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Forthright and Fearless: Mary McCarthy's Intellectual Memoirs

Updated: Mar 21, 2022

I knew next to nothing about Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), the name only, as author of The Groves of Academe and The Group, novels I had not read, until interest was kindled by the portrayal of her in a film about her friend Hannah Arendt that I viewed in August 2020. That fall I read the two novels and wrote a brief essay on McCarthy and The Group. Before that I had not realized what a prominent literary and intellectual figure she was.

Serendipity stepped in again, as it so often has throughout my intellectual adventures, when I came upon reference to McCarthy's book Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936–1938 in Jed Perl's essay about art critic Harold Rosenberg in the March 24 issue of The New York Review of Books (Proud of His Conundrums). That The New York Review led me back to McCarthy is fitting, as she was a contributor to its inaugural issue on February 1, 1963, with her review of William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch (Dejeuner sur l'Herbe). Between 1967 and 1972 she wrote a series of articles for NYR reporting from Vietnam, and in 1973 she covered the Watergate hearings for that publication and the London Observer.

Perl wrote that Rosenberg's overintellectualization led his biographer astray:

she misses the lust for debate that consumed New York artists and intellectuals, even when they weren't sure where the argument was going or how it could ever be resolved. You feel that wild hunger in McCarthy's memoir of the 1930s, the brilliant Intellectual Memoirs, where at some point the disagreements about Stalinism and formalism get so tangled it's not clear to her where anybody stands.

That sounded right up my alley.

Intellectual Memoirs was written when McCarthy was in her seventies. The slim volume, running to 114 pages in the edition I found a the library, turned out to be a delight, not at all the heavy going that might be suggested by the title. She is good with anecdotes and the circles she traveled in offer ample material to spice up the political and intellectual wrangling that marked those years. Personal, literary, and political affairs are recounted in engaging fashion and with commendable honesty. McCarthy does not hesitate to relate episodes that do not always paint her in the best of lights. After one account she concludes: "Well. As an English writer said to me, quoting Orwell, an autobiography that does not tell something bad about the author cannot be any good."

Mary McCarthy was born in Seattle, her father Irish Catholic, her mother half-Jewish/half-Protestant. Her parents died in the 1918 influenza epidemic while en route to Minneapolis, where they had relatives. McCarthy and her three younger brothers were raised by a great-aunt and her husband, whom she characterized as austere and harsh guardians (McCarthy Society bio). In Memoirs she recalls telling Edmund Wilson the story of her life: "Seattle, the flu, the death of my parents, Minneapolis, and certainly quite a bit about Uncle Myers, not omitting, I fear, the razor strop." She was saved by her maternal grandparents, who brought her to their home in Seattle a few years later (neither the bio sketch at the McCarthy Society website nor Wikipedia give a date for this).

She moved to New York City after graduating from Vassar in 1933. That same year she married Harold Johnsrud, an actor and aspiring playwright. The marriage, her first of four, lasted three years. After the divorce Johnsrud boasted of having had an affair with a woman in a group they played poker with, "a yellow-eyed lynx-like blonde given to stretching herself like the cats she fancied…Like most female cat fanciers, she was a narcissist and did not care for me." There was also a bridge group. It too had a woman she later learned he had also been unfaithful with. These infidelities are related matter of factly with no indication of hard feelings. She goes on to acknowledge that she was unfaithful to him more than once but not with anyone they saw as a couple and she felt sure he never knew: "Two of my adulteries were only once, in the afternoon, and the third was with a little Communist actor who wore lifts in his shoes—too earnest for me to really like."

While between husbands after the divorce she had numerous affairs, some quite fleeting: "I realized one day that in twenty-four hours I had slept with three different men…Though slightly scared by what things were coming to, I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at them."

The memoir opens in 1936 with the 24-year-old McCarthy marching down Broadway in a May Day parade, chanting "FelLOW WORKers, join our RANKS!" The parade, she writes, was a Communist thing. They sang the "Internationale" and "Solidarity Forever." She remembers, "Nobody, I think, joined; they just watched. We were having fun.

