Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy (June 21, 1912 –October 25, 1989) was an American novelist, political activist and critic, born in Seattle, Washington. She endured a difficult childhood but overcame it to become a woman of strength and determination. She began her writing career as a critic, and gained admiration for her honest observations on culture and politics. In 1942 she published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, about a young intellectual woman going to college and breaking into New York City social circles.

The Group, was arguably her most popular novel — it sat on the New York Times Bestseller list for two years and was made into a popular film. McCarthy’s novels and stories are part autobiography and part fiction, as she draws on her own experiences, traumas, and successes. That, along with her writing style, made her a respected  talent in the writing community.

McCarthy had friends and enemies within literary and activist circles — she was allied with Hannah Arendt, for instance, and was locked in a bitter fued with playwright Lillian Hellman, whom she accused of being an outright liar. She died of lung cancer in New York City in 1989.

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Mary McCarthy Quotes


“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. It works, I guarantee you, this sure-fire guilt-eradicator, like a homeopathic medicine — like in small doses applied to like. It works, but I am not sure that it is a good thing.” (How I Grew, 1987)

“In violence, we forget who we are.” (“Characters in Fiction,” Partisan Review, March, 1961)

“Life is a system of recurrent pairs, the poison and the antidote being eternally packaged together by some considerate heavenly druggist.”

“The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist, who is intensely curious about what will happen to the hero.”

“Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Comment about Lillian Hellman in a televised interview on The Dick Cavett Show (1979))

“If someone tells you he is going to make ‘a realistic decision,’ you immediately understand that he has resolved to do something bad.” (American Realist Playwrights, July 1961)

“The labor of keeping house is labor in its most naked state, for labor is toil that never finishes, toil that has to be begun again the moment it is completed, toil that is destroyed and consumed by the life process.” (“The Vita Activa,” The New Yorker, October 18, 1958)

“I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that — how to express this — you really must make the self. It’s absolutely useless to look for it, you won’t find it, but it’s possible in some sense to make it.” (From an interview by Elisabeth Niebuhr in The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Second Series conducted in 1961)

“The theater is the only branch of art much cared for by people of wealth; like canasta, it does away with the bother of talk after dinner.” (Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue, 1950)

“A novelist is an elephant, but an elephant who must pretend to forget.”

“You know what my favourite quotation is?…It’s from Chaucer… Criseyde says it, “I am myne owene woman, wel at ese.” (The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt, 1943)

“We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.” (“Characters in Fiction,” Partisan Review, March, 1961)

“People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children.” (On the Contrary, 1961)

“There are no new truths, but only truths that have not been recognized by those who have perceived them without noticing.”

“We all know in our gut that art educates. In other societies, they’re aware of the power it has of speaking directly to the masses, teaching them to be better socialists, better citizens. The trouble is that with us it’s fallen into the wrong hands. Forget the speculators … The concept of the collector is so rotten by now that it stinks.” (Cannibals and Missionaries, 1979)

“It is really difficult to tell a good action from a bad one? I think one usually knows right away or a moment afterward, in a horrid flash of regret.”

“I really tried, or so I thought, to avoid lying, but it seemed to me that they forced it on me by the difference in their vision of things, so that I was always transposing reality for them into something they could understand.” (Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood, 1972)

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4 Responses to “Mary McCarthy”

  1. I believe Mary McCarthy died in 1989, not 1925 as stated on your website since that would have made her only 13 years old at the time. It’s quite a typo don’t you think?

  2. I first read about Mary McCarthy in an Article called “Sex & The Single Vassar Girl” (July 2013) and in her own way helped create the Chick Lit Movement which is now a Multi Billion Dollar Empire. However I also noticed that she along with Rona Jaffe (The Best Of Everything) (RIP), as well as Patricia Highsmith (The Price Of Salt) (RIP) all had the same rituals when writing their Books. They had a Desk (Of Course) A Portable Typewriter as well as A Cigarette and an Ashtray. Although everything has changed (Typewriters being replaced by Computers), and Cigarette Sales going down it was an amazing ritual that made these books so memorable. Even Grace Metalious (Peyton Place) who never went to College pretty much followed the same ritual. In the Book Version, Allison McKenzie one of the main protagonists typed an smoked a Cigarette while on the Back of A Early Version there was the Author at her Desk deep in thought while the same posed was done in the Movie Version. I think that some of today’s Writers are lucky but spoiled. They have spell check, e-mailing, meetings over Skype amongst other things but they still are classics and pioneers.

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