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.


I am putting real plums into an imaginary cake.
  • 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]
  • 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)
  • In politics, it seems, retreat is honorable if dictated by military considerations and shameful if even suggested for ethical reasons.
    • "Solutions," Vietnam (1967)
  • 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)
The Company She Keeps, in Mary McCarthy, Novels & Stories 1942–1963 (New York: The Library of America, 2017), pp. 1–199
  • She could not bear to hurt her husband. She impressed this on the Young Man, on her confidantes, and finally on her husband himself. The thought of Telling Him actually made her heart turn over in a sudden and sickening way, she said. This was true, and yet she knew that being a potential divorcee was deeply pleasurable in somewhat the same way that being an engaged girl had been.
    • Ch. 1 "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment", p. 5, first lines of novel.
    • First published in The Southern Review (Spring 1939)
  • You know what my favourite quotation is? […] It’s from Chaucer […] Criseyde says it, "I am myne owene woman, wel at ese."
    • Ch. 3 "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt", p. 70.
    • First published in Partisan Review (July-August 1941)
  • He had the true American taste for argument, argument as distinguished from conversation on the one hand and from oratory on the other. The long-drawn-out, meandering debate was, perhaps, the only art form he understood or relished, and this was natural since the argument is in a sense our only indigenous folk-art, and it is not the poet but the silver-tongued lawyer who is our real national bard.
    • Ch. 5 "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man", p. 141
  • When we pass from "I ought to do this" to "You think I ought to do this," it seems to us at first that we have weakened the imperative; actually, by externalizing it, we have made it unanswerable, for it is only ourselves that we can come to terms with.
    • Ch. 5 "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man", pp. 147–148
  • [H]e was now confronted with what he imagined to be a general, undiscriminating hostility, a spirit of criticism embodied in the girl that was capricious, feminine, and absolutely inscrutable, so that he went about feeling continually guilty without knowing just what it was he had done. It haunted him that if he could anticipate every objection, he would be safe, but there was no telling what this strange girl might find fault with, and the very limitation of his knowledge of her made the number of possible objections limitless.
    • Ch. 5 "Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man", p. 148
  • If only one could … But it required strength. The romantic life had been too hard for her. In morals as in politics anarchy is not for the weak. The small state, racked by internal dissension, invites the foreign conqueror. Proscription, martial law, the billeting of the rude troops, the tax collector, the unjust judge, anything, anything at all, is sweeter than responsibility. The dictator is also the scapegoat; in assuming absolute authority, he assumes absolute guilt; and the oppressed masses, groaning under the yoke, know themselves to be innocent as lambs, while they pray hypocritically for deliverance.
    • Ch. 6 "Ghostly Father, I Confess", p. 184.
    • First published in Harper's Bazaar (April 1942)
  • I still know when I lie, I can recognize a frame-up when I make one. But Frederick is his own stooge, his own innocent front. He has a vested interest in himself. He is the perfect Protestant pragmatist. 'If I say this, it is true,' 'If I do this, it is justified.' There is no possibility of dispute because Frederick has grace, Frederick belongs to the Elect. It's the religion of the Pharisee, the religion of the businessman.
    • Ch. 6 "Ghostly Father, I Confess", p. 186

The Oasis (1949)

