Plastrik (Judd/Stanley) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page


Books in Review

And What Company

(July 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 191–192.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Company She Keeps
by Mary McCarthy
Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, i–ix, 304 pp.

Hollywood motion pictures solemnly assure us in their introductory footnotes that “all the characters portrayed are fictitious ...” Usually this guarantee is pure redundancy, since they rarely bear any resemblance to reality, anyway.

The trouble with Mary McCarthy (who apparently identifies herself with the heroine of the book, Miss Sargent) is that she is the Eternal Sophomore, the Never-Grow-Up, the Universal Debunker. Miss Sargent, who prides herself in “not believing in anything” (including the peculiar brand of “Trotskyism” which she vehemently upholds at one period), reminds us of those young college sophomores discussing the problem of “petitio principii” (begging the question) in their elementary classes on formal logic. Like these students who cannot grasp the scientific ideas of hypotheses and projection and therefore insist that all science argues in a circle (begs the question), Miss Sargent believes that everything (including believing) is circulatory and must fall back upon itself. This, of course, results in an advanced form of neurotic cynicism – of which our author has more than her just share. An intellectual snob of an extreme type, Miss Sargent is a most unpleasant character to contemplate. Her fetish of sneering and jeering at everything extends even to the poor psychoanalyst who attempts to aid her. Her intellectually sadistic pleasure of foreseeing and shutting off every remark of every individual she ever associated with certainly did not make her company much of a delight!

One reviewer remarked on the method by which this “novel” unfolds. He compared it to the process by which an onion is peeled off, layer after layer, with each layer revealing a different facet of the heroine. The analogy is good, provided the reader realizes that (unlike with Gypsy Rose Lee) nothing remains or is revealed after all the layers are peeled off. Nothing, that is, except the nebulous Miss Sargent – half proud, half regretful of the fact that she never had a real experience – emotional, sexual or political – in her entire life. As the portrait of an American petty bourgeois intellectual Oblomov, The Company She Keeps is a success, if you care for this sort morbid, self-objective sort of writing. As a novel, it is misnamed, since it bears greater resemblance to an elaborate case history study by some clever, literary psychoanalyst.

The “political” aspects of the book – although containing a devastating portrait of “The Yale Intellectual” – are filled with an ignorance that become appalling. We do not mean so much the description of Shachtman as “a dark little lawyer,” but rather the constantly implied insult that “Trotskyism” and Marxism have something to do with the absurd and neurotic creatures whose company Miss Sargent found interesting, at any rate, until she progressed to her next “layer in life” by marrying a wealthy professional.

This is an abuse of literary license and elementary honesty worthy of those frauds who pillory an opponent by distortion and caricature. Mary McCarthy knows nothing of politics and should recognize this. If she persists in utilizing her undoubted talents in creating artificial, unhealthy and synthetic literary products like this book, that is her affair. Hollywood, reported to be short on subject matter and script, may be interested. But literature and art are not consonant with caricature and debunking. The moment Mary McCarthy catches up with the realization that her energies are wasted she will cease to write and will probably rationalize this bankruptcy by turning upon her own work.

Plastrik (Judd/Stanley) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 4 January 2015