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Mary McCarthy's Italy PDF Free Download

October 26, 1989

Mary McCarthy, 77, Is Dead; Novelist, Memoirist and Critic
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  2. Mary McCarthy's The Group is a sharply-pointed satire of upper-class New England society which follows the post-college lives of eight Vassar graduates, class of '33. Helena was registered for Vassar at birth; Pokey forged her mother's signature on her college application in defiance of the family tradition of 'being dim-witted and vain of it.'

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ary McCarthy, one of America's pre-eminent women of letters, died of cancer yesterday at New York Hospital. She was 77 years old and lived in Castine, Me., and Paris.

In her long and prolific career as a novelist, memoirist, journalist and critic, Miss McCarthy earned recognition for her cool, analytic intelligence and her exacting literary voice - a voice capable of moving from the frivolously feminine to the willfully cerebral, from girlish insouciance to bare-knuckled fury.

In 1984, she was awarded both the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contributions to literature and the National Medal for Literature.

'A Subversive Soul'

'If there were any real ancestor among American women for Mary McCarthy it might be Margaret Fuller,' the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, a friend, once observed, referring to the 19th-century American editor, essayist, poet, teacher and translator. 'Both women have will power, confidence and a subversive soul sustained by exceptional energy.'

Miss McCarthy's accounts of sexual shenanigans in 'The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt' in 1941 and 'The Group' in 1963 created something of an uproar when they first appeared. But her notoriety in literary circles stemmed less from the scandal quotient of her fiction than from her adversarial literary and political stands. She had celebrated public skirmishes with Philip Rahv, Diana Trilling and Lillian Hellman; issued vitriolic pronouncements on Watergate and the Vietnam War, and became known for the ferocity of her book and theater reviews.


Perverse Opinions

At their worst, those reviews pointed up Miss McCarthy's weakness for catchy one-liners and her taste for willfully perverse opinions. Of Tennessee Williams's 'Streetcar Named Desire' she wrote, 'His work reeks of literary ambition as the apartment reeks of cheap perfume,' and of Eugene O'Neill and 'The Iceman Cometh' she declared, 'He is probably the only man in the world who is still laughing at the Iceman joke or pondering its implications.'

Yet at her best (as in 'The Stones of Florence') Miss McCarthy was an erudite cultural historian, using her familiarity with history, politics and the arts - and the application of some plain old-fashioned common sense -to draw surprising connections and to make her readers reconsider their preconceptions.

'A career of candor and dissent is not an easy one for a woman; the license is jarring and the dare often forbidding,' Ms. Hardwick said. 'Such a person needs more than confidence and indignation. A great measure of personal attractiveness and a high degree of romantic singularity are necessary to step free of the mundane, the governessy, the threat of earnestness and dryness. Moderating influences are essential.'

In the case of Miss McCarthy, she said, 'the purity of style and the liniment of her wit, her gay summoning of the funny facts of everyday life, soften the scandal of the action or the courage of the opinion.'

To Robert Lowell, Miss McCarthy was 'our Diana, rash to awkwardness,' blurting 'ice clear' sentences above the 'mundane gossip and still more mundane virtue' of her colleagues. To Alfred Kazin, she was the owner of 'a wholly destructive critical mind,' a critic with an 'unerring ability to spot the hidden weakness or inconsistency in any literary effort and every person.' And to Norman Mailer, she was 'our First Lady of Letters' -'our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc.'

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Heroines Were Self-Portraits


The most tireless mythologizer of her life, however, remained Miss McCarthy herself. There were her memoirs: 'Memories of a Catholic Girlhood' (1957), the beautifully observed portrait of her painful youth, and the later, more workmanlike 'How I Grew,' published in 1987. In addition, the heroines in Miss McCarthy's fiction form a sort of continuing portrait of the author: Meg in 'The Company She Keeps' (1942), the clever Vassar girl, 'a princess among the trolls'; Martha, 'the bohemian lady' in 'A Charmed Life' (1955), whose need to 'tell the truth' continually gets her into trouble; Kay, the skeptical iconoclast in 'The Group' (1963), and Rosamund, the esthetic mother figure in 'Birds of America' (1971).