The Oasis, in Mary McCarthy, Novels & Stories 1942–1963 (New York: The Library of America, 2017), pp. 201–287
  • [H]e came quickly to believe that the modern was some sort of duty laid on every man who had heard its call, a system of knowledge and perception equivalent to revealed religion — and for all those born too early to receive its message, for Raphael and Shakespeare, he felt a kind of pity like that of the pious Christian for the deprived souls of the ancients, who died too soon to get the benefits of the Redemption.
    • P. 225
  • The discovery that one cannot convince an opponent and that it is hopeless to go on trying involves a confession of subjectivity that deprives the world of meaning.
    • p. 253
  • Morality did not keep well; it required stable conditions; it was costly; it was subject to variations, and the market for it was uncertain.
    • p. 286
The Groves of Academe, in Mary McCarthy, Novels & Stories 1942–1963 (New York: The Library of America, 2017), pp. 289–508
  • 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.
    • Ch. I, p. 293, first lines of novel
  • What disturbed the advocates of the dances most profoundly was the discovery of a fathomless paradox at the bottom of their friends' thinking: in following the crowd, against their own will and judgment, they were following themselves, i.e., nobody.
    • Ch. II, p. 307
  • For all his derogation, he truly believed in the modern, as subversive of established values, a mine or fuse laid under the terrain of the virtuous; the words, modern, secular, experimental, were drawled out by him in a seductive, blandishing tone, like a veiled erotic invitation.
    • Ch. VI, p. 383
  • Humanly speaking, of course, she and Alma had the same right as anybody else to interfere in what was none of their business, the duty, in fact, of the bystander to interfere between father and son, employer and employee, state and subject, to protect elementary human rights and secure fair treatment for the weaker. Yet today's fashion was to disguise this moral feeling in an expedient garb, […] to 'sell' a moral argument in terms of a higher utility.
    • Ch. VI, p. 392
  • "I learned long ago," she stoutly reiterated, "that one can't bargain in these affairs. If one wants to be effective, one hands in one's resignation and clears out. There's no other way for a man or an institution to learn that one is serious than to learn it too late."
    • Ch. VII, p. 399
  • A spasm of irritation shook him. He could not determine where their machinations ended and his own over-active intelligence began the work of conjecture — it was the old philosophical stickler: how to distinguish the mind's knowledge of its objects from its experience of its own processes? In short, can we know anything, he muttered under his breath.
    • Ch. VII, pp. 408—409
  • It was Domna's frailty, as a young and egoistic person, to experience in a heightened way a common subjective illusion, which was that her own life was free, determined only by voluntary choices, while the lives of other people around her were subject to harsh necessity.
    • Ch. XI, p. 471
  • Furness […] patently believed in nothing, not even in himself, nothing, that is, but the amusing warp-and-woof of events and persons.
    • Ch. XIII, p. 501
A Charmed Life, in Mary McCarthy, Novels & Stories 1942–1963 (New York: The Library of America, 2017), pp. 509–755
  • Loyalty to a side, he said, had been instilled in him by his southern mother, but he now thought you had to be loyal to all sides, to the truth as you saw it, which, when you came down to it, meant being loyal to yourself.
    • Warren in Ch. 2, pp. 535–536
  • [A]ll moral values, to the analyst, were just rationalizations: ego massage.
    • Ch. 2, p. 544
  • This refusal to listen was a form of stupidity that Martha especially abhorred, and she considered Miles well punished for it. If he had ever taken seriously her passionate desire to leave him, she might not (she now believed) have been driven in practice to show him how little indeed he knew. To pay attention, for Martha, was the prime human virtue; without it, there could be no dignity and no reciprocity.
    • Ch. 5, p. 594
  • "But what about church attendance figures?" ventured Harriet. "Aren't modern people supposed to be feeling a lack in their lives that they need religion to fill?" Martha shrugged. "An advertising gambit," she said. "First you convince people that they lack something and then you send them a product to remedy it. People 'need' religion to 'deepen their awareness' or give them 'tragic irony' — the way I 'need' a facial cream to make my life more glamorous." […] "But if there is a lack, Martha?" said Dolly. "Then it ought not to be filled," said Martha. "If it's a real lack, it's a necessary hollow in life that can't be stuffed up, like a chicken. Insufficiency. Shortcoming. I don't need God as a measure to feel that. Do you, Dolly?" "God, no!" said Dolly.
    • Ch. 8, p. 656
  • "Nobody can stay in the right — I mean in real life — that's the terrible thing, Warren. If you think you're in the right for more than a few seconds, you'll find that you're in the wrong. Nobody can have a permanent claim on being the injured party; it seems horribly unfair, but there it is. As soon as you feel injured and begin to cry for justice, you discover that your position has gotten undermined; the ground has shifted beneath you, in a slow sort of landslide, and you find yourself cut off."
    • Martha in Ch. 8, p. 662
  • [P]ity was very unreliable, as a guide to conduct. It signified a conquered repugnance.
    • Ch. 11, p. 713
  • She felt as though she were present, against her will, at an interminable discussion […] with captious voices pleading, "Explain to me, why not? Give me one reason why not." The medieval temptations, with all the allures of gluttony and concupiscence could not, Martha thought, have been half so trying as the sheer dentist-drill boredom of listening to the arguments of the devil as a modern quasi-intellectual.
    • Ch. 12, pp. 726–727
  • "You act as if the human race had learned nothing, as if everything were possible, as if we could all start on a new phase every day. Or a new wife. It's all the same. You take up a doubting posture. But you don't really doubt. You just ask questions, like a machine." Her voice rose, in slight hysteria. Warren looked at her in consternation. "Forgive me," she put in. "But it's true. And the whole world is getting like you, like New Leeds. Everybody has to be shown. 'How do you know that?' every moron asks the philosopher when he is told that this is an apple and that is a pear. He pretends to doubt, to be curious. But nobody is really curious because nobody cares what the truth is. As soon as we think something, it occurs to us that the opposite or the contrary might just as well be true. And no one cares."
    • Martha in Ch. 12, pp. 732–733

