Catholic readers know the story cold. As a young writer, Flannery O’Connor accompanied Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick to a dinner party hosted by Mary McCarthy, a distinguished critic, novelist, and (in O’Connor’s barbed phrase) “Big Intellectual.” An outsider among the New York literati, O’Connor observed the proceedings in silence, “there being nothing in such company for me to say.” McCarthy, a former Catholic with a convent education, mentioned her loss of faith at age fifteen, an event she would later recount in her memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. The evening took a sharp turn, as O’Connor recounts:
Well, toward the morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most “portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
The anecdote has stuck. Mildly shocking, it declares that a purely symbolic Eucharist would be a terrible fraud, signifying hope it cannot deliver. A “pretty good” symbol might occasion interesting discussion among educated people, but it would be cruelly inadequate to the infernal world O’Connor envisions.
We remember the anecdote also because it involves a legendary American writer, namely O’Connor. McCarthy’s fame, in comparison, was always narrower and has declined in posterity. In my experience, most people who repeat the dinner party anecdote cannot name a single McCarthy title—not even The Group, which spent two years on the bestseller list. Her Wikipedia page (one measure of public memory) says more about her televised feud with Lillian Hellman than about her published work. Even so, The Library of America has dedicated two volumes to McCarthy this year, acknowledging her place in the nation’s literary canon. This event gives readers an opportunity to learn more about the other writer at that famous dinner party.
McCarthy was born in Seattle and raised partly in Minneapolis after her parents died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. After a difficult childhood, she moved east in 1929 to study literature at Vassar. Arriving in New York, she found her place in the city’s fractious bohemian subculture, centered at that time on a cluster of left-wing magazines: The Nation, The New Republic, and Partisan Review. There she rose through the ranks and made her name as an unsparing critic, passing judgment on books and theater with brisk authority. Her clear, balanced prose cut through any subject she approached with classical severity. McCarthy would later recall the “mysterious aristocratic punctilio” of her Seattle convent school, an intoxicating blend of austerity, high culture, and Old World pomp. Her writing, with its strict clarity and broad cultural range, preserves an echo of that rarified atmosphere.
She also took from her religious training a confessional impulse, on display in three memoirs and her debut work of fiction, The Company She Keeps. Presented as a novel, the book is really a collection of short stories revolving around Margaret Sargent, a lightly fictionalized version of McCarthy. Edmund Wilson, McCarthy’s second husband, had urged her to write fiction, and the resulting work (which won praise from Vladimir Nabokov) offers a glimpse of bohemian life in 1930s New York. The third chapter surprised readers with its sexual frankness when it appeared as a short story in Partisan Review, but candor defines her approach to every subject, including society, politics, and psychoanalysis. The intellectuals who appear in the book, based on McCarthy’s friends and lovers, stand awkwardly suspended between the rival titans Marx and Freud. Like McCarthy and the editors of Partisan Review, Margaret identifies as a Trotskyist. McCarthy’s male peers regarded her as politically unserious, a mere aesthete, and that seems partly true of her fictional counterpart. In the fourth chapter, Margaret shatters a dinner party’s genteel mood to decry the death of Andrés Nin—killed, she believes, by the Soviets. But her motive has little to do with Trotsky or Nin. Instead, she acts from disgust with her self-satisfied host (“a foolish, dull man”) and his cozy gathering. To break with them and regain self-respect, she hurls a profane denunciation at another guest, using words she once heard from a pulpit. Now the center of attention, she trembles with the thrill of rebellion. Triumph turns to shame, however, when the host describes her fondly as “a violent Trotskyist,” thus restoring her to grace. “You knew that you were not a violent Trotskyist,” declares the second-person narrator, the chiding voice of conscience. “It was just that you were temperamentally attracted to unpopular causes.” The parallel with O’Connor’s outburst years later is striking, though no one doubts that O’Connor spoke in earnest.
In the final chapter, psychoanalysis likewise receives an acidic treatment. The story’s title, “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” draws an explicit connection between Margaret’s Catholic upbringing and her penchant for self-scrutiny, conducted now on the psychologist’s couch. In this secular examen, she sifts the past in search of clues to her present confusion. Afterwards, reeling on the street, she does not fall back on Marx or Freud to explain her crippling self-alienation; she reaches instead for Catullus, compressing her anguish into a short Latin prayer: “O di … reddite me in hoc pro pietate mea.” Her piety is a desperate but empty gesture—another symbol devoid of content, another piece of culture uprooted from cult. The old gods, like the new, can neither offer direction nor salve her wounded conscience.
McCarthy followed The Company She Keeps with The Oasis, which accompanies a ragtag group of intellectuals and misfits to a mountaintop retreat for an experiment in collective living. This novella takes the form of an essay or report, a merging of styles that reappears in “A Friend of the Family,” one of several short stories in Cast a Cold Eye. McCarthy signals the likely failure of the experiment in the opening pages, describing the participants as “ordinary people of ordinary B-plus morality,” with competing ideals and expectations. Moral mediocrity, rather than political division, ultimately dooms the project, a failure McCarthy pinpoints with characteristic precision: “a man can live without self-respect, but a group shatters, dispersed by the ugliness it sees reflected in itself.” The Groves of Academe turns a satirical eye on academic politics in the age of the Red Scare. Learning that his position at a progressive college will be terminated, Henry Mulcahy exploits liberal guilt to deflect attention from his professional failures. Posing as a victim of an anti-communist witch-hunt (and invoking his wife’s fragile health), he marshals support to save his job but reveals his squalid character. McCarthy emerges in her fiction as a moralist, and friends who recognized themselves in her work (Philip Rahv in The Oasis, Edmund Wilson in A Charmed Life, her Vassar classmates in The Group) naturally bridled at her judgments.
McCarthy’s focus on personal moral failure does not square with Marxism, which demands systemic analysis. Again, her Trotskyism seems more temperamental than ideological. In any case, political commitments reveal something about the people holding them even when they give little insight into the world. “Scratch a socialist,” she declares, “and you find a snob.” This is a judgment of character, not of social structures. Similarly, her peers at Partisan Review (the snobs in question) did not hew to a strict party line, at least not in practice. Known retrospectively as The New York Intellectuals, this group retains a fascination that has little to do with factional politics. What distinguished Partisan Review was its devotion to cultural standards. The cultural pages enjoyed an autonomy not allowed in Marx’s totalizing system, but this inconsistency did not trouble the editors; only a philistine (i.e., an actual Marxist) would grant politics a veto in matters of taste.
McCarthy thrived in the smart world of little magazines. Her strengths as a critic, however, do not translate well to fiction. Her pitiless gaze, useful for critique, kills her characters on sight. In The Groves of Academe, McCarthy says of one character: “Her forte was not original thought but the ability to return someone else’s suggestion fully made up and labeled, like a pharmacist’s compound.” McCarthy plucks people from life and wheels them out in her novels, with a full autopsy report. They lie dead on the page, awaiting the author’s scalpel, before ever engaging our interest. The short stories fare better, from the stories of The Company She Keeps to “The Cicerone,” a Jamesian tale of Americans in Europe that features a biting portrait of Peggy Guggenheim. But McCarthy’s best work does not appear in these volumes, and readers would do well to seek out her essays, her correspondence with Hannah Arendt, and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, a justly celebrated memoir. With several exceptions, her wit and command of language elevate her nonfiction to the first rank, where it awaits another generation of readers.
Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.