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Book Review: How I Grew – A Memoir of the Early Years by Mary McCarthy

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Like many others, I started reading Mary McCarthy with The Group looking for the salacious parts, I was young and disappointed. Later, except for The Stones of Florence, a beautiful travelogue/memoir; I stayed away from McCarthy. I did re-readThe Group years later for its story and language. My views of Vassar changed over the years as did my view of McCarthy. This memoir adds a whole new view of the writer herself in her youth and youth itself in the 1920’s.

My wife was not so prejudiced and read me excerpts from The Groves of Academe which was obviously based on McCarthy’s time teaching at our old school. Steely Dan wrote My Old School in which he promises to “never go back”. We photographed him on assignment when he came back to collect an honorary degree at Bard. We all change. Writers, too. Even Vassar changed over the years from a 7 sisters female enclave to a progressive university of the coed variety.

Now, I have come back to Mary McCarthy and she is not the disappointment of my 15 year old self looking for “the good parts”. This memoir sheds a lot of light on how she developed into the writer and intellectual she became. She also lets us into the factors that made her dislike Bard (my old school) where she taught in a male dominated atmosphere about the time Saul Bellow was teaching there; and to like Vassar in its heyday as a bastion of female intellectual strength and empowerment.

I suppose I was surprised by the Vassar-ness of her youth: her preoccupation with class, family, religious background and beauty (something she assuredly had).

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In 1966 my roommate (who later married his Vassar sweetheart) took me there on Saturday night from our radical and rebellious school. Suddenly I was surrounded by girls who were prattling about sororities, fraternities, being “pinned” and all the other stuff of the good little Southern girls with whom I had grown up. I couldn’t wait to get back “home” to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the more rebellious women of a more radical college.

McCarthy begins her memoir rigidly raised in a non-Eastern environment brought to books late because her first “caregivers”, after the death of her parents; denied her books, theater and music. It was also a time I have trouble visualizing. It was the 1920’s and the start of the 30’s. There was intellectual ferment and sexual revolution but it was taking place in a rigid world that was not happy with change. My grandmother was an adult then and would have been the age of her parents. For many of you they would have been the age of your great-grandparents. It is hard to imagine the differences in time as well as the similarities. The stories of her early sexual experiences and losing her virginity (a few times) would be curiously familiar to young people now. There are things that don’t change in this world. Boys and girls and sex being some of them.

There is also a book list quality to her book which is fascinating. There are writers long out of style and lists of old favorites and her classics studies with tomes unknown to me. She is rebellious and sexually free considering the stuffy times; yet, all along, there is the intellectual writer preparing her life out of the innocence and childishness that we all are surprised at when we look back past our usual recollections to the real thoughts of how we thought and felt and acted when we were 13 or 21. We felt grown. We thought we were acting it. We knew our thoughts were the thoughts of giants. In reality we shared childhoods. McCarthy and a few others became that which they dreamed of: writers and artists and actors and scientists with original thoughts. They worked and dreamed and became much like… Mary McCarthy or Sinclair Lewis or Joseph Conrad or Edward Teller. And then there is the rest of humanity who are left, we hope, to read about them and their works and to marvel that the child became the adult .

Then there was, for us, the old home component about the Hudson River Valley of New York which housed, about 35 miles apart, both Vassar and Bard. That bit of personal memoir I will put on my blog where it belongs. Visit at Expatriate Commentaries.

McCarthy wrote of her sophomore year at Vassar and her friend, “poor Maddie Aldrich… later one of ‘the group'” who brings an “intolerable” lesser edition of Two Gentlemen of Verona to English 165. More interesting to me is that “poor Maddie” is Margaret Chanler Astor Aldrich. These Hudson Valley and New York names were the essence of an earlier time and its “upper classes”. The names attach to estate fiefdoms where we have visited, been to parties, photographed or are now open to the public. They are the names of American history as found in New York. Again, visit my blog for reminiscences.

Back to the deprivation of a young intellectual. Those stuffy aunts who kept her from books were thwarted when another part of the family took her home and took her from the convent to a prep school for girls in Seattle which was

“…the first time I was turned loose in a library, like a colt in green pasture. There was no librarian to hover over me; I was usually alone the the tall, dark-paneled room lined with books… modern books… It was like entering a house with a little table all set as in a fairy tale. I would climb up to explore the shelves and bring down booty — all of Sinclair Lewis, for instance… including one called Free Air, featuring a filling station; Galsworthy…( The Forsyte Saga and a new one in a violet cover called The White Monkey, about Fleur); Arnold Bennett… and Wells’s Ann Veronica; a whole line dark-green volumes…by…Hugh Walpole…But the great thing was to find the complete Tolstoy…”

As I said, it includes a reading list but it is the reading list of a writer.

It is a fine memoir of a talented writer and it gives us a working picture of her formative years and of a time removed from us.

Because of her class and religious stuffiness — which she does grow out of mostly; I may never come to totally admire the person. But the doors of perception into her youth and the times and regions of which she writes will certainly push me to read more McCarthy and to read her with changed expectations and understandings.

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