These novels also included sharp-edged portraits of many of Miss McCarthy's friends and lovers: her second husband, the critic Edmund Wilson, was portrayed as a loud, unappealing intellectual in 'A Charmed Life'; and Rahv, her roommate and mentor as editor of The Partisan Review, turned up in 'The Oasis' (1949).

Yet if Miss McCarthy's novels often read like thinly disguised exercises in autobiography, they also attempted to provide an idiosyncratic chronicle of American life - at least within her own intellectual set - as it changed over some five decades. Sexual freedom in the 1930's, radicalism in the 40's and 50's, Vietnam and the social upheavals of the 60's, Watergate and terrorism in the 70's - these are the larger issues that flicker in the background of the novels.

Fiction Was Difficult

There is a certain didacticism to these books, a feeling of willed creation, and Miss McCarthy herself acknowledged that she found it considerably more difficult to write fiction than essays or reviews.

Each novel, she once said, had its genesis with an idea. 'Birds of America,' which chronicled the coming of age of a teen-age ornithologist, was meant to be 'a novel about the idea of equality and its relation to nature'. 'The Groves of Academe' (1952), a satiric portrait of a scheming scholar and his colleagues, was intended to address the question 'Where is the justice for an impossible person?' 'The Group,' a chatty gossip sheet about the lives of eight Vassar women, was conceived as a study of the illusory idea of social and political progress that captivated so many young people in the 1930's.

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That last novel, which brought Miss McCarthy both a popular audience and a movie sale, enhanced her almost legendary reputation for enraging old friends and acquaintances who thought they saw themselves as the thinly disguised and gleefully skewered characters in her fiction.

A Painful Childhood

Throughout her career, Miss McCarthy seemed preoccupied with two themes: what she called 'the idea of justice' and the idea of self-reliance. Both impulses originated in her painful childhood, and both, in a sense, led to her later attempts to invent an identity true to her platonic conception of herself.

Mary Therese McCarthy was born on June 21, 1912, in Seattle, the daughter of Roy Winfield McCarthy, a member of a prominent Roman Catholic family in Minneapolis, and the former Therese Preston, whose father, a transplanted New Englander, was one of Seattle's most successful lawyers. She had three brothers, Kevin, Preston and Sheridan.

The early years of Miss McCarthy's life seem to have been a romantic idyll; she would later portray them as a lovely succession of parties and holidays, with May baskets and valentines.

'Both my parents were handsome, winning and romantic,' she wrote. 'Their marriage was opposed by both families, partly for religious reasons, and partly because my father was an invalid, with an invalid's febrile vitality. He had a bad heart, and it was prophesied, from the first, that he would die young and leave his wife with a pack of children.'

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'Dickensian Cruelty'

In fact, both he and his wife died in the great flu epidemic of 1918, and the 6-year-old Mary and her three brothers were sent to live with their great-aunt Margaret and her husband in Minneapolis. There, they experienced what she once called 'circumstances of almost Dickensian cruelty and squalor.' The children were made to stand outdoors for three hours at a time in the snow, and they were regularly thrashed with a razor strop; Miss McCarthy recalled being beaten in one instance for receiving a school prize, lest she become 'stuck up.'

Miss McCarthy's bitter recollection continued: 'Two blocks away, my McCarthy grandparents, dwelling in sumptuous middle-class style, instilled in us the contrast between wealth and penury by occasional treats and vacations; it was thought beneficial that we should know we were orphans and fitted for a different destiny than our well-tended cousins.

'Today, some of my relations allege my literary successes and my brother Kevin's career as an actor as proof that the harsh formula followed in our upbringing produced results; nevertheless, I cannot feel grateful. Nor do I believe that artistic talent flowers necessarily from a wounding of the stem on which it grows.'

