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Books: Mary, Mary HOW I GREW

4 minute read
Paul Gray

If Author Mary McCarthy, 74, seems in the mood to celebrate herself, she has probably earned that indulgence. For some 50 years she has reigned as the irruptive dark lady of American letters, a ferocious critic of everything from theater and books to U.S. society and foreign policy; a novelist (The Group, The Groves of Academe) with a reputation for settling scores by turning enemies into thinly disguised fictions. Hence, perhaps, the hint of smugness in the title she has chosen for the first volume of her projected autobiography. How I Grew has nothing to do with its subject’s physical stature.

Admirers of McCarthy’s works and career will not mind the hubris that opens this book (“I was born as a mind during 1925, my bodily birth having taken place in 1912”) and that keeps it moving (“I was an intellectual by the time I reached Annie Wright ((Seminary)). And no one else was”). Newcomers are likely to be baffled. The author keeps dropping Edmund Wilson’s name and opinions without volunteering until the end the information that the famous critic was to be her second husband. Of the photographs that accompany the text, three include McCarthy’s younger brother Kevin, a well-known actor, who is never mentioned by name in his sister’s narrative. Those who are not already in the know about the author’s biography receive little encouragement to proceed.

Yet How I Grew is worth some effort, even from initiates. Beneath its self-congratulatory veneer, the story generates considerable poignancy and appeal. There is the little girl who takes a train trip from Seattle with her beloved parents to visit relatives in Minneapolis. Then her mother and father die, victims of the flu epidemic of 1918, leaving the heroine and three younger brothers orphaned into the harsh care of an aunt and uncle: “If I was beaten with a razor-strop for having won a prize in a city-wide essay contest, I had no need to ask myself why . . . it was to keep me from getting stuck up — logical, given our position. And it was easy to find the cause of that; it was simply that our parents had died.”

After five grim years, McCarthy (but not her brothers) is rescued by her maternal grandparents and taken to live once again in Seattle. Her new home is spacious and comfortable. Her guardians make gentle attempts to keep the headstrong girl in check: “My grandmother had statutory ages for everything, sixteen for boys, fourteen for real, non-ribbed silk stockings, fifteen perhaps for lipstick.” These restrictions do not keep Mary from losing her virginity during her sophomore year in high school.

By this time she is enrolled at an Episcopal boarding school in Tacoma, and it is not sex but education that engages her most passionate interests. She realizes that her classmates are pleasant, well-to-do girls whose sights are set on making an appropriate marriage: “Our school could not maintain an elite status socially while offering anything like a serious education.” But a few dedicated teachers prep the ambitious girl, and she gets her wish. She is admitted to Vassar. McCarthy writes, “I prefer being a Puget Sound type that had gone east to college, as could happen, though rarely, to Seattle girls.”

This story of making it into the citadels of sophistication is enlivened by the author’s remarkable memory for scattered details: the seating arrangements of her eighth-grade class, the name of her grandmother’s dressmaker, the hometowns and secondary schools of her friends at Vassar. And the act of writing itself seems, to McCarthy, a mnemonic device. Her narrative is strewn with excited cries of discovery: “But stop! That cannot be true” . . .”But wait!” . . . “Hold on!” Such enthusiasm can become contagious.

The book ends with the author’s graduation from college and a marriage, to a man nine years her senior, that she has already confessed will fail. The public years, her triumphs and skirmishes along the New York literary front, still lie ahead. On the evidence of this installment, McCarthy’s friends and foes have good reason to anticipate her version of a tumultuous life.

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