…the marshals, mostly girls, who stepped beside us, keeping us in line, were noticeably blond and blue-eyed, what one would today call Wasp types. That must have been Party strategy, to give the march a face-lift, in keeping with the new line, 'Communism is twentieth-century Americanism.' The previous year had seen the end of so-called third-period Communism and the launching of the Popular Front…The point was to meet the menace of Hitler with a merging of working-class and bourgeois parties…I only observed what people said was true: our marshals were very blond and blue-eyed, and the cadres of the Party, on the whole Jewish in appearance, were making themselves less visible by staying in the center of our ranks…John Porter and I had been placed on the outside where the onlookers could not fail to see us…We were both conscious of being young and good-looking, an advertisement for the cause, and it did not bother us that the comrades had caught on to salesmanship; we were amused that the Party, in our eyes the height of innocence, could be shrewd.

McCarthy was at the time something of a political naif, in the early days of becoming politicized, radicalized, as it would be put in the sixties and again our era. She was familiar with left-wing politics and the Communist Party through The Nation and The New Republic, for which she wrote book reviews, and her husband's association with the Theater Union, a downtown group that did left-wing plays, and she had attended dances organized by Communists. The dances at Webster Hall were

an "in" thing for Ivy League New Yorkers—a sort of downtown slumming; our uptown slumming was done at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, usually on Friday nights. Maybe the real Communists steered clear of Webster Hall, just as ordinary black people did not go to the Savoy on those nights when so many white people came.

The parade was her first experience of being or looking like a recruit. "That spring and summer," she writes, "marked the high point of the slight attraction I felt toward Communism."

McCarthy seems to have known everyone. Keeping track of who was a Stalinist and who a Trotskyite can be challenging, as are lengthy lists, subject to frequent change, of who is married to, or sleeping with, whom. She met Harold Loeb, "the technocrat and former editor of Broom, and a character in The Sun Also Rises (related to Leopold and Loeb, murderers)." Loeb and Selden Rodman, playwright, poet, and critic, in black tie led a walkout in support of a waiters' strike at the Waldorf. McCarthy in evening dress and Johnsrud joined them. "The Waldorf dicks chased Selden out of the Rose Room and into the basement, where they tried to beat him up."

Dorothy Parker and two companions walked out too. McCarthy relates that some of this story can be found in chapters six and seven of The Group. She later learned from Harvey Klehr's The Heyday of American Communism that in New York at the time the Hotel and Restaurant Employees' Union was dominated by two Communists. The evening brought a different disillusionment: "It was the only time I saw Dorothy Parker close up, and I was disappointed by her dumpy appearance."

At dinners hosted by Bob Misch of the Wine and Food Society the guests "were mostly Stalinists, which was what smart, successful people in the New York world were." McCarthy initially leaned toward Stalinism herself. While telling a favorite teacher from Vasser about her discovery of left-wing politics, which the teacher knew all about, as it turned out, from reading New Masses, a Marxist magazine associated closely with the Communist Party USA, McCarthy stresses that she had no political disagreement with the political side of the magazine. She did, however, have doubts about the literary pages, where she detected whiffs of puritanism that reminded her of the Marprelate Controversy they read about in the teacher's senior seminar on the English Renaissance. There was the same fanatic spirit.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Marprelate Controversy: brief but well-known pamphlet war (1588–89) carried on by English Puritans using secret presses; they attacked the episcopacy as “profane, proud, paltry, popish, pestilent, pernicious, presumptious prelates." The tracts, of which seven survive, never had the support of Puritan leaders and ceased when the presses were discovered by government agents. (Britannica)

Novelist James Farrell and McCarthy became friends when he contacted her to express appreciation for her favorable review of his novel The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan. A favorable review from McCarthy would have been noteworthy. She writes that with fiction she was usually a rough reviewer:

Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle, Stark Young's So Red the Rose, Marching, Marching by Clara Weatherwax, February Hill by Victoria Lincoln—I laid about me right and left. My standards were high, higher for fiction than for biography, which could justify itself by instructiveness—as my still Latinate style seemed to attest, to vaunt. I am embarrassed to recall (textually) a concluding sentence that spoke of the lack, in current fiction, "of bitter aloes and Attic salt." Oh, dear. At least I was forthright and fearless.

