"Our Saint, Our Umpire"

An appreciation of Mary McCarthy, whose literary and political writing is well represented in a new anthology

I don't suppose my hands ever trembled more than they did in opening a letter —four onionskin pages, airmailed from Paris—that Mary McCarthy wrote to me on March 23, 1973. "Thank you for sending me your honors thesis," she began, "which I have been rather slow to read." I had sent this 152-page disquisition on her work at the urging of my adviser and with, as one biographer says in telling the story, "the innocence of the very young." I was twenty-one.

McCarthy pronounced me, in her letter's first paragraph, "quite a lot wiser and more studious than the adult professionals"—chief among them Alfred Kazin—"who have elected me as their field to trample over." But she went on to ask whether I would "mind a few corrections"—three and a half pages, crowded with elite type, that took exception to my callow suspicions ("I don't use strategies with interviewers. I just try to answer the questions. That is probably hard for a young person to believe of an older one"); my naive politics ("You miss the point of my controversy with Diana Trilling" over what reprisals might follow a Communist takeover of South Vietnam); even my use of the term "gourmet cooking."

I find that phrase abhorrent and would find the thing abhorrent if I was sure what it was. It ought to mean, if anything, very rich, showy dishes, with lots of foie gras, cream, caviar, liqueurs, flambéing—the opposite of good food. I like cooking and do it well, I think. But that ought to be normal. If anybody who takes the trouble to put a decent meal together has to be classed as a "gourmet," that is an odious situation.

Here, addressed to me alone, was the same thrillingly authoritative voice I had heard in her novels, where every character, including the autobiographical heroines, suffered this same lash of "correction." It was the voice I'd heard in her theater criticism, in her memoirs, polemics, and travelogues. If the term "man of letters" had any meaning left, I had decided in picking my thesis subject, this woman had first claim to it. I had her picture—the elegant profile, the terrifying smile—taped to my dorm-room wall. It was "the thinking man's pinup," I told friends.

"Do you plan to be a writer?" she asked, near the close of her letter. Well, if she thought it a legitimate question, then perhaps it was a reasonable aim. The fact is I did plan to be one, and could name the book that had given me the ambition: a volume of her essays, On the Contrary, published in 1961.

Now, thirteen years after McCarthy's death, in time for what would have been her ninetieth birthday, A. O. Scott has assembled a collection of her literary, cultural, and political writing that matches the scope and extends the temporal reach of that (scandalously) out-of-print volume. A Bolt From the Blue distills a half century of McCarthy's nonfiction, and the experience of rereading so much of it at once has made me look more approvingly than I've ever before been able to upon my youth. Say what you will about the scrawny, awkward creature in that dorm room, he had good taste.

McCarthy stumbled into her first important writing, the drama criticism she began composing for Partisan Review in the 1930s. When putting together a collection of these theater pieces a couple of decades later, she recalled, "Being an editor, at least in name, I had to be allowed to do something, and the 'Theatre Chronicle' (we spelled it 'theater') was 'made work,' like the WPA jobs of the period." She came to regard some of her youthful pronouncements as "insufferable," but today's reader, at a much further remove, will find these early pieces, some more than sixty years old, remarkably fresh and funny.

By the early 1940s McCarthy was already and irreducibly her mature critical self, the gaily severe judge Norman Mailer would one day call "our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword." A firm believer in sense over sensibility, she pondered Blanche DuBois's "poetic moment of self-definition" in A Streetcar Named Desire:

She who has never spoken an honest word in her life is allowed, indeed encouraged, to present her life to the audience as a vocational decision, an artist's election of the beautiful, an act of supreme courage, the choice of the thorny way.

Unlike the novel's achievements in realism, which excited McCarthy's ardent championship, drama's attempts in that direction led only to paradox. On stage, she argued, realism became "a depreciation of the real," sinking to its nadir at the middle of the twentieth century in "the Broadway cave-world of the American School playwrights, who have accustomed us to a stage inhabited by apes with complexes."

The typical character of the so-called American realist school is a sub-human member of the lower urban middle class. This creature is housed in a living room filled with installment-plan furniture, some of which will be broken before the play is over.

In dramas of this kind words fail the dramatist and the hero equally.

