"All My Habits of Mind": Performance and Identity in the Novels of Mary McCarthy

Article excerpt

Before she was a writer of novels, memoirs, travel books, and political commentary, Mary McCarthy was a theater critic. As a young writer, she turned her brilliant mind and her practiced book reviewer's eye on the contemporary stage, beginning with a series in The Nation in 1936 and moving on in 1937 to her long-running monthly "Theater Chronicle" in Partisan Review. In her introduction to her collected Theatre Chronicles, McCarthy recalls,

 
   All my habits of mind were bourgeois, my fellow editors used to tell me. 
   They were always afraid that I was going to do something, in real life or 
   in print, that would "disgrace Partisan Review"; this was a fear that 
   worried me even more than it did them. I used to come down to the office on 
   Saturdays (I worked for a publisher during the week) and listen to the men 
   argue, in the inner room, beyond the partition, pounding the table and 
   waving their arms in the air. Once a month, late at night, after the dishes 
   were done, I would write my "Theatre Chronicle," hoping not to sound 
   bourgeois and give the Communists ammunition. (ix-x) 

The passage contains a great deal of irony; the year this collection was published also saw the publication of The Group, which, in the words of Robert Lowell, aroused a "roar," a "forest fire" of "praise and abuse" that seemed to indicate that the novel was most emphatically not bourgeois (qtd. in Brightman 481). In fact, the success of the theater reviews themselves was enough to dispel the image of the bourgeois housewife McCarthy evokes here. This passage, however, is infused not only with irony but also with fear, both that she could be so easily typed by others and that her own "habits of mind" might make her, indeed, typical.

These fears of being typed and of being a type are complicated by the fact that McCarthy's own brand of insight was largely based on her ability to see others as types, as illustrated in the passage above. She describes the PR editors "pounding the table and waving their arms in the air," typical of their time, gender, class, occupation. She sees them as acting out a version of themselves, and she presents herself as acting out their version of her, cleaning dishes after the evening meal. Having aspired to the stage herself until her actor husband and others discouraged her, and having become instead a theater critic, Mary McCarthy was a vigilant observer of performance wherever she found it, and she found it everywhere.

Early on, McCarthy seems to have been persuaded that performance is mock action, separable from real action. For example, McCarthy felt that Ben Hecht's To Quito and Back was an abrupt departure from his previous plays, and in her December 1937 review she wrote, "I am not sure whether Mr. Hecht was wearing a transformation or had actually undergone one" (3). In her 1940 review of two plays by William Saroyan she wrote, "Saroyan as a public figure does an impersonation of Saroyan, but as a writer he plays straight" (47). McCarthy never lost the conviction that literature could be true or false, and she was still ready to fight about it in 1979 when she inspired a lawsuit by saying on The Dick Cavett Show that "every word she [Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including `and' and `the'" (qtd. in Kiernan 673). However, lies, impersonations, performances outside of art were another matter entirely, and the question of whether performance is indeed separable from real action seems to have become a source of anxiety for McCarthy; she confronted this anxiety in her fiction.

This intense and honest confrontation with the problem of performance and its relation to identity has been treated by most scholars and critics of her work simply as a particularly scathing brand of satire. The criticism of McCarthy's fiction that does not focus on its autobiographical elements nearly always focuses on her satire, which is frequently compared with knives and blades. …