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Mary McCarthy’s sexual revolution

Discussed in this essay:

The Complete Fiction, by Mary McCarthy. Library of America. 2,066 pages. $90.

Elaine Blair lives in Los Angeles. Her essay “Note to Self” appeared in the May 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Considering the prevalence of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century, there are surprisingly few stories set in shrinks’ offices. But Mary McCarthy published one in 1942, “Ghostly Father, I Confess.” On the couch is Meg Sargent, a young editor and critic, white, left-wing, bohemian. She’s been sent to Dr. James by her high-handed husband, in whose company, over the several years of their marriage, she has become subdued, compliant, and socially isolated.

Meg has her doubts about these visits. At one point, Dr. James sees her smirking (she’s taking note of his office décor), and asks her what she finds so funny. She answers by launching into a little sketch — based on his clothes, his furniture, his Newsweek subscription — of how she imagines him spending his time:

You see about six plays a year. Your wife makes a list of things that are really worthwhile, and you check them off one by one. You get the tickets well in advance, and you generally take another couple with you. You never go on the spur of the moment; you never take standing room.

She’s warming up now, really getting into it. “You like the movies, and you never miss one the New Yorker recommends.” Come summer, “You commute to your mother-in-law’s place in Larchmont or Riverside” and socialize with the other nice young doctors. She conjures his spouse — “Your wife has a three-quarter-length silver-fox coat and several very dear girl friends” — then heads into a breathless finale about his excellent health and his secret pride in his small feet.

“What makes you so sure of all this?” Dr. James asks when she finally pauses. “I’ve got a good eye for social types,” Meg answers. But she quickly realizes that she’s made a tactical error: he would never tell if she was wrong. “It was like doing an algebra problem and finding that the answers were missing from the back of the book.”

The doctor had warned her about this: “ ‘Your picture of me is very important,’ he said, in his pedagogical manner, ‘Not for what it says about me, but for what it says about you.’ ” Meg has left herself exposed. She begins to cry.

Mary McCarthy, 1956 © Inge Morath/The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

Mary McCarthy, 1956 © Inge Morath/The Inge Morath Foundation/Magnum Photos

“Ghostly Father” became a chapter in McCarthy’s first and best work of fiction, The Company She Keeps, which is being republished alongside her six other novels and a selection of short stories in a new two-volume Library of America edition. McCarthy always said that Meg Sargent was an alter ego, but we don’t need her to tell us this: Meg’s eye for social markers and sardonic wit are clearly shared by her creator. In her essays and criticism as well as her fiction, McCarthy was known for unsparing send-ups of people she knew. She won a place for herself in a mostly male literary world through caustic observations, deployed at cocktail parties as well as in her writing. To her readers she was a glamorous figure, beautiful and apparently fearless. She began her career in the 1930s with book reviews for The Nation and The New Republic, then went on to be the scourge of contemporary theater as a critic for the political and cultural journal Partisan Review. (A Streetcar Named Desire “reeks of literary ambition as the apartment reeks of cheap perfume”; Eugene O’Neill “cannot write.”) She married and divorced early, then lived alone, supporting herself through her writing and happily sleeping around. She started writing fiction in her late twenties at the urging of her second husband, Edmund Wilson, and discovered herself to be, among other things, a comedian of manners. Her friends, and especially the writers and editors who worked on Partisan Review — Dwight Macdonald, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Alfred Kazin, William Philips, and Philip Rahv, with whom she lived openly (still unusual at the time) until abruptly leaving him for Wilson — were McCarthy’s unwilling muses. Some are the subjects of comic sketches in The Company She Keeps. (The high-handed husband is Wilson, who appears even more memorably as the main character Martha Sinnott’s self-regarding ex-husband in the 1955 novel A Charmed Life.) In The Oasis (1949), the whole Partisan Review crowd is caricatured as the founders of a utopian left-wing colony in New England. Rahv threatened to sue.

