How I Grew

How I Grew

by Mary McCarthy


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The author of The Group, the groundbreaking bestseller and 1964 National Book Award finalist that shaped a generation of women, brings reminiscences of her girlhood to this intimate and illuminating memoir

How I Grew 
is Mary McCarthy’s intensely personal autobiography of her life from age thirteen to twenty-one.

Orphaned at six, McCarthy was raised by her maternal grandparents in Seattle, Washington. Although her official birthdate is in 1912, it wasn’t until she turned thirteen that, in McCarthy’s own words, she was “born as a mind.” With detail driven by an almost astonishing memory recall, McCarthy gives us a masterful account of these formative years. From her wild adolescence—including losing her virginity at fourteen—through her eventual escape to Vassar, the bestselling novelist, essayist, and critic chronicles her relationships with family, friends, lovers, and the teachers who would influence her writing career.

Filled with McCarthy’s penetrating insights and trenchant wit, this is an unblinkingly honest and fearless self-portrait of a young woman coming of age—and the perfect companion to McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary McCarthy including rare images from the author’s estate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480441156
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Pages: 302
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Mary McCarthy (1912–1989) was an American literary critic and author of more than two dozen books including the 1963 New York Times bestseller The Group. Born in Seattle, McCarthy studied at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and graduated in 1933. After moving to New York City, McCarthy became known for her incisive writing as a contributor to publications such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Her debut novel, The Company She Keeps (1942), initiated her ascent to become one of the most celebrated writers of her generation, a reputation bolstered by the publication of her autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in 1957, as well as that of her now-classic novel The Group.

Read an Excerpt

How I Grew

By Mary McCarthy


Copyright © 1987 Mary McCarthy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4111-8


I was born as a mind during 1925, my bodily birth having taken place in 1912. Throughout the thirteen years in between, obviously, I must have had thoughts and mental impressions, perhaps even some sort of specifically cerebral life that I no longer remember. Almost from the beginning, I had been aware of myself as "bright." And from a very early time reasoning was natural to me, as it is to a great many children, doubtless to animals as well. What is Pavlov's conditioned reflex but an inference drawn by a dog? The activities of incessant induction and deduction are characteristically childlike ("Why don't we say 'Deliver us to evil,'" I am supposed to have asked, "the way Mama does in Frederick and Nelson's when she tells them to deliver it to Mrs. McCarthy?") and slack off rather than intensify as we grow older. My "cute" question, quoted by my mother in a letter to her mother-in-law (apparently the last she wrote), may have been prompted by our evening prayers: did we already say the "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary" besides "Now I lay me"? At six, I was too young to have had a rosary.

Someone, of course, was "hearing" our prayers; my father, probably, for I speak of "Mama" in the third person. It is Daddy I must be questioning; Gertrude, our nurse, was too ignorant. And now, writing it down more than sixty-five years later, all of a sudden I doubt the innocence of that question. There was premeditation behind it, surely; playacting. I knew perfectly well that children could not pray to be delivered to evil and was only being clever—my vice already—supplying my parents with "Mary's funny sayings" to meet a sensed demand.

It is possible (to be fair) that the question "Why don't we ...?" had honestly occurred to me in Frederick's listening to Mama order and being surprised to have "deliver," an old bedtime acquaintance, pop up in the middle of a department store. Or, conversely, as we intoned the Lord's Prayer, my mind may have raced back to Mama at Frederick's. Which had priority, which bulked larger in my teeming experience, which name had I heard more often, God's or Frederick and Nelson's? But if, in one way or another, the question had honestly occurred to me, the answer could not have been slow to follow, without recourse to a grown-up. No, that inquiry was saved up for an audience, rehearsed. For my father's ear, I was not so much reasoning as artfully mimicking the reasoning process of a child. In any case, as far as I know, this is the last of my cute sayings on record. After the flu, there was no one there to record them any more. Nobody was writing to her mother-in-law of the words and deeds of the four of us. With the abrupt disappearance of the demand, the supply no doubt dried up. Soon our evening prayers—we knelt in a row now, wearing scratchy pajamas with feet in them—underwent expansion. To "God bless Mama and Daddy" something new was added: "Eternal rest grant unto them, o Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon them ..."

From an early time, too, I had been a great reader. My father had taught me, on his lap, before I started school—A Child's Garden of Verses and his favorite, Eugene Field, the newspaperman poet. But in the new life instituted for us after our parents' death almost no books were permitted—to save electricity, or because books could give us "ideas" that would make us too big for our boots. A few volumes had come with us, I think, from Seattle to Minneapolis; those would have been Black Beauty, the "autobiography" of a horse, by Anna Sewell, Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, Heidi, and Dante and Don Quixote illustrated by Doré, but these two were for looking at the pictures on the living-room floor while a grown-up watched, not for reading. Someone, not our parents, was responsible for Fabiola, the Church of the Catacombs, by Cardinal Wiseman, and I remember a little storybook, which soon disappeared, about some Belgian children on a tow-path along a canal escaping from Germans—was it taken away out of deference to the feelings of our great-aunt's husband, the horrible Uncle Myers, who was of German "extraction"? At any rate these are all the books I recall from the Minneapolis household, not counting Uncle Myers' own copy of Uncle Remus, Peter Rabbit (outgrown), and a set of the Campfire Girls (borrowed).

