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« In Which Mary McCarthy Is The Woman Of The Period »

This is the first of a two part series on the venerable American author Mary McCarthy. You can read the second part of the series here.

  Our Mary, Right or Wrong


The two men Mary McCarthy was most famous for excoriating were Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. She thought both of them terrible writers; it is only time that has proved her right. For what some now see as a timeless characterization of an older America, she saw as a theatrical attack on women. She described A Streetcar Named Desire as a play about a man who was angry because his sister-in-law was occupying his only bathroom; of O'Neill she said that he "belonged to a group of American authors whose choice of vocation was a kind of triumphant catastrophe; none of these men possessed even the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, the paragraph; all of them, however, have, so to speak, enforced the career they decreed for themselves by a relentless policing of the beat."

Her essays and novels usually set the world she lived in right, but her timeliness has been her curse. McCarthy's writing was so consistently autobiographical that it seems more historical than current, although her portraits of the time and places in which she lived survive as both entertaining chronicles of the intellectual world that existed, and incredibly devastating satires of liars and sycophants. For her outspokenness she was denigrated, for her truth-telling she was made by many of her peers and enemies into something other than what she was. Her friend Hannah Arendt, wrote McCarthy's biographer Carol Gelderman, told her that "the discrepancy between public image and actual person is greater in your case than in any other I know of."

mccarthy (center) on her seventh birthdayThe first tragedy that shaped McCarthy's life is forgotten by most of us. The killing flu that took the life of both of her parents eradicated over 50 million lives around the world, including Roy McCarthy and his 29 year old wife Tess. Her grandfather Harry sent her to the Sacred Heart Convent in Seattle. She was 11, and was totally unlike the other girls in her class — she had never even seen a movie. She was determined to be a star, and eventually through the magic of literature she made herself the center of attention in her classic Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

In her high school, Annie Wright Seminary, McCarthy got a lot of mileage out of shocking her classmates with sexual stories, most of which were invented. To make them come true, she lost her virginity to a man nearly twice her age in the backseat of his car. She looked old for fourteen, and even her female classmates found her stunning. She was totally unlike anything they had ever seen before.

When she met the older painter Kenneth Callahan in her teens she continued her experimentation. In her memoir How I Grew, she wrote

He did not invite me to pose nude, but naturally we "went to the limit" when he set down his brushes. Some of the things he did in bed made me cringe with shame to think of afterwards. It was those sexual practices of his now common, cf. John Updike that taught me...how to deal with shame and guilt. When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over till finally, you will discover through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you.

At the age of seventeen her grandfather and one of his friends both wrote to Vassar on her behalf, and she headed east. She made frequent trips into New York, where she met her first husband, the balding playwright Harold Johnsrud. He was nine years her senior and played a fatherly role to Mary. He escorted her to various New York tourist traps she'd never seen. For house parties they'd show up with dual typewriters. Her frank style of reviewing got her attention from the tender age of 22: his first three reviews were published by Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic. After he lost interest McCarthy soon found work at The Nation, where she didn't hesitate to attack the critical establishment in her classic series "Our Critics, Right or Wrong."

The literary establishment today is even more back-patting and incestuous than the literary establishment of McCarthy's time. The crucial difference was in mainstream critics, who put aside legends like Joyce and Dos Passos in favorite of whatever comfortable and banal mainstream crap sat on their doorstep. Then there were the political critics who read every novel in terms of what benefit it provided to the socialist movement. McCarthy abhorred them both, and said so, and it made her name.

with Johnsrud on her wedding dayShe married Johnsrud in 1933. The marriage lasted for three years, which is probably three years longer than it should have. When Johnsrud hit the road to star with a touring company, she met the slim and single boy John Porter at Webster Hall. Later she would characterize her first infidelity in the marvelous essay "Cruel and Barborous Treatment," where she noted that "private cohabitation, long continued, was, she concluded, a bore....She was now ready, indeed hungry to hear What People Would Say." She grew just as tired of Porter, who she had rashly promised to marry. He saved her from having to break the news by dying of diptheria in the clutches of an older woman in Mexico.

Now a single girl in New York, she found an apartment in Greenwich Village that shared a landlord with Elizabeth Bishop. Her friends and colleagues were self-identified communists, and she willingly fell into the movement (much to her grandparents' consternation) until the novelist James T. Farrell used her name without her permission to help constitute the so-called American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. Her communist friends were disgusted with her lack of faith in Stalinism, and the debate over which Russian to fetishize began in earnest. McCarthy probably would have gravitated towards Trotsky regardless, but the reaction of the Stalinists to Trotsky's exile put her firmly in their camp.

