U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Something About Mary McCarthy: An Initial Bibliography

Mary McCarthy — or at least conversations about her — will make a cameo appearance in my dissertation.  What does Mary McCarthy have to do with the canon wars at Stanford?  That’s an interesting story (for me, anyhow), and I think it will make for an interesting chapter.  In the meantime, I have been puzzling over a different but somewhat related problem.

It has seemed to me that Mary McCarthy often makes “cameo appearances” in scholarly works about the New York intellectuals as a group or as individuals.  She shows up here and there in Jumonville’s Critical Crossings, and she is one of the few heroes in Pells’s The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age.  But her fiction and non-fiction writing have not received the same level of scholarly attention that intellectual historians have accorded to other members of the various circles to which she belonged or to other works arising from the various moments from and to which she spoke. Or so it has seemed to me.

In 1963, Mary McCarthy published The Group — the same year in which Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time.  I haven’t been able to ascertain whether Arendt’s book made the NYT bestseller list that year, but the other three did, and stayed on it for weeks at a time.  McCarthy’s book was on the list for over a year.  In any case, 1963 was a good year for big books, texts that intellectual historians (and others) continue to look to in order to unpack the ideational currents swirling through the culture.

The oeuvre of McCarthy — a considerable amount published and unpublished writing that spanned decades and genres and various political positions and persuasions, and four marriages, and lots and lots of social rivalries and scandals and intrigues — seems like it might provide a fairly rich resource for looking at how ideas moved through a much broader and perhaps more diverse readership than most of McCarthy’s fellow New York intellectuals generally managed to reach.  But it seems to me that McCarthy’s work has been an underutilized resource, and I’m not altogether sure why.

This is not a question I can answer for myself or anyone else at present, because dissertation! But I asked readers of my blog to help me compile a list of works that devote significant space to Mary McCarthy’s work, because this is a question that I’d like to come back to later.  Here is the reading list we have come up with so far.  As soon as I can, I plan to take a look at the books by Abrams, Keyser and Schreyer — they look like an interesting place to start.  In the meantime, I invite our readers here to add their own suggestions in the comments to this post.


Abrams, Sabrina Fuchs.  Mary McCarthy: Gender, Politics, and the Postwar Intellectual. Modern American Literature. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2004.

Ackerman, Alan L. Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Bennet, Joy, and Hochmann, Gabriella. Mary McCarthy: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992.

Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Random House, 1992.

Keyser, Katherine. Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture.  The American Literatures Initiative.  Piscataway, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2010 (paperback, 2011).

Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Laskin, David.  Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal among the New York Intellectuals Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Ring, Jennifer. The Political Consequences of Thinking: Gender and Judaism in the Work of Hannah Arendt. SUNY Series in Political Theory.  Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Saunders, Frances Stonor.  The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. New York: New Press, 2000.

Schryer, Stephen.  Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Stwertka, Eve, et. al. Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarty. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.

Teres, Harvey M. Renewing the Left: Politics, Imagination, and the New York Intellectuals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wald, Alan.  The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s.  Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. An interesting post, LD, that raises a very interesting question! McCarthy has certainly not faded into obscurity. Everyone (well not everyone, but the kind of people who read this blog) knows her name, that she was a New York Intellectual, that she had a feud with Lillian Hellman (that produced one of the 20th century’s most famous literary insults). My guess is that most of us have probably read something by her. But, as you say, she hasn’t gotten as much attention as one might expect. And, like you, I’m not really sure why.

  2. Ah, but that’s just it, Paul. Many scholars have looked at McCarthy in passing in order to illuminate some aspect or another of the company she kept — an acerbic aside here, a bit of colorful gossip there. She is a background figure, part of the social milieu — the hostess with the meanest mostest. But I have a feeling — just a hunch at this point — that that approach is missing something.

    BTW, I recently picked up The Company She Keeps — the first fiction I’ve read “for fun” in a long time — and am a couple of chapters/stories into that. I had been reading the Brightman bio, and Brightman kept pointing out the heavy autobiographical work of this first collection of stories (and of most/all of MMc’s writing more generally), so I thought I’d better put down the bio and read the stories first to avoid spoilers — though I suppose that could work either way, come to think of it. But I don’t have time to do that all the way through the Brightman bio. Heck, I don’t even have time for the Brightman bio now.

