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Mary McCarthy, How I Grew: A Memoir of the Early Years (New York: Harcourt / Harvest, 1987/2005, $15.00, 304 pages, ISBN 0-15-602788-7)Trudy Bolter, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Bordeaux


About fifty years ago, Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) was one of the stars of the American literary scene. Her salad days roughly coincided with those of Simone de Beauvoir. Both attended roughly equivalent top schools (Vassar, Normale sup’) and consorted with important alpha / intellectual males. De Beauvoir’s choice, Sartre, was more eminent than the aggregate of the two most famous of Mary McCarthy’s men, Philip Rahv, founder of Partisan Review, and the critic Edmund Wilson. De Beauvoir’s Deuxième sexe is a more profound book than any of those that McCarthy wrote. But, allowance being made for the virtual absence of French-style philosophy at the heart of American intellectual life, and also for the less extreme orientation of American political parties, each of these ladies was near the center of a roughly similar cultural milieu mixing left politics and literature. Critic, novelist, political commentator, bosom buddy of Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy is the American who can be most closely compared to Simone de Beauvoir.

Rather like de Beauvoir, she was able to mutate lived experience into gossipy fictions intelligent enough to be read as “serious” writing bearing psycho-sociological insight. One of these novels was The Group (1963), a bestseller that became a film, in 1966, which studied the lives of a network of friends from Vassar, Class of 1933. The time covered by the novel spans the wedding of Kay, a young copywriter, and her funeral. This book included some intimate details about the Vassarites’ sex lives (multiple partners, contraception, adultery, homosexuality), a main emphasis of the story. But the shopping lives of the characters, their furniture, clothes, cocktail sets, foodways, as well as their political views and their child-raising habits, were also examined. McCarthy herself was, according to her friends, as well as a leading intellectual, a great cook, a seductive talker, a tireless siren, fashion-conscious, and immensely au fait with proper upper-class possessions and behaviors. It was almost as if she mixed in one persona the thoughtful editorial and elite advertising pages of The New Yorker, one of her prime venues.

How I Grew, the book under brief review here, is a memoir of McCarthy’s  adolescent school years, prep school, then Vassar, where she shared an eight-person apartment (like the one in The Group) in one of the residential halls with friends (including Elizabeth Bishop) who eventually  (after much transformation) became characters in The Group. In both books, we feel the intense pride in social place accruing from attendance at such colleges and the almost incestuous obsession with classmates and teachers which can thrive there, especially when, as in the Thirties, the other sex is kept out. How I Grew can be read as a kind of backstory for The Group, which must definitely be seen as a companion volume, the roman à clé which the memoir seems to unlock.

At the end of How I Grew, we find Mary Mc Carthy, just married to Harold Johnsrud (1903-1939, defined in the “Brief Biographical Glossary of Lesser-Known Figures” appended to the volume, as “stage actor, playwright and occasional director” [273]), knowing that she has made a mistake:


As we climbed into the big bed, I knew, too late, that I had done the wrong thing. To marry a man without loving him, which was what I had just done, not really perceiving it, was a wicked action, I saw. Stiff with remorse and terror, I lay under the thin blanket through a good part of the night; as far as I could tell from what seemed a measureless distance, my untroubled mate was sleeping. [267]


This sets the scene for The Group, to such an extent that this volume of memoirs almost seems to have been written as prequel to the novel which antedates it. At the beginning of The Group, Kay’s wedding ceremony, attended by her former classmates, sets the exposition going. In death, a possible suicide, she is survived by her caddish husband, Harald Petersen. In real life, McCarthy’s first husband, killed himselfperhaps accidentallyby returning to a room in flames to save a manuscript. In fact McCarthy survived the husband, and the marriage, the first of four. But the double treatment of closely coordinated persons and events, first as fiction, then as memoir, sets up an interesting situation for the critic or scholar (one that I, and others, frequently ask). To what extent is the autobiography a different form of “fiction”? Where is the “truth,” and where is the novelist’s “art,” and to what extent does McCarthy follow the usual procedure of the novelistor is her genre a kind of multitextual performance art? Certainly the interest of this exercise diminishes with time, as the More-Known Figures join the Lesser-Known in common oblivion.

