Mary McCarthy’s Moment
Peter Tonguette’s review of Mary McCarthy: The Complete Fiction (July 10) argues that the novelist had large ambitions but “came up short every time.” Yet he never mentions two of her best, The Groves of Academe (1952) and A Charmed Life (1955), nor the flawed but haunting Birds of America (1971). He spends much of his review on her earliest efforts and apparently missed the point of her bestseller The Group (1963). He may be right that her novels are not much read nowadays, but that doesn’t mean they’re failures.
McCarthy was interested in American intellectual life as well as personal relationships. The details in The Group that irritate Mr. Tonguette are not superfluous: They are emblems of the era, which McCarthy is placing in amber. Most of the characters are upper-class women who have been educated to a different understanding of their privilege from that of their parents, but it is only slightly different. (Kay, the character most like the author, supports the striking workers but loves her Russel Wright aluminum cocktail shaker.) This is a major theme, and McCarthy is both sympathetic and mocking. Each chapter centers on a different woman, told from her point of view, except for the wealthiest of the bunch, who is shown through the eyes of the family butler. (Didn’t Mr. Tonguette see any humor there?)
McCarthy was a careful observer, and loyal to what she saw as the truth, so she did not always bother with heavy disguises for her models. She did have feuds and fallings out; she drank too much, though no more than many in her circle; she had lovers, married four times, and based characters on ex-husbands. She loved clothes and cuisine, but also theater, painting, and architecture: She was interested in culture in general.
Men and women often have different interests. What Mr. Tonguette calls “the novel’s monotonous march through topics once thought too outré for mainstream fiction, including contraception and lesbianism,” to which he could have added orgasms, breastfeeding, and toilet training — well, in 1963 they were outré. They are of continuing concern to women and McCarthy’s frank treatment is not dated. For me, at least, the novels do indeed have the “timeless, surprising quality of great fiction” that has rewarded multiple readings, whereas I’ve never wanted to reread Sontag’s Death Kit.
New York, N.Y.
Peter Tonguette responds: The writer presents a spirited defense of Mary McCarthy’s fiction, but at least one of the arguments offered — that McCarthy places emblems of her era “in amber” — works better for the prosecution than the defense. In my judgment, The Group and the novels that surround it capture McCarthy’s epoch but do not transcend it or make it compelling to subsequent generations. To assert (as I did) that McCarthy’s works are seldom read today is not in and of itself a value judgment, but it does suggest that their moment has passed. What we need, perhaps, is an updated Groves of Academe.
I, too, enjoy Birds of America, a novel I referenced approvingly — apropos of nothing — in my 2011 book The Films of James Bridges.