Our American realists do not try to write badly. Many, like Arthur Miller, strive to write "well," i.e., pretentiously, but like Dreiser in the novel they are cursed with inarticulateness. They "grope." They are, as O'Neill said of himself, "fogbound."

Edmund Wilson, McCarthy's second husband, expressed a certain exasperation that her idea of theater reviewing was to file a "crushing brief against a play." But Scott's varied new compilation reminds us how much entertaining public service McCarthy provided by going after, in the same manner, certain species of contemporary fiction. In 1962 she paid a sort of social worker's call on J. D. Salinger's self-sanctifying Glass family, and reported back:

In Hemingway's work there was hardly anybody but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salinger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool.

She wondered whether Seymour Glass had killed himself not out of an excess of sensitivity, the usual coroner's ruling, but "because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake."

McCarthy gave her most sustained attention, along with her heart, to the great nineteenth-century novels—English, French, and especially Russian. Scott includes her avid appreciation of Anna Karenina, a novel so sensual as to be "a book of the body," a book "terribly true, almost truer than any novel ought to be," the only novel ever, with its "temple-like Greek logic," to reach the status of tragedy. With perhaps less passion, but greater precision, she wrote "On Madame Bovary" in 1964, deciding that a "central metaphor" of this novel was the lending library, "because it is the inexhaustible source of idées reçues—borrowed ideas and stock sentiments which circulate tritely among the population." Emma's dull husband, Charles, was to McCarthy the hero of the book, uncorrupted as he is by the consumer's lust for fashionable notions and material goods: "The only thing in life he chooses is Emma. She is his first and last piece of self-expression." McCarthy saw Flaubert's book as "the first novel to deal with what is now called mass culture," a subject that was starting to dominate her own fiction at the time she wrote this essay. In fact, Emma Bovary might be regarded as the ninth young woman in The Group.

"The Fact in Fiction," published in 1960, is McCarthy's chief pronouncement on the novel's onetime "concern with the actual world." The "fetishism of fact"—the great glut of information one finds in Balzac, for example—was to her a "splendid sickness," a kind of poetry. Reversing cause and effect, she went so far as to declare, "The more poetic a novel, the more it has the air of being a factual document." In regretting the postwar novelist's lack of real-world experience ("The writer today—and especially the young American writer—sees only other writers"), McCarthy was fighting an early round in a long, losing battle. Tom Wolfe, with much gusto if less erudition, would enter the same ring, on the same side, with his 1989 essay "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast."

And yet in her own novels McCarthy ducked. She used the twentieth century's special horrors, genocide and the bomb, as a sort of escape clause from the novelist's old contract with the real world. She had given herself the out in "The Fact in Fiction": "It would seem that the novel, with its common sense, is of all forms the least adapted to encompass the modern world, whose leading characteristic is irreality." The brilliance and humor of McCarthy's meditations on social "progress" in novels such as The Group and even Birds of America can't finally compensate for the bloodlessness of these books. As her career went on, she could still prick up her ears at any form of cant; but toward the world's new objects and inventions she turned up her nose.

In Ideas and the Novel, a slim volume of lectures she published in 1980, she expresses amusement at Henry James's inability in The Ambassadors to specify the common household article that was the basis for the Newsome family fortune. "I have always guessed that it was a brass safety pin," she wrote. McCarthy herself would not have been too squeamish to name its modern equivalent—say, Velcro—but in her later novels she would have done so only with a kind of rote disgust, not real curiosity about the chemistry and economics and ambitions that had put such a thing into the world. I recently read through some unpublished letters she wrote to her last husband, James West, and found her on July 15, 1969, when Jim was still at their apartment in Paris and she already at their house in Castine, Maine, sighing that "tomorrow is Astronaut Day." She had decided to leave the housekeeper with the TV and go to an auction in nearby Ellsworth. Writing again four days later, she didn't mention Apollo 11 but did remind Jim to bring over some lobster forks from Paris.