She attended gatherings at the home of Farrell and his wife, actress Hortense Allen, where the guests was all intellectuals of a kind unfamiliar to her:

I could hardly understand them as they ranted and shouted at each other. What I was witnessing was the breakup of the Party's virtual monopoly on the thought of the left. Among the writers who had been converted to Marxism by the Depression, Farrell was one of the first to free himself. The thing that was happening in that room, around the drinks table, was important and eventful. An orthodoxy was cracking, like ice floes on the Volga. But I was not in a position to grasp this, being still, so to speak, pre-Stalinist in my politics, while the intellectuals I heard debating were on the verge of post-Stalinism—a dangerous slope. Out of the shouting and the general blur, only two figures emerge: [Philip] Rahv and [William] Phillips [editors of Partisan Review, an organ of the Communist sponsored John Reed Club].

McCarthy became a Trotskyist girl somewhat by chance. One evening at a cocktail party for a New Masses cartoonist, Farrell asked if she thought Trotsky was entitled to a hearing. She said yes without having any clear idea of what Trotsky was charged with. A few days later in the morning mail she found her name on a letterhead from a group demanding Trotsky's right to a hearing and to asylum. Before she had time to protest use of her name without her consent, she was besieged by phone calls from Stalinist acquaintances urging her to take her name off that committee. The choice being thrust on her "by those idiot Stalinists" hardened her resolve to allow her name to stay—"a pivotal decision, perhaps the pivotal decision" of her life.

Thinking she had better find out something about the cause she had unwittingly signed up with, she found a pamphlet that convinced her that Trotsky was innocent of having conspired with the Nazis to overthrow the Soviet state. She read the pamphlet with care, she said, testing the arguments as if preparing for an exam and finding they held water. Being a member of the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky was not without risk. Members got anonymous phone calls and it was said that Sydney Hook looked under the bed every night before retiring. On a lighter note, McCarthy also heard it said that among Stalinist males it was believed that Trotskyites had a monopoly of all the beautiful girls.

In the fall of 1936 she found a job with the publishing firm Covici-Friede, whose partner Pat Covici knew of her articles published in The Nation. At Covici-Friede she read manuscripts and looked for new authors in magazines like Southern Review. When she liked a story, she would write the author to ask for sample of a longer work. Eudora Welty was one of those authors. In addition she edited, proofread, and farmed out texts in foreign languages to qualified readers.

One day Covici took her to lunch with his star author, John Steinbeck. She writes that she did not care for Steinbeck's work, as she had said in The Nation, and she did not care for him. Steinbeck reciprocated.

McCarthy credits herself with a role in the de-Stalinization of Dwight Macdonald, a leftist critic and activist, who she discovered had actually believed in the Moscow trials. She and her friend Peggy Marshall set him straight, as she puts it, whereupon "he swiftly rebounded as far as one could go in the opposite direction. Characteristically, he did not come to rest at a mid-point, such as entering the Socialist Party…[instead he soon] was an embattled Trotskyite of the Schachtmanite tendency." (Max Schachtmanite was leader of a faction within the Socialist Workers Party that split with Trotsky over the analysis of Russia, per Marxists Internet Archive.)

Others took different paths. Brief mention is given to the political journey of Max Eastman, editor the The Masses and the Liberator, "who had been nearly lynched for his principles during the First World War." McCarthy had read Eastman's Enjoyment of Poetry in a freshman English class at Vasser. He would later become a right-winger who initially supported the House un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy's attacks on the influence of communism. In 1955 he was one of the original contributing editors for National Review.

In the meantime, Partisan Review had ceased publication when the Party cut off funds from the John Reed Clubs. Rahv and Phillips were talking to literary critic Fred Dupee about leaving New Masses to join them in a revived Partisan Review that would now be anti-Stalinist and bring a list of New Masses subscribers with him. Through herself or Dupee, McCarthy does not recall which, Macdonald was introduced to Rahv and Phillips and joined the project, with Dupee, Macdonald, and McCarthy members of a new editorial board. By the summer of 1937 McCarthy was writing theater reviews for the magazine, and she and Rahv moved in together.