    However, FWIW, I hadn’t realized how much of an intellectual historian in mindset I had become until I started reading this biography. It’s well-researched, well-written, and seems to be doing a fairly good job of telling the story of a life. But the frame is all wrong. It’s not that I want to really understand Mary McCarthy — it’s that I want to see if Mary McCarthy can help me really understand problem X, or era Y. And the exigencies of traditional biography seem to me to work at cross purposes to the exigencies of intellectual history. They’re pulling in two different directions. I have grasped that difference in theory, but this is the first time I’ve really confronted it in practice. That’s certainly not to say that there’s no place in intellectual history for the biographical — just that the biographical seems so insufficient, or so unsatisfying, on its own.

  3. Mary McCarthy has hardly been a neglected figure, though, as you say, the work on her is heavily biographical: three full, fat biographies (Brightman, Gelderman, and Kiernan), her correspondence with Hannah Arendt (Between Friends), a prominent role in Margarethe von Trotta’s recent film, Hannah Arendt. Vanity Fair recently had a long article marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Group. Biographically speaking, one could well say that the relative attention paid to McCarthy among the New York Intellectuals is disproportionate.

    McCarthy herself is partly responsible for the great interest in her biography. Many of her novels are romans à clef, not only The Group but, at least, The Oasis, The Groves of Academe, and several of the chapters/stories in The Company She Keeps. She invited often (but not always) misplaced efforts to read them simply as transcriptions of her own experience. (Witness, for example, the lively speculation in her circle as to which of her lovers was “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” or the model for “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man”). Apart from The Group, I would guess that the most-read of McCarthy’s books is the first of her autobiographies, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood—which was followed by two others (much less fine), taking the story up to 1938.

    That said, it would be well if we took her more seriously as an intellectual, as you suggest, and try to see what she might tell us about her moment. After all, she thought of herself as a “novelist of ideas” (see her Northcliffe Lectures, Ideas and the Novel). And she was a superb critic and reporter (see her stuff on the War in Vietnam and Watergate—Medina, The Seventeenth Degree, and The Mask of State). A good place to begin with this side of her work is a nice collection of her essays (A Bolt from the Blue) edited by A.O. Scott (the NY Times film critic). You might also enjoy the appreciative essay evoked by this volume by historical novelist Thomas Mallon (who apparently wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on McCarthy) in the Atlantic (November 2002). My own view is that her importance lies in her role as a moralist—a role that, I would say, guides both her fiction and non-fiction. And she merits more than a cameo appearance in the history of the twentieth-century American moral imagination. I wish I had a nickel for every time I have quoted her eviscerating review of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. She could be equally hard on herself: see her reflections on her disastrous choice of Edmund Wilson over Philip Rahv in 1938 (in Intellectual Memoirs) and her worry that Rahv lost the tenderness so evident in their relationship “after what I did to his childlike heart.” Like Mallon, I think one can say of her what she said of Rahv: if no two people are alike, she was less like anybody else than anybody. I have long kept a portrait of her on a wall in my office.

  4. Robert, thanks so much for the excellent reading suggestions and the astute reflections on the drift to the biographical — a drift that McCarthy encouraged, and a current on which she drifted. The over-layered autobiographies are peculiar in an interesting way. And I found it amusing that in her last decade McCarthy granted (at least?) two different biographers — Brightman and Gelderman — access to her personal papers and did extensive interviews with both of them. She was not authorizing a life, but only versions of it.

    I have read Mask of State, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and The Group, but that was a while back, and I wasn’t reading them with my intellectual history goggles on.

    But it seems to me that you are right about McCarthy as moral critic. I’m sure others have pointed out that Memories stands up very well as a moral alternative, and a moral/intellectual rebuke, to Whittaker Chambers’ Witness and other ex-Communist “confessionals.”

    I guess the moralism of the cultural critic is a kind of love — at least, it is a kind of passion for ideals, for absolutes, whether the ideals relate to aesthetic excellence or logical coherence or the insistence on unflinching honesty or some other possible measure of the good, beautiful and true. But it can be a cold kind of love, and one of the things that might be disconcerting about McCarthy is that instead of compensating for that coolness or insulating herself or her readers from it, she just channels the polar vortex right onto the page. “Bracing” might be one word for her authorial voice.

