This is Vassar: The newsletter for Vassar College Alumnae/i and Families

Vassar Celebrates Mary McCarthy’s Centennial Year

Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy ’33 would have turned 100 this year, but her connection to Vassar is hardly showing its age. In her writings, the prolific novelist, memoirist, journalist, and critic drew extensively on her experiences at Vassar. Prominent examples include her article “The Vassar Girl” published by Holiday magazine in 1951, her 1963 breakout novel The Group (also made into a movie in 1966), and her 1987 memoir How I Grew.

The Vassar College Libraries is marking McCarthy’s centenary with the exhibit “Mary McCarthy and Vassar,” which presents archival materials from the college’s Mary McCarthy Papers, including writings, photos, and other materials.  

Curator Ronald Patkus, the head of Special Collections at Vassar, says the exhibit “provides an opportunity to explore how Vassar influenced McCarthy, especially when she was a student, and also how the college was influenced by her, particularly in later years.” It may be viewed through June 4 in the Thompson Memorial Library.

The McCarthy Papers are among the key holdings in the college’s Virginia B. Smith Memorial Manuscript Collection. Patkus says the first group of papers came to the college in 1985. Since then it has been followed by several large and significant additions. “Today the collection serves as a window not only on the life and work of McCarthy,” he says, “but also on 20th century intellectual and political circles in general.”

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar, she moved to New York City to begin her career as a writer and critic. She served on the editorial staff of the Partisan Review from 1937 to 1948, and published her first novel, The Company She Keeps, in 1942. In addition to numerous reviews and articles on topics spanning art and architecture, cultural criticism, political analysis, and travel observations, McCarthy published 28 books, including Birds of America (1971), Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), before her death from cancer in 1989. For her body of work, McCarthy won a number of literary awards, among them the Horizon Prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, the MacDowell Medal for Literature, and the National Medal for Literature.

Meghan Daum

In conjunction with the exhibition, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum ’92 (pictured, right) presented the lecture “You Never Liked Me at College: Mary McCarthy’s Past Perfect Vassar" on March 29. Daum drew part of her lecture title from a line in Mary McCarthy's bestselling novel, The Group, in which the character Norine says to Helena a few years after their graduation from Vassar, "You never liked me at college.” Daum believes the comment reflects a social anxiety at Vassar, ”that everyone else is having more fun than we are, that others actually deserve to be there whereas we do not, and that we are mere impostors amid a sea of genuine articles.” 

Daum also contributed the essay “The Company We Keep: Mary McCarthy and the Mythic Essence of Vassar” to the exhibition catalog. In it she expounded on the notion of “past perfect.” There are “two kinds of love for Vassar,” she contends. The first is “the love you feel when you are matriculated, when you are going about the quotidian business of student life.” But the second love—the “mythic” love in her title—is a “nostalgic, revisionist kind” of love, she notes.

Says Daum: “It is the warm little surge we feel when we spot the word ‘Vassar’ spelled out across a car’s rear window. It is that perverse yet abiding fondness we retain for rose and gray as a color combination. It is that strange phenomenon wherein, five or ten or fifteen years after we’ve passed through Taylor Gate for the last time, we can run into a classmate we barely knew or perhaps even actively disliked and feel a genuine gladness about seeing her.”

Meghan Daum, an English major at Vassar, is known for her engaging personal essays that appear in her weekly Los Angeles Times column, as well as in her nonfiction chronicle Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House. She is the author of the novel The Quality of Life Report and the essay collection My Misspent Youth, and a contributor to numerous radio programs, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies.

–Elizabeth Randolph

McCarthy image © Vassar College. Daum image © Alexandra Dean Grossi.

April 2012

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