Bloody Mary, the blurb suggests, has found her match in her biographer Carol Brightman. Not that this is a hatchet job: if Brightman is a woman in some sense after her subject's own heart it's not in the way Randall Jarrell was thinking of when he put Mary McCarthy in Pictures from an Institution, saying that people couldn't mention her style 'without using the vocabulary of a salesman of kitchen knives'. On the contrary, Brightman is not murderous at all, but detailed, exigent, measured, beady-eyed. Nor is she a Boswell, however. She may have become an accepted figure in the McCarthy landscape in the years leading up to McCarthy's death in 1989, interviewing and taking notes, but she proves tough-minded and independent to a degree. The tone is one of unforgiving intimacy. It's important, obviously, that Brightman belongs to a very different generation, the one that came of age in the Sixties, when she founded and cut her teeth on an anti-war magazine called Viet-Report - the daughter, or even granddaughter generation. She inevitably regards McCarthy's tours de force in exposing the bad faith of the radicals of the Thirties and Forties with some ambivalence: 'By withholding pity, by honouring the weight and worth of convention in American life, McCarthy uncovers a deeper truth about the way in which American intellectuals handle the revolutionary dreams of youth, and why they so often turn on them and learn nothing from them.' You don't necessarily like someone for being right about this kind of thing - Brightman suspects that McCarthy was so sharp because she was in a sense so reductive, she 'lived in relations the way other people are attached to things, places, belief systems'.
LRB 10 February 1994 | PDF Download