Mary McCarthy: “She seemed to be delivering not her judgment, but God’s”

Mary McCarthy had a famous smile, but it didn’t help her much. Usually a smile is a sign of friendliness, attraction, general sociability. But not Mary’s. Her smile was known to be a trap and a weapon, a “long, white upper blade of handsome, emphatic teeth,” as one reporter put it in Esquire. “She can smoke through it, argue through it, spill the beans through it, even smile through it.” You couldn’t trust it. You couldn’t trust her.

The Mary of the switchblade smile is the one we remember. Her legacy has been her scandals: the libel suit after calling Lillian Hellman a liar, her frank writing about sex, her habit of putting her friends in her novels, her leave-nothing-out memoirs. She was a “cold and beautiful novelist who devoured three husbands and a crowd of lovers in the course of a neatly managed career,” according to Simone de Beauvoir, who should know, one supposes.

And yet, here we are: Mary McCarthy has elbowed her way into posterity and arrives to take her place in the Library of America. This inclusion of her novels in the series would surprise a good many of her peers. Even her friends could summon only backhanded appreciation about her work. “She is somehow rather immense without her books ever being exactly good form or good imagination,” wrote Robert Lowell (who would also know). But now she settles in—a fact that no doubt pleases her, wherever it is she’s keeping the score—ahead of a few notable enemies, in particular Norman Mailer, who once wrote that McCarthy was “not a good enough woman to write a major novel” and compared The Group, her most successful novel, to a bowel movement.

She was always too something—moralizing, flippant, cruel. The work was too concerned with things; she was too. At the same time, she wasn’t what one might call a home-making woman even as she wasn’t quite a free spirit; she wrote freely about casual sex but in a decidedly un-casual way. She reserved the right, and the ability, to be what she peculiarly was—not what she ought to be. “I am…indefensible, at least for my friends,” she wrote to Hannah Arendt. “They are fond of me but with reservations.”

She did have her defenders. Among them, notably, there was Flannery O’Connor, who wrote to her frequent correspondent Betty Hester to complain about the reviews in Commonweal: “I have the feeling sometimes that their reviewers are trying desperately to be clever because they have no other opportunity. Who cares that that gent found Jean Stafford’s character insufferable (why?) or what he thinks about Mary McCarthy. They all—all the bright boys—love to take potshots at her because she is so much smarter than they are...” (Dear Flannery, if you’re reading this: Please accept this piece as a small restitution.) In any case, Mary McCarthy—who had faced down in her time sudden destitution at the age of six (she lost both of her parents to Spanish influenza), abusive aunts and uncles, several nuns, at least one Jesuit, and three ex-husbands—was not going to be undone by the likes of Norman Mailer.

McCarthy reserved the right, and the ability, to be what she peculiarly was, not what she ought to be

So what did they miss, her skeptical contemporaries? In “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt”—a funny and frank story that helped make McCarthy’s reputation—Meg Sargent, the heroine of a loosely connected series of short stories that were collected by McCarthy into her first novel, falls in with and, eventually, goes to bed with a man she meets on the train that is carrying her toward her divorce. But shortly before the consummation of their fling, as she and the man discuss politics, she pauses to tell him something about herself:

“You know what my favorite quotation is?” she asked suddenly.… “It’s from Chaucer,” she went on, when she saw that she had his attention. “Criseyde says it, ‘I am myn owene woman, wel at ese.’”


The man had some difficulty in understanding the Middle English, but when at last he had got it straight, he looked at her with bald admiration.


“Golly,” he said, “you are, at that!”

Meg’s story in The Company She Keeps is hardly one that lends itself to this image of a woman “wel at ese,” following her as it does through misbegotten love affairs, dead-end jobs, and political upheaval. As she makes this boast to the man, she’s neither personally nor financially comfortable—when she wakes up next to him a few paragraphs later and begins to dress in the dark, McCarthy lets slip that her underwear is held together by a safety pin. By the end of the book, married to a controlling man who forces her to undergo psychoanalysis, to be and remain her own woman in some very basic sense is all Meg can hope for. Liberated, she is not.

