Mary McCarthy
Mary McCarthy; drawing by David Levine

Recently Mary McCarthy told an interviewer from The New York Times that she has not had “the slightest effect on public behavior.” With all due respect to her reputation for unsparing honesty, it must be said that this statement is not true. From the appearance of her first stories, she has altered the public idea of what a women of letters can be. Since then she has continued to expand this conception in many surprising directions. In spite of her declared disinterest in feminism, she has surely changed the lives of generations of intelligent young women.

Before Mary McCarthy, if an educated girl did not simply abdicate all intellectual ambitions and agree to dwindle into a housewife, there seemed to be only two possible roles she could choose: the Wise Virgin and the Romantic Victim. In classical terms, you could opt for Athena or for Psyche. As Athena you would renounce love and marriage and children and become a kind of secular nun. You would devote yourself to the worship of physics, music, Latin, poetry, medicine, or some other high-minded pursuit. You would achieve serenity, dignity, and authority. You would earn honorary degrees, write important books, inspire generations of students, have many devoted friends. If you were good looking, these friends would suspect some tragic loss in your past: a fiancé killed in some war, perhaps. Your life would be calm, productive, admirable—and also, unless this sort of thing really suited you, a little empty and sad.

There were many varieties of this role, from Florence Nightingale to Marianne Moore; but of course the most visible concentration of Athenas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in the girls’ school and colleges. Almost every woman I know who was born before, say, 1950, can recall some teacher who stood to her for this possible path in life.

But suppose you did not want to be either a happy housewife (or, as we used to call it at Radcliffe, “a contented cow”) or a dignified spinster? The only alternative seemed to be the role of Psyche, in love with Love. We knew what to expect along this route: you would live intensely; you would scale the heights of experience and possibly descend to the depths. Of course you would suffer. You would be hurt over and over again, mostly by the men you loved, who would either leave you or prove to be beasts in disguise. Out of all these would come moving, deeply felt poetry, art, drama, music, philosophy, political action, etc.

The prime representative of the type for us was Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had declared dramatically: “My candle burns at both ends.” But there were plenty of other examples closer at hand; any number of unmarried but by no means spinster music teachers and dance teachers. Or my youngest aunt, who read European novels and wore embroidered peasant blouses and dangly silver earrings, and had changed her name from Etta to Gita; who often, when she came to visit, had recently been “disappointed” in some man, and would walk in the woods behind our house and return red-eyed and puffy-faced.

Clearly, there were serious drawbacks to both these roles, not to mention that of domestic cow. But most of us couldn’t imagine any alternative until Mary McCarthy appeared on the scene. Her achievement was to invent herself as a totally new type of woman who stood for both sense and sensibility; who was both cooly and professionally intellectual, and frankly passionate. When we learned that she had also managed to combine a lively and varied erotic life with marriage and motherhood, we were amazed. Maybe, as the editor of Cosmopolitan was to put it much later, we could have it all.

When Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood appeared in 1957 her achievement seemed more remarkable. We learned that she had by no means lived what the title of a later book called A Charmed Life. She had been an abused child, orphaned at six and brought up by miserly, unloving, and repressive guardians; when she won a statewide contest, for example, her prize money disappeared into her uncle’s account, and he beat her with a razor strop to prevent her from becoming “stuck up” about her success. Surely she had every encouragement to succumb to self-pity: to see herself as a victim, and to avoid any sort of worldly ambition or accomplishment. That she did not do so meant that it was possible to choose your own life and your own character, regardless of what happened to you.

Mary McCarthy’s new book of memoirs, How I Grew, proves that her achievement was even more impressive than it had appeared. The title recalls a famous nineteenth-century children’s classic, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, whose juvenile characters show the same sort of courage and determination in dismal circumstances as the young Mary McCarthy. How I Grew also reveals that she did not start out cool or in control; that in her teens she was as emotional and sentimental as any adolescent girl of her generation. She read trashy magazine romances, dreamt of herself as a cloistered nun and a queen of France, and had crushes on boys of no particular moral distinction or mental capacity.


Nor was she lucky in love. As How I Grew relates, at fourteen she fell for a twenty-six-year-old local Don Juan with curly hair and affected handwriting. He seduced her in the front seat of his Marmon roadster and then dropped her at once; and his successors were only marginally more considerate. After some of her romantic adventures, Mary McCarthy reports, she felt guilt, remorse, and a “fiery self-disgust.” The actor she married a week after her graduation from Vassar made her cry at least once a day and subjected her to “streams of abuse…sarcasm, irony, and denunciation.” Yet in spite of all this, she had the strength not to adopt the role of injured female, or give up on men entirely.