Venice Observed (1956)

  • The rationalist mind has always had its doubts about Venice. The watery city receives a dry inspection, as though it were a myth for the credulous — poets and honeymooners.
    • Ch. 1
  • Among Venice's spells is one of peculiar potency: the power to awaken the philistine dozing in the skeptic's breast. People of this kind — dry, prose people of superior intelligence — object to feeling what they are supposed to feel, in the presence of marvels. They wish to feel something else. The extreme of this position is to feel nothing.
    • Ch. 1
  • Sophistication, that modern kind of sophistication that begs to differ, to be paradoxical, to invert, is not a possible attitude in Venice. In time, this becomes the beauty of the place. One gives up the struggle and submits to a classic experience. One accepts the fact that what one is about to feel or say has not only been said before by Goethe or Musset but is on the tip of the tongue of the tourist from Iowa who is alighting in the Piazzetta with his wife in her furpiece and jeweled pin. Those Others, the existential enemy, are here identical with oneself.
    • Ch. 1
  • The Florentines, who were incapable of ruling themselves, produced a great theorist of government: Machiavelli. The Venetians had no theorists and evolved a model Republic.
    • Ch. 6
  • The Venetians invented the income tax, statistical science, the floating of government stock, state censorship of books, anonymous denunciations (the Bocca del Leone), the gambling casino, and the Ghetto.
    • Ch. 7
  • St Mary of Egypt […] has, by the way, two qualifications for being a Venetian saint — first, she was a courtesan, and, second, when she died, her remains were buried by a pious lion.
    • Ch. 8
  • Casanova had the true Venetian temperament: cool, ebullient, and licentious. […] This absence of passion no doubt contributes to the unreal character of Venetian life, which appears as a shimmering surface, like Venetian music. In the traditional Venetian serenades, played from cruising gondolas, the songs today are all Neapolitan. Foreigners cavil at this, but the Venetians point out that there are no love songs in the Venetian repertory — only witty exchanges between man and maiden.
    • Ch. 8
  • When I go it will have to be by gondola because I have so much baggage. Some private Charon of the signora's will ferry me down to the station in his shabby funeral bark. That is how the Allies took Venice, arriving from the mainland, at the end of the second World War. There was a petrol shortage, and the Allied command, having made secret contact with the gondoliers' co-operative, officially 'captured' Venice with a fleet of gondolas. Even war in Venice evokes a disbelieving smile.
    • Ch. 8, last paragraph of book

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957)

  • From what I have seen, I am driven to the conclusion that religion is only good for good people, and I do not mean this as a paradox, but simply as an observable fact. Only good people can afford to be religious. For the others it is too great a temptation — a temptation to the deadly sins of pride and anger, chiefly, but one might also add sloth.
    • "To the Reader"
  • 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.
    • "To the Reader"
  • 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.
    • "To the Reader"
  • 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.
    • Ch. 1

On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946–1961 (1961)