How I Grew is the belated second volume in a series of autobiographical works of which the first, the excellent Memories of a Catholic Girlhood was published in 1957, the year before Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, the first volume of de Beauvoir’s beautiful memoirs began to appear. Although these two first volumes of memoirs are roughly comparable, Mary McCarthy would have been unable to write exactly the same cycle and include the book about a dying parent that de Beauvoir composed (Une mort très douce, 1964): she lost happy loving parents in the Flu pandemic of 1918. This tragic start was followed by a  horrid Dickensian sojourn in the home of austere grandparents, in company  with her brothers, one of whom would become the actor Kevin McCarthy. Rescued by the other side of the family she began the steady intellectual and social climb through prep school, college, Grub Street (slash / America), of a beautiful young writer thoroughly versed at Vassar in English literature, the ardent disciple of her teachers, Miss Kitchel and Miss Sandison, who voiced their views on other matters, as well:


[Miss Sandison’s] shock and Miss Kitchel's---at my marriage to Wilson, and relief at the end of it, went back to that evening [...]. "Tell us," said Miss Kitchel, over her Old-Fashioned in the Poughkeepsie restaurant when I was back in the Hudson River Valley teaching at Bard, and a divorce was impending. "Tell us," her fading blue eyes supplicated, "you didn't marry him for love." It was in love's name that the two spinsters begged for reassurance, and we all three laughed when I said no. [260]

A further volume, written in her seventies, Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938  (1992), a necessary complement to How I Grew, goes as far as The Group and indeed How I Grew in revealing the details of an extensive private life, well irrigated by alcohol. This  later book  like How I Grew ends with the author trying to get to sleep having realized that she has arranged a bad marriage for herself (this time to Edmund Wilson), her own ironic version of “Reader, I married him…”:


During that bad night I assessed my situation. I was alone, with no one to turn to. Philip and my job were gone […]. My marriage was a mistake, I clearly saw that I never should have married this peculiar man, yet I did not have the courage to take my suitcase and go off somewhere by myself. That would have been Miss Sandison’s counsel. And where was she, dear Miss Sandison, when I needed her? Probably in the British Museum, working on Arthur Gorges.” [Intellectual Memoirs, 114]

How I Grew is the story of how Mary McCarthy got to Vassar, her alma mater, stricto sensu, where under the protection of her surrogate mothers, Miss Kitchel and Miss Sandison (described by the editor in precise biographical detail at the end of How I Grew where they are listed with the other Lesser-Knowns) she began to spread her professional wings. It takes her from 1925, the year she was “born as a mind” [1] having “almost from the very beginning […] been aware of myself as ‘bright’” [1]. The book is therefore chockfull of reading notes, fantasies, and childhood experiences remembered in astonishing detail, proof of the author’s remaining “bright.” Graduating from the Annie Wright Seminary in Washington State (her secondary education takes up almost half the book), McCarthy comes East to Vassar. How I Grew is the record of her experience as a student in and around these two institutions.

Mary McCarthy was famous, won prizes, wrote stories, novels, essays and reviews, and was massively present in quality magazines throughout the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies: she was the leading female nonacademic nonfiction writer of her time. Also, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, 12 Hollywood scripts (the New York Times lists 7) contained her words or were taken from her stories, including Theodora Goes Wild (1936) a “distaff side” (the Variety reviewer’s term) remake of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) in which a successful young New England novelist working under a nom de plume, breaks free and achieves love with the bobo painter played by William Powell. This can be read as a prophetic youthful fantasy, since she did obtain fame as a novelist, and find happiness with the diplomat James West, her final husband. She had loyal friends including the writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Jean Stafford, as well as the poet Robert Lowell (husband at various times to both Hardwick and Stafford) but also enemies. She was famous for the 2.5 million dollar defamation suit brought against her by Lillian Hellman for claiming in a television interview that “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman died before the case came to trial. The confessional aspect of her autobiographyfrank discussions of  her numerous sexual encounters, including overlapping or very swiftly changing lovers, very  important in How I Grewis widely discussed in articles available on the Internet. I have chosen to highlight different (but sometimes related) themes.

I do not wish to trivialize this writer, known for achieving stunning clarity, who should be read, if only for her style. And verve. Aside from Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, her excellence is most apparent in two impeccable and highly intellectual guide books, Venice Observed (1956) and The Stones of Florence (1963), which are complete and exciting, putting the educated tourist in touch  with  the eyes and minds of past travelers, imprinting the malleable first-timer even more strongly than a videocassette could do. In these books she stands revealed as an impressive teacher of the printed page. She did teach from time to time at Bard College, stints recalled in the novel The Groves of Academe (1963), a book comparable in tone to David Lodge’s Small World (1984). But in the memoirs under discussion here, brilliance (or “brightness”?) tends to substitute for wisdom, the snobbery is offensive, and there is a lack of  edification, which the author herself seems to regretlessons are not learned, analyses do not go deep. Her honesty about herself is famously great and in Intellectual Memoirsa gravely mistitled bookshe examines a serious question; why could she not be true to a True Love, like Philip Rahv, whom she leftdespite her deep feeling for himto marry Wilson? This is the question which with blinding honesty (but imperfect ethics) she partly answers as follows: “Wilson, relatively speaking, was upper class.” [Intellectual Memoirs, 105]

Her powerful intellect, directed to the contradictions of her eventful sentimental journey, is of no avail: no wisdom accrues from such answers to her questions. Such mechanical analysis reduces her stature as a heroine (a figure with whom one wants to identify) even as it increases her standing as a hard-hitting critic: this woman can dish it out, but she can also take it.