Along with her work with Covici-Friede and at Partisan Review, she was trying to read Ulysses but kept getting stuck in the first chapter with "stately, plump Buck Mulligan," page 47, she thought it was. One day she found herself on page 48 and never looked back, leading to an observation about one way breakthroughs with difficult texts can come about:

This happened with many of us: Ulysses gradually—but with an effect of suddenness—became accessible. It was because in the interim we had been reading diluted Joyce in writers like Faulkner and so had got used to his ways, at second remove. During the modernist crisis this was happening in all the arts: imitators and borrowers taught the "reading" of an artist first thought to be beyond the public power of comprehension. In the visual arts, techniques of mass production—imitation on a wide scale—had the same function. Thanks to reproduction, the public got used to faces with two noses or an eye in the middle of the forehead, just as a bit earlier the "funny" colors of the Fauves stopped looking funny except to a few.

The memoir concludes with McCarthy's bizarre marriage to Edmund Wilson. They met in 1938 while McCarthy was living with Rahv, who was still married, "lacking the price of a divorce." Soon thereafter she and Wilson got drunk and slept together. He wanted to get married. She did not love Wilson and did not want to marry him, so "tried to sell" him on the idea of living with him as his mistress. Wilson was not interested, had been there, done that. She finally agreed to marry him, seeing it in part as her punishment for having gone to bed with him in a convoluted piece of reasoning I confess I do not follow. As a modern girl, as she put it, she might not have called that a sin. She thought of it in logical rather than religious terms.

The logic of having slept with Wilson compelled the sequence of marriage if he wanted it. Otherwise, my action would have no consistency; in other words, no meaning. I could not accept the fact that I had slept with this fat, puffing man for no reason, simply because I was drunk. No. It had to make sense.

There were other reasons. Her grandfather had died. She did not see Wilson as a father figure exactly, but he was an older man, by seventeen years. There were intellectual attractions, "all of which were beyond Philip." They were going to read Juvenal together. "Also, there was the whole world of Nature and the outdoors, so closed to Philip. We were going to ride horses along the trails above the river [Wilson rented a house on the Mianus River, in Stamford, Connecticut]; we were going to fish for trout." Wilson taught her the names of flowers.

"It was," she says, "an idyll he was offering me, and not entirely false. He too probably hoped it would be like that…His anticipation must have centered on having an intellectual girl for a wife. After a protracted siege to Edna Millay, he had been 'stuck on' the poet Léonie Adams," who, alas for Wilson, went for women. Margaret Mead had been his principal rival.

Far from least, it was Edmund Wilson who encouraged McCarthy to pursue imaginative writing. Rahv, Wilson averred, did not do anything for her. Rahv was content for her to write theater columns for Partisan Review, which according to Wilson were not up to her real talents.

"You draw a crushing brief against a play," he said. I did not see exactly what was wrong with that, but in fact he had put his finger on a limitation. I was not as narrow as Sidney Hook but I did treat most of the authors I wrote about as though they were under indictment. The tendency, evidently, was aggravated by Trotskyism…

Looking back, I can see he was right where Philip was concerned. If it had been left to Rahv, I never would have written a single "creative" word. And I do not hold it against him; on the contrary. His love, unlike Wilson's, was from the heart. He cared for what I was, not for what I might evolve into. Whatever I might be made to be, with skillful encouragement, did not interest him. To say this today may be hard on Wilson, as well as ungrateful on my part for what he did, in the first months of my marriage, to push me into "creativity."

Without Wilson she would not be the Mary McCarthy writing these memoirs. Yet, she says, she was not particularly grateful. The argument of what he, compared with Rahv, could do for her seemed mercenary. Wilson perceived it as her self-interest. "From outside, however," she adds, "things looked different. I remember that somebody of the PR [Partisan Review] circle—Delmore {Schwartz] or Harold Rosenberg—was widely quoted as saying that Mary left Philip for Wilson because Wilson had a better prose style."

The Wilson episode is sad. The logic behind her decision to marry him eludes me. She agonized over the decision, writing fifty years later, "To this day, I can't make out whether I 'really' wanted to marry Wilson or prayed to be spared it." On their wedding night they had drinks in their hotel with two of her brothers, who had recently moved to New York from Minneapolis. The encounter seemed uneventful, with the brothers talking about their plans, one to try his luck as an actor, the other as a photographer. Afterwards, upstairs in their room, Wilson, very drunk, burst out with accusations that her brothers were agents of the Soviet intelligence service. McCarthy had no idea where that came from. She surmised that "in the bar he had sensed a plot thickening against him." She had tricked him into marriage so as deliver him to the Stalinists through her brothers. "He grunted some threats," she writes, "but he did not hit me. Abruptly he fell asleep. I lay awake, silently weeping. The marriage was over, I had to assume."

