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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 smart young woman going to college and breaking into New York City social circles.
The Group (1954) 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 feud with playwright Lillian Hellman, whom she accused of being an outright liar. She died of lung cancer in New York City in 1989.
Early life and education
McCarthy was orphaned at the age of six when both her parents died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She and her brothers, Kevin, Preston, and Sheridan, were raised in very unhappy circumstances by an authoritarian uncle and aunt that inflicted harsh treatment and abuse.
Fortunately, McCarthy and her siblings were eventually taken in by her maternal grandparents in Seattle. During this time, she studied at Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Seattle, and Annie Wright Seminary in Tacoma, and went on to graduate from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1933.
Fresh out of Vassar, McCarthy caught the attention of the literary world with her essay, “Our Critics, Right or Wrong,” in which she scathingly commented on the mediocrity of American book reviewers. In New York during the 1930’s, she moved in “fellow-traveling” Communist circles, left the Catholic Church, and became an atheist.
As founding editor of the Partisan Review (which became one of the most influential literary magazines of the time) and as a contributor to The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New York Review of Books, she grabbed attention as a critic — sometimes a scathing one. During the 1940s and 1950s she became a liberal critic of both McCarthyism and Communism. She opposed the Vietnam War in the 1960s and covered the Watergate scandal hearings in the 1970s.
She visited Vietnam frequently during the Vietnam War, and after being interviewed after her first trip, she declared on British television that there was not a single documented case of the Viet Cong deliberately killing a South Vietnamese woman or child.
McCarthy married four times. In 1933 she married Harald Johnsrud, an actor and playwright. Next, she married well-known writer and critic Edmund Wilson in 1938, after leaving her then-lover Philip Rahy. She and Wilson had a son, Reuel Wilson.
In 1946, she married Bowden Broadwater, employee of the New Yorker. Then, finally, in 1961, McCarthy married career diplomat James R. West.
One of McCarthy’s most noteworthy friendships was with Hannah Arendt. After Arendt’s passing, McCarthy became Arendt’s literary executor from 1976 until her own death in 1989. McCarthy also taught at Bard College from 1946 to 1947, and once again between 1986 and 1989. She also taught a winter semester in 1948 at Sarah Lawrence College.
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Awards and literary life
The Company She Keeps (1942) McCarthy’s debut novel, received critical acclaim for its blunt appraisal of the social lives of New York intellectuals of the time. Her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) is a classic in the genre of memoir.
After building a reputation as a satirist and critic, McCarthy enjoyed popular success when the 1963 edition of her novel The Group remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. Her work is noted for its frankness and mixture of autobiography and fiction. Birds of America (1971) sealed her reputation as a novelist.
Her famous feud with fellow writer Lillian Hellman formed the basis for the play Imaginary Friends by Nora Ephron. The feud had simmered since the late 1930s over ideological differences, McCarthy provoked Hellman in 1979 when she famously said on The Dick Cavett Show: “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”
Hellman responded by filing a $2.5 million libel suit against McCarthy, which ended shortly after Hellman died in 1984, in which McCarthy is quoted saying that she “… hadn’t wanted Hellman to die but, rather, to live so that I could see her lose.”
On the other end of the spectrum, her friendships with Hannah Arendt and Nicola Chiaromonte were warm and lasting.
Considered to be the best-known novel written by McCarthy, The Group was published in 1954. It made the New York Times bestseller list in 1963, and remained there for almost two years.
The book follows the lives of eight young female friends newly graduated from Vassar College in 1933, and their struggles with sexism in the workplace, childrearing, finances, family crises, and intimate relationships. As highly-educated women from affluent backgrounds, they strive to carve out a place for themselves in the male-dominated mid-century world.
The novel was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland for “being offensive to public morals.” At the time of its release, men questioned McCarthy’s ability to be a professional writer. Notably, Norman Mailer for The New York Review of Books wrote that, “her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough … she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.”
McCarthy died of lung cancer on October 25, 1989, at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
Mary McCarthy page on Amazon
More about Mary McCarthy on this site
- The Company She Keeps
- The Group
- Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
- The Stones of Florence
- Birds of America (1971)
- Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936-1938
- Mask of State: Watergate Portrait
Autobiographies and Biographies
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