Although The Nation was seriously pro-Stalin, the books editor was a friend of McCarthy's and permit her to write from time to time. Soon enough, though, anti-Stalin critics began to unite around the revival of the Partisan Review after the Moscow Trials. She was the only female of the group, and was assigned the theatre column, the lowest position on the totem pole. As with her first reviews in The Nation, she took the smallest of spaces and turned it into something memorable.

with edmund wilson in the early 1940sIt was through her work with the male-dominated Partisan Review that Edmund Wilson began to take an interest in her. He was a solid Communist and regarded her as the same; he was also one of the most influential critics of the period. While living with Review editor Philip Rahv, she began to fuck Wilson on the side at his home in Stamford. After one such liasion, she wrote him to say:

Here is something funny. You remember my telling you in the taxi on the way out that I was supposed to be at the fight? Well, the taxi-driver, it seems, was a man of heart. As soon as I got in the cab at your house, he said without any preliminaries: "I suppose you'd like to hear more about the fight." Then he went on to give me a round-by-round description of it. I thanked him at the station, got out...and didn't even need to buy a morning tabloid in the station to have a picturesque account of the fight at my fingertips. My dear, I miss you so much. I hope you will come to New York. I had a lovely time with you last night.

The two married in 1938 in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wilson's hometown. Rahv had no idea that McCarthy had even been cheating on him. A tongue-in-cheek wedding announcement in a New York paper read: "Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy are to be married in New Jersey Thursday and will make their home near Stamford, Connecticut. Miss McCarthy was at one time associated with Covici-Friede and is an editor of the Partisan Review, to which Mr. Wilson contributes. She is best known as one of the authors of the "Our Critics, Right or Wrong" series in The Nation a few years ago, which concluded that the only living American critic of importance was Edmund Wilson."

wilson at 16, and eager for his third marriage

Though she was consistently impressed by Wilson, she did not really love him, and the marriage was his idea. She was Wilson's third wife, and he was already a depressive, angry drinker. He was also physically abusive with McCarthy, perhaps even especially so during her first pregnancy. He thought nothing of punching his wife in the face, or even in her pregnant stomach. Once Wilson beat her so heavily that he had her committed to a Manhattan mental hospital under the premise that she had done it to herself. (It is no surprise that a monster like Wilson should have been so impressed with Stalin in retrospect.) The couple had one son, Reuel, born on Christmas in 1938.

with Reuel outside Paris in 1961After a sojourn in Chicago, the Wilsons based themselves in Cape Cod while keeping a place in Stamford. Edmund took a job at The New Republic, which he promptly quit because the editors were in favor of entering World War II. The one decent thing Wilson did in his marriage to McCarthy was encourage her to write. The two were most prolific up until their split in 1945, with Wilson writing his typically mediocre essays on modern authors and McCarthy continuing to pen her classic reviews. After giving a negative note to a Dos Passos novel, Wilson mailed his friend a letter saying that "Mary has written about your book in Partisan Review; so that if you don't know how to write the next one, it won't be our fault."

from one cover of 'The Company She Keeps'It was under Wilson's shadow that she wrote her first novel, The Company She Keeps, an autobiographical jaunt about her first years as a New York intellectual. Wilson loved the book, and so did Vladimir Nabokov, but it met with a more grudging response from Mary's former colleagues, who seemed to resent her gossipy style. (Malcolm Cowley called it "a not very likeable book, nor is it very well put together.") She was also screwed out of money due to her from publisher Simon & Schuster. At least one good thing did come of the book's publication at the time, however: New Yorker editor William Maxwell was so captivated by the novel he asked her to submit the first of her many pieces for the magazine.

showing her bare back to photographer Sylvia SalmiShe finally broke free of Wilson, who she would later hilariously characterize as a minotaur, in 1944. Carol Gelderman got McCarthy to recall the precipitating incident:

We had about eighteen people at the party. Everybody had gone home and I was washing dishes. I asked him if he would empty the garbage. He said, "Empty it yourself." I started carrying out two large cans of garbage. As I went through the screen door, he made an ironical bow, repeating, "Empty it yourself." I slapped him, not terribly hard, went out and emptied the cans, then went upstairs. He called me and I came down. He got up from the sofa and took a terrible swing and hit me in the face and all over. He said, "You think you're unhappy with me. Well, I'll give you something to be unhappy about." I ran out of the house and jumped in my car.

It was probably for this very reason that Wilson rued the day his wife had learned to drive in Stamford at the age of 25. She returned that day, but by the next year she had taken her son and moved into the Stanhope Hotel at 81st and Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The concluding part of this series can be read here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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