McCarthy's long residence in France, from the early 1960s until a few years before her death, distanced her not just from American life but from American literature as well. She infrequently reviewed works by U.S. contemporaries, concentrating instead on Europeans such as Italo Calvino, Nathalie Sarraute, and Monique Wittig. Perhaps from her despair over the possibilities for realistic fiction, she developed a surprising taste for novels of contrivance—ingenious but highly artificial productions such as Nabokov's Pale Fire, Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, and Sarraute's Between Life and Death. None of these could be called "a book of the body," but they appealed, with their intricate puzzles and gimmickry, to McCarthy's love of deduction. "A Bolt From the Blue," her crystallographer's look at the complexities of Pale Fire, ends with perhaps the most fervent blurb of all time.

This centaur-work of Nabokov's, half-poem, half-prose, this merman of the deep, is a creature of perfect beauty, symmetry, strangeness, originality, and moral truth. Pretending to be a curio, it cannot disguise the fact that it is one of the very great works of art of this century, the modern novel that everyone thought was dead and that was only playing possum.

McCarthy's exegeses of these experimental books avoid any postmodernist shrug over the supposed impossibility of assigning them a fixed meaning. She once told an interviewer that she believed "there is a truth, and that it's knowable." This conviction extended to literary texts, which required not deconstruction but solution. Exasperated by obtuse reviews of her own fiction, she once declared that every book "should be published with instructions on how to read it." She set out to write an owner's manual for these books by Sarraute and Nabokov and Calvino, whose If on a Winter's Night she saw being created in "an old-fashioned small-town garage (maybe an old Fiat place)."

Readers of this new collection will take immense pleasure in McCarthy's high-speed aphorisms, flawless taxonomies, and chains of reasoning. Her critical writing is unusually rich in figurative language, but it rarely jumps from strict simile, whose "like" keeps things nailed to the here and now, into high-flying metaphor, which doesn't so much compare things as transpose them. One senses in this the trouble McCarthy had releasing her splendid critical mind into the wilds of fiction. In that letter she sent me in 1973 she wrote,

As for novelists needing to be stupid, there is something in that; at least they have a need to learn from the act of selection and construction: their ideas aren't there in advance. Writing a novel is quite different from writing an essay or historical work, where your ideas are fairly clear to you when you sit down. Of course I don't think I'm stupid and maybe I'm not stupid enough in that special sense to be a true novelist.

In his introduction Scott expresses the hope that this collection will "make a somewhat paradoxical case for her importance as a novelist—one of a handful of indispensable American writers of realist fiction in the immediate postwar era." After three decades of reading McCarthy, I must reluctantly conclude that this well-intentioned enterprise is hopeless. Her novels are less the fulfillment of her critical writings than an extension of them. Helen Vendler, with some justice, once called Birds of America a "fictional essay" instead of a novel, and McCarthy herself—again in that 1973 letter—wrote that she "wasn't trying to make [her] own work illustrate or embody those principles [in 'The Fact in Fiction']." Her novels "aren't novels in the sense that the old novels were," she explained.

Nobody in his right mind would take B. of A. for a realistic novel. Or The Group. Or A Charmed Life. The Groves of Academe is the closest, but not that either. Their factuality is in a different tradition altogether, maybe of the epic (Homeric catalogues), turned into mock epic. Something of Rabelais' lists, possibly, and something of the Catholic litany.

Scott fills the second half of his omnibus with McCarthy's political writing, which shows, not always for the better, more change and development than her literary writing does. The cornerstone of this section is a 1953 memoir called "My Confession," in which McCarthy recollected the Stalinist-dominated intellectual life of New York in the 1930s and recalled how she became, by a combination of accident and temperament, an anticommunist. At a publishing party a novelist she knew asked if she thought the disgraced Trotsky was "entitled to a hearing." She answered yes—the wrong answer to this anything-but-rhetorical question—and was soon astonished to find herself on the letterhead of a Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. "My Confession" is a brilliant piece, both comic and moving, full of a descriptive and narrative vigor she could never quite equal in The Group, which covered some of the same territory. Here is her evocation of those downtown social gatherings she went to in the mid-thirties:

On couches with wrinkled slipcovers, little spiky-haired girls, like spiders, dressed in peasant blouses and carapaced with Mexican jewelry, made voracious passes at baby-faced juveniles; it was said that they "did it for the Party," as a recruiting effort ... All of us, generally, became very drunk; the atmosphere was horribly sordid, with cigarette burns on tables, spilled drinks, ashes everywhere, people passed out on the bed with the coats or necking, you could not be sure which. Nobody cared what happened because there was no host or hostess. The fact that a moneyed person had been simple enough to lend the apartment seemed to make the guests want to desecrate it, to show that they were exercising not a privilege but a right.

