‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’ by Mary McCarthy

The mid-twentieth century was a turning point for the short story, particularly in America. The decade from 1940 to 1950 saw more single author collections of short stories published than the previous twenty years, while at the same time, the form lost its critical status, apparently never to be regarded as highly by critics again. From this wealth of writing, though, I could easily furnish a dozen anthologies: Richard Yates, John Cheever, Katherine Ann Porter, Truman Capote—but in my view, no story better captures the mid-century sensibility than Mary McCarthy’s ‘Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt’.

This story was the ‘Cat Person’ of 1941: a scandalous tale of embarrassingly bad sex on a Pullman train, and the desultory affair that follows. Frank and self-deprecating, no-one is spared here, least of all her protagonist (whom many saw as a thinly-veiled self portrait). When the story was published, McCarthy was already well-known in New York circles for the acerbic wit of her theatre reviews, but this story catapulted her into the spotlight as a leading writer and cultural critic, opened up a space for a new discourse around female sexuality, and led to a rush of imitative stories in Harper’s Bazaar and the New Yorker.

First published in Partisan Review, 1941. Collected in The Company She Keeps, Simon and Schuster, 1942; Harcourt, 1970