Mary McCarthy and Postmodernism

Attempting to understand Mary McCarthy’s standpoint was a challenge to say the least. Something this author seemed to have a real skill for was not always adhering to one style, idea, or concept. So to understand, or at least attempt to understand, McCarthy, I began with looking into who she was.

Mary Therese McCarthy was an American novelist, critic and political activist. She was a part of the Partisan Review circle and as a contributor to The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New York Review of Books.

McCarthy was a very well known author who authored 21 works, and had 8 written about her. Her first novel, The Company She Keeps was written in 1942. For McCarthy there has been a lingering question of what her views were on a number of social aspects.

One particular idea continued to bump around inside my head when I read her work, Postmodernism. The definition of the word is, “ a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of ‘art’.”

This is the standard dictionary version of postmodernism, but there is also another way we can see it from a more literary perspective.

The reason that postmodernism seemed to go hand-in-hand with McCarthy was because in her writing, particularly The Company She keeps, There are six different short stories that make up the novel, through the stories the same main character, Meg Sergent, is used as the protagonist. However, the perspective is constantly changing. McCarthy does not use the standard concept of what a typical “novel” would be. Her very idea through the novel has characters that come in for a short time, and then drop out of the text with no explanation and the narrative changes from first, to third person perspective depending on the story, and there are numerous dead ends that leave the reader with a feeling of dissatisfaction over lack of closure.

All of these characteristics in her text begged the question that, if her writing never sticks to one idea, then why would her outside life be any different?

This seemed to coincide with the idea that postmodernism is rejecting the social ideals of what art is, and since writing is a form of art, McCarthy is using her own style to refuse the typical notion of the novel.

Her rejection of social norms is strong in the way she writes the novel, but thats not where it ends. The very characters themselves work to also decline grand theories and ideologies, such as what the role of a woman should be. Her main character in The Company She Keeps is in the position that a male character would be more likely to find himself in. This female character begins the first story of the novel anonymous, discussing to herself the idea of leaving her husband for the younger man with whom she is having an affair. Typically a woman of the early 1900’s would be more in the position of a doting housewife, rather than a “loose woman” archetype who is an independent and sexual being.

So in essence, McCarthy is rejecting the normative ideals of what a novel is the same way her character is rejecting the social norms of the way women were viewed in a patriarchal society. All of this evidence is what convinced me even further that McCarthy was a postmodernist individual.

I share my conclusions with another author, Robert Henn, who wrote an essay entitled, “Mary McCarthy’s totalitarian Campus and the rise of the postmodern”. This paper was presented at the american Studies Association in 2006.

The Essay is attempting to shed light in the potential influence that the higher education system in America as well as the employment in the academic field by looking at the concept of postmodernism through Mary McCarthy’s novel The Groves of Academe (1952).

The author found that the novel was filled with political intrigues among the faculty and what he called, “A Bureaucratic Maze” (Henn 2). The novel is filled with satire that show a reflection of a postmodernist view withing McCarthy’s writing.

His findings of these concepts in another one of her novels strengthens the idea that Mary McCarthy challenges regulated ideas and concepts withing their societal structure, and by doing so she is displaying the characteristics of postmodernist ideals.

From interviews I have seen, as well as textual evidence from her works, it would seem that McCarthy did not like to necessarily attach herself to many labels, and seemed to dance around certain titles such as, “feminist.” This, ironically, would imply that, if she did not want to call herself a postmodernists, she is rejecting the social idea that people need labels, which would push her even further into the category of postmodernist.

Works Cited

Henn,Robert. “Mary McCarthy’s Totalitarian Campus and the Rise of the Postmodern” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Oct 12, 2006

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