Birds of America by Mary McCarthy (1971)

Birds of America by Mary McCarthy

The original edition of Birds of America by Mary McCarthy describes it as “the story of Peter Levi, an innocent abroad, who is Ms. McCarthy’s Candide. In the fall of 1964, he arrives in France  to do his junior year at the Sorbonne after spending a bizarre holiday in New England with his enchanting mother.”

Mary McCarthy (1912 – 1989) was an American author, drama critic, and political activist. During her lifetime, she authored more than two dozen books, and gained attention as a cutting critic who argued for the need for creative liberty that transcended ideology.

Her work is known for its precise prose and intricate blend of fiction and non-fiction.

McCarthy’s Birds of America was published in 1971, one of an impressive body of fiction and nonfiction works by this author. Despite this book being regarded as McCarthy’s weakest novel by some critics, it was her personal favorite. Many of the characters were based on people McCarthy knew in real life.


A brief introduction

In the tradition of the coming-of-age novel, the book’s description goes on to say:

Peter also has a stubborn attachment to his other mother, Nature, and to the old America, which once thought itself the New World. He tries to live his daily student life according to Kant’s dicta, hoping that his will may have the force of a natural law.

The result is comedy, mild disaster, frustrated clashes with the police and other forces of order. Continually thwarted, he is persistent, like a weed. Birds of America is a witty and tender Bildungsroman. The reader will like Peter and the other migratory birds he meets along his fly way, some of them his friends. They are seen by Mary McCarthy with a warm, but hardly moist, eye.


An Original 1971 Review of Birds of America

An original review of Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America, from The Kansas City Star, May 23, 1971:

Those who know Mary McCarthy’s writings only through the most carnal of her novels, ‘The Group,’ will probably be set (or braced) for some pretty sexy stuff when they hear that her newest novel concerns a 19-year-old boy on his own in Paris and Rome.

They could hardly be more wrong, for ‘Birds of America’ is as innocent as its title. Its central character is a shy virginal boy who, trying to live by the ethic of the philosopher Kant, has pledged himself ‘never to treat anyone as a means.’

Peter’s father is an Italian Jew who fled the Mussolini regime, and now in the 1960s, teaches history at Wellesley. Peter’s gentile mother Rosamund is a musician of sufficient celebrity that the State department sends her to foreign countries to build cultural good will.

After her divorce from Peter’s father she remarried, separated and before the novel ends will have married a third time.

Peter and his mother both ‘have a thing about the past.’ They like the old ways and Peter is particularly drawn to Nature. Miss McCarthy makes both specific and symbolic changes in a New England coastal town they visit. On the first stay Rosamund is distressed because she can no longer buy traditional bean pots in the local stores.

Buying fresh fish presents problems but can still be arranged. On their second stay, four years later, fresh fish is a rarity and cod fish in the land of the cod comes only in frozen cakes. The only tapioca is an ‘instant mix.’ Certain birds have disappeared. Small things perhaps, but Miss McCarthy uses them skillfully to signify a deterioration in life.

Having got her distaste for this deterioration off her chest and having ended her New England section with Peter and his mother in jail on a matter of principal, Miss McCarthy next shows us Peter in Paris.

His months there are hardly those of the traditional carefree student. For Peter’s nature is such that he remains within the structures of his self-imposed ethical code.

‘Some unkind fairy,’ writes Miss McCarthy, “finding his brain unemployed, must have set him the gruesome task of coming up with a solution for every current woe.’ He sets up laws for himself. One states: ‘Do not do what thou wouldst not be known to have done. If an action tempted you to disclaim it, you had better think twice.’

The application of his laws are often less cosmic than comic. When he finds a squalid alcoholic woman passed out in his chilly hall, he is tortured by the question of whether he should leave her in the cold or take her inside his apartment and cover her with his coat.

Peter isn’t quite a prig. He is a self-conscious budding intellectual, possibly undersexed, with a conscience and a code, perhaps frustrated because he has only comparatively superficial ways of testing either. (His father forbade him to go to Mississippi to join the civil rights movement.)

The best thing that could have happened to Peter was to have been created by Mary McCarthy so that instead of coming through the insipid side he reflects always her lively and intelligent curiosity about all sorts of things. The Mary McCarthy of ‘Birds of America’ is more benign than some earlier Mary McCarthys (even her photograph on the book jacket makes her look almost demure.)

She may occasionally laugh a little at Peter but no less gently than she would laugh at herself. If she seems to cherish Peter more than she has most of her fictive characters, it could be because, as she suggests on her final fancifully pessimistic page, he may be among the last of his kind in an age that is ending. Only last week came another portent of its death — advertisements for Swiss cheese in a spray can.”

Allusions to an autobiography

McCarthy’s Birds of America is an enthralling depiction of an idealistic young man who is forced to witness societal and ethical shifts. The novel successfully encapsulates the spirit of the 1960s while still remaining as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1971.

It is worth mentioning that Rosamund could be a self-portrait of Mary McCarthy herself: satirical, bold, fierce, primarily rational, and heavily wedded. Rosamund, like McCarthy, was a devoted purist when it came to cooking and despised anything that was prefaced by convenience.

Furthermore, Peter Levi must be an adoring depiction of McCarthy’s son, Reuel, whom she had with her second husband, Edmund Wilson. Other characters in McCarthy’s story were inspired by teenagers that she knew, one of whom informed her that he walked his potted geranium every day to give it some sunshine. His remark became a trademark of Peter Levi’s.


Quotes from Birds of America

“Maybe any action becomes cowardly once you stop to reason about it.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“Whenever in history, equality appeared on the agenda, it was exported somewhere else, like an undesirable.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“If you want to be your own master… always be surprised by evil; never anticipate it.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“… she had the brusque, brutal air of a person detailed to cut Gordian knots.”

. . . . . . . . . .

“… most people did not care to be taught what they did not already know; it made them feel ignorant.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Contributed by Anna Fiore: Anna is a 2021 graduate of SUNY-New Paltz, majoring in Communications, with a concentration in Public Relations and a minor in journalism.


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