Mary McCarthy, Author of The Group
By Nava Atlas | On March 13, 2018 | Updated August 20, 2022 | Comments (4)
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 unhappy circumstances by an authoritarian uncle and aunt who 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.
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Mary McCarthy Quotes with a Critical Eye
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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 1930s, 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.
In the 1940s and 1950s, she was 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. Upon 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.
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Marriages and teaching
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, who worked at the New Yorker. Finally, in 1961, McCarthy married career diplomat James R. West.
McCarthy 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.
A 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. 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 her 1963 novel The Group remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years. Her work is noted for its frankness and blend of autobiography and fiction. Birds of America (1971) sealed her reputation as a novelist.
Willene Hardy’s 1981 biography of the author, simply titled Mary McCarthy, offers this overview of McCarthy’s literary life:
A personal life of great range and many interests has set Mary McCarthy apart since the childhood she so vividly recalls in her unique autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Her sense of her own superiority was not, as the writer acknowledges, always justified …
She is well known for candid uses of herself and her acquaintances in her novels and short stories. We also see the moral view of life that gives direction to her funny, sometimes painful, always truthful analyses of the minds and conduct of mid-twentieth century intellectuals.
The Group, the sensational bestseller, brought the writer fame and fortune and the stern disapproval of many of her onetime admirers; The Groves of Academe, the academic novel that is acknowledged as one of the best of its genre; [rounding out her major works are] Cannibals and Missionaries, Venice Observed, The Vietnam essays, and the Watergate portraits.
We see that in essay and story alike McCarthy cuts through pretense and self-deception to expose the less than honorable motives that frequently underlie and sometimes undermine the best of actions.
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McCarthy’s best-known novel, 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 midcentury 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 writing ability. Notably, Norman Mailer wrote that in The New York Review of Books , “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.” Why her male contemporaries were thus threatened seems like nothing more than old-fashioned misogyny.
Friendships and feuds
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. McCarthy is quoted saying that she “… hadn’t wanted Hellman to die but, rather, to live so that I could see her lose.”
One of McCarthy’s most noteworthy friendships, a warm and lasting one, was with Hannah Arendt. After Arendt’s passing, McCarthy became her literary executor from 1976 until her own death in 1989. McCarthy died of lung cancer on October 25, 1989, at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
More about Mary McCarthy
On this site
Selected fiction and nonfiction
- The Company She Keeps (1942)
- The Oasis (1949)
- The Groves of Academe (1952)
- The Group (1954)
- Venice Observed (1956)
- The Stones of Florence (1959)
- Vietnam (1967)
- Hanoi (1968)
- The Writing on the Wall (1970)
- Birds of America (1971)
- Cannibals and Missionaries (1979)
- Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974)
- Occasional Prose (1985)
- Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy (1957)
- How I Grew by Mary McCarthy (1987)
- Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 by Mary McCarthy (1992)
Selected Biography and Criticism
- Mary McCarthy: Gender, Politics, And The Postwar Intellectual by Sabrina Fuchs Abrams, (2004)
- Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work, Eve Stwertka, ed. (1996)
- Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949–1975,
Carol Brightman, ed. (1996)
- Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy And Her World by Carol Brightman (1992)
- Mary McCarthy; An Annotated Bibliography by Joy Bennet, (1992)
- Mary McCarthy: A Life by Carol Gelderman (1990)
- Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan (2000)
- New York Times Obituary
- A Critical Reading of The Group
- Mary McCarthy’s The Group: Three Queer Readings
- McCarthy’s essays on New York Review of Books
- Reader discussion of McCarthy’s books on Goodreads