The source of the vigor was her own voice, the freedom to write in it, something provided by the essay genre itself and unavailable in the writing of the novel, in which the direct authority of the nineteenth-century narrator had dissolved, helplessly and for good, into an indirect free style that filtered everything through a character's perceptions. In a 1961 interview McCarthy spoke of this as a frustration: "The technical difficulties are so great, in projecting yourself, in feigning an alien consciousness, that too much energy gets lost, I think, in the masquerade." It was even truer for her than for such contemporaries as Mailer and James Baldwin and Gore Vidal. None of her novels—underrated as some of them are—approach her nonfiction masterpiece, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), in which she had her own life, and her own voice, to work with.

However fortuitous its origin, McCarthy practiced her anticommunism with honor and wit for many years, making the claims for a democratic left, infiltrating the Stalinist-controlled 1949 Waldorf Conference of artists and intellectuals, and defending American culture against Simone de Beauvoir and other pompous frauds. In 1947 she wrote,

It is true that America produces and consumes more cars, soap, and bathtubs than any other nation, but we live among these objects rather than by them. Americans build skyscrapers; Le Corbusier worships them ... When an American heiress wants to buy a man, she at once crosses the Atlantic. The only really materialistic people I have ever met have been Europeans.

Only several years after publishing the above, however, she would worry, "How is wealth to be spread without the spread of uniformity? How create a cushion of plenty without stupefaction of the soul and the senses?" I wish I could agree with Scott that McCarthy's "estrangement from American mass culture" in her later decades "largely avoided the traps of snobbery and pessimism." In fact she was often ensnared by both. Her revulsion over the Vietnam War led to a conflation of the aesthetic and the political that was for a while breathtaking in its completeness. In a short book about her 1967 trip to South Vietnam, while complaining that America had transformed Saigon into "a gigantic PX," she could not keep herself from enclosing even such a neutral phrase as "cool drink" in a set of disdainful quotation marks. The style of her rhetoric ("a low-grade primitive in uniform," "fatuous military mouthpiece") sometimes bordered on the Stalinist, and a second volume of war journalism (Hanoi, 1968) sentimentalized the North Vietnamese cause and regime to an extent her admirers now prefer to forget.

McCarthy recovered balance and acuity in a book on Watergate, The Mask of State (1974), a fine last hurrah of reportage in which she flayed and sectioned Richard Nixon's men with gleeful precision. She observed John Ehrlichman before Senator Sam Ervin's committee in the summer of 1973.

Perhaps he cannot help his face, but he looks like somebody of a deeply criminal nature, out of a medieval fresco: the upward sneering curl of the left-hand side of the mouth matched, on the bias, by the upward lift of the right eyebrow, above which there is a barely discernible scar; the aggressive tilted nose that cameramen say has been growing all week, the sinister (literally) thrust of the jaw ... Ehrlichman was resilient, extremely loquacious, limber as his eyebrow; he thought very fast, deflecting a question almost before it reached him, impatiently interrupting. His thinking process was a massive motor response to a set of stimuli.

McCarthy attributed the public's Watergate outrage, at least in part, to "a genuine need for atonement and purification" after Vietnam, and she saw in the Senate hearings flickers of an America she had more or less given up for lost—the republic of men like her upstanding grandfather, the lawyer Harold Preston ("this good American," she called him in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood). She detected in Senator Ervin, to whom she dedicated her book, a faith that the house of government "with a little elbow grease can be cleaned and restored to at least a semi-pristine condition." McCarthy was more doubtful; but the hearings were, in their way, a Vietnam purgative for her, too.

Largely absent from her decades of political writing is any reflection upon the civil-rights movement or modern feminism. The first seems never to have engaged her much; the second was mostly an irritant. She told one French publication, "I don't mean that I disagree with the goals of equal pay, and so on, it's the domestic side that I find so repellent. I can't see the point of devoting yourself to the constant emotions of competitiveness and envy. And I don't see why people should dislike serving." Her most famous novel depicts a group of Vassar graduates who for the most part are regressing, surrendering a largeness of outlook and levelheadedness that came naturally to their mothers.