Yet, like the man on the train, we are inclined to say the shoe fits. We believe it because we can see the immediate ways in which it doesn’t fit the bill: Meg is cool and yet not, precisely, equipped with the kind of distance that this coolness would seem to require. She’s earnest, emotionally sensitive, and, by the point of her train encounter, brutally clear-sighted in a way her cool affect belies. She squirms under the examination of her own nervous consciousness. Socially, politically, she’ll never be at ease. But her own woman—what would that mean?


It would be a cliché, but also not altogether an untruth, to say that the literary and political scene McCarthy entered felt betrayed by God, on the one hand, and Stalin, on the other. McCarthy, an accidental Trotskyite and a firmly lapsed Catholic, fit easily into this world. For instance: She founded an organization she called the Europe-America Groups after World War II—an anti-Stalinist organization dedicated to “the formation of a new ‘left’ which is independent of both the Soviet and American governments.” The EAG was meant to include other prominent figures (in particular, Albert Camus), who proved not to be very involved or interested. The project eventually died.

There’s another link between McCarthy and a writer like Camus however, and that was preoccupation with this question: If neither God nor political ideology could be counted on as firm guidelines for behavior, what, exactly, was one supposed to use? While others leaned on concepts like decency, McCarthy herself moved in a different direction. Whatever was painful, whatever was hard to say, whatever you didn’t want to look at, whatever you were afraid to do—that was where you needed to direct your attention. Find, in yourself, in the world, the points of self-delusion, and expose them. Do this over and over. You could call this honesty, or a kind of emotional masochism, or the last remnants of a Catholic upbringing.

She was somehow able to take the size of human vanity without entirely disowning it

What it wasn’t, exactly, was malicious. The switchblade, let’s be clear, was there, but the cuts she made with it were clinical (though they were cuts all the same). Her writing is always taking the temperature of the room, feeling the little social shifts in attention and power, uncovering pettiness and mistaken victories. A Mary McCarthy character can move through several layers of snobbery, self-awareness, victory, loss, and delusion in just a few sentences. She notices everything and she gets in every dig, and when she despises a character, it comes out in everything from the clothes she wears to the punctuation of the sentences. Of one hapless character in The Group, she writes: “Girls, can you imagine it, she fainted kerplunk into Mr. LeRoy’s arms!” The exclamation point stings. (“Kerplunk” doesn’t help.)

People satirize their friends in their novels all the time, to varying results. It’s safe to say that few people have been thrilled to find out they’re in a novel. But McCarthy seemed to be delivering not her judgment, but God’s. She regarded her novels as impersonal—her feelings were not involved—but that quality was also what made them unforgivable. If she rendered you with lettuce in the teeth, scuffed shoes, questionable taste; if she pinned your personal foibles down; well, it was only because that was how you were. In “The Genial Host,” she quickly sketches the somewhat unreal physicality of a manipulative friend:

How ill-suited he was, you thought, to his role of élégant! What a tireless struggle he must wage against his own physical nature! Looking at him, so black and broad and hairy, you saw that his well-kept person must appear to him like a settler’s plot triumphantly defended against the invading wilderness.... Whenever you really noticed Pflaumen, you became aware of an additional person, a comfortable, cigar-smoking, sentimental family man, a kind of ancestral type on which the man-about-town had been superimposed, so that his finished personality came out as a sort of double exposure.

This kind of nervy noticing is also how her characters relate to one another. McCarthy’s characters are preoccupied with ideas and with each other, not precisely as lovers (despite all their sexual encounters), but as observational subjects. Other people are objects of speculation, envy, frustration, fear, and a kind of acquisitive desire. (The one thing McCarthy never quite nails in any of her books is passionate love, though sexual frisson is there aplenty.)