“What fools McCarthy made of her men!” wrote Vivian Gornick, referring to the male characters in the early stories. Her real-life men seemed to acknowledge as much when they described McCarthy with metaphors of bloodlust and predation. “She had, I thought, a wholly destructive critical mind,” Kazin wrote of McCarthy,

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.

Macdonald spoke of her “sharkish” smile: “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific. When Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.” In Pictures from an Institution, a satirical roman à clef in which a McCarthy-like satirical novelist is the chief villain, Randall Jarrell joked that “torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile.” It was perhaps not just wounded pride that inflamed her critics but the sense that she was going after small game, morally speaking, with a big gun. Who could help having foibles? It was only when she wrote Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), her great memoir about growing up with a cruel aunt and uncle after being orphaned by the 1918 flu epidemic, that McCarthy found the objects appropriately scaled to her satirical gifts.

She did not spare her own fictional stand-ins, like the vulnerable, daring, bright, foolish Meg herself. How telling the analogy of the algebra book: the would-be satirist as a student who wants to have found the right answer and be acknowledged for her cleverness. Poor Meg, caught up short trying to ridicule her impassive shrink. From now on, we can imagine her resolving, she will satirize only the people she knows intimately.

Most of McCarthy’s victims have long since died (of natural causes), and there are few readers alive who could have known her Thirties and Forties social types personally. But while McCarthy’s social and political satire has dated (the Larchmont summer retreat and the three-quarter-length fur coat now signify weakly, if at all), her depiction of sexual manners feels current; aspiring young female professionals still live more or less in McCarthy’s world of boozy dates and ill-considered flings with colleagues. Her real subject was a new independent way of life. She draws out the pleasures and the risks, emotional and financial, of freedom, of leaving home, of divorcing, of living alone.

But it was McCarthy’s frank writing on sex that made her reputation. She was not a particularly sensitive reader as a teenager, she tells us in the memoir How I Grew (1987): “To be truthful, what I was hoping for from books described as modern or daring (and from classical sculpture) was to see the figleaf stripped off sex.” She is obviously not the only young person who read for the dirty parts, but she kept faith with this teenage reader even as an adult writer. The stories and books most beloved by McCarthy’s readers also do away with the fig leaf. And while she was no more explicit in her descriptions of sex than, for instance, her near-contemporary John O’Hara, when she wrote from a female character’s perspective, she had a novelty and authority that no male could match.

In “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” a story that won McCarthy an admiring following when it was published in Partisan Review in 1941, Meg Sargent is on a train from New York to Sacramento. She’s in her mid-twenties and divorced from her first husband. She’s headed out West to tell her aunt that she plans to marry again. A new fiancé is waiting for her in New York, but she’s hoping for a final fling.

When the man in the shirt, middle-aged and porcine, first walks into the club car, she dismisses him as “Out of the Question.” But he’s clearly aware of her, and she’s not completely insensible to his flattering interest. They talk, they go to his compartment for lunch, she finds herself liking his company, they drink, they talk more, they drink more, and then she wakes up the next morning in his berth. With “waves of shame,” she recalls the night before:

They had sung songs . . . and there had been some question of disturbing the other passengers, and so the door had been shut. After that the man had come around to her side of the table and kissed her rather greedily. She had fought him off for a long time, but at length her will had softened. She had felt tired and kind, and thought, why not?

Readers today might view this as sexual assault, but the possibility that the man has done something wrong doesn’t enter the story; Meg questions only her own morality, for having slept with someone even when she wasn’t really attracted to him. Carol Brightman, one of McCarthy’s biographers, argues that it was not until the sexual revolution that sex came to seem “like something men do to women, and that women are henceforth free to ‘do’ to men.” In contrast, McCarthy’s female characters would never think of themselves as less than fully culpable participants in their sexual escapades. McCarthy “is the doyenne of pre-revolutionary sex,” Brightman writes admiringly. “There is no fear of flying in her bedrooms, only of getting caught.”

