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  • Mary McCarthy’s Field Guide to US Intellectuals:Tradition and Modernization Theory in Birds of America

"I am in a state of doubt and dismay about Vietnam," Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt on April 2, 1965; "if he [President Johnson] bombs Hanoi, that is the end, as far as I am concerned. I would not find it acceptable to be an American any more" (Arendt 178–79). For McCarthy, like many other US intellectuals, the escalating war against Vietnam signaled that something was amiss with postwar liberalism. In the words of popular historian David Halberstam, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were supposed to represent the rule of the "best and brightest"—government by experts idealistically committed to reviving the progressive goals of the New Deal at home and exporting American political freedoms abroad. However, the advice of Kennedy's and Johnson's scholars contributed to the US's further involvement in Vietnam; the "best and brightest" helped bring about one of the nation's greatest military and humanitarian disasters. McCarthy thus felt compelled to use her newfound celebrity as a bestselling author to speak out against the war and US intellectuals' responsibility for it; it would be hypocritical not to, [End Page 821] given that her novel-in-progress, Birds of America (1971), was about a young American of draft age. She set aside her novel to visit South and North Vietnam, and her experiences culminated in three books of nonfiction highly critical of US foreign policy: Vietnam (1967), Hanoi (1968) and Medina (1972). She took aim, in particular, at the mainstream social scientists who helped direct counter-insurgency programs and economic development efforts in the region: so-called modernization theorists such as Walt Rostow, Eugene Staley, and McGeorge Bundy. These figures, she argued, "have stamped their vocabulary and their habits of thought on this loony trial of strength in the Asian arena. Here for the first time, political science, as taught and studied in the big American universities, is being applied to war, where it often seems close to science fiction" (Seventeenth 122). Their involvement in Vietnam was a symptom of their uncritical celebration of modernization, one that viewed US liberal society as the best of all possible worlds and hoped to reshape all other cultures in its image. In contrast, McCarthy highlighted the role of humanistic intellectuals like herself, alienated from postindustrial society and therefore dedicated to preserving local traditions abroad against the onslaught of US modernization.

In trying to understand the problems of the Vietnam era, McCarthy thus recapitulated a Cold War conflict between humanistic culture critics and "consensus" historians and social scientists. The former were reformed Marxists who had embraced the aesthetics and cultural politics of 1920s modernists; Harvey Teres, in his study of the New York intellectuals, labels them "Eliotic leftists" (15). They portrayed themselves as critics of the instrumental rationality embodied in modern mass society and as preservers of a disappearing cultural tradition; their politics often embodied a nostalgic desire to return to a more natural, organic society prior to the advent of mass consumption and mass media. Consensus liberals, in contrast, celebrated the United States as an ideal liberal democratic state standing at the end of a teleological history of progressive social development. Their position was exemplified by the work of sociologist Talcott Parsons, for whom American society was becoming a perfectly integrated, homeostatic entity. By the late 1960s, this conflict had become central to McCarthy's work. Hence, she also incorporated it into the fiction she interrupted in order to speak out against the war—Birds of America.

The novel describes the maturation and disillusionment of Peter Levi—an idealistic young man of upper middle-class, professional background spending his junior year at the Sorbonne in fall of 1964. A novel of ideas, it juxtaposes two representative figures in order to trace out the disciplinary fault lines McCarthy identified in her reporting. [End Page 822] The first is Peter's mother, Rosamund Brown, a musicologist and concert harpsichordist with a string of academic ex-husbands. She is the character who most resembles McCarthy, and she embodies the Eliotic leftism of the New York intellectuals. The second is Peter...


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