When she was 11, Miss McCarthy was rescued from her misery in Minneapolis by her maternal grandfather, Harold Preston, who took her to Seattle and gave her a fine education at the Forest Ridge Convent and the Annie Wright Seminary.

Puritanism vs. Romance

As 'Memories of a Catholic Girlhood' and 'How I Grew' indicate, the twists and turns of Miss McCarthy's melodramatic childhood would develop two distinct sides to her personality: on one hand, the puritanical student who wants to win prizes for her scholarship and dreams of becoming a nun; on the other, the die-hard romantic who writes moody stories about suicide and prostitution and dreams of becoming an actress. In fact, before she left for college in 1929, Miss McCarthy took some acting classes at the Cornish Drama School in Seattle, where she met the actor Harold Cooper Johnsrud, whom she married a week after her graduation from Vassar. She would divorce him three years later.

By the time Miss McCarthy left Vassar in 1933, she said, she had become 'a wayward modern girl,' determined, in the words of her colleague William Barrett, 'to hold her own with men - both intellectually and sexually.' Her finely observed collection of interconnected stories, 'The Company She Keeps,' would chronicle - in slightly disguised fashion - many of her adventures in these early post-college years, including the breakup of her first marriage, her desultory love affairs and her dabbling in Trotskyite politics.

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Writing of that time, Mr. Barrett described the girlishly pretty writer as 'a Valkyrie maiden, riding her steed into the circle, amid thunder and lightning, and out again, bearing the body of some dead hero across her saddle.'

Two influential men of letters, Rahv and Wilson, would play important roles in the shaping of Miss McCarthy's career. Rahv, with whom she lived during the 1930's, helped her to get her first literary job - writing theater reviews for the magazine; Wilson, whom she married in 1938, persuaded her to try writing fiction. He put her in a room, she recalled, and told her to stay there until she finished a story. Their tempestuous marriage produced one son, Reuel, and ended in divorce in 1946. Later that year she married Bowden Broadwater, a writer and teacher.

Satiric Wit


With a clinical eye and an apparently total gift for recall, Miss McCarthy used her satiric wit to illuminate the pretensions and prejudices of her fellow intellectuals. Much of her writing was devoted to exposing what she regarded as the ignorance, bigotry, dishonest sentimentality and affectation that cluttered the intellectual marketplace.

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She defended Hannah Arendt and William Burroughs when it was fashionable to assail them, and attacked J. D. Salinger, Kenneth Tynan and Arthur Miller when others were singing their praises.

The litigious Lillian Hellman was so incensed, in 1980, by Miss McCarthy's description of her in a television interview as a 'dishonest writer' that she instituted a $2.25 million defamation suit.

Hellman's death in 1984 placed the lawsuit in limbo, making Miss McCarthy feel somewhat put out. 'I still feel disgusted by the amount of lying that didn't stop,' she said in an interview in 1987. 'I wanted it to go to trial, so I was disappointed when she died.'

Busy Despite Health Problems

Miss McCarthy married James Raymond West, a former director of information for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 1961. They divided their time between an apartment in Paris and their house in Maine.

In addition to her husband and son, Miss McCarthy is survived by two stepsons, Daniel West of Los Angeles and Jonathan West of Lodz, Poland; a stepdaughter, Alison West of Manhattan; two brothers, Kevin, of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Preston, of Millsboro, Del., and two grandchildren.

In recent years, Miss McCarthy had several operations for hydrocephalus (water on the brain), but maintained a hectic schedule, working on another volume of memoirs, contemplating a study of Gothic architecture, teaching literature at Bard College and learning German. She recalled telling a friend some two decades ago that she 'never woke up in the morning without a feeling of intense repentance and a resolve to be better.'

'I don't do that anymore - or almost never,' she said in a recent interview. 'But I do have this idea of improvement, if not in one's powers, at least in one's vision, in one's understanding. I suppose it's all tied up with the American belief in progress. Not that I have that as an idea, but I certainly have it in my personal life. I couldn't live without feeling I know more than I did yesterday.'