It’s true that Meg has no fear, but Brightman’s phrase makes the sex sound more fun than it ever actually is in McCarthy’s fiction. McCarthy’s specialty was not lust or love but the mixed motives that lead women to sex in the absence of lust or love. In her life, McCarthy not only did a fair share of sexual adventuring — which she describes in How I Grew and Intellectual Memoirs (1992) — but fell in love several times, most enduringly with her fourth (and last) husband, to whom she was married for nearly thirty years. However, her writing cuts against any romantic exaltation of sex, and perhaps this, too, is what makes it seem current. There remains an abiding interest in female writers taking on female sexuality (Chris Kraus, Rachel Cusk, Lena Dunham), but a great deal of the storytelling energy goes not into stories of lust but into stories of sex that women didn’t particularly want, didn’t like, or decided not to have. In McCarthy’s fiction, sex is neither ecstatic nor expressive of deep feeling. If you read her books without knowing anything about the society in which they were written, it would be hard to figure out why these characters have sex at all.

There’s something obscure in Meg’s account of the night before. What does it mean to say that she “felt tired and kind”? Which was it, a practical capitulation or an act of generosity? In the morning, Meg is desperate to sneak out of the man’s berth and back to her own seat, but it’s not to be. He wakes up and sees her, and declares his love and desire all over again. Soon, she is

hugging the man with an air of warmth that was not quite spurious and not quite sincere (for the distaste could not be smothered but only ignored); she pressed her ten fingers into his back and for the first time kissed him carefully on the mouth.

The glow of self-sacrifice illuminated her. This, she thought decidedly, is going to be the only real act of charity I have ever performed in my life; it will be the only time I have ever given anything when it honestly hurt me to do so.

An act of charity? Do we accept it? Saul Bellow wrote that he remembered reading the story and “coming across those sentences that say in effect: She lay like a piece of white lamb on a sacrificial altar. ‘Bullshit,’ I said.” Meg must have had some desire of her own, Bellow suggests, even if not a specifically sexual one. Why, really, does she do it? Because she doesn’t like the idea of herself as being, as she puts it, “hard as nails”? Because the man’s strong feelings make sex the ethical choice? Because it’s nice to be wanted and admired? Because it’s easier to just go through with sex than to make an awkward, contentious exit? Because it gives her a form of power over him? McCarthy doesn’t quite get to the bottom of Meg’s motives, one feels, but the description of her reasoning seems spot on: Meg finds a half dozen reasons — some plausible, others more like rationalizations — to spend more than twenty-four hours in the man’s berth. Not one of those reasons is that the man turns her on.

“I think it would be indecent to write about happy sex,” McCarthy told Jack Paar in 1963. By then, McCarthy was the best-selling author of The Group, a novel that follows eight members of Vassar’s class of 1933 from graduation to the beginning of the Second World War and spares no details of their sex lives along the way. “You have always found sex comical,” Paar observed. McCarthy explained that it might not be funny to the participants, “but imagine being on the other side of a hotel partition. Sex is either disgusting or comical to people who are not participating.”

In her fiction, the distinction between participant and observer is not so clear. Her female characters often seem to be watching sex as if from behind a partition, amused or puzzled or worried, even while they are having it. In fact, given her reputation as a scathing know-it-all, it’s surprising how often McCarthy writes about women in moments of irresolution and insecurity, women who feel trapped in infantilizing relationships with more powerful men, like Meg in “Ghostly Father,” or women under the sway of stronger personalities or merely conventional thought. “The Weeds,” published in The New Yorker in 1944 and collected in Cast a Cold Eye (1950), is about a wife who’s been trying for months to gather the will to leave her husband.

She remembered all the times she had thought of leaving him before. But there had always been something — the party Saturday night that she did not want to miss, the grapes blue on the vines waiting to be made into jelly, the new sofa for the living room that Macy’s would deliver next week, the man to see about the hot-water heater. And by the time the sofa had come, the man had gone, the jelly had been made, she would no longer be angry with him, or at any rate her anger would have lost its cutting edge and she would have only the dull stone of discontent to turn over and over in her palm.

