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McCarthy, Mary Therese

Mary Therese McCarthy, 1912–89, American writer, b. Seattle, grad. Vassar, 1933. As drama critic for the Partisan Review (1937–45), she gained a reputation for wit, intellect, and acerbity. Her novel The Oasis (1949) satirizes left-wing intellectuals, whereas The Group (1963) satirizes an entire generation. Her other novels include Cast a Cold Eye (1950), The Groves of Academe (1952), Birds of America (1971), and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979). Among her volumes of nonfiction are Venice Observed (1956), The Stones of Florence (1959), Vietnam (1967), The Mask of State: Watergate Portraits (1974), Ideas and the Novel (1980), and How I Grew (1987). A comprehensive collection of her literary, cultural, and political writings was posthumously published as A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays (2002). She was married several times, from 1938–46 to the critic Edmund Wilson.

See her memoirs, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and How I Grew (1985); her correspondence with Hannah Arendt (1995); biographies by C. Gelderman (1988) and F. Kiernan (2000); study by I. Stock (1968); Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (1992) by C. Brightman.

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McCarthy, Mary

McCarthy, Mary (1912–89) US writer and drama critic. McCarthy wrote several novels, including The Groves of Academe (1952) and The Group (1963). Among her other works are Venice Observed (1956), and the autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957).

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McCarthy, Mary Therese

McCARTHY, Mary Therese

(b. 21 June 1912 in Seattle, Washington; d. 25 October 1989 in New York City), novelist, literary critic, and essayist who, despite her reputation as an anti-Communist, wrote admiringly of the Communist Hanoi government during the Vietnam War.

McCarthy was the eldest of four children born to Roy Winfield McCarthy and Therese Preston. Soon after her birth, her father entered law school, but health problems forced him to close his law practice in 1918 and move the family to his parents' home in Minneapolis. Her parents died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, leaving the children to be raised by their great-aunt and great-uncle. In 1923 McCarthy's maternal grandparents took her back to Seattle.

After graduating in 1929 from Annie Wright Seminary, a boarding school for girls in nearby Tacoma, Washington, McCarthy entered Vassar College as an English major. She graduated with a B.A. in 1933, the same year she moved to New York City and embarked on the first of four marriages, to the actor Harold Johnsrud. Divorced in 1936, she married the renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson in 1938. With Wilson she had her only child, a son, the same year. By that point McCarthy had developed a formidable reputation as a literary critic for the Nation and New Republic and as drama critic for the Partisan Review, but Wilson persuaded her to try her hand at fiction. The result was The Company She Keeps (1942), often regarded as the finest of McCarthy's seven novels.

She divorced Wilson in October 1945, and on 6 December 1946 she married a schoolteacher, Bowden Broadwater. During the 1940s and 1950s McCarthy distinguished herself as a critic and author of both fiction and nonfiction. Notable works from this period include the novel The Groves of Academe (1952), in which she satirized what would today be termed the "political correctness" of liberal academicians, as well as the first of three memoirs, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). After divorcing Broadwater in 1960, McCarthy married James Raymond West, a diplomat, on 15 April 1961. The romantically restless McCarthy had met her match in West, a man completely removed from the New York intellectual circles that had dominated her professional and social life for three decades. The two, who divided their time between two spacious residences—a Paris apartment and a house in Castine, Maine—remained together for the rest of McCarthy's life.

Ever the memoirist, McCarthy in 1963 published a novel, The Group, based on her experiences at Vassar. The story, which chronicles the lives of eight young women over a period of seven years following their graduation, was made into a motion picture starring Candice Bergen and Joan Hackett in 1966. McCarthy's next novel, Birds of America (1971), is the story of a young bird-watcher deeply affected by the intrusion of technology into the natural environment. At one point the protagonist, Peter Levi, reacts to news of the bombing of North Vietnam by fleeing to a zoo.

McCarthy herself became deeply concerned over the American involvement in the Vietnam War. This was a major theme of her nonfiction during the 1960s and early 1970s, presented in Vietnam (1967), Hanoi (1968), and Medina (1972) as well as in a series of articles for the New York Review of Books. The first two books, as well as the magazine articles, were the product of trips to Saigon in 1967 and Hanoi in 1968, and the 1972 volume chronicled the trial of Captain Ernest Medina for war crimes associated with the 1968 massacre of South Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai. Many Americans opposed the war, but McCarthy was part of a much smaller faction—a group that included both the actress Jane Fonda and the linguist Noam Chomsky—who came to lend active support to the Communist North Vietnamese regime. In the case of McCarthy, aspects of her career both before and after the 1960s make this affinity for Hanoi a rather surprising choice.

