Remembering Mary McCarthy (Less Than Fondly)

When the novelist and essayist Mary McCarthy died in 1989 many observers called her the foremost American woman of letters. In the past quarter of a century, McCarthy’s writing has faded from sight, but she may be making a comeback, for the Library of America recently published a two-volume edition of her fiction. McCarthy is now mainly known for her feud with Lillian Hellman. In 1984 New York Times reporter Samuel G. Freedman said: “For my generation, the feud with Lillian Hellman was the only thing that brought Mary McCarthy into public consciousness. … The incident … perhaps brought her more fame than any of her books.” The feud has spawned innumerable articles, two plays, and at least one book. Writing recently in the Barnes & Noble Review, Melissa Pierson refers to McCarthy’s “famous feud with Lillian Hellman.”

The feud may have been simmering for many years before it boiled over on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, where McCarthy called Hellman “a bad writer and a dishonest writer. . . . Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Incensed by what McCarthy said, Hellman sued her for libel to the tune of 2.25 million. When Hellman died in June 1984, Hellman’s estate dropped the suit. Three years later McCarthy told an interviewer: “I still feel disgusted by the amount of lying that didn’t stop after my remarks on that show. I wanted it to go to trial, so I was disappointed when she died.”

With few exceptions the American intellectual community applauded McCarthy’s denunciation of Hellman. Most people in the literary world rightly argued that Hellman’s two memoirs—Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1972) and Scoundrel Time (1976)—were dishonest. Elizabeth Hardwick, a close friend of McCarthy’s, called Hellman “an appalling liar. And a very bad person.” Susan Sontag said that “in the quarrel between Lillian and Mary I was 100 percent on Mary’s side.” According to the publisher Jason Epstein, “Lillian was a Stalinist, but she would never admit it. Mary really took that stuff very seriously.”

McCarthy’s denunciation of Hellman burnished her reputation as a writer devoted to the truth. According to Carol Gelderman, one of McCarthy’s biographers, “an intransigent and fearless honesty was a basic trait of her character.” In 2002 the novelist Thomas Mallon called her remarks about Hellman “the bravest act of McCarthy’s last decade,” and he considered the controversy to be “one of the most important writers’ controversies of the past twenty years.”

There is no question that Hellman was a dishonest writer, but did McCarthy deserve her reputation for fearless honesty? In my view she did not. On the same Dick Cavett Show in which she attacked Hellman she said that Pham Van Dong, the Stalinist leader of Vietnam, was “the most impressive politician I ever met(emphasis mine).”

McCarthy greatly esteemed Pham Van Dong, whom she met when she traveled to North Vietnam in 1968. In 1972 McCarthy was disturbed that some of her friends were thinking of voting for Richard Nixon. McCarthy did not know whom to vote for. “As a half-joke to myself,” she wrote her friend Hannah Arendt, “I’ve been mentally saying ‘Should I send a telegram to Pham Van Dong, perhaps, and ask him what he’d like me to do?’” In a footnote the editor of the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence writes: “McCarthy continued to exchange holiday greetings with North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong long after her 1968 trip to Hanoi.”

“Vous avez beaucoup de coeur, madame,” Pham Van Dong told McCarthy when she visited North Vietnam. “You have shown a deep feeling for the Vietnamese people. Feeling and understanding.” Pham Van Dong thought McCarthy was the perfect visitor to North Vietnam because she did not question the regime’s contention that it was the legitimate government of all of Vietnam.

McCarthy’s writing about Vietnam, especially Hanoi (1968), was widely criticized. Ward Just, who had been a journalist in South Vietnam, said: “I’m a great admirer of Mary McCarthy’s work, both the essays and the novels. It’s just the Vietnam stuff that I didn’t like. She didn’t understand Vietnam at all.” Reviewing Hanoi for the Washington Post, Just wrote: “One hardly knows how to deal with this book, so transparent are the biases, so evident the intention to color Hanoi white and Washington black.” Frances Kieran, McCarthy’s most astute biographer, says: “Subsequent events made her [McCarthy’s] original assessment of the North seem misguided if not wilfully blind.”

In McCarthy’s last article on Vietnam, she urged policymakers to do “some self-questioning,” yet McCarthy apparently did not do any self-questioning about her Vietnam writing. She was puzzled and hurt that her Vietnam books either got bad reviews or were ignored. In 1981 she told an interviewer, “It was a terrible blow, and I will never understand it.” What was so hard for McCarthy to understand? She had called the Stalinist North Vietnamese regime a moral government

Reviewing Frances Kiernan’s biography, A.O. Scott quoted McCarthy’s remark that “the writer must be first of all a listener and observer, who can pay attention to reality, like an obedient pupil, and who is willing, always, to be surprised by the messages reality is sending through to him.” McCarthy was not a listener and observer when she journeyed to North Vietnam. As Ward Just said, “The lady came to North Vietnam with a closed mind and an open notebook, and she believed everything they told her.”

After McCarthy died, her friend Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books, who commissioned McCarthy to go to North Vietnam, said: “I wonder what Mary would think now. Since the war, the behavior of the North Vietnamese government has been brutal and terrible. I think that she might well have changed some of her views. She was a woman who was capable of that. Very much so.”

