The American writer Mary T. McCarthy (1912-1989) wrote novels and short stories as well as reportage, autobiographical essays, theater criticism, political essays, and art history.
Mary Therese McCarthy was born on June 21, 1912, in Seattle, Washington, to Roy and Therese Preston McCarthy. Her father was a lawyer. Kevin McCarthy, the actor, was her brother. Her parents died of the 1918 flu epidemic when she was six years old. For awhile she was raised by an abusive uncle; later she escaped into the care of her grandfather who sent her to school in a convent. Subsequently he provided for her education at Vassar College, where she graduated in 1933 with an A.B. While there, she helped found a literary magazine with three classmates, all of whom went on to become important persons in American writing: Elizabeth Bishop, Muriel Rukeyser, and Eleanor Clark. After graduation she taught briefly at Bard and Sarah Lawrence colleges.
She began her career in New York holding various jobs: as an editor for magazines and publishing houses; as a writer for the radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn; as an assistant to the political analyst Benjamin Stolberg; and writing promotion for an art gallery. Most significant, however, were her reviews for The Nation and The New Republic, at that time both leftist journals. She came to prominence with an article charging that the major New York critics and reviewers, including Joseph Wood Krutch, who was on the board of editors of The Nation, were in the habit of writing shallow appraisals that merely provided publicity to encourage business. She was later to exempt Krutch from this charge and still later to remark that her early opinions were "insufferably patronizing."
She soon joined Partisan Review, the leftist political and intellectual journal, as an editor whose main assignment was to write drama reviews. "Had she been an active figure in the magazine," wrote William Barrett in his book about the publication, The Truants, "her presence might very well have overshadowed everyone else's and this memoir would accordingly have had to take a different shape. I am rather glad that she was not, for it would require three volumes at least to begin to do justice to this extraordinary woman—one of the most extraordinary, I believe, of our time."
McCarthy is equally famous for her fiction—novels and short stories—and for her non-fiction, which includes reportage, autobiographical essays, theater criticism, political essays, and art history.
She is generally supposed to have begun writing her fiction under the encouragement of Edmund Wilson, her second husband. The Groves of Academe; a novel published in 1952, recounts how an incompetent professor on a small, elite campus keeps from being fired by claiming, falsely, to be a member of the Communist Party. He thus makes it impossible for the liberal president to dismiss him lest he be charged with being reactionary. The Group (1963), a novel about eight classmates from Vassar who make their way after graduation in the business and intellectual world of New York, was made into a popular movie which starred Candice Bergen and Hal Holbrook, among others. Her other novels included The Company She Keeps (1942); The Oasis (1949); A Charmed Life (1955); Birds of America (1971); and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979). Cast a Cold Eye (1950) was the title of her first collection of short stories, although some critics regard her first novel, The Company She Keeps, as really being a gathering of separate stories with the same characters.
McCarthy's theater reviews were first collected under the title Sights and Spectacles (1956) and later, somewhat expanded, as Mary McCarthy's Theatre Chronicles: 1937-1962 (1963). One of her memorable essays, a review of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, was entitled "The Unimportance of Being Oscar." "As a writer," she said in her introduction to Sights and Spectacles, " I am troubled by the fact that most American plays are so badly written."
The New Yorker magazine, which had first published her short stories, including the classic "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt," also published her autobiographical essays, which were later collected under the title Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). Her collections of literary and occasional essays include: On the Contrary (1961); The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (1970); Ideas and the Novel (1980); and Occasional Prose (1985). All of her books continued to be reprinted, in whole or in part, sometimes under other titles, sometimes with several titles combined under a new one, both in the United States and in England through the 1980s. They were also widely translated.
Among McCarthy's most striking efforts were her reports of public events in the tradition of such other great women writers of the late 20th century as Hannah Arendt and Rebecca West. Her reports from Vietnam, many first published in the New York Review of Books, appeared in three books (Vietnam, Hanoi, and Medina) that were subsequently collected under the title The Seventeenth Degree (1974). Her other book of reportage is The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974).
She also published monumental studies of Italian Renaissance art, Venice Observed (1956) and The Stones of Florence (1959). These were combined in a Penguin paperback in 1979.
The prolific McCarthy may have been the most important and widely-ranging woman writer of the latter half of the 20th century, and certainly was one of the period's most important political writers without regard to gender, to be ranked in the company of George Orwell and Albert Camus. McCarthy's work is noted for its sharpness of observation and expression, its wit, its independence of mind, and its unflagging intellectual excitement. From her comments about characters in her fiction, her candid recollections of her childhood, and her unsparing reports of news events it is plain that she abhorred distortion, shallowness, and sentimentality. These tastes and convictions, no doubt, inspired her attacks on Lillian Hellman as writer and polemicist, which, in turn, prompted Hellman's famous libel suit against McCarthy. On Hellman's death, her estate dropped the suit.
McCarthy was generally so insistent on seeing her subjects with absolute clarity that she was often charged with lacking the fiction writer's capacity to blur and shade his or her raw material in the cause of the mystery inherent in all reality. She was, for example, called an "essayist" in all of her writing, both in admiration and to suggest her limitations. "She lacks the essential gift: She cannot imagine others," wrote Hilton Kramer, the critic and editor.
Her honorary degrees included doctorates in letters from Syracuse University, 1973; the University of Hull, in England, 1974; and Bard College, 1976. She had doctorates in literature from Bowdoin College, 1981, and from the University of Maine, 1982. The University of Aberdeen, Scotland, awarded her a Doctor of Laws in 1979. She held two Guggenheim fellowships, in 1949-1950 and in 1959-1960; received the National Medal for Literature; and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
She was married four times, to Harold Johnsrud, playwright and actor, from 1933 to 1936; to Edmund Wilson, novelist and critic, from 1938 to 1946; to Bowden Broadwater, a sometimes writer and publisher's person, from 1946 to 1961; and to James Raymond West, a U.S. State Department official, in 1961. She had a son, Reuel Kimball Wilson, born in 1938. She lived half the year in Paris, France, and half in the United States, in Maine.
McCarthy died of cancer in October, 1989, in New York. She was 77.
An extended though still compact survey of McCarthy's work may be found in Vol. 16 of Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series; Books about her life and work include Doris Grumbach, The Company She Kept: A Revealing Portrait of Mary McCarthy (1976); Irvin Stock, Mary McCarthy (1968); and Barbara McKenzie, Mary McCarthy (1966); The best sources for insight to McCarthy's life and work remain McCarthy's own works, especially the frankly autobiographical ones.
Also see Newsweek, November 6, 1989; National Review, November 24, 1989; Conversations with Mary McCarthy, University Press of Mississippi, 1991; Hardy, Willene Schaefer, Mary McCarthy/Willene Schaefer Hardy, F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1981.