Yes, McCarthy is very honest, and in the unfinished and posthumous Intellectual Memoirs recalls a younger self steeped in loneliness, though she lived a life of a hundred parties, surrounded by an adoring crowd. The loneliness seems less at Vassar, recalled in How I Grew, possibly because of the mother figures, Miss Sandison, Miss Kitchel. Like Kay in The Group, the young McCarthy is ambitious, but until she gets married, does not seem adrift. The detailed memories, the notations of appearance and social status, mixed in with judgments about English Renaissance authors, give a feeling of abundant talent and activity, but it all seems like compulsive accumulation, or layers of pearl formed around a grain of sand. Transports of emotion, or even simple enthusiasm, do not often occur, although remembering one of her first lovers, McCarthy describes the following self-therapy for guilt which she learned to apply (a widely reprinted quotation):


When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over, till finally, you will discover, through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you. [156]


One wonders to what degree the process of memoir-writing, with McCarthy, is made to obey this regimen, and not just in the area of sex. Sometimes she seems almost to be daring herself to debase herself: how lowhow superficial, how self-absorbed, how calculatingcan she allow herself to appear? Or doesn’t she notice?

A more typical example of a chapter from her collected love / sex reminiscences is the following description of a blind date for the Senior Prom at Annie Wright:


His full name was Benjamin Franklin Reno, and Harold [McCarthy’s young uncle] maintained that he was the nephew of President Eliot of Harvard. If that was so (which I wondered about), he was T.S. Eliot’s second cousin. He sent me a corsage of deep-pink camellias, to go with my dress, and this was a decided score for him, utterly outclassing the banal orchid. The lowest a boy could get was sweet peas, then roses, then orchids, and, best of all, gardenias (which the divine Donnie Fisher had sent me the year before), but camellias were something no other girl had. [166]


How I Grew could also be called Who I Knew, just as Intellectual Memoirs could also bear the title Memories of Intellectuals. In these crisply written pages, superannuated gossip and aimless milling around in the antechambers of Style tends to outweigh the logging of incremental acquisition of wisdomno model is constructed, no lesson is learned. If she only had a heart! (cf. the Tin Woodman in the Wizard of Oz.) But this is a motherless child. Curiously enough, dissatisfaction with McCarthy’s authorial voice only comes with the memoirs of her adolescence: Catholic Girlhood, her guide books, her essays, do not offend, and even attract, and the novels are easy reading.

McCarthy’s personal history is atypical. Her roots in the West, a father of Irish origin, a Jewish grandmother, her ambition set her apart from the upper-class Wasp milieu she aspired to, although she herself came from a prosperous and relatively prominent family in Seattle. Her candid descriptions of trying to fit in by airbrushing out some of these details, makes evident (what she perceives of as) a rigid class system prevailing in the Ivy League in the early Thirties. Sometimes a clear picture of an experience no longer availablethe long train journeys back to Seattle for vacationsforms on the page [238]. But is this a book to read if you do not know who Mary McCarthy was? Should you read this book if you are not cognizant with her later group, the circle of writers based in or around New York who were prominent in the third quarter of the twentieth century? How I Grew largely predates her literary associations though she does describe her meeting at the New Republic with Malcolm Cowley, who assigned her a short article, published before she left Vassar. McCarthy herself is very aware of her fame. She feels nostalgia for a lover of her very early youth (the same one who made her feel such terrible guilt), a painter, and muses:


Now and then, coming upon his name in a newspaper on the art of the Northwest, I would wonder what he had done with those oils he painted of me. In short, having become “Kenneth Callahan”, did he realize that I had become “I”? [161]