Her method of freeing herself from the miseries of her youth was to make fun of them, on the principle that “Laughter is the great antidote for self-pity.” As this book proves, she succeeded almost frighteningly well. At times the degree of comic detachment is really scary; describing a suicide attempt at fifteen, for instance, she writes: “I cannot say exactly why I was roaming around his backyard with a bottle of iodine in my hand all dressed up to kill myself.”

It takes a very strong will to reject justified self-pity, and one possible side effect of the attempt is that you may become rather dry and cool emotionally; that you will, as the title of another of her books puts it, come to cast a cold eye on all those who suffer and complain, including yourself. It is a measure of Mary McCarthy’s clearsightedness that she understands this quite well. Laughter “probably…does tend to dry one’s feelings out a little,” she remarks. “There is no dampness in my emotions, and some moisture, I think, is needed to produce the deeper, the tragic notes.”

This observation is not an isolated instance: throughout How I Grew Mary McCarthy is extremely hard on herself. The book is unflagging in its record of her faults and foibles. It begins as it means to go on, with an account of herself at six, asking what she knew even then to be an amusingly naive “cute” question: “Why don’t we say ‘Deliver us to evil’…the way Mama does in Frederick and Nelson’s when she tells them to deliver it to Mrs. McCarthy?” And on the final page of the book she accuses herself of having in actual fact delivered herself to evil: “To marry a man without loving him, which I had just done;…was a wicked action.”

She also reports that as an adolescent she was an accomplished liar who invented an imaginary fiancé to impress her schoolmates. She describes her overvaluation of style and sophistication, her bouts of snobbishness and anti-Semitism, her juvenile bad taste in food and fiction, and her occasional cruelty (for instance, she used constantly to request a song that she knew would make one of her classmates burst into tears). At times, the recital of these ancient and fairly minor sins suggests that as a long-lapsed Catholic Mary McCarthy is confessing to her readers as she might once have confessed to a priest—who surely would have imposed a lighter penance than she seems to expect.

Some of this insistence on telling everything, however minor or discreditable, must be related to Mary McCarthy’s famous regard for truth, and her hatred of all forms of deception and self-deception. It is her firm belief that “truth produces elation…because of its closeness to beauty.” She is also a convinced absolutist. (“It has been an article of faith with me, going back to college days, that there is a truth and that it is knowable.”)

As a work of art, How I Grew is not in the same league as the brilliant earlier Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, which covers roughly the same period and contains a series of partly fictionalized episodes, each one followed by the author’s comments on its relation to her actual history. The style of this book, by contrast, is discursive and rambling. Her tone is that of reminiscence: a long monologue, sometimes gripping, sometimes seemingly pointless, as when we are given descriptions of alternate train routes from Chicago to Seattle in the 1930s, or lists of classmates and teachers. At times Mary McCarthy interrupts herself with interjections that would be natural in speech but seem awkward in prose: “But stop! That cannot be true. Certainly I read….” or “But wait! A thought has struck me.”


The choice of a very loose, discursive manner also leads Mary McCarthy into occasional exaggerated pronouncement of the sort that most of us make in casual conversation, such as “There is a universal law requiring (truly!) that 99 percent of the rich be retarded culturally.” Readers who cannot accept the social—in both senses—contract she offers them may be put off by such statements. Others will recognize them as exactly the same kind of impulsive remark that recently got Mary McCarthy into serious legal trouble with a much less coolheaded, though equally strong-willed, intellectual woman, Lillian Hellman.

How I Grew, however, is more interesting as cultural history than the earlier memoir. It tells us more about Mary McCarthy’s contemporaries and their lives, and what it was like to grow up in the western United States in the 1920s; what some of the current possible attitudes toward religion and morality were; what different sorts of people did for entertainment, what they ate and wore, what books and magazines they read, and what contemporary thinkers they admired (for bright teen-agers, she suggests, Mencken and Dreiser and Shaw were the important names).

The Mary McCarthy who is a brilliant and original—if sometimes quirky—literary critic, and the one who is an acute observer of cultural and political trends, also appears more prominently here than in Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood. She is very good, for example, on the difference between intellectuals and the intellgentsia, though her statement that “an intellectual cannot be the product of an elite education” seems questionable—surely she herself was. How I Grew is full of interesting observations and remarkable anecdotes; if it is, in the end, too much of an omnium-gatherum, perhaps that is the fault of the genre.

Or maybe, it has just occurred to me—to adopt her manner for a moment—the faults as well as the virtues of How I Grew relate to the fact that its author is so multiply gifted. In an age of specialization, she has refused to be limited. She has published stories, novels, and memoirs; political reportage and theater criticism; she has written on everything from the Latin classics to the new-wave novel, from the literary history of Venice to the war in Vietnam. To be allowed into a mind like hers, perhaps, is bound to give the ordinary reader the same sensation that Mary McCarthy herself had at thirteen, when she got her first library card and realized that the entire Seattle Public Library lay open before her: “a bewilderment of choice.”

This Issue

June 11, 1987