When she finally checks into a hotel in New York, she finds herself overcome by lassitude, unable to go to an employment agency or call a friend who might help her find a job. She spends days and nights reading the Bible until her husband comes to fetch her in her room. Then she goes back home with him, trading the risks of separation for a more comfortable and familiar war of passive resistance at home.

In these early stories, the sense of entrapment and passivity is psychological; Meg’s shrink speculates that she has unconsciously chosen an overbearing husband to re-create the conditions of her childhood under the care of a cruel aunt. But with The Group, McCarthy seemed to suggest that timidity and vagueness are part of the bourgeois female condition. In her application for a Guggenheim grant, she described The Group’s prose as a deliberately “crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes, and idées recues.” The aim was to capture the prevailing “ideas of the period concerning sex, politics, economics, architecture, city-planning, house-keeping, child-bearing, interior decoration, and art” from the ingenuous perspectives of her young graduates. It’s a Flaubertian project that seems like it should have been a natural extension of McCarthy’s range at a time when she was looking beyond the little world of the literati for subjects.

But The Group didn’t come easily; beginning in the early Fifties, McCarthy struggled with it on and off for more than ten years, scrapping the project several times in frustration. In 1961, she spoke with surprising openness about her troubles. “These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them,” she told The Paris Review. Maybe the problem was time:

How’re they ever going to progress through the twenty years between the inauguration of Roosevelt and the inauguration of Eisenhower? This has been the great problem, and here I haven’t had a form for it. I mean, all I know is that they’re supposed to be middle-aged at the end.

She ended up compressing the scope to just eight years. Finally, with prodding from her publisher, she wrote her way to an ending, and published the book in 1963.

It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. The Group was a novel that actually brought the news to its readers. In her essay “Fact in Fiction,” from 1961, McCarthy writes approvingly of the “blocks and lumps of fact” that define the novel as a form — like Melville’s chapters on the whale and on whiteness in Moby Dick, or Balzac’s chapter in Lost Illusions on how paper is made: “The novel, like newspaper boilerplate, contains not only a miscellany of odd facts but household hints and how-to-do-it instructions.” You could, she pointed out, “learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna Karenina.”

From The Group, readers learned how to get fitted for a diaphragm: the chapter in which one of the girls does so was published as a stand-alone story in Partisan Review in 1954, at a time when it was still hard for many to find information about birth control, much less a psychologically nuanced account of the process from a female character’s perspective.

The book is still a page-turner, a gossipy satirical melodrama told in the voice of collective college-girl wisdom. It opens with a wedding one week after graduation: Kay Petersen, the most bravely bohemian member of the clique, is marrying the man she’s been living with:

According to Helena Davison, Kay’s roommate junior year, the two of them had moved right into a summer sublet, in a nice block in the East Fifties, without a single piece of linen or silver of their own, and had spent the last week, ever since graduation (Helena had just been there and seen it), on the regular tenant’s sublet sheets!

How like Kay, they concluded fondly, as the tale passed along the pews. She had been amazingly altered, they felt, by a course in Animal Behavior she had taken with old Miss Washburn (who had left her brain in her will to Science) during their junior year.

Actually, McCarthy wasn’t sure that the novel was a satire. “The book is not meant to be a joke or even a satire, exactly,” she told the Guggenheim committee. An odd assertion on the face of it — The Group, at its best, certainly reads like satire — but it does point to something ambiguous in the book’s attitude toward its characters: they seem caught between McCarthy’s sympathy and condescension. None of them has anything like the intelligence or the seditious wit of Meg Sargent. They rebel against social convention only if it has already become fashionable to do so. (“Not one of them, if she could help it, was going to marry a broker or a banker or a cold-fish corporation lawyer, like so many in Mother’s generation.”) They rarely formulate an openly critical thought — much less a mordant observation — about the men in their lives. They’re for Roosevelt and the New Deal, but even their politics are a punch line. Priss Crockett, a society girl from a liberal family, marries an overbearing pediatrician, Sloan. After the birth of their son, Stephen, she begins to see that

she might have to defend Stephen against Sloan, and the more so because Sloan was a doctor and therefore had a double authority. She found that she was checking what Sloan said against what the nurses said, against what the Department of Labor pamphlet said, against Parents’ Magazine. When Sloan declared that the baby should sleep in an unheated room, she was amazed to find that the Department of Labor agreed with him; the nursery in the hospital, of course, was heated. There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans — it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby.