Carol Brightman, author of Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (1992), referred approvingly to 1930s radicals as the "granddaddy generation." The appellation reflected a sentiment expressed often by the student radicals of the 1960s, who saw in the Stalinism of earlier intellectuals a model for their own extreme brand of activism. Still, McCarthy was not a true member of the "granddaddy generation": during the decade of the Spanish Civil War and the Moscow show trials (in which Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used a semblance of legality to facilitate the arrest and murder of his rivals for Communist Party leadership), she had remained impervious to Stalinism and ridiculed its humorless dogmatism at every possible opportunity.

During the anti-Communist backlash of the 1950s, McCarthy condemned the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy (no relation to her), who had launched investigations of Communists and alleged Communists in the government and society at large, yet she maintained the position that Stalinism was an even greater evil. In so doing, she made many foes, not the least of whom was the playwright Lillian Hellman, who in 1980 filed a $2.25 million lawsuit against McCarthy for disparaging her honesty in a television interview with Dick Cavett. (Hellman died in 1984 without the case ever coming to trial.)

This backdrop provides a means for understanding McCarthy's writings during the 1960s, when she became an advocate for a government openly aligned with Stalinist principles—a government that practiced indoctrination and imprisonment on a scale far beyond the power, much less the desire, of the United States or South Vietnam. In McCarthy's view, however, the Hanoi government represented peasant nationalists striving for self-determination against the destructive tactics of the U.S. war machine and its puppets in Saigon.

Typical of her antipathy to the American war effort was her "Report from Vietnam I: The Home Program," published in the New York Review of Books on 20 April 1967. "I confess that when I went to Vietnam early in February," she began, "I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official." Her attitude toward North Vietnam was quite different, as revealed in a 6 June 1968 New York Review of Books article entitled "Hanoi II": "In glaring contrast to Saigon," she wrote, "Hanoi is clean—much cleaner than New York, for example. The sidewalks are swept, there is no refuse piled up, and a matinal sprinkler truck comes through, washing down the streets."

In another article she actually praised the North Vietnamese for not allowing her to see the combat zones and condemned American officials for encouraging visitors "in blustery, hectoring tones" to see the fighting firsthand. Rather than suspect the honesty of her hosts, she suggested that by preventing her from glimpsing anything of their war machinery, they were acting in her best interests. In any case, citing Homer and Leo Tolstoy as authorities, she maintained: "I do not feel it as a deprivation that I failed to see the front lines. The meaning of a war, if it has one, ought to be discernible in the rear." All of this proved a bit too much for many critics reviewing Vietnam and Hanoi and for noted intellectuals such as Diana Trilling and Daniel Bell, who wrote her open letters in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Bell, for instance, commented in an 18 January 1968 letter on her "renewed desire to be 'Left,'" and her use of "the shards and detritus of radical stereotypes she learned thirty years ago."

Noted for her acerbic wit and her ability to defend herself when challenged, McCarthy responded to many of her critics. In her answer to Bell, she indicated that her views on the Soviet Union had changed since the refutation of Stalinism by Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress in the 1950s. Even her appreciation of Soviet dissidents, such as the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was tinged with admiration for the system that provided them with a constant source of tension: "To feel solidarity with them … is to imagine yourself in their life and to see that it has some rewards."

McCarthy's other works from the 1960s include the essay collections On the Contrary (1961) and The Humanist in the Bathtub (1964). During the 1970s she wrote The Mask of State (1974) about the Watergate hearings, conducted to investigate a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters that was traced to supporters of President Richard Nixon. McCarthy published her final novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, in 1979. The 1980s saw two more essay collections as well as the memoirs How I Grew (1987) and the posthumous Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938 (1992). McCarthy died of cancer in New York City and is buried in Castine, Maine.

With a career that spanned the better part of six decades, from the height of the depression to the eve of Communism's downfall, McCarthy was a quintessential twentieth-century figure, gifted with both the insight and the myopia common among those who witnessed one of history's most turbulent times. In the 1930s she showed an almost flawless ability to detect the deception to which Stalinist intellectuals, in their quasireligious faith, had succumbed. Three decades later, however, she, too, gave in to some of the century's great vices: the assumption that different standards should be applied in evaluating Western and non-Western governments and the belief that the foe of what she considered an evil force—the United States in Vietnam—must necessarily be virtuous. Still, her writing on other subjects showed her to be a fiercely penetrating critic, and her defiance of the vastly more wealthy and more powerful Hellman illustrated the courage that she displayed throughout much of her career.

McCarthy's papers are housed at Vassar College. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has a much smaller collection of papers dating from 1979 to 1987. In additional to semiautobiographical fictional works, such as The Group (1963), McCarthy wrote three memoirs: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), How I Grew (1987), and Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938 (1992). Notable biographies, all of which combine literary criticism, include Irvin Stock, Mary McCarthy (1968); Carol W. Gelderman, Mary McCarthy: A Life (1988); Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World (1992); and Frances Kiernan, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (26 Oct. 1989).

Judson Knight

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"McCarthy, Mary Therese." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"McCarthy, Mary Therese." Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. . Retrieved September 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mccarthy-mary-therese

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