When Gertrude Johnson, the character easily mistaken for Mary McCarthy in Randall Jarrell’s satirical 1954 novel, Pictures From an Institution, ”patted someone on the head you could be sure that the head was about to appear, smoked, in her next novel…(Her readers) could not mention (her) style without using the vocabulary of a salesman of kitchen knives.” It’s true that McCarthy’s reputation belonged in the cutlery department. Incisive, hard-edged, penetrating, cutting were the words for her. When she entered a room, Carol Brightman reminds us in this encyclopedic biography, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World, people froze; it was assumed that ”she had the goods on everybody.”
McCarthy herself remarked upon a grating ”tone of cocksure, condescending cleverness” in the early theater reviews that established her lethal reputation, but she remains one of our best critics — fearless, witty, lucid — and she also wrote two classic, unflinching coming-of-age memoirs (Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew); books on Venice, Florence, and Vietnam; and seven novels, including her one best-seller, The Group. If her manner reminded people of hardware, she needed it, considering the path she took. It led her into and out of the thorny ideological thickets that were the habitat of the New York intellectual in the ’30s and ’40s, when she became known for her puncturing Partisan Review theater pieces and her sexually frank stories. Having divorced the first of her four husbands at the age of 24, she slept industriously around, and having drunkenly allowed herself to be seduced one night by Edmund Wilson, she married him, to her everlasting mystification. Wedding the keen, hard-drinking, truculent critic was like marrying an entire judicial system — judge, jailer, good cop, bad cop, all at once. The battle lasted, with fragile truces and real fisticuffs, eight years (1938-46). Having established that critics, like karate experts, shouldn’t marry each other, she went on to wed wealth and diplomacy, not literature, and live restlessly ever after until her death at 77 in 1989.
Brightman’s book, thick with recapitulated plots and plethoric detail, is elephantine, but also dogged enough to get inside the famous suit of armor, which sometimes turns out to be empty — in moments of crisis McCarthy lost her sense of self as if it were a set of keys. Though the account of her orphaned childhood — ghastly Uncle Myers, the loss of her faith at 12 and her virginity at 14 — will be familiar to readers of the memoirs, Brightman stresses her determination to forge a new identity. Vassar was the alchemist she chose to turn provincial lead to gold — cool, witty detachment, upper-class manners and friends, scholarly and sexual sophistication.
A perfectionist about clothes and domestic rituals, she polished herself into a surface that reflected the defects of everyone else. Brightman notes the snob in the socialist (”For Mary McCarthy, the rich were a tonic”). Her political and cultural judgments could be smug; her fiction, successful as a sort of higher entomology that pinned its wriggling specimens, drawn from life, to the wall, fails, as Brightman says, to respect the mysteries of experience. For McCarthy, ”knowingness was next to godliness,” and knowingness has been the occupational affliction of the New York intellectual, who conceives of life as an argument to be won.
Brightman thinks Stendhal’s Battle of Waterloo episode is in The Red and the Black (it’s in The Charterhouse of Parma), but she’s a sound enough guide to McCarthy’s own fiction and her feuds with Simone de Beauvoir and Lillian Hellman. The book is often shrewd and at the end moving. What emerges from it is something of an anachronism. Self-made aristocratic skeptic, suave, mud- slinging classicist, gossipy critic and satirist, bawdy picaresque adventurer, McCarthy was, at her best, a brisk, fog-dispensing breeze from the age of Pope and Swift. Which is why, in a miasmic, dogmatic age, she was and is, in spite of her chill, so refreshing. B+