The next morning was a blank to her. She did not recall if she brought up the incident. If she did, he was evasive. If she said nothing, he said nothing. What precipitated this bizarre episode?

The political area at that time was highly sensitized. We both thought in those terms. Probably he saw me as a Trotskyite girl, the reverse, of course, of a Stalinist agent, but in hallucination extremes meet. Had he faced up the next day to what he had done, we might have been friends again…But perhaps he did not know me well enough to expose himself by an admission of error. In later years sometimes he would feel sorry and apologize.

She had, she felt, no one to turn to. Rahv and her job were gone. Her only friends were not real friends. Her marriage was a mistake. "I never should have married this peculiar man," she says, "yet I did not have the courage to take my suitcase and go off somewhere by myself." The memoir closes with a bleak declaration: "The badly injured marriage lasted seven more years, though it is true that it never recovered."

Twenty-six years old. The marriage to Wilson was grim. She had burned some bridges. The future could hardly have looked more uncertain. Yet she went on to become Mary McCarthy, novelist, woman of letters, public intellectual, member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome, recipient of the National Medal for Literature, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The book's title is a bit of a misnomer. There is frequent mention but little discussion or examination of the ideas that animated the intellectuals who are its subjects. She never ventures deep into the ideological weeds that put Stalinist and Trotskyites passionately at odds and seldom goes there at all. There is little about the wrongs she and her comrades might be out to right. The Depression and the waiters' strike are mentioned, as is a party Dwight Macdonald gave to support the cause of sharecroppers where he made an embarrassed speech before literally passing the hat. McCarthy contrasts that to fund-raising events she was familiar with:

downtown, in the Theater Union's ambience: they charged a quarter for horrible drinks in paper cups to help the Scottsboro Boys or silicosis victims, and you sat on the floor with your legs sticking out. The Macdonald drinks were free and in glasses, and to sit on they had dark-blue outsize furniture looking like a design edit and made by a firm called Modernage.

Of international affairs, the fall of the Spanish Republic and the Moscow trials, she says little beyond remarking about confessions followed by executions as the revolution devoured its children. She and her group did not mind so much the fates of the old Bolsheviks, "brain workers" like themselves, but they were shaken by news that the civil war hero Marshal Tukhacenvsky and several lesser Red Army generals were secretly tried and executed as Hitler agents. There was, she says, a strange mix of horror and exultation, the latter because they thought the liquidation of Tukhacenvsky would be fatal for Stalinism.

Of the nineteenth century, which in a sense began in 1789 with the French Revolution and continued to the outbreak of the first world war, as intellectual background and prelude to events, loyalties, sides chosen, and internecine squabbles of her time, McCarthy says nothing. (Austrian historian Friedrich Heer's Europe, Mother of Revolutions is a good intellectual history of that period.) The senseless slaughter of World War I led to bitter denunciation and rejection of bourgeois culture and values in intellectual and artistic circles. Of utopian dreams and outrage at injustices and horrors laid at the feet of the old order, things that led people to see in communism hope for a new, more just, better world, and blinded them to what Stalin was up to, she is pretty much silent.

The intellectual history I envision is a lot to ask of a slender volume written late in life. It is fair to acknowledge its absence, but also fair, I think, to focus on the pleasures to be had in McCarthy's forthright and fearless account of people who were passionate about books and learning, politics, ideas. They made their share of poor choices and foolish moves in personal, intellectual, and political lives because people are prone to do that. It seems to me possible that in the social and political ferment of the present we might find echoes of the puritanical impulses and dogmatic tendencies found among the factions McCarthy writes about, in passions, mistakes, personal tragedies, and triumphs shaped as much by chance as by conscious choice in a world not of their choosing, this world in which we find ourselves, thrown, as Heidegger, who has his own dark legacy, put it. From this some salutary perspective might be gleaned.

Memo from the Editorial Desk: The paragraph at the end of the section about McCarthy's marriage to Edmund Wilson, beginning "Twenty-six years old," was added several hours after this essay was initially published.

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