Silvers’s remark makes no sense because at least a decade before McCarthy died the Stalinist nature of the Vietnamese government was well-known. In the spring and summer of 1979 New York Times journalist Henry Kamm wrote several articles about Vietnam—noting that “Stalin . . . is less unmentionable in Hanoi than in other capitals in the Soviet orbit.” Kamm spoke of Vietnam’s “Stalinist policies” and he also discussed Vietnam’s forced expulsion of ethnic Chinese and other people it deemed politically undesirable. Those forced to leave had a choice—either emigrate by boat or go into the jungle with only meager supplies. If those being expelled had something the Vietnamese regime coveted—money, gold, jewelry—they were allowed to choose the boat option.

In October 1979 McCarthy implied that she knew about repression in Vietnam, for she told The Observer: “As for my current views on Vietnam, it’s all rather daunting. I’ve several times contemplated writing a real letter to Pham Van Dong (I get a Christmas card from him every year) asking him can’t you stop this, how is it possible for men like you to permit what’s going on? One can allow for a certain amount of ignorance at the top for what is executed at a lower level; that’s true in any society. But this has gone past that point. I’ve never written that letter, though; it is still in my pending folder, so to speak. Of course it shouldn’t have stayed there, but it did.” She clearly knew that Vietnam was a terrible place, but she did not think it was Pham Van Dong’s fault.

McCarthy once said, “I have this fanatical obsession with accuracy.” Why, then, was she unwilling to acknowledge that she had been wrong about Pham Van Dong? To answer this question requires a brief look at her political views.

In the 1930s and 1940s McCarthy was left-wing, but only vaguely so. She did not think of herself as a political person. She found most Communists boring, narrow-minded, and humorless. She called herself anti-Stalinist and anti-communist, but in the 1950s she dropped the anti-communist label because anti-communism was the rallying cry of the demagogic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

In the 1960s McCarthy became strongly anti-anti-communist. In her view American anti-Communists greatly exaggerated the Communist “threat”—her quotation marks. Writing about State Department official Charles Bohlen, she says: “He let his anti-Communism stretch out to embrace to Vietnam, as a matter of course, saving him mental effort.” In 1970 she told an interviewer that “U.S. foreign policy . . . hardened into anti-Communism.”

According to McCarthy, North Vietnam was the legitimate ruler of all of Vietnam, and the American intervention in the war was a crime that brought death, degradation, and pollution to the country. Mainstream journalists took a different view of the war. “Vietnam,” Stanley Karnow wrote in 1983, “had essentially been a civil war in which the United States supported its anti-Communist client against a Communist adversary backed by the Soviet Union and China.” Vietnam was mired in a civil war that would have occurred even if the U.S. had not intervened.

McCarthy blamed the death and destruction solely on the United States and called Nixon “the Mad Bomber in chief.” Nixon’s resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam in December 1972 was for one purpose: to force the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. It worked. The North Vietnamese agreed to a peace treaty, but Pham Van Dong had no intention of honoring the terms of the treaty, which gave South Vietnam at least the appearance of being independent. “The Communists,” writes Karnow, “were almost fanatical in their resolve to reunify Vietnam under their control.”

McCarthy was pleased when Saigon fell. In the last article she wrote about Vietnam—published in the New York Review of Books in June 1975—she says: “The only beneficiaries I can see of the event of April 30 [when the North Vietnamese overran Saigon] are the Vietnamese.”


In October 1979, a few months after Henry Kamm’s articles about Vietnam appeared, McCarthy taped her interview with Dick Cavett. Before talking about Hellman, McCarthy and Cavett talked about post-war Vietnam. Referring to what McCarthy said in The Observer about wanting to write a letter to Pham van Dong, Cavett asked her if she had ever written Van Dong.

McCarthy seemed to be taken aback by the question. She replied that she was planning to write but she wanted to wait until she had more “solid information” about what was happening in Vietnam. Then she sounded more tentative: “I might. I don’t know.”

McCarthy was unwilling to conclude that a man she immensely admired had anything to do with Vietnam’s Stalinist policies. She said she was honored to get Christmas cards from him. “I liked him very very much.”

Cavett then asked McCarthy: “Why couldn’t you call him on the telephone?”

“I hate to talk on the phone. A letter is what I ought to write. I still may write the letter.”

“Maybe you were wrong about him in the first place?” Cavett asked.

McCarthy seemed flustered by Cavett’s question. “I don’t think one one can be. I’ve got photos and so on—and you look at his face and—anyway. I hope … I hope I was not wrong, but he is getting old. It may be that he’s no longer directing operations there.”

McCarthy ended the discussion by saying that she would never send a letter to Pham Van Dong. It would be pointless to do so because he was old, very old, and therefore powerless “so that the letter could still be written but the real … the result might be nil, might be nil, anyway.”

