Last reviewed: June 2017
American author, critic, and political activist.
June 21, 1912
October 25, 1989
New York, New York
One of the most versatile and outspoken writers of the twentieth century, Mary Therese McCarthy was born in Seattle, Washington, on June 21, 1912. She was the first child and only daughter of Roy Winfield McCarthy and Therese Martha Preston, who were married despite the strong opposition of their parents, mainly on religious grounds (the McCarthys were Catholic; Preston's mother was Jewish, and her father was Presbyterian). Roy was handsome, entertaining, and charming, although he was at times an invalid. His wife was a famous beauty and was completely devoted to her husband and their four children.
In her memoirs, McCarthy described her early childhood as idyllic. When she was six years old, however, both parents died during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and that happy period of her life came to an abrupt, bewildering end. Mary and her three small brothers went to live in Minneapolis, where the McCarthy grandparents provided them with a house and two remarkably unsuitable guardians: a middle-aged, recently married great-aunt and her boorish, cruel husband. Although the children lived only two blocks from the elder McCarthys, they rarely saw them. Mary McCarthy, 1963. Photograph by Dick DeMarsico.
Mary McCarthy, 1963. Photograph by Dick DeMarsico.
In 1923 McCarthy’s maternal grandfather, Harold Preston, took her back to Seattle to live with them, but the McCarthys did not permit any of her brothers to return with her. Later, she was to remember her maternal grandparents as conscientious, strict, respectable, and undemonstrative, but also as generous and thoughtful of her welfare as her McCarthy relations had been stingy and mean. After attending Forest Ridge Convent in Seattle, McCarthy graduated from Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma. She attended Vassar College and graduated cum laude in 1933.
McCarthy’s recollections of the first twenty years of her life are vividly related in two books of memoirs, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and How I Grew (1987). In the first, McCarthy’s most enduring book, her central concern is the mutability of human attachments, against which a fierce respect for truth affords her compensation. The trauma of orphanhood, the widely disparate conditions of her early years, the pain of being an alien at home and at school, the influence of religion in her formative years, and her own awareness of her distinctive intellectual powers—including an unusually fertile imagination—all contributed to the development of an extraordinary woman who became a distinguished writer. She began her career by reviewing books for the Nation and the New Republic shortly after finishing college. Aside from brief teaching stints at Bard College in 1945 and at Sarah Lawrence College in 1948, McCarthy devoted her talents and energy to writing in a variety of genres: short stories, novels, memoirs, and numerous social, political, and literary critical essays and articles.
In 1933 McCarthy married actor and playwright Harold Johnsrud, from whom she was divorced three years later. After two years as drama editor of Partisan Review, McCarthy married writer Edmund Wilson in 1938; their son, Reuel, McCarthy’s only child, was born in 1939. It was Wilson who encouraged his wife to write fiction; her first book, The Company She Keeps, was published in 1942.
A collection of six self-contained episodes that the author called a novel, The Company She Keeps established from the outset McCarthy’s reputation for sexual explicitness. As she would for all of her subsequent fiction, she drew her material from events and people in her own life, including herself. The book received serious critical attention, as did everything she would write. That attention was not always favorable or kind, but McCarthy herself was never noted for those qualities either. Her vivid, brilliant style was generally recognized and acknowledged.
After divorcing Wilson in 1946, McCarthy then married Bowden Broadwater, a writer and teacher. A productive period in her life ensued, during which she published the novels The Oasis (1949) (for which she received the Horizon Prize), The Groves of Academe (1952), and A Charmed Life (1955). She also published Cast a Cold Eye (1950), a collection of stories, and works of nonfiction that included Sights and Spectacles (1956), Venice Observed (1956), and The Stones of Florence (1959). During this prolific period when she spent much time abroad, McCarthy received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1949 and 1959 and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1957.
In 1961 McCarthy divorced Broadwater and married James Raymond West. She continued her career by publishing On the Contrary (1961), a collection of essays and criticism that demonstrates the range of her interests, the acuteness of her insights, and her wit. The book includes observations on the political scene of the period, the subject of womanhood, and aspects of literature and the arts.
Leading a cosmopolitan, sophisticated existence, McCarthy continued to write. Among her publications during this period were Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles, 1937–1962 (1963) and her best-selling novel The Group (1963). An opponent of the war in Vietnam, she traveled there, then wrote Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968). Between 1970 and 1980, she published six more books: the nonfiction works The Writing on the Wall, and Other Literary Essays (1970), Medina (1972), The Seventeenth Degree (1974), The Mask of State (1974), and Ideas and the Novel (1980), and the novel Cannibals and Missionaries (1979). In 1987 McCarthy was appointed Stevenson Professor of Language and Literature at Bard College, a position she held until her death two years later.
Although critical assessments of her work vary from acrimony to adulation, McCarthy is generally recognized as a writer of bold and penetrating intellect, acerbic wit, and astonishingly diverse knowledge and interests. As an outspoken and unsparing critic, she was sometimes condemned for her arrogant and devastating analyses. Her novels are generally praised for their readability, humor, and detachment, but some critics find them merely gossipy, egotistical, and lacking in compassion. McCarthy’s themes include war as a metaphor for marriage, the search for self, and the dualistic conflicts of impulse and instinct against mind and thoughtfulness. McCarthy saw herself as representing sense over sensibility. Her style is characterized by detailed, satiric dissection.