    • “Bracing” is apt, if probably too kind. Just as Alfred Kazin’s famous characterization (“”a wholly destructive critical mind, shown in her unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person. To this weakness she instinctively leaped with cries of pleasure — surprised that her victim, as he lay torn and bleeding, did not applaud her perspicacity”) is perhaps too harsh. But you are right; MMc put unvarnished truth as she saw it first, pulled no punches, and usually left blood on the floor. The kind of intellectual you love to have on your side (as Arendt attested in the midst of the Eichmann controversy), and hate to go up against. She had a lovely smile, but, as Dwight Macdonald said, ”When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.”

      Hers then, as you imply, is something of a cautionary tale. But one has to wonder whether she would have been subject to the same sort of criticism had she been a he (do we have a male equivalent for “bitch”?). Her cold ferocity (the polar vortex simile is great) came at a price (to her as well as her adversaries). Still we, our culture, is lucky to have had her.

      Incidentally, I think “moralism” (as in “moralizing”) is the temptation but not necessarily the fate of the moralist. Nor need the moralist subscribe to “absolutes.” Which is not to say McCarthy was innocent of either. Hope you do write about her.

  5. One thing that, it occurs to me, may also somewhat have turned McCarthy aside for some intellectual historians is the fact that she was, as you point out, a very successful novelist (unlike Trilling. Her absence in intellectual histories may (in addition to the reasons already mentioned) be due to the rather customary assignment of the responsibility for successful novelists to English departments, and indeed most of the meatier work done on her has been done by lit scholars. Elizabeth Hardwick is, I think, a similar case, although she has not had even the attention McCarthy has received.

    I have also been trying in my own work, though, to account for the way that women were, in these primarily NY-centered circles of intellectuals and writers from the 30s through the 50s, cast primarily as hostesses, as you say, and in a way that didn’t so much minimize their own intellectual work (which was often reviewed appreciatively, and, correspondence indicates, was actually read by the men) as it separated that work from the way male writers thought of “the moment” and “the scene,” perhaps because few men thought of any woman as a “rival” in a genuine sense.

    Tess Slesinger’s novel “The Unpossessed” deals with this, I believe, although I have yet to read it. And, fwiw, gay men (e.g., Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler) could also some times occupy this host/facilitator role–the person at whose apartment the parties were held, not the persons the parties were held for.

  6. Andrew, thanks for the comment — I am so glad you brought up Trilling specifically. The Middle of the Journey gets a lot of play, but I think it would play differently, or more interestingly, or more richly, if it was read more often alongside some of McCarthy’s romans à clef.

    Your observations about how gender may have worked in establishing reputations/hierarchies of importance among the NY intellectuals seem on the mark to me. What’s interesting is the extent to which scholarship on the NYI might still be unfolding from within their frameworks or reflecting rather than interrogating their critical judgments.

    The connection between hospitality and intellectual discourse — and/or the assumed and generally gendered division of labor between these two (to me) very related pursuits — this is also really intriguing. It’s a lot easier to show up, live the “moment,” and be part of the “scene” if it’s not on you to make sure that everybody has what they want to drink, the food is good and there’s plenty of it, there’s toilet paper in the guest bathroom, nobody steps on the busted glass in the kitchen, etc., etc. So the women and the gay men (reminded of Genter’s great book here) were throwing these great parties, where everyone had a marvelous time, darling, and they were also taking part in the exhilarating intellectual back-and-forth of the conversation? Like Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, I guess — everything you can do, Norman Mailer, but backwards and in high heels.

    While I’m on the subject of hospitality, let me take this opportunity (which I should have done in the OP — my deepest apologies!), to thank you and my other interlocutors on Facebook and on my own blog for showing such hospitality and collegiality in kindly taking up my inquiry about Mary McCarthy.

    So thanks much to these folks who suggested titles for this bibliography: Andrew Seal, Peter Ginna, Rachel Hermann, and Ronnie Grinberg.

    • Thanks! I think your point about the scholarship on the NYI (my first thought was New York Islanders, which may suggest some tarnish on my USIH credentials) reflecting rather than interrogating their frameworks and judgments is also my general feeling, although I can also see how difficult it would be to write without succumbing in part to their self-mythology.

  7. I’m excited to see where this goes, L.D.

    Other women New York intellectuals have also been overlooked: McCarthy, but also Diana Trilling, Elizabeth Hardwick, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb (to name just a few). They all deserve more attention–for their contributions to twentieth century intellectual thought, culture, and politics (neoconservatism in the case of the later two) but also in terms of understanding how gender intersects with intellectual history.