McCarthy’s exchange with Cavett about Pham Van Dong has gotten very little attention. Only Frances Kiernan mentions it; she disapproves of McCarthy’s admiration for Pham Van Dong but she does not quote McCarthy’s flustered response to Cavett’s question about whether she could have been wrong about Pham Van Dong. Kiernan only says that McCarthy “faltered for a moment.”

In Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America , Alan Ackerman seems not to have read the transcript carefully, for he says: “When the conversation shifted to her criticism of US policy in Vietnam, she added: ‘I hate to talk on the television.”’ McCarthy and Cavett talked about the post-war government of Vietnam—not about US policy in Vietnam—and McCarthy said she hated to talk on the telephone. It may be worth mentioning that Ackerman describes Sidney Hook as a “philosopher and communist-hater.” Why did Yale University Press give the green light to such mindless invective?

Five years after the Dick Cavett interview McCarthy speculated wildly that Pham Van Dong probably had lost power as early as 1969, after the death of Ho Chi Minh. Pham Van Dong “was really the carrier of Ho Chi Minh’s values and that with the death of Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong became something of a figurehead.” Yet in 1979 McCarthy implied that Pham Van Dong was the leader of Vietnam. It is not clear when Pham Van Dong lost power in Vietnam, but when he died in 2000 the New York Times said that he “remained a fiercely loyal Communist” who believed in a one-party state.

In the 1970s and 1980s McCarthy was reluctant to criticize the post-war regime in Vietnam, but she strongly attacked the United States. In 1979 she told a British interviewer: “I feel that America now is horribly sad and discouraging.” When she received the MacDowell Medal in 1984, she said: “I can see deterioration in every area of [American] life.” In her speech, the New York Times noted, she “reviled Cuisinarts, word processors, and credit cards.” In letters and interviews she condemned frozen foods, electric coffee grinders, nuclear power, and air travel, which is “absolutely ruinous.” She thought most Americans were were “the conditioned subjects of the free enterprise system.”

In McCarthy’s view capitalism is bad for the mind and bad for the soul. Americans are so preoccupied with getting and spending that they are losing the ability to appreciate nature. “Aside from getting us into wars, it [capitalism] distorts our relationship with nature. And I think our perception of the world and our values stem absolutely from the possibility of some reasonably true perception of nature—which is gradually disappearing, and will soon become impossible.”

In the Barnes & Noble Review, Melissa Pierson says that McCarthy had “one of the fiercest minds in American letters.” In 1962 this fierce-minded intellectual told an interviewer: “I believe in a kind of libertarian socialism.” In 1971 she told William Buckley: “The whole notion of production for profit seems to me to beg the question of the value of the thing produced, which seems itself to be at least a dangerous situation.” Did she want a government agency to assign a value to products? Probably not, for she also told Buckley that she was “for something very decentralized as possible.” In 1978 she spoke out against charging interest for loans. “Money that begets money is the original sin, as the church felt in the Middle Ages.”

A handful of intellectuals had strong reservations about McCarthy’s writing; they include Elizabeth Bishop, Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Epstein, Hilton Kramer, and Sidney Hook. In Out of Step, Hook says: “Mary McCarthy has an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, which enables her to close her eyes to the consequences of words and actions that make her uncomfortable.”

By contrast, the list of American writers who praised McCarthy for her honesty, intelligence, accuracy, and integrity is dismayingly large. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said McCarthy “never lost her . . . endless curiosity about people and ideas and human predicaments.” William Barrett, a leading New York intellectual, wrote that McCarthy was “one of the most brilliant women and formidable intellectuals of her time.” Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, where McCarthy occasionally taught, said McCarthy was “a person of great character.” The novelist Mary Gordon observed that McCarthy “combined purity of style with a kind of rigorous moral honesty”—adding that McCarthy had a “relentless moral perspective on the world.”

The silliest comment about McCarthy was made by William Shawn, who edited the New Yorker. “She was a very forceful writer of prose. What made for that was the clarity of her thinking. She was well educated, she knew a lot, but mostly she had an original turn of mind. There aren’t so many people you could mention in connection with Samuel Johnson, but you could mention Mary McCarthy.” Comparing McCarthy to Johnson? The mind boggles. Johnson was a strong defender of commerce, which McCarthy always derided.

In October 1987 McCarthy gave a talk called “Useless Freedom” at Bard College. By “useless freedom” she meant that freedom is priceless—that it has a value that has nothing to do with a purpose of any kind. “Freedom is the very highest value, since it does not serve anything, no ulterior end, no purpose….We should live with it to the limit of our possibility, we should never relinquish it voluntarily.”

When McCarthy was writing “Useless Freedom” did she remember that 12 years earlier she had applauded the Stalinist North Vietnamese regime’s takeover of South Vietnam? In 2017 Vietnam still is not free. It is a one-party dictatorship. McCarthy spoke out against political repression in Poland, but she preferred to change the subject when someone asked her about repression in Vietnam. In 1984 she said, “I haven’t seen any of the Vietnamese I used to know for years.”

Was she still sending Pham Van Dong a Christmas card?

Stephen Miller’s latest book is Walking New York: Reflections of American Writers from Walt Whitman to Teju Cole.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard


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