On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946–1961 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)
  • 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: The Humanist in the Bathtub", p. 8. First published in Commentary (September 1947)
  • We are a nation of twenty million bathrooms, with a humanist in every tub.
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub", p. 13
  • 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: The Humanist in the Bathtub", p. 17
  • Life for the European is a career; for the American, it is a hazard.
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub", p. 17
  • The immense popularity of American movies abroad demonstrates that Europe is the unfinished negative of which America is the proof.
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub", p. 18
  • 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", p. 22. First published in Politics (Winter 1948)
  • 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", p. 44. A speech delivered to a group of teachers (Summer 1952); not previously published
  • People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children.
    • "The Contagion of Ideas", p. 54
  • [T]he whole concept of transcendence […] was very close to my heart, the concept that man is more than his circumstances, more even than himself.
  • Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.
    • "My Confession", p. 74. First published in two parts in The Reporter (December 22, 1953 and January 5, 1954)
  • 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", p. 76
  • For me, in fact, the mark of the historic is the nonchalance with which it picks up an individual and deposits him in a trend, like a house playfully moved in a tornado.
    • "My Confession", pp. 76–77
  • An unrectified case of injustice has a terrible way of lingering, restlessly, in the social atmosphere like an unfinished equation.
    • "My Confession", p. 79
  • People sometimes say that they envied the Communists because they were so "sure." In my case this was not exactly it; I was sure, too, intellectually speaking, as far as I went. That is, I had a clear mind and was reasonably honest, while many of the Communists I knew were pathetically fogged up. In any case, my soul was not particularly hot for certainties.
    • "My Confession", p. 86
  • I could not, I saw, be a Communist because I was not "made that way." Hence, to be a Communist was to possess a sort of privilege. And this privilege, like all privileges, appeared to be a source of power. Any form of idiocy or aberration can confer this distinction on its owner, at least in our age, which aspires to a "total" experience.
    • "My Confession", p. 86
  • 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", p. 102
  • [T]he 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", p. 158. First published in The New Yorker (18 October 1958)
  • [B]ureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.
    • "The Vita Activa", pp. 161–162
  • 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", p. 185. First published in two parts in The Reporter (July 18 and August 1, 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", p. 185
  • As an instrument of mass snobbery, this remarkable magazine [Flair], dedicated simply to the personal cult of its editress, to the fetishism of the flower (Fleur Cowles, Flair, a single rose), outdistances all its competitors in the audacity of its conception. It is a leap into the Orwellian future, a magazine without content or point of view beyond its proclamation of itself, one hundred and twenty pages of sheer presentation, a journalistic mirage. […] The articles, in fact, seem meant not to be read but inhaled like a whiff of scent from the mystic rose at the center (flair, through Old French, from fragrare, to emit an odor: an instinctive power of discriminating or discerning). Nobody, one imagines, has read them, not even their authors: grammatical sentences are arranged around a vanishing point of meaning.
    • "Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue", p. 187
    • In the second sentence of this quote, the book has "contest" instead of "content" as in the original article in The Reporter — an obvious typo.
  • The essence of Vassar is mythic. Today, despite much competition, it still figures in the public mind as the archetypal woman's college. […] It signifies a certain je ne sais quoi; a whiff of luxury and the ineffable; plain thinking and high living. […] For different people, in fact, at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism. Pre-eminently among American college women, the Vassar girl is thought of as carrying a banner. The inscription on it varies with the era or with the ideas of the beholder and in the final sense does not matter — the flushed cheek and tensed arm are what count.
    • "The Vassar Girl", pp. 195–196. First published in Holiday (May 1951)
  • A wistful respect for the unorthodox is engrained in the Vassar mentality. The Vassar freshman still comes through Taylor Gate as I did, with the hope of being made over, redirected, vivified. The daughter of a conservative lawyer, doctor, banker, or businessman, she will have chosen Vassar in all probability with the idea of transcending her background. And if she does not have such ideas for herself, her teachers have them for her. […] This dynamic conception of education is Vassar's trademark.
    • "The Vassar Girl", pp. 200–201
  • [I]n science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality.
    • "The Fact in Fiction", p. 266. First published in Partisan Review (Summer 1960)
  • In violence, we forget who we are.
    • "Characters in Fiction", p. 276. First published in Partisan Review (March 1961)
  • As subjects, 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", p. 291
    • Sometimes misquoted as "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.
    • "The American Realist Playwrights", p. 296. First published in Harper's Magazine (July 1961)