Yet the aunts must have had a Lives of the Saints, full of graphic accounts of every manner of martyrdom, and where did I come upon a dark-greenish volume called The Nuremberg Stove, about a porcelain stove and illustrated with German-looking woodcuts? And another story with a lot about P. P. Rubens and a "Descent from the Cross" in Antwerp Cathedral? Not in school, certainly; the parochial school did not give us books, only readers that had stories in them. I can still almost see the fifth- or sixth-grade reader that had Ruskin's "The King of the Yellow River," with pages repeating themselves and the end missing—a fairly common binder's error, but for a child afflicted with book hunger, it was a deprivation of fiendish cruelty, worse than the arithmetic manual that had the wrong answers in the back. Those school readers also gave you "tastes" of famous novels, very tantalizing, too, like the chapter about Maggie and Tom Tulliver from the start of The Mill on the Floss, which kept me in suspense for more than twenty years, Becky and Amelia Sedley leaving Miss Pinkerton's, a sample of Jane Eyre.

Oh! Among the books at home I was nearly forgetting The Water-Babies, by Charles Kingsley (illustrated, with a gilt-and-green cover), which must have come from my father's library—I can feel a consistent manly taste, like an ex libris, marking little Tom, the sooty chimney-sweep who runs away from his cruel master and falls into a river, Don Quixote and his nag, Dante and Virgil, and Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, who "sailed off in a wooden shoe" one night, "Sailed on a river of crystal light,/ Into a sea of dew." (Black Beauty, on the other hand, which was a bit on the goody side, had surely been our mother's.)

When he died, my father (another Tantalus effect) had been reading me a long fairy tale that we never finished. It was about seven brothers who were changed into ravens and their little sister, left behind when they flew away, who was given the task of knitting seven little shirts if she wanted them to change back into human shape again. At the place we stopped reading, she had failed to finish one little sleeve. I would have given my immortal soul to know what happened then, but in all the books of fairy tales that have come my way since, I have not been able to find that story—only its first and second cousins, like "The Seven Ravens" and "The Six Swans." And what became of the book itself, big with a wine-colored cover? Was it left behind on the train to Minneapolis when we all got sick with the flu? Or did our keepers promptly put it away as unsuitable, like my little gold beauty-pins? In Minneapolis we were not allowed fairy stories any more interesting than "The Three Bears."

But stop! That cannot be true. Certainly I read "The Little Match Girl" and "The Snow Queen," with the little robber girl I loved so and the piece of ice in little Kay's eye that even then I understood to be a symbol, in other words over my head. There was a good deal of that in Hans Andersen—the feeling of morals lurking like fish eyes peering out from between stones in the depths of clear water. Except in "The Snow Queen," where the furs and the sleigh and the reindeer and Gerda and the robber girl made up for everything, I disliked those lurking morals; I hated "The Little Match Girl." And I was not fond of "The Ugly Duckling" either; I sensed a pious cheat there—not all children who were "different" grew up into swans. Was that why I was allowed to have Andersen, like a refined sort of punishment, in my room? And they let me have another book, printed in big type on thick deckle-edged paper and possibly not by Andersen, that contained a frightening tale about a figure named Ole Luk Oie who threw sand in people's eyes just as they were going to sleep. Not the same as the sandman; more of a bogey. Burying my head under the covers, for nights running I used to scare myself in my pillow-less (better for the posture) bed with this runic fiction, repeating the words "Ole Luk Oie" like a horrible spell. And in the morning, sure enough, my finger found grainy particles stuck to my eyelashes showing that he had been there. But maybe, if you knew Danish, the story was more boring than spooky, and the dread sand in the eyes was just a symbol of something in society.

Almost no books, but how then, while still in Minneapolis, did I learn about Loki and Balder the Beautiful and Frey and his golden sister Freya, goddess of love and beauty? That was not the kind of thing the Sisters of St. Joseph taught, and there were no comic books then to retell myths in strip language with balloons coming out of the mouths of helmeted gods and heroes—just the funny papers, which showed funny people like Olive Oyl and Miss Emmy Schmaltz. Probably the answer lies in The Book of Knowledge, a junior encyclopedia that someone finally gave us—proof that prayers were answered—and that our guardians for some reason let us keep and even use. They must have thought that it was a collection of known facts and figures and therefore no more harmful than the diagrams it carried of chemical retorts and the Bunsen burner. But to me, in that household, that red-bound set was like a whole barrel of bootleg liquor, cut but still the real stuff. Of course there were facts in it (there had to be), but you could ignore those; the main point was that it told you the plots of the world's famous books from the Iliad through The Count of Monte Cristo. If the Trojan Horse and the Cyclops were there (and Roland and Oliver), they would have had to have Thor and his iron gloves, blind Hoder and his arrow—at least the "basics."

