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Richard Eder

How I Grew by Mary McCarthy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; 278 pp.)

May 10, 1987|Richard Eder

"Iwas born as a mind in 1925, my bodily birth having occurred in 1912," Mary McCarthy writes in an odd and revealing beginning to this early memoir. "How I grew" is that mind's jittery and often painful expedition--armed, of course--to unearth that body.

McCarthy, for all her lucid critical mind and moral sensibility, is not an autobiographer by nature, any more than she is a novelist by nature. To a reader, the details of growing up are not usually interesting in themselves; it is the quality of the writer's remembrance that holds us. Recollection can offer a sense of the wider possibilities upon which the narrower life was built. McCarthy's memoir, taking her to her 21st year and her first, instantly regretted marriage, narrows as it goes back.

We can partly see why. Her mother and father--warm and lively spirits, she remembers--died of flu in 1918 when she was 5. She lived with aunts and uncles for the next half-dozen years. Their Minneapolis house was "jaundice-colored," the atmosphere was pinched and mean. She was beaten after winning an essay prize, to forestall vanity; and for some unnamed infraction, she was obliged to stand outdoors for two hours at 20 degrees below zero.

By the time her large-minded maternal grandparents took her to live with them in Seattle, some self-preserving disconnection had evidently been fixed in place. The mind and the will had become the guardians of the life. The fine metallic line that McCarthy drew out of herself held her spirit together, but it also hampered some of its movements.

"Laughter is the great antidote for self-pity, maybe a specific for the malady," she writes. "Yet probably it does tend to dry one's feelings out a little, as if by exposing them to a vigorous wind. So that something must be subtracted from the compensation I seem to have received for injuries sustained. There is no dampness in my emotions, and some moisture, I think, is needed to produce the deeper, the tragic notes."

For laughter, read derisive laughter. Derision, practiced early--she recalls reducing an English teacher to tears with it--is practiced throughout this book upon herself. Nobody--not even Randall Jarrell with the McCarthy character in his satire on college life--could be any harder.

She portrays an avid, willful adolescent, full of schemes and eagerness to prevail, whose utter refusal of authority is masked by hypocrisy and lies, and whose various love affairs are all greed and hardly any pleasure. She writes of sex--in a car at 14, in a painter's studio at 16--with detailed dismay. It suggests abdominal surgery under a local anesthetic.

As a tot in a school pageant, where she played the part of an iris, she was rebuked afterward for visibly mouthing all the other flowers' parts as they delivered them. In her high school senior year, already a figure of power, she persuaded a friend to be a candidate for May Queen. Then, after a quarrel, she campaigned against her by taking the juniors and sophomores aside one by one and graphically pointing out her erstwhile friend's facial blemishes.

McCarthy was a boarder at Annie Wright Seminary, a small private school in Tacoma, run by an idealistic principal who set high standards for the teaching of English, French and the classics. McCarthy asserts that these standards were wasted on most of the students--daughters of the Seattle new-rich, whose main interest was getting married--but left a lasting mark on herself.

McCarthy was a star--the class valedictorian and its only member to go East to college--but she broke the rules, even apart from precocious sex, whenever she could. At one point, along with a classmate, she ran away. The other girl was expelled; Mary received a light suspension. She was too valuable for the school to lose, she realized; a thought that both pleased her and allowed her to be cynical about the integrity of adults. She was able to have her cake and spit on it.

Her tone is cool as she writes of her teachers and of the principal, Adelaide Preston; only when she gets to graduation does it turn warm. She is like one of those inhibited people who only show their feelings when they say goodby.

Miss Preston, with her passion for excellence and chocolate cake, her buried love for the bishop who helped her found the school--she wept at public ceremonies whenever his name was mentioned--and her habit of taking her pupils on her ample lap when they were troubled, emerges as a marvelously rounded portrait. She is one of the few figures--McCarthy's grandfather is another--on whom the author uses something more than intelligence, neutral or derisive. And yet the book, with its many details and anecdotes that remain undigested and untransformed because the temperature is too low for such a process, is redeemed by intelligence.

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