Frances Kiernan’s biography Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy helps us see Mary McCarthy again, and maybe, for many readers, for the first time. Today McCarthy is best known for her novel The Group and her memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. But she wrote 20 books, including the revolutionary short story collection The Company She Keeps, as well as essays, investigative journalism, theater criticism and travel books. Born in 1912 and active until her death in 1989, McCarthy engaged with the fascinating characters of her day—critic Edmund Wilson, philosopher Hannah Arendt, art historian Bernard Berenson, novelist Norman Mailer, writer Elizabeth Hardwick and poet Robert Lowell to name just a few. Kiernan interviewed over 200 people for this book—writers of McCarthy’s generation and the next, friends, enemies, relatives, critics. In part an oral history, the biography comprises not only McCarthy’s fascinating life and important writing, but it is also a commentary of her time, spoken by the characters who made it so lively. The company McCarthy kept and the political and aesthetic debates she participated in—her involvement with the Partisan Review crowd, making a stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy, defending Hannah Arendt’s controversialEichmann in Jerusalem, and writing authoritatively against the Vietnam War—educate us about this intriguing, tumultuous period. Kiernan evokes a figure who’s both larger-than-life and vulnerable, and reminds us that Mary McCarthy’s brilliance, exquisite use of language, and fierce observations make her one of America’s most stimulating and pleasurable writers.
Lynne Tillman Why did you decide to write a biography about Mary McCarthy?
Frances Kiernan I read The Group in college and loved it, but it wasn’t until I read Memories of a Catholic Girlhood in my thirties that she became a figure for me—I am not a Catholic and her childhood world was very different from mine. A little later, I was Elizabeth Hardwick’s editor atThe New Yorker, and she talked a bit about Mary McCarthy. This was in the early 1980s, during Lillian Hellman’s lawsuit [McCarthy said on TV, “Every word Hellman wrote was a lie including and and the.” Hellman sued; the suit dragged on until Hellman died.] But Mary McCarthy was still a remote figure. I left The New Yorker in ‘87, went to Houghton Mifflin, and inherited a writer named Thomas Mallon. McCarthy was a great supporter of his early work, he’d read everything she’d written and loved her writing. They became friends, so I’d hear about her. I heard about his visit to the hospital when she was dying. It was upsetting, the way it can be if you have a friend who’s close to someone, and you begin to feel you know them too. So there was a sense of real loss when she died. Around the same time, I wrote a piece on publishing and got a call from an agent who said, “I know you’re half-Southern and I think you should do a book on Eudora Welty.” Out of my mouth flew the words, “No, I couldn’t. She’s too private. But I could do a book on Mary McCarthy.”
LT McCarthy wrote important fiction and nonfiction, was read by everyone, but today her work isn’t read much and is viewed ambivalently. She isn’t read like a Bellow or Mailer—Mailer especially. Mailer did much of what she did—
FK And admired her early stories. Maureen Howard suggested to me that part of the problem was that McCarthy was not embraced by the feminists. In fact, she was on record as having no use for feminism. In that way she was very much of her generation. Lillian Hellman, Doris Lessing had no use for it, but they’re taken more seriously. Hellman isn’t now; but she was at one point.
LT In the biography, Maureen Howard explains, “Partially in the early ‘60s, having performed so well on their own, they did not want to be associated with the disenfranchised.” Doris Lessing has lived longer and continued writing past the ‘70s.
FK Mary’s best fiction writing ended in the late ‘50s. The best parts of The Group were written in 1954. After that, a lot of her energy went into criticism and reporting.
LT Like her work on Vietnam and Watergate.
FK The Mask of State is terrific, the portraits so vivid; she was dead-on. I ran into Nixon’s special counsel, Leonard Garment, who said she was the one person who got it right.
LT She was also right that McCarthyism was more dangerous than the so-called Stalinist threat.
FK She just about always had the right position. The one time she was way off was about the prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Robinson Risner. She went out of her way to attack him. He’s just helpless, like a little bug she’s squashing. Renata Adler once said to me that Mary always attacked equals. That’s why you couldn’t get that angry with her. But Risner was the one time she didn’t. Mary was right that the war had to end, she was right about the South. She’s so right that when she goes wrong you’re taken aback. But she’s toughest on herself. When she collected all her Vietnam writing in The Seventeenth Degree, she wrote in her introduction about a dream—and she’s not a great believer in dreams—in which she’s lost and can’t find her way out. She begins to think that maybe she didn’t get it all quite right.
LT In A Charmed Life McCarthy wrote, “Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party.” She was orphaned at the age of six, she’d suffered and been victimized by a sadistic uncle. She may have thought feminism was about victimization, not gender inequity, for instance.
FK Eileen Simpson says something about that. When they’re introduced as fellow orphans, Mary wanted nothing to do with Eileen. An orphan is not what she wanted to be in this life.
Mary McCarthy, Bocca di Magra, Italy, ca. 1964. Photo courtesy of William Mostyn-Owen.