Were Mary McCarthy to walk among us again, she would surely be astounded to discover her work being championed in The Weekly Standard. As the author of this appreciation, Jonathan Leaf, acknowledges, McCarthy was a "lifelong leftist," and Leaf goes on to note her "rampant promiscuity" edging into "nymphomania," hardly qualities that would commend themselves to the conservative audience of this magazine. Perhaps since McCarthy was an anti-Stalinist leftist, the neocons at The Weekly Standard think she might ultimately have become one of them (her political evolution in the 1930s out of Communism through Trotskyism mirrors that of Irving Kristol), but her radical opposition to the Vietnam War does not suggest she would have approved of the Iraq invasion.
Indeed, Leaf claims it is McCarthy's writing, namely her fiction, that should recommend her to us. And here we can perhaps get some sense of why a right-wing magazine would publish as essay celebrating the left-wing McCarthy. Leaf doesn't merely think McCarthy has been unjustly overlooked, but makes some pretty strong claims on her behalf: her first book, The Company She Keeps, is superior to Lolita ("more substantial stuff"); The Group is "Portnoy’s Complaint told from a woman’s point of view. . .written in a far superior style"; in fact, "no American since Scott Fitzgerald has written so felicitously" as McCarthy.
It's hard to take issue with Leaf's analysis on these points, since there is no analysis, not even quotation that would exemplify the claimed felicity of her style. These are sentiments that probably are at least as much expressions of Leaf's disdain for Nabokov and Roth than of esteem for McCarthy, but in either case we really get no support for the literary judgment the author has reached. However, we do get some indication of why Leaf wants to extol McCarthy's work. Her fiction, we are told, presents a "view of woman [that] is not one in which she is an innocent victim or strong sister but, rather, crafty and scheming." Furthermore, McCarthy "depicts motherhood as natural, central, and rewarding," and these depictions of women, along with her "effective demolition of Simone de Beauvoir" in an essay, presumably make McCarthy useful in the effort to fight back feminism.
In addition, McCarthy's work helps us to see that "fiction should be judged principally in terms of its merit as storytelling, and read primarily to find out what happens to the hero or heroine." I have to believe that this is the most important reason why it is now acceptable in The Weekly Standard to hold up a writer like Mary McCarthy as an important and neglected figure in American literature. Postmodernists (and apparently even late modernists such as Nabokov and Roth) are regarded by contemporary conservatives with the same disdain they hold for liberals, and for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that McCarthy also presents a satirical portrayal of "left-wing English professors" in one of her novels, although it's less apparent to me why "the preoccupation among literary scholars with symbolism," which McCarthy also satirizes, should be considered an affront to right-thinking readers.) Much of the resistance to both modernism and postmodernism came from leftist critics, who upheld social realism as the literary strategy most suitable to advancing their political goals and derided modernist/postmodernist experiment as unserious and "game-playing." Right-wing critics have now adopted the literary preferences of their left-wing antagonists, although it seems doubtful they expect realism and traditional storytelling to reinforce their political ideals (a mistaken assumption by radical critics in the first place.)
Or do they? Do they assume that fiction encouraging a preoccupation with "what happens to the hero or heroine" and using familiar narrative means will help keep the mass of readers quiescent? Is the "conservative" vision of the goal of literature now one that ratifies any strategy or theme that could even vaguely be called "traditional"? This latter possibility seems to me the most plausible explanation of the conservative embrace of a writer like Mary McCarthy, who at one time would have been considered dangerous to the social order, and I would not deny the validity of such a move. Through a strategy of what Richard Rorty called "redescription," a writer whose own ambitions for her work would not at all have coincided with the purposes of those now appropriating that work is made to seem sympathetic to these purposes. There's nothing dishonest about such redescription, but I do wonder if conservatives such as Leaf could be entirely comfortable with the relativism on which it is ultimately based.
One could conclude that if the "traditional" fiction of Mary McCarthy can be appropriated to the conservative agenda while her actual beliefs are ignored or discounted, the greater threat to that agenda must be not liberalism but unconventional, adventurous literature. Its challenge to passive reading must seem a greater danger than the mistaken political views of a left-wing nymphomaniac.