaint past in some fictions of a bygone century seems near again, not only on account of McCarthy’s lively, engaged, emotionally charged prose. In reading the deluded bluster of characters who know what’s right for the world and brook no alternative view, we are unfortunately apt to feel the shiver of a lot of Plus ça change . . . The dangers of illegal abortion, a plot element in the perfectly realized A Charmed Life — an acid condemnation of self-deception as embodied by the denizens of the fictional New Leeds standing in for Wellfleet, the site of McCarthy’s own private drama when married to Wilson — are terrifying. They threaten to become real again.
The easy, natural politicism of her early work — shown, not told, in action and interior monologue, her usual method — gives way in her final novel to a more forced form of satire. Published in 1979, Cannibals and Missionaries presciently ushered in the subject that consumes ever more of our cultural bandwidth, not to mention human lives: terrorism. A plane carrying a bunch of largely clueless do-gooders is hijacked by terrorists and tragedy, along with pontificating, ensues. The characters are so striated with opposing views and perverse qualities — and endless chatter — there is no one who appears feeling, thinking, real, whole. There is no one, more to the point, who is McCarthy with another name.
The great revelation of this collection is the lesson that politics can be, and necessarily are, most fully expressed in fiction. The news peg will fall out of the wall; timeliness will always be rendered past. What remains forever is the variegated humanity of people who seek and search, suffer and fail — the people McCarthy wrote into being. All the people she was.
Image of Mary McCarthy from the Library of Congress.