Mary McCarthy (1912–1989)
From Mary McCarthy: Novels & Stories 1942–1963
Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) has been getting all the attention in recent months, but there’s also pupaphobia—the fear of puppets. If the latter is a condition that ails you, then you might want to avoid Mary McCarthy’s “The Unspoiled Reaction,” which features a puppet show gone horribly wrong. As literary critic Francis Gillen wrote, the story describes “the expulsion from childhood’s paradise” and contrasts “the ‘knowing’ world of adults and the relatively unsophisticated and innocent world of children.” All true—although the flustered adults flee the theater with an agitation hardly different from their children’s distress.
McCarthy finished the story after her separation from her husband, Edmund Wilson. She was staying with friends on Cape Cod, where her writing was constantly interrupted by the hijinks and boisterousness of her son, Reuel, and his friends. The story that resulted amid this household chaos has little in common with the acerbic portrayals of New York’s social scene she was famous for, and one can only wonder how all the child play might have influenced her while she wrote.
McCarthy never included this selection in one of her books but it has now been restored to print in the recently published Library of America edition of Mary McCarthy’s complete fiction. We present it here, in full and completely free, as our latest Story of the Week selection.