McCarthy has been lucky in her biographers, particularly the most recent, Frances Kiernan, whose Seeing Mary Plain, issued in paperback this year, succeeds not only in taking the critical measure of its subject but also in capturing her on the first-name basis promised by the title. Kiernan is unafraid to reassemble all the girlishness, romance, and stubbornness (McCarthy would no more have used a credit card than she would a cake mix) that surrounded her subject's gleaming critical mind. McCarthy has also been lucky in Scott, who put together this collection of her work with real intelligence and enthusiasm. One might argue here and there with his selections (Was that essay on Lisbon really good enough to make the cut? Why not McCarthy's piece on Dickens to go along with the Tolstoy and Flaubert?), but that's part of the pleasure for aficionados encountering such a retrospective.

Scott has also saved McCarthy from her very late, weakening work, especially How I Grew (1987), a sadly flat-footed recapitulation of the childhood she had already reconstructed so perfectly in Catholic Girlhood, thirty years before. By the end McCarthy's style had sprouted bits of fussy, antique phrasing—"Well!"; "Not to leave you in suspense, Reader"; "But stop!"—like an old woman's ruffles or moles, and it's a relief not to see too much of this on display.

One welcomes, however, any opportunity to praise the bravest act of McCarthy's last decade: exposing the fraudulent Lillian Hellman ("Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'") and then refusing to settle the lawsuit that resulted from her bon mot, no matter how much stress and financial peril that entailed. The Hellman-McCarthy duel was generally trivialized by commentators, who talked of it as amusing or pathetic, a sort of geriatric catfight; it's even the basis for a play (with music) by Nora Ephron coming to Broadway this fall. But I would go so far as to say that it was one of the most important writers' controversies of the past twenty years. It sent McCarthy back into battle against the same fellow-traveling falsification she had fought decades before, and would provide a rallying cry in the decade after her death for those unimpressed by a flood of literary "memoirs," mostly by the young, that had scarcely more respect for the literal truth than Hellman had demonstrated in her best-selling recollections. McCarthy's aggressive stance gave her a last chance to be necessary and superb.

She spent much of her life in an acknowledged battle between "excited scruples and inertia of will." The essays Scott has collected remind us time and again of her simple desire—a species of the common sense she found in the nineteenth-century novel—to separate right from wrong. "Is it really so difficult," she asked in "My Confession," "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." Or, as she put it in "The American Realist Playwrights" (1961): "If someone tells you he is going to make 'a realistic decision,' you immediately understand that he has resolved to do something bad." For all her intractableness, McCarthy tried to be a good person, and if that sounds quaint or simplistic to our ears, it's only a measure of how far we've fallen from the moral world of Tolstoy and Dickens. She attempted to be good even in North Vietnam, however credulous she'd been made by her own antiwar fervor.

The private tumults and crises I had been undergoing, trivial as was their occasion (who cared whether I wore that ring made from a shot-down plane or whether I said "puppet" or "Viet Cong"?), involved the omnipresence, the ubiquity of God. He cared. Being an unbeliever made no difference. I had swallowed Him too many times as a child at the communion rail, so that He had come to live inside me like a cherry stone growing or like Socrates' unshakable companion and insistent interlocutor: oneself.

It's unclear how many people are reading McCarthy, or even remember her, these days. As I write this, in the Westport, Connecticut, public library, a check of the computerized catalogue shows that none of the twenty-one titles bearing her name is checked out. Perhaps Scott's anthology will change that, at least for a while. It's a comforting thought, because I don't expect another writer like McCarthy to come along for a very long time. Most American novelists today have no critical faculty, no discernible aesthetic, and not much inclination to write anything besides their fiction. Many, in my experience, don't enjoy reading.

If that letter she sent in the spring of 1973 were the only personal experience I had of her, it would remain, in memory, a life-giving boost to a very underconfident young man. As it was, I ended up having years of friendship and practical encouragement from her. I still keep her books on a shelf just to the left of my desk, and in trying to sum up my feelings about her, I find that I can't do better than paraphrase her own farewell to the critic Philip Rahv, one of her early lovers: if no two people are alike, she was less like anybody else than anybody.