There’s something downright prurient about so closely inspecting the inner lives, including the sex lives, of such naïve and muzzy characters. Dottie Renfrew, a pragmatist who has little knowledge about sex, decides to lose her virginity to a handsome rake she meets at Kay’s wedding. But she’s puzzled and embarrassed by the proceedings, until the rake — who’s taken to calling her “Boston” after her home city — fills her in on some crucial information the following morning.

“You came, Boston,” he remarked, with an air of a satisfied instructor. Dottie glanced uncertainly at him; could he mean that thing she had done that she did not like to think about? “I beg your pardon,” she murmured. “I mean you had an orgasm.” Dottie made a vague, still-inquiring noise in her throat; she was pretty sure, now she understood, but the new word discombobulated her.

Is it “ ‘I beg your pardon,’ she murmured”? Or the stealth obscenity of “discombobulated”? Something about the episode seems perilously close to the giddy sexual initiation of pornography. Is this an intentional effect, or did the dark forces of literary cliché slip out of McCarthy’s grasp?

The saddest of the group turns out to be Kay, the character whose biography most closely resembles McCarthy’s. Kay is an outsider from a Western state (McCarthy was born in Seattle), a stranger to the other women’s upper-class social circles. Like McCarthy, she has married an older man, an aspiring playwright, and the relationship starts to deteriorate almost immediately. Her husband, Harald, loses his job as a stagehand, becomes depressed and violent, has an affair with one of her friends, and, after an argument, checks her into a mental ward without her consent. He has by now pretty thoroughly gaslit Kay, and her response to being locked in the ward is to fear that “the thing she had been dreading for five years had happened: he had left her.” Kay’s story (which ends with her dying in a mysterious fall that may be a suicide) is harrowing. Despite the novel’s chatty surface and its reputation for gossipy fun, The Group is an unsettling tableau of female accommodation and self-effacement, of the mysterious pliancy of ruling-class wives and daughters. Though it’s set in the 1930s, it may be better understood as speaking to the conservatism and the exaggerated cult of domesticity of the 1950s. McCarthy never embraced feminism, but she did say that the one feminist she approved of was Betty Friedan. The Feminine Mystique came out the same year as The Group, and it, too, portrayed educated young women’s consciousness as infiltrated and dulled by the voices of experts, women’s glossies, and social convention.

The Group stands as the last of McCarthy’s books to be inspired by her circle of friends or drawn closely from her own experience. There were no more Meg Sargents or Martha Sinnotts or even Kay Petersens in McCarthy’s fiction. Novelists are of course not required to have autobiographical characters, but McCarthy did not find solid footing in any other approach; her last two novels, Birds of America (about an intellectually precocious male college student who becomes concerned with environmental conservation) and Cannibals and Missionaries (about a group of airline passengers whose plane gets hijacked by a terrorist), have a faded topicality; their social observations and satirical barbs are depressingly inert. McCarthy’s life and novels diverged at just the time that writers such as John Updike and Philip Roth were discovering the uses of serial fictional avatars, enlarging a single autobiographical character over many novels. A reader today might regret that McCarthy’s characters didn’t age with her, that she didn’t go deeper inward; it seems, somehow, a near miss. We could say of her what she observed, in “Fact in Fiction,” of some of the great writers of the first half of the twentieth century: that in spite of their achievement, in the middle of their work there seems to be “a void, a blank space reserved for the novel they failed to write.”

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