Mary McCarthy's Frank Self View

By , Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction for the Monitor.

MARY McCARTHY was in her 70s when she published the first volume of her autobiography in 1987. "How I Grew" followed young Mary from adolescence to the brink of adulthood, ending with her wedding to a man with whom she had already fallen out of love, even before she said "I do."

"Intellectual Memoirs," the second installment, is regrettably also the last, an account of the beginnings of McCarthy's life as a "New York intellectual" left incomplete at the time of her death in 1989.

It opens in 1936, with the author marching in a Communist-sponsored May Day parade on Broadway, and proceeds through her forays into book and theater reviewing, the disintegration of her first marriage, her move from the Stalinist to the Trotskyite camp, and her love affair with quintessential New York Jewish intellectual Philip Rahv, founding editor of the Partisan Review. It takes us as far as her ill-considered, yet oddly fortuitous marriage to the heavyweight literary critic Edmund Wilson, who infamo usly locked her in a room to get her started on her career as a writer of fiction.

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In her introduction to "Intellectual Memoirs," Elizabeth Hardwick, who knew her well, writes of McCarthy's "somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact in matters both trivial and striking.... If one would sometimes take the liberty of suggesting caution to her, advising prudence or mere practicality, she would look puzzled and answer: but it's the truth. I do not think," adds Hardwick, "she would have agreed it was only her truth...."

A journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator, as well as a fiction writer, McCarthy recognized the difficulty of ascertaining the truth, but certainly would not have subscribed to the view that truth cannot be distinguished from opinion or that values are only "relative." As she looks back on her life in "New York 1936-1938," she is intent upon getting things straight, whether she is trying to remember what she served her guests at a dinner party or why she deserted Philip Rahv, whom she love d, for Edmund Wilson, whom she didn't.

Before becoming a contributor to the Partisan Review ("I suspect that Philip [Rahv] imposed me on the others," she reflects with her usual frankness), McCarthy wrote reviews for The Nation and looked - often in vain - for other outlets. With her sharp critical mind, discriminating tastes, and the high standards she had imbibed from her teachers at Vassar, McCarthy was hardly the sort of reviewer to gush over the latest bestseller or join the chorus of praise for the literary star of the moment.

McCarthy's intent, critical gaze, her tough-minded insistence on truthfulness were applied as relentlessly to herself as to others. McCarthy divulges, not only the frequency of her sexual encounters (high by almost any standard), but she also names real names: not, one feels, to be hurtful, but to avoid being coy. More interestingly, she tries hard to reassess her feelings and motives in the more important of these affairs, and does not let herself off lightly. It is precisely this honesty, this willingn ess to examine her own motives and count up the consequences of her actions, that makes "Intellectual Memoirs" a refreshing as well as compelling autobiography. One can only regret there is not more of it.

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