The Group (1963)

  • 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.
    • Ch. 1, first lines of novel
  • Thin women are more sensual; scientific fact — the nerve ends are closer to the surface.
    • Dick Brown to Dottie in Ch. 1
  • You mustn't force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex.
    • Dottie in Ch. 2
  • [Y]ou have to live without love, learn not to need it, in order to live with it.
    • Ch. 2.
    • Advice given to Lakey by one of the older teachers at Vassar; "Lakey was terrifically impressed."
  • Extend your antennae, girls.
    • Ch. 3.
    • A "favorite apothegm" of the teacher Kay had respected most at Vassar.
  • Her [Helena's] light, mildly aseptic irony was wasted on Norine, who was unaware of irony and humorous vocal shadings; she listened only to the overt content of what was said and drew her own blunt inferences.
    • Ch. 6
  • All I knew that night was that I believed in something and couldn't express it, while your team believed in nothing but knew how to say it — in other men's words. Of course I envied you that too.
    • Norine to Helena in Ch. 6
  • It struck her that Norine's apartment was all too populous with 'significant form.' Every item in it seemed to be saying something, asserting something, pontificating. Norine and Put were surrounded by articles of belief, down to the last can of evaporated milk and the single, monastic pillow on the double bed. It was different from Kay's apartment, where the furniture was only asking to be admired ot talked about. But here, in this dogmatic lair, nothing had been admitted that did not make a 'relevant statement,' though what the polar bear was saying Helena could not make out.
    • Ch. 6
  • 'That was your day, Mother,' Dottie said patiently. 'Sacrifices aren't necessary any more. […] I've thought about this a lot, out West. Sacrifice is a dated idea. A superstition, really, Mother, like burning widows in India. What society is aiming at now is the full development of the individual.'
    • Ch. 7
  • One of the big features of living alone was that you could talk to yourself all you wanted and address imaginary audiences, running the gamut of emotion.
    • Ch. 8
  • There was a side of Sloan, she [Priss] had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans — it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby. In medicine, Sloan was quite forward-looking, but he was enamored of his own theories, which he wanted to enforce, like Prohibition, regardless of the human factor.
    • Ch. 10
  • She decided she wanted a cool, starchy independent life, with ruffles of humor like window curtains.
    • Polly in Ch. 11
  • He would only come if she were unprepared. Or would he come only if she were prepared? With her lamp trimmed like the wise virgins? Christianity would tell her to buy food for two, but the pagans would say, 'Don't risk it.'
    • Polly in Ch. 11
  • She [Polly] did not approve of revolutions, unless they were absolutely necessary, and she thought it peculiar, to say the least, that her father and his friends were eager to make revolutions in democratic countries like France or the United States instead of concentrating on Hitler and Mussolini, who ought to be overthrown. Of course, as her father said, it was pretty hopeless to make a revolution against Hitler for the time being, since the workers' parties had all been suppressed; still, it seemed rather unfair to penalize Roosevelt and Blum for not being Hitler. Fair play, replied her father, was a bourgeois concept and did not apply against the class enemy.
    • Ch. 12
  • It struck her that becoming a Trotskyite had merely given him one more thing to be snobbish about. He now looked down his nose at Stalinists, progressives, and New Dealers, as well as on the middle class and the 'moneyed elements,' whom he had always derided. Some of his worst prejudices, she told him, scolding, were being reinforced by his new adherence. For example, coming from Massachusetts, he had a plaintive aversion to the Irish, and he was elated to hear that Marx had called the Irish the bribed tools of imperialism. 'Look at that bribed tool of imperialism!' he would whisper, of the poor policeman on the beat.
    • Ch. 12
  • Polly saw the point. Would she wish not to have been born? Unhappy as she was, she could not say that. Even when she had wished to die, she had not wished never to have been born. Nobody alive could do that.
    • Ch. 12
  • As Socrates showed, love cannot be anything else but the love of the good. But to find the good is very rare. That is why love is rare, in spite of what people think. It happens to one in a thousand, and to that one it is a revelation. No wonder he cannot communicate with the other nine hundred and ninety-nine.
    • Mr Schneider in Ch. 12
  • [Norine:] 'Do you know that the Vassar graduate has only 2.2 children?' Priss was aware of this statistic, which had caused concern in alumnae circles — Vassar women were barely replacing themselves while the rest of the population was multiplying.
    • Ch. 14
  • 'You still believe in progress,' she said kindly. 'I'd forgotten there were people who did. It's your substitute for religion. Your tribal totem is the yardstick. But we've transcended all that. No first-rate mind can accept the concept of progress any more.'
    • Norine to Priss in Ch. 14
  • She did not recommend sacrifice, having meekly given up her job and her social ideals for Sloan's sake. It was now too late, because of Stephen, but she was convinced she had made a mistake. Sloan would be far happier if she were where she longed to be — in Washington as a humble cog in the New Deal, which he hated — and he could boast of 'my Bolshevik wife.' He had been proud of her when she was with the N.R.A., because she had had gumption, and now even that was gone.
    • Priss in Ch. 14
  • They got into the car. This time Lakey drove. Listening to Harald's wild talk had disgusted her; she concluded that he was utterly specious. She was ashamed of the curiosity she had felt about him. To be curious about someone opened you to contamination from them. But she was still determined to play him a trick, to take revenge for Kay, for women, and most of all for the impudence of his associating himself with her.
    • Ch. 15
  • 'Let me out!' 'You want to get out of the car?' said Lakey. 'Yes,' said Harald. 'You bury her. You and the "group."' Lakey stopped the car. He got out. She drove on, following the cortège, watching him in the rear-view mirror as he crossed the road and stood, thumbing a ride, while cars full of returning mourners glided past him, back to New York.
    • Ch. 15, last lines of novel

