Mary McCarthy

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We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.

Mary Therese McCarthy (21 June 191225 October 1989) was an American author and critic.


Liberty, as it is conceived by current opinion, has nothing inherent about it; it is a sort of gift or trust bestowed on the individual by the state pending good behavior.
I am putting real plums into an imaginary cake.
  • You know what my favourite quotation is?…It’s from Chaucer... Criseyde says it, "I am myne owene woman, wel at ese."
    • The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt (1943)
  • The American, if he has a spark of national feeling, will be humiliated by the very prospect of a foreigner's visit to Congress — these, for the most part, illiterate hacks whose fancy vests are spotted with gravy, and whose speeches, hypocritical, unctuous and slovenly, are spotted also with the gravy of political patronage, these persons are a reflection on the democratic process rather than of it; they expose it in its underwear.
    • "America the Beautiful," Commentary (September 1947)
  • The immense popularity of American movies abroad demonstrates that Europe is the unfinished negative of which America is the proof.
    • "America the Beautiful," Commentary (September 1947)
  • The American character looks always as if it had just had a rather bad haircut, which gives it, in our eyes at any rate, a greater humanity than the European, which even among its beggars has an all too professional air.
    • "America the Beautiful," Commentary (September 1947)
  • The Crucifixion and other historical precedents notwithstanding, many of us still believe that outstanding goodness is a kind of armor, that virtue, seen plain and bare, gives pause to criminality. But perhaps it is the other way around.
    • Gandhi (1949)
  • The theater is the only branch of art much cared for by people of wealth; like canasta, it does away with the bother of talk after dinner.
    • Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue (1950)
  • A society person who is enthusiastic about modern painting or Truman Capote is already half a traitor to his class. It is middle-class people who, quite mistakenly, imagine that a lively pursuit of the latest in reading and painting will advance their status in the world.
    • Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue (1950)
  • When Henry Mulcahy, a middle-aged instructor of literature at Jocelyn College, Jocelyn, Pennsylvania, unfolded the President's letter and became aware of its contents, he gave a sudden sharp cry of impatience and irritation, as if such interruptions could positively be brooked no longer.
    • The Groves of Academe (1952) First lines
  • Liberty, as it is conceived by current opinion, has nothing inherent about it; it is a sort of gift or trust bestowed on the individual by the state pending good behavior.
    • The Contagion of Ideas (1952)
  • Our anti-Communism came to us neither as the fruit of a special wisdom nor as a humiliating awakening from a prolonged deception, but as a natural event, the product of chance and propinquity. One thing followed another, and the will had little to say about it. For my part, during that year, I realized, with a certain wistfulness, that it was too late for me to become any kind of Marxist. Marxism, I saw, from the learned young man I listened to at Committee meetings, was something you had to take up young, like ballet dancing.
    • My Confession (1953)
  • Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
    • My Confession (1953)
  • Is it really so difficult to tell a good action from a bad one? I think one usually knows right away or a moment afterward, in a horrid flash of regret.
    • My Confession (1953)
  • Combativeness was, I suppose, the dominant trait in my grandmother’s nature. An aggressive churchgoer, she was quite without Christian feeling; the mercy of the Lord Jesus had never entered her heart. Her piety was an act of war against the Protestant ascendancy... articles attacking birth control, divorce, mixed marriages, Darwin and secular education were her favourite reading. The teachings of the Church did not interest her, except as they were a rebuke to others... The extermination of Protestantism, rather than spiritual perfection, was the boon she prayed for.
    • Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)
  • I do not mind if I lose my soul for all eternity. If the kind of God exists Who would damn me for not working out a deal with Him, then that is unfortunate. I should not care to spend eternity in the company of such a person.
    • Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)
  • To care for the quarrels of the past, to identify oneself passionately with a cause that became, politically speaking, a losing cause with the birth of the modern world, is to experience a kind of straining against reality, a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America, where children are instructed in the virtues of the system they live under, as though history had achieved a happy ending in American civics.
    • Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)
  • Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.
    • "The Vita Activa," The New Yorker (18 October 1958)
  • The labor of keeping house is labor in its most naked state, for labor is toil that never finishes, toil that has to be begun again the moment it is completed, toil that is destroyed and consumed by the life process.
    • "The Vita Activa," The New Yorker (18 October 1958)
  • In violence, we forget who we are.
    • "Characters in Fiction," Partisan Review (March/April 1961)
  • We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.
    • "Characters in Fiction," Partisan Review (March/April 1961) ; sometimes misquoted: "We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story."
  • If someone tells you he is going to make "a realistic decision," you immediately understand that he has resolved to do something bad.
    • American Realist Playwrights (July 1961)