Yet the suggestion leaves me unsatisfied. It does not account for the intimacy I formed with those scenes and figures of Norse mythology: how Thor lost his hammer, Odin's raven, the bad dreams of Balder, Sif's hair—you would think that I had had an entire "Edda for Children" hidden in the swing in our backyard.

Nor can I altogether account for the hold this material, however acquired, had on my imagination, for my so much preferring those gods and goddesses to the "sunny" Greek ones. Perhaps I liked the strong light-and-dark contrasts of the Northern tales. I was a firm believer in absolutes: the lack of shadings, of any in-between, made Asgard a more natural residence than Mount Olympus for my mythic propensity, just as clear, concise Latin was always more natural to me than Greek with all its "small, untranslatable words" (as Mrs. Ryberg at Vassar called them).

But there was more to it than that. For a juvenile half enamored of the dark principle, fond of frightening herself and her brothers with the stories she made up (or just a decided brunette with pale skin that she tried to see as "olive"), there was a disappointing lack of evil in Greek mythology. Obviously they did not tell children about the banquet of Thyestes, and all we knew of Jason was the Argo and the Golden Fleece, yet the crimes and horrors that were kept from us "till we were old enough" (like the watches my brothers received from our Seattle grandfather) were the work of mortals and titans, not Olympians. Even in his worst moments, no Greek god could approach the twisted cunning of a Loki. I hated his very name, and yet in a way he "made" the story of the Aesir for me.

In fact, the notion of a thoroughly evil creature sharing in the godhead was thoroughly un-Greek, and I suspect that it did not sit well with me either at the age of nine or ten despite the spell of intrigue and danger he cast on those tales. I could not quite fathom why Loki should go virtually unpunished even for the awful act of plotting the slaying of Balder; did it have something to do with his mixed ancestry, half-god and half-giant? You would think the least he deserved was permanent expulsion from Asgard, and yet he crept back, assuming new forms. The weakness of the Aesir (even Thor) in dealing with him was mystifying; they seemed to treat him and his relatives as fixtures of the establishment—his deathly daughter Hel ruled over the nether world. Being already a "confirmed" Catholic, I associated gods with goodness and could not take a standpoint that identified them simply with power—as sheer power of evil, Loki merited worship certainly. If I was unable to see that, it was doubtless because my model for badness was Satan. Proud Lucifer (Loki was a real cringer and fawner) was cast out of heaven once and for all, and such power as he retained, below, among men, was helpless before the saving action of God's grace.

Yet now that I consider it, I can see that the appeal of Freya, Balder, Loki, and Company was, precisely, to my Catholic nature. The Prince of Darkness, despite his large handicap, was a power for us, a kind of god even if we avoided the Manichean heresy of picturing him as dividing the world in equal shares with God the Father. The only surprise is that the Norse cosmogony should have felt so congenial to me given the prejudice against real Norsemen—the "Scandihoovians" of Minnesota—that Irish Catholics learned at their mother's knee. Evidently I made no connection between the great battle of Ragnarok that was to end the world and the local Olsens and Hansens. In the same way, my grandmother, old Lizzie McCarthy, who was "not over-fond" of Jews, never appeared to notice that Jesus was one, at least on His mother's side.

The sense of being at home among the Aesir, "speaking their language," was all the more natural to a Catholic child in that the Northern myths (though I did not guess it then) show clear traces of Christian impaste overlaying very primitive material. Balder, in particular, their pure-as-snow sun god, is a lot closer to Jesus on Mount Tabor than to Phoebus Apollo in his sky-chariot. The gods and Nature weep tears for him, treacherously slain by an arrow of mistletoe, as he descends like Christ crucified to the lower world, but there is a promise of a Second Coming, when all will live in harmony.

So it "fits," I suppose, that when I left the house in Minneapolis and, before very long, the faith, the gods of Asgard lost their hold on me. I have scarcely thought of them since. Looking them up now, to reaffirm my memory, I am amazed to learn that Balder has a wife (Nanna); I had imagined him as a bachelor like Our Lord or Sir Percival. Otherwise that Northern pantheon has remained surprisingly fresh in my mind, as though deep-frozen in a snow-slide, untouched by any process of wear or tear. I do not think they figure in my writings even metaphorically, unlike King Arthur and his knights, who turn up in the story of Peter Levi (Birds of America). My passion for them was a crush, which I got over so completely that the cure has left me with a perfect immunity to Wagner. Though The Ring has been "in" twice during my life, I have never had any interest in it.

But I am digressing in the middle of a digression, piling Ossa on Pelion, we Latinists would say. I was talking about books or, rather, about the scarcity of them that I had to endure between my seventh and my twelfth year. Yet losing the thread (or seeming to) has given me time to wonder about the truth of what I was saying. On reflection I see that I have been exaggerating. I cannot have waited more than a decade to read "Thumbelina" and "Puss in Boots," or "Snow White" or "Rapunzel" or "Rumpelstiltskin." If they were already old friends when I read them aloud to Reuel, it means that in Minneapolis we must have had the usual Grimm and Perrault fairy tales and that secretly or openly I read them.


Excerpted from How I Grew by Mary McCarthy. Copyright © 1987 Mary McCarthy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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