The Writing on the Wall and Other Literary Essays (1970)

  • 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"
  • 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"
  • 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"
  • 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"

Birds of America (1971)

  • Peter, a philosophy minor, was an adept of the Kantian ethic; he had pledged himself never to treat anyone as a means ('The Other is always an End: thy Maxim,' said a card he carried in his wallet […]), and yet, because of his shyness, which made his approaches circuitous, he repeatedly found himself doing exactly that.
    • "Winter Visitors"
  • Yet it was part of being an American that, once you got started, you felt impelled to tell all the people all the truth all the time.
    • "To Be a Pilgrim"
  • Maybe any action becomes cowardly once you stop to reason about it. Conscience doth make cowards of us all, eh mamma mia? If you start an argument with yourself, that makes two people at least, and when you have two people, one of them starts appeasing the other.
  • At home I never thought I was much of a conformist. But I now see that I was without knowing it. I did what everybody else did without being aware I was copying them. Here I mind being different. Being abroad makes you conscious of the whole imitative side of human behavior. The ape in man.
    • "Epistle from Mother Carey's Chicken"
  • If you want to be your own master, his father used to say, always be surprised by evil; never anticipate it.
    • "Greek Fire"
  • They would not be happy unless she conformed to their definition of enjoyment, which meant that she would have to be miserable to satisfy them.
    • "Round Table, with the Damsel Parcenet"
  • The clamor of agreement betrayed the anti-French sentiment ever ready to be mobilized when Americans in Paris got together. And as happened with anti-Semites merrily fraternizing, nobody at the table seemed to remember that there were French people present.
    • "Round Table, with the Damsel Parcenet"
  • Making exceptions was usually a poor idea, he found; it was the same principle as 'Just one won't hurt you.'
    • "Two-thirds of a Ghost"
  • It struck him that the closer Nature got to the human, the uglier it could be. You could hardly find a plant that was not beautiful, even in a strange mottled way, but there were plenty of hideous simians.
    • "Two-thirds of a Ghost"
  • He spoke in a low weak voice. 'God is dead,' Peter understood him to say. Peter sat up. ' I know that,' he protested. 'And you didn't say that anyway. Nietzsche did.' He felt put upon, as though by an impostor. Kant smiled. 'Yes, Nietzsche said that. And even when Nietzsche said it, the news was not new, and maybe not so tragic after all. Mankind can live without God.' 'I agree,' said Peter. 'I've always lived without him.' 'No, what I say to you is something important. You did not hear me correctly. Listen now carefully and remember.' Again he looked Peter steadily and searchingly in the eyes. 'Perhaps you have guessed it. Nature is dead, mein Kind [my child].'
    • "Two-thirds of a Ghost", last lines of novel
  • [Y]ou're so darned liberal that you're sort of perverse.
    • John Barber to his father the Reverend Frank Barber in Ch. 1
  • Her [Sophie Weil's] fault was only an unusual degree of mental activity. The curse of intelligence. Stupid people were unconscious of their slow-moving thought processes.
    • Ch. 2
  • Aileen and the dominie [Reverend Frank Barber], in their obliviousness, were illustrating the worst of what he had heard of the American character. A people given to argumentation, someone had said. And, whatever the subject, the debate was always between themselves — as though only their opinions counted — and was settled when they reached a conclusion or simply got tired, as the world had watched them do in Vietnam. At least Sophie had held her peace; perhaps, being Jewish, she lacked the authority to pontificate conferred on the others [the Wasps] as a birthright.