  • People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children.
    • On the Contrary (1961), p. 54
  • In science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality.
    • "The Fact in Fiction", in On the Contrary (1961), p. 266
  • I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that — how to express this — you really must make the self. It's absolutely useless to look for it, you won’t find it, but it’s possible in some sense to make it.
    • Interview by Elisabeth Niebuhr in "The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Second Series" (1963) [the interview took place in March 1961]
  • It was June, 1933, one week after Commencement, when Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar '33, the first of her class to run around the table at the Class Day dinner, was married to Harald Petersen, Reed '27, in the chapel of St. George's Church, P.E., Karl F. Reiland, Rector.
    • The Group (1962) First lines
  • You mustn't force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex.
    • The Group (1962)
  • I combine concrete cynicism with a sort of vague optimism.
    • As quoted in "Lady with a Switchblade" in LIFE magazine (20 September 1963)
  • I am putting real plums into an imaginary cake.
    • Commenting on her novel The Group. New York Herald Tribune (5 January 1964)
  • I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently inhibited about the things that other women are inhibited about for me. They feel that you've given away trade secrets.
    • Look (26 February 1964)
  • Being abroad makes you conscious of the whole imitative side of human behavior. The ape in man.
    • Birds of Americs (1965), "Epistle from Mother Carey's Chicken"
  • In politics, it seems, retreat is honorable if dictated by military considerations and shameful if even suggested for ethical reasons.
    • "Solutions," Vietnam (1967)
  • Calling someone a monster does not make him more guilty; it makes him less so by classing him with beasts and devils (“a person of inhuman and horrible cruelty or wickedness,” OED, Sense 4). Such an unnatural being is more horrible to contemplate than an Eichmann — that is, aesthetically worse — but morally an Ilse Koch was surely less culpable than Eichmann since she seems to have had no trace of human feeling and therefore was impassable to conscience.
    • "The Hue and Cry," The Writing on the Wall (1970)
  • Judas was not a monster, though his act was monstrous; he was a man, the twelfth part of humanity, and his sin was that he could betray for thirty pieces of silver, like any common informer. Jesus was uncommon, not Judas.
    • "The Hue and Cry," The Writing on the Wall (1970)
  • To be a child is something one learns, as one learns the names of rivers or the kings of France. Childhood, for a child, is a sort of falseness, woodenness, stoniness, a lesson recited. Many children are aware of this — that is, aware of being children as a special, prosy condition: "We can't do that! We're children!" Playing children is a long boring game with occasional exciting moments.
    • "Everybody's Childhood," The Writing on the Wall (1970)
  • As happens with sports and hobbies, his enjoyment was solemnized by expertise, the rites of comparing, collating, a half-deliberate parody of scholarship like the recitation of batting averages.
    • "The Writing on the Wall," The Writing on the Wall (1970)
  • We all know in our gut that art educates. In other societies, they're aware of the power it has of speaking directly to the masses, teaching them to be better socialists, better citizens. The trouble is that with us it's fallen into the wrong hands. Forget the speculators... The concept of the collector is so rotten by now that it stinks.
    • Cannibals and Missionaries (1979)
  • Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.
    • Comment about Lillian Hellman in a televised interview (1979) on The Dick Cavett Show; this prompted a defamation suit against McCarthy which was dropped after Hellman's death: "If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on. I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that."
  • To be disesteemed by people you don’t have much respect for is not the worst fate.
    • New York Times (27 August 1984)
  • When you have committed an action that you cannot bear to think about, that causes you to writhe in retrospect, do not seek to evade the memory: make yourself relive it, confront it repeatedly over and over, till finally, you will discover, through sheer repetition it loses its power to pain you. It works, I guarantee you, this sure-fire guilt-eradicator, like a homeopathic medicine — like in small doses applied to like. It works, but I am not sure that it is a good thing.
    • How I Grew (1987)
  • Of all the men I slept with in my studio-bed on Gay Street (and there were a lot: I stopped counting) I liked Bill Mangold the best. Until I began to see Philip Rahv.
    • Intellectual Memoirs (1992)
  • It was getting rather alarming. I realised one day that in twenty four hours I had slept with three different men. And one morning I was in bed with somebody while over his head I talked on the telephone with somebody else…I did not feel promiscuous. Maybe no-one does. And maybe more girls sleep with more men than you would ever think to look at them.
    • Intellectual Memoirs (1992)
  • I was able to compare the sexual equipment of the various men I made love with and there were amazing differences, in both length and massiveness. One handsome married man, who used to arrive with two Danishes from a very good bakery, had a penis about the size and shape of a lead pencil; he shall remain nameless. In my experience there was usually a relation to height, as Philip Rahv and Bill Mangold, both tall men, bore out. There may be dwarfish men with monstrously large organs, but I have never known one. It was not until later, after my second divorce, that I met an impotent man or a pervert (two of the latter)... None of my partners, the reader will be relieved to hear, had a venereal disease.
    • Intellectual Memoirs (1992)