  8. I’m not terribly familiar with Mary McCarthy’s work, but I think that maybe she be understood as representative of another American ethnic minority – American Catholics and especially American Irish Catholics – coming of age as a postwar critical force. This might be a helpful way of looking at her relationship with Jewish-Americans like the Trillings. It would be an interesting literary-history project to trace McCarthy’s influence on other Irish Catholic(-ish) American writers like Flannery O’Connor, John Patrick Shanley, Alice McDermott, Caitlin Flanagan…

  9. Ronnie Grinberg:
    Other women New York intellectuals have also been overlooked: McCarthy, but also Diana Trilling, Elizabeth Hardwick, Midge Decter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb (to name just a few).

    As Robert Westbrook’s comments above suggest w/r/t McCarthy, I think “overlooked,” even if you just mean “by intellectual historians,” is maybe too strong a word. Just the other day I was browsing a magazine rack in a bookstore and came across an essay by a young historian of neoconservativism about Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb (it’s in Nat’l Affairs, Winter 2014). Just now I was able to locate the piece online: link.

    I do have a separate question about McCarthy: is there any connection between her and the late columnist Mary McGrory, apart from similar names and roughly similar (I assume) generations? Btw, I saw von Trotta’s Arendt movie, and the portrayal of McCarthy was excellent I thought, in the sense of memorable (I forget the actress’s name offhand).

  10. I can’t wait to read your dissertation. It should come as little surprise that I love McCarthy without many reservations or hesitations. I wish I had known earlier about your query and I would have tried to pitch in and help. Rereading that famous Kazin quote is funny because, well I like Kazin of course, but I think McCarthy is the more original thinker of the two if that is not too naive a way of putting it. I think Kazin was partly jealous of her talents. I think the whole issue over the biographical in criticism and in art is compromised by the fact that the gender bias of that period was substantial and implicit in that were al whole host of dubious ideas and ideals about objectivity and suspicion of “the personal”. Not that objectivity itself is an illusion, but that a consistent favoring of it such to the extent that a “biographical turn” gets slighted or seen as less serious was (is?) a problem.

  11. Thanks all for the comments.

    Ronnie, tell us more…

    Margaret, my understanding is that the Abrams book (which I have on order) argues that McCarthy’s experience/identity as an Irish Catholic among the mostly Jewish New York Intellectuals — an outsider among the outsiders who were insiders — was significant for the development of her critical vision and her ironic style. I don’t know how/whether Abrams fits that into the kind of shifts explored and exemplified by Will Herberg at midcentury, but it’s an interesting idea. I did read (I think fairly early in the Brightman bio) that many Catholics who bought McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood were expecting a sort of testimonial or affirmation of the faith. They were unpleasantly surprised.

    LFC, that’s an interesting question about the two Marys. McGrory’s google/Wikipedia presence is much slimmer than McCarthy’s, but it is interesting to see how some of their work ran parallel in later years — Vietnam and Watergate. Though I guess if you were a cultural critic in the 60s and 70s, how would you not talk about those things? Interestingly, McCarthy and McGrory are named together in the acknowledgments pages of two very different books (or at least two books about very different McCarthys): Richard Rovere’s Senator Joe McCarthy and Arthur Herzog’s McCarthy For President.

    And Mitch, bless your heart. “I can’t wait to read your dissertation.” That’s very encouraging, but also a tiny bit intimidating.

    So I had better get back to work! In honor of all these Marys — and all the 80s — here’s a song for the day.

      • Yeah, I know — I get it. After I put the comment up, I noticed that I used the word “interesting” three times in three sentences. (Not to mention that I’d already used it three times in the damn OP.) Terrible stylistic tic. Time to banish that word for a while.

  12. @L.D.:
    To be honest, I hadn’t noticed, though I’m sometimes sensitive to things like that. It seems to me that you lavish more care and attention on the style of your blog posts than most bloggers, so I wouldn’t worry too much about a stylistic tic or two. Anyone reading my blog looking for stylistic tics would probably have a field day.

    • What an encouraging thing to say, and what an encouraging thing to read after a long day at the keyboard. Thank you.

      This talk of tics reminded me of this poem which has a lot to say about writing but is really more about living.

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