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Reviews — From the April 2017 issue

Behind the Fig Leaf

Mary McCarthy’s sexual revolution

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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.

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