McCarthy’s books are often concerned with the material  and with the domestic. Or rather, the material elements of domestic life—dishware, decoration, and cooking. When one single woman visits another’s home in The Groves of Academe, she finds herself driven to despair by “the single chop in the pan on the hot-plate, the frozen peas garishly bubbling in the copper saucepan beside it, the tray set with a woven straw mat, earthenware plate, large blue-green Mexican glass already filled with milk.” At the same time, such settings are often not precisely normal—three of her novels take place in dysfunctional and self-selecting intellectual communities (The Oasis, A Charmed Life, and The Groves of Academe), one ends with a hallucination of Immanuel Kant (Birds of America), and yet another takes place in a hostage situation carefully framed to provoke endless discussions over the worth of art (Cannibals and Missionaries). The remaining two—The Group and The Company She Keeps—take place in a world and a New York more familiar, but are also preoccupied with thinly personalized versions of abstract questions.

So while on the one hand McCarthy’s books could almost be called domestic comedies, they’re also novels of ideas, the sorts of books in which characters go off on long jags about God, morality, art, or politics. They have the restless and unembarrassed questioning of Crime and Punishment filtered through the sensibility of Emily Post.

It doesn’t always work. I find Birds of America, despite McCarthy’s own fairly deep affection for it, an almost unreadable novel. And while the kind of wide-ranging arguments about ideas that animate A Charmed Life don’t drag for me, McCarthy never quite brings the various pieces of the novel together the way she needs to, and so the novel ends at an abrupt event that comes—quite literally—out of nowhere in the form of a car that appears to crash and kill the heroine in the final paragraph. (“‘Killed instantly,’ she said to herself, regretfully, as she lost consciousness.”) But for the most part, even in the unsuccessful books, the individual parts of the story provoke and delight even if they never fit together.

And when it works—really works—as it does in The Company She Keeps, it’s something truly special: a work uncompromised, uncompromising, that is precisely what it sets out to be, that marries feminine preoccupations with soaring moral questions in a way that somehow ennobles both and yet renders them a little ridiculous.


Another way of saying all this is that the McCarthy skeptics didn’t miss anything, not really. McCarthy’s project was offensive to them and they responded accordingly. Plenty of sharp women have successfully married an eye for the quotidian to a big question, and plenty of such women were flourishing at McCarthy’s own time. But though McCarthy was no feminist, and certainly seems to have felt little solidarity with other women, her sensibility was aggressively feminine with no pretense otherwise. And yet her work fails to be captured by such safe, non-threatening stock phrases as “seeing beauty in the everyday” or “seeing meaning in the ordinary.” Her people and her situations were not ordinary. Her intellectual ambition and her material preoccupations were both huge.

And earnest—almost awkwardly so. Though McCarthy dissects her characters’ self-deceptions expertly, there’s nothing ironic about the way she has them talk about ideas. Ideas are their great romance, certainly more so than any of their relations with each other. She was somehow able to take the size of human vanity without entirely disowning it.

To return to Meg Sargent and her proclamation on the train: To be your own woman, well at ease, meant for both Meg and McCarthy cultivating an ability to be uncomfortable. McCarthy could be what she was, could do what she did and write what she wrote, because she was accountable not to the social pressures she felt so acutely, but to the truth that pushed her—to her conscience, to use a somewhat loaded word. She said what needed to be said, she did what needed to be done. She wrote precisely what she wanted to write. Of course they hated her. Whatever it was that she was doing, it wasn’t about them or even for them. She shouldn’t have been able to get away with it. And yet she did, somehow—she brought it all with her: the high morals and the petty snobbery, the erotic ideas and the clinical sex, God and the dishware. To her fiction, she above all brought her honesty.

“We all live our lives more or less in vain,” said McCarthy toward the end of her life. It was another honest statement from a perversely honest woman. But she was also, at the moment, wrong—both about other people and about herself. Her fiction, full of hopeless Utopians, knew better. Yes, Utopia never arrives. And yes, we’re all, no matter how intellectual, largely foolish people, sensitive and self-deluding. But no one believed like McCarthy the degree to which every texture of life isn’t there in vain. Unsentimentally, the world matters—not because it’s good, but because it’s there. 

Mary McCarthy: The Complete Fiction
Edited by Thomas Mallon
Library of America, $90, 2,066 pp.

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

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Published in the January 5, 2018 issue: View Contents
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