    • Ch. 5
  • We reverence art as something sacred […] We've come to worship a class of objects — paintings and sculptures — and we treat their creators as gods. […] I think this totemism has a lot to do with the failure of organized religion. Despite church attendance figures, we've let ordinary humanity lose touch with the divine, with God. No wonder that the lucky few among us are tempted to put daubs of oil on canvas in His place.
    • Reverend Frank Barber in Ch. 9
  • If a hostage or two got killed, it had to be seen in the perspective of the greater good of the greater number. But works of art were a different type of non-combatant, not to be touched with a ten-foot pole by any government respectful of "values." It was in the nature of civilians to die sooner or later, by preference in bed, but also in car crashes, earthquakes, air raids and so on, while works of art by their nature and in principle were imperishable. In addition, they were irreplaceable, which could not be said of their owners.
    • Thoughts of Senator Jim Carey in Ch. 11
  • You never learn a language unless you use it.
    • Ch. 11
  • Art had a disquieting power of producing social embarrassment; […] it caused people to make silly remarks and then laugh self-consciously, as if the pictures, which knew better, could hear them. It could not be just ignorance; displays of armor and mummies and natural-history exhibits did not have that effect. […] If you were with art long enough, […] you began to get the feeling that it was looking right at you.
    • Thoughts of Senator Jim Carey in Ch. 11
  • 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. I mean you proud possessors that claim to have a corner in it. This isn't the eighteenth century. The concept of the collector is so rotten by now that it stinks.
    • Victor Lenz in Ch. 11
  • His [Victor's] voice rose suddenly, sounding shrill and aggrieved, as though someone was accusing him. That was where examinations of conscience tended to end — in a burst of pitiful anger. The Church was right; confession to a priest, carrying absolution and penance was wiser.
    • Ch. 11
  • What about works of art — the Parthenon — that have always belonged to general realm of onlookers, gods, supposedly, and men? Frescoes on churches and statues standing in public squares. Cathedrals. Skyscrapers. Whoever commissioned them — cardinals or Seagrams or the city fathers — by now they're part of the social fabric. Surely they're art as it was meant to be. Sacred artifacts owned by nobody and by everybody that passes by. A lot of them (Chartres) visible from a long way off. But they can be tucked away in a cloister (Moissac) or even in an oratory shown you by an old nun. The point is, they've become assimilated to whole family of natural objects — mountain ranges, harbors, stands of trees — that have settled down to live with us too. Of course they "do" something for human community; they're pillars holding it up. But also living members. Come to be seen often as protectors, esp. in old cities. Like lares and penates of Roman house. Perhaps represent eternity, on account of remarkable endurance. Anyway they "concentrate the mind wonderfully," as Dr. J. said of hanging.
    • From Sophie Weil's diary in "Envoi"
  • 90% of the population is a fanatic […] Frank is a fanatic on keeping an open mind. […] Ahmed a doll. Fanaticism linked to abstinence. Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, sex, forbidden books, forbidden thoughts. There's the distinction: H. and J. not madly tolerant but enjoy thinking, take pleasure in play of their minds.
    • From Sophie Weil's diary in "Envoi"
  • Idealists, I know, are dangerous, but the claim of the ideal (Ibsen) has to be felt or else.... Or else the world, our deteriorating world, will continue on its course by sheer inertia. Inertia is taking over, right here; you can sense it.
    • From Sophie Weil's diary in "Envoi"