Quotes about McCarthy[edit]

Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • One writer whom the circle could not intimidate in any way was Mary McCarthy … I see her indeed in the image of 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 — herself unscathed and headed promptly for her typewriter.
    • William Barrett in The Truants; also quoted in Inventing Herself : Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage(2001) by Elaine Showalter
  • Intellectual responses are known as opinions and Mary had them and had them. Still she was so little of an ideologue as to be sometimes unsettling in her refusal of tribal reaction — left or right, male or female, that sort of thing. She was doggedly personal and often this meant being so aslant that there was, in this determined rationalist, an endearing crankiness, very American and homespun somehow.
  • Mary McCarthy was the cultural heroine of my generation. … I felt how different things were now when I watched Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt on television. It's very well done. Elizabeth McGovern is hip and smart in the central role. What's missing is the importance the story had when it first appeared. In the 1940s it was wonderfully giddy and daring. It was tonic. It was the story that bright people — women especially — talked about and identified with. This was a feminist heroine who was strong and foolish; it was before feminist writing got bogged down in victimization. She was asinine but she wasn't weak. I looked at the reviews of the television production and the people writing about it didn’t seem to get it at all. It was just a story.
    • Pauline Kael, as quoted in Seeing Mary Plain : A Life of Mary McCarthy (2000) by Frances Kiernan, p. 180
  • She was a great heroine to many young women of my age. She was a heroine for her independence and her courage in speaking out in defence of lost causes and for her ability to combine great personal glamour with a ferocious intelligence.
  • Mary McCarthy was a rara avis, a rare bird: a truly sexy intellectual who was nonetheless more interested in truth than in being intellectually sexy or fashionable. … The real beauty of her life and work is that she was an explorer who never compromised her freedom or integrity. Her writing was symptomatic of this. It never quite became an end in itself, but remained, throughout her life, a means to articulating herself as "her own woman." In that she succeeded marvellously and it is the way in which she did it for which she deserves lasting respect and emulation.
    • Paul Monk, in "Mary McCarthy: A Truly Sexy Intellectual"
  • I absolutely adored Mary. I was transfixed by her. She was so beautiful, so witty, so much fun to talk to.

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