How I Grew and Intellectual Memoirs, two consecutive chapters in the story of a coming of age in twentieth-century America, do have importance for their “cultural history” aspect, as a partial corrective to the view often encountered among students that in America “feminism”women’s hard work spent to buy big dreamsstarted in the Sixties. The dedication of the Vassar professors (usually spinsters, it is true) and the vigilant opportunism of the “heroine,” struggling through different day jobs (catalogue writing for an art gallery, for example) and even ditching partners as new job choices appeared (the Rahv / Wilson quandary) does show how much professional achievement has mattered to women even in what may seem to very young people the extreme distant past. But McCarthy was not really inner-directed and seems to have been too dependent on others for help in making career decisions. At Vassar, the Misses Kitchel and Sandison had told her she was made for writing criticism. Later, she looked for orientation to the men in her life. This indeed is the true key to the big problem of her past, the Fall from grace incurred by leaving a man she loved for one she didn’t, explained in Intellectual Memoirs as follows:


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 what I might evolve into. Whatever I might be made to be, with skillful encouragement, did not interest him. To say this today may seem hard on Wilson, as well as ungrateful on my part for what he did, in the first months of our marriage, to push me into “creativity.” If he had not shut the door firmly on the little room he shepherded me into […] I would not be the “Mary McCarthy” you are now reading. Yet, awful to say, I am not particularly grateful. [Intellectual Memoirs, 104]


She should have known better. Her need to borrow status and indeed to advance socially and artistically had already influenced her relationship with her first husband, Johnsrud. Here is a discussion of one aspect of their interaction, in this phase at least a kind of mutual admiration society:


Around that time I “made” Phi Beta Kappa […] John had been Phi Bete at Carleton, and as soon as he heard, he offered to give me his key, so that by not sending for mine, he could save the six dollars […]. An alternative we considered was that I should order mine and wear the pair as earrings. Having rejected that piece of silliness, I have never had a Phi Beta key of my own. [256]


Somewhat later, love has gone, but McCarthy still consents to marry this man, and why? Because he is “bright” in her opinion, and has literary promise:


Though I might be tired of John, it did not affect the awe in which I stood of him. I firmly believed that he was a genius, that he was going to win, first the Pulitzer and then the Nobel Prize, that he had a more than Shavian wit, and finally, to cap it all, I now discovered that he was colossally unhappy. Byronism, Miss Kitchel could have told me, but Byron was always my favorite among the Romantics. [257]

We have all been colossally stupid when young (and later) and now wince at thoughts, quotes, and actions of the past, this is no crime, and is part of the condition humaine: in this critique of McCarthy, I am possibly exorcizing ghosts of my own. Or perhaps even her influence (never strong) on my own young self. Many bright people roaring through careers become enamored of lifestyles of the rich and famous. So, why should one reject this writer for being callow in this way? Because she should know better, because she has read so much, because, as a successful woman writer, she should set an example: because there is something almost provocative about the way she parades the Bad Values of her youth, without making any judgment upon them. Perhaps her world view remained unchanged.

McCarthy quotes Proust, describing Swann as “one who had inherited from a rich and respectable middle-class family the knowledge of the ‘right places’ and the art of ordering things from shops.” [238] But what about Proust? What a snob he was, but what passion, what culture, what esthetic fervor, what sublimation! What metaphysics! Proust pushes one upward to a point beyond his earthly flaws. But in this book McCarthy brings one close to despair. All this “brightness”for what? McCarthy claims that as a consumer her youthful susceptibility to brand names was a “side of myself, which I have not completely shed, however; how can I, as long as knowing concerns me?” [237-238] Earlier, describing the formation of the Group that banded together to get a set of good rooms in senior year, she asks this question which many an angliciste might well retain:


Did nobody ever worry about the effect on a girl from the Northwest of exposure to the contagious disease of snobbery and the New York Social Register? Pehraps my teachers […] considered in my case that the damage had already been done. But it may be too that in their view, social ambition occurred too classically in literature to be regarded as greatly harmful, lying so very close, as it did, to the passion for  excellence, beauty fine ornament, and to the gift of worship. What English major was---or ought to be---free from the vice? [234]


Mary McCarthy was an earnest student of the “overdog,” to quote Robert Lowell’s bon mot (framed in the poem “The Immortals” included in “Notebooks 1967-1968”).   But she was a vocal opponent of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: as her life went on, and even starting soon after the period described in How I Grew, she increasingly used her talent as a power for social good. However, How I Grew describes a period previous to the “radicalization” of Mary McCarthy which eventually made her such an honorable player in the wars of opinion, at key points in recent history, and, without this political flavor, her persona seems sharp but empty. The overdoggery is infuriating. The detail is overwhelming. The self-criticism, when it occurs, is moving. The honesty is admirable. But the huge attention to the tangiblelooks, things, prizes, rankseems frantic. Growth in the sense of change, development, maturity does not appear to be covered in How I Grew.

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