The novel begins, “It was June, 1933, one week after commencement…” and is about that most punctual form of collective identity, one’s graduating class: in our case, the class of ’33. The Group, we might say, asks to be dated.
Dated, but not courted: one of the hardest things to tell about Mary McCarthy’s prose is whether she cares if you like it or not.
Her wit moves around a great deal: some times it strains to be broad, to telegraph its meaning to even the casual reader. Other times it seems arranged surreptitiously under that casual reader’s nose, waiting for a more discerning, knowledgeable eye. At still other times the humor seems almost private, as if she is a little disappointed to find no one to play with, but largely indifferent–it’s her joke, dammit, and she likes it.
Humor, as is often said, dates a book either by the evanescent topicality of its allusions (a problem from which historians of a given period are enjoyably inoculated) or because the rhythm and syncopation of humor changes over time, often abruptly.
I was afraid through most of our first reading chunk (Chapters 1-5) that The Group had dated too much to be very enjoyable and perhaps for some of you that has been the case. But the quality of datedness seems to me to have less to do with humor than with sex. It is a strikingly difficult achievement to write any sex scene (I imagine; that is, after all, why they have an award for “Bad Sex in Fiction”), but it is even more difficult, it seems, to write in a historically situated manner about shifting sexual mores in a way that, decades later, avoids both preciousness and clinicalness.
Frankness of autobiography generally helps, as it is difficult to surpass the bracing first lines of Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis”:
Sexual intercourse began
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
But McCarthy is less intent on that keenly personal (and confessionally belated) note which Larkin strikes, although she shares a sort of emphatic desire to bracket her characters’ sexual experiences within cultural or even political landmarks. What happens to Dottie and to Kay (the character biographically the closest to McCarthy), the two characters who dominate this portion of the novel, is not synchronized generally with “the Depression” or even “the Thirties,” nor even more specifically with the spirit of change brought about by the change from Hoover to Roosevelt, but precisely with the summer of FDR’s first term.
Those three months of Roosevelt—the famous hundred days—is time enough for this… I hesitate even to say generation because it is diced more finely than that… this cohort to begin to form expectations about the personal effects of the New Deal on even the intimate angles of their lives (money and, still more, employment is intricately related to sexual and romantic plans among McCarthy’s cohort) as well as to find a new plane on which differences with their parents become more troublingly apparent. McCarthy’s Vassar women are already by this point in the novel a little perplexed at the chasm between their simple hopes for the New Deal and their parents’ simple horror.
Trying to live up to these times and to distinguish oneself from one’s retrograde parents is difficult—Kay muses that she is not wild about pre-prandial cocktails, but “it would have seemed such a comedown to just put food on and sit down and eat, like her parents”—and in sexual matters especially, the women are terrifically unsure whether they are in the grips of instincts, peer pressure, the Zeitgeist, inhibitions, raw desire, or maybe everything at once. There has been no time to adjust: McCarthy packs the New Deal summer of 1933 so tightly for a woman just graduated with conflicting forces and meanings that we lose the sense of history and are left with the novel itself: dated, but not historical.
But there is another layer still of precise dating that hovers over the novel: 1963, the year The Group was published, was also the year that Fanny Hill, an 18th century English pornographic novel, challenged obscenity laws in the United States. I need to do a little more research about the exact timing of this, but it seems to me that The Group may very well have had a legal challenge scored against it had the way not just before been cleared by Fanny Hill. In other words, The Group was one of the first, perhaps the first, mainstream novel to take full advantage of the victories against censorship that Fanny Hill and, before that, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (published in its unexpurgated form in the US for the first time in 1959) had achieved. The Group was a massive bestseller; it would have had, no doubt, many fewer readers had it been published even a year earlier.
That, at any rate, is what I have to say about the first chunk of The Group, and I turn it over to you. What are your thoughts: is this a “novel of ideas” or just a novel of (mostly poseur) intellectuals? What are its ideas? Are you enjoying it? Can you keep the characters straight?
 Of course, McCarthy’s ability to make men fear that she was not interested in them was, for them, part of her attractiveness. “When most pretty girls smile at you, you feel terrific… when Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open,” Dwight Macdonald was supposed to have said, a line that has always turned my stomach. Not only is there that obnoxious diminutive “pretty girls” but the idea behind it reeks of such entitlement, such blatant male vanity trying to salvage something sexual out of this (of course it has to be his fly that is open, not soup on his tie or chalk on his shirt). It’s staggering what McCarthy must have put up with.
 March 4, 1933 was the last time a President was sworn in during March; the 20th Amendment passed that year, and the next time FDR was sworn in, it was on January 20, 1937.