U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Dating Mary McCarthy: First Part of “The Group” Group Read

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.[1]

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

In nineteen-sixty-three

(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[2]—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?

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, thanks for kicking off this discussion.

    Another thing that dates this book is the Pill. The long excursus on birth control methods and etiquette in chapter three makes a good (implied) argument for oral contraception, which was available to some but not all women in the U.S. in 1963.

    The sex scene in chapter two is filled with ironies — it is climactic and anti-climactic. Consummation, the climax in romance novels, is the beginning of the story for Dottie, not the high point. And Dottie’s climax is described with almost clinical dispassion. It is masterful writing. McCarthy is disabusing her readers very early of the notion that happiness, bliss, epiphany, fulfillment, etc., is to be found in coitus. She is an anti-romantic and then some. On the upside, if you get a sex scene in chapter 2, for heaven’s sake, there’s some incentive for the reader to keep turning pages.

    On keeping the characters straight: not at first. The only character (besides Kay) who is distinct from the beginning is Lakey. The other women in chapter 1 are interchangeable, no sooner described than rendered indistinct again by the social interactions of the Group — which is, I think, part of the point. One by one they differentiate themselves from one another as they (and we) figure out who they are.

    “It’s staggering what McCarthy must have put up with.” This. So much.

    • L. D.,
      You’re absolutely right, and McCarthy does an excellent job defamiliarizing her early 1960s audience (at least the younger part of it) with not only the apparatus of birth control in the 1930s, but also with its precarious legality. The gynecologist who sees Dottie to fit her with a pessary was, Dottie remembers, arrested only a few years before, and the very type of pessary she is prescribed is one Margaret Sanger has been battling with the courts for permission to import from Holland.

      About the technique of introducing so many characters at once: off the top of my head, I cannot recall a novel published before The Group that is so ambitious about throwing so many characters at the reader at once–except novels that deal with families, where there is a kinship structure to plug each one into a single place immediately. And not too many novels have been so ambitious since: the number of friends in a group has generally decreased–usually to four, as with Sex and the City–or we are introduced more gradually.

      However, this ambition seems to work out in films much better: The Big Chill, which itself turned 30 last year, pulls this off very well: a sort of coed Boomer version of The Group.

      • On the issue of introducing a lot of characters almost at once, or in a short space: one novelist who did this quite a lot was Iris Murdoch. A good example is her The Book and the Brotherhood (1987), or The Nice and the Good (from around 20 yrs earlier). She published her first novel in 1954 or thereabouts, and thereafter wrote a great many (arguably, too many). I don’t know whether she read McCarthy; my guess would be not. They were rough contemporaries: McCarthy (1912-1989); Murdoch (1919-1999) — but Murdoch’s fairly brief membership of the CP while a student at Oxford meant that she didn’t/couldn’t come to the U.S. for some decades. (Quite different kinds of writers too, I think, though I haven’t read McCarthy.)

  2. De-romanticizing has its place. But I’m thinking Mary McCarthy’s view of intimacy is less a model than a mirror, and I’m not sure yet what the reader is supposed to see reflected there, or what s/he is supposed to do with it. I’m also re-thinking my comment above re: the Pill, the explicit and non-euphemistic description of sex, birth control, etc., and the purpose of all that for the narrative.

    There are a couple of passages in chapter 2 where Dottie is thinking over what little she knows about sex, and she thinks about how unhelpful her main sources of information were:

    “She wished that books were a little more explicit; Krafft-Ebing, which Kay and Helena had found at a secondhand bookstore and kept reading aloud from, as if it were very funny, mostly described nasty things like men making love to hens, and even then did not explain how it was done….Yet even Mother hinted that satisfaction was something that came after a good deal of time and experience and love made a big difference. But when Mother talked about satisfaction, it was not clear exactly what she meant, and Kay was not clear either, except when she quoted from books.”

    The scene of reading she invokes — a group of girls laughing as they read aloud from a book “about” sex — is the very sort of scene into which McCarthy’s own novel would fit, and no doubt did fit. So it seems to me that part of what MM is doing in this section (and this book) is providing her readers with a clear and explicit sex education. Dottie’s wish — more clarity, more specifics in books — is answered for the reader. Dottie’s education via experience is a vicarious education for the reader.

    In all this — especially in the invocation of that scene of reading — I think McCarthy is riffing on a long-running debate about novels (and within them) that viewed (views?) reading as the end of innocence for women. So McCarthy turns that notion on its head here — or, I guess, doubles down on it — with this pages-long discourse on various methods of birth control, and when and how to use them, and what their advantages and disadvantages are (or were). Via the interior monologues of the characters, and via their conversations with each other, McCarthy is making good on the educative role of the novel for bourgeois women readers.

    But the binarisms of innocence/experience or ignorance/knowledge, while they might provide for some illuminating contrasts, don’t leave much room for love. I don’t know yet if that’s the world McCarthy prefers, or simply the world she sees. Either way, it is a rather bleak view.

  3. Good points everyone! Something I have been thinking about is how the various women in the group are differentiated from one another in very particular ways. Regionalism, for example, is a means of conveying character and conflicts among characters, i.e. when Dottie notices Kay (the Utahn) celebrating the overthrow of everything associated with “Boston.” Also, material objects and living spaces reflect and shape different characters and their interactions – see Kay and Harald’s conflicting views on where they should live and his utopian interior design plans.

    In the context of conversations about sex and society, both of these factors help contextualize and convey this cohort as in transition between systems of class and gender formation. The characters are just as eager to distinguish themselves from amidst the group as are we the readers, and they choose to do so in a variety of ways.

    [To perhaps belabor the “Sex and the City” comparison above, in that show there is very little time devoted to the origins of any of the women, with only hints offered of where or who they come from – each woman’s job is her most important identity-marker. The only one with a consistently significant origin story is the upper crust Connecticut-bred Charlotte, who is meant to represent patterns familiar to the Vassar women of “the group.” In the case of that show as well as this novel, however, choice of residence and the setting of the home are important as plot points and in conveying and shaping character.]

    • Shari,
      Those are really great points, especially about the ways that McCarthy is already differentiating the women via geography, both internally to the City and beyond it.

      But I guess I see (at least so far) a little less precision in terms of regionalism–although very likely that could be a product of my own biases. I’m seeing essentially two broad regional identities–East Coast (Dottie, Priss, and Pokey) and West (which includes Helena/Ohio, Kay/SLC, Lakey/Chicago, and maybe Polly or Libby?).

      But again, that might be more *my* way of grouping the women than the narrator’s. In fact, the narrator’s own particularities–is she (assuming it’s a woman) a Vassar grad? from the same class? from what city originally? etc.–are totally hidden, even though (I think) we are invited to wonder about them. The narratorial voice is not, it seems to me, simply omniscient, but is meant to resemble the women of the group, to suggest that there is a character behind the voice, and not just the author.

      It’ll be very interesting to observe, at any rate, the dynamic you point out between being defined by one’s job and being defined by one’s geography. I imagine that dynamic will get a lot of play over the rest of the book.

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