How I Grew (1987)

  • You can date the evolving life of a mind, like the age of a tree, by the rings of friendship formed by the expanding central trunk. In the course of my history, not love or marriage so much as friendship has promoted growth.
    • Ch. 1
  • [I]t is a mistake to think that an intellectual is required to be intelligent; there are occasions when the terms seem to be almost antonyms.
    • Ch. 2
  • In my first year at Annie Wright Seminary, I lost my virginity. I'm not sure whether this was an "educational experience" or not. The act did not lead to anything and was not repeated for two years. But at least it dampened my curiosity about sex and so left my mind free to think about other things.
    • Ch. 3
  • Nobody in this land, certainly no Christian, can accept hating on a full-time basis; it is apt to reflect back on the hater.
    • Ch. 4
  • [I]n school, character is fate.
    • Ch. 5
  • 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.
    • Ch. 6
  • About truth I have always been monotheistic. It has been an article of faith with me, going back to college days, that there is a truth and that it is knowable.
    • Ch. 7
  • A good deal of education consists of unlearning — the breaking of bad habits, as with a tennis serve. This was emphatically true of a Vassar education: where other colleges aimed at development, bringing out what was already there like a seed waiting to sprout, Vassar remade a girl. Vassar was transformational.
    • Ch. 8
  • To marry a man without loving him, which was what I had just done, not really perceiving it, was a wicked action, I saw. Stiff with remorse and terror, I lay under the thin blanket through a good part of the night; as far as I could tell from what seemed a measureless distance, my untroubled mate was sleeping.
    • Ch. 9, last lines of book

Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936–1938 (1992)

  • Every year I started Ulysses, but I could not get beyond the first chapter — "stately, plump Buck Mulligan" — page 47, I think it was. Then one day, long after, in a different apartment, with a different man (which?), I found myself on page 48 and never looked back. This happened with many of us: Ulysses gradually — but with an effect of suddenness — became accessible. It was because in the interim we had been reading diluted Joyce in writers like Faulkner and so had got used to his ways, at second remove.
    • Ch. 1
  • 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.
    • Ch. 2
  • 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.
    • Ch. 2
  • 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.
    • Ch. 2

Quotes about McCarthy

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
  • The play centers on an incident that occurred on my old PBS show, in 1979. I always enjoyed having McCarthy as a guest. She was lively, witty, opinionated, and striking on camera. And there was her smile, hilariously immortalized by Randall Jarrell, in Pictures from an Institution: "Torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile."
  • How guilty should I feel? The lawsuit crippled McCarthy financially and wrecked her health. Is there a term in law for something that doesn’t directly cause a crime—those few little words of mine on the air—which, omitted, would have prevented it? I’m deeply sorry that I never spoke to McCarthy again. Could we have had dinner and enjoyed a grim laugh? Might she have said, "Don’t blame yourself. I was hellbent on doing the Hellman thing"? Ephron, in her play, suggests that McCarthy had the whole thing planned. I don’t really think she did, though. Maybe that’s why I felt sorrier for her than for Old Scaly Bird. Scariest thought: Is it possible that I was set up? Used, by the two titans, to provide publicity for their fading careers? (I was, at the time, working more than they were.)
  • 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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