U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fast Friends: Part 4 of “The Group” Group Read

The Big ChillOne thing that has become abundantly clear over the course of this novel is that there is nothing holding “the group” together apart from the school tie. Chapters Eleven and Twelve, our reading for today, both concern Polly Andrews, whose blue-blood family lost their money in the stock market crash and who have been making do by operating a farm. She is herself working as a nurse technician, and lives quite modestly. She seems to have the least in common with the other women of the group—no longer even bonded to them by the rawer facts of class privilege, even if she retains a fair amount of cultural capital—although that is itself debatable. None of the women are kindred spirits, at least not in an organic or spontaneous way.

Yet few readers, I imagine, question the naturalness of the novel’s central conceit, at least none who count among their lifelong friends college roommates or first-year floor-mates. The story of mismatched pals whose connection is explained only by this circumstantial bond is easily accepted because it is true to life. I remember seeing the film Sideways, which stars the unlikely pair Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as two former college roommates who reunite for a tour of the wine country in northern California, and thinking, yes, that makes sense. For the generation who could have read The Group in college, the classic film The Big Chill told much the same story.

In other words, we are deeply drawn to stories about the near-instant and yet profoundly durable bonds we are thrown into by the random lottery of the university housing office: one of the first and perhaps most fundamental appeals of the Harry Potter series was, after all, the drama of the Sorting Hat. And just today, a number of my college friends on Facebook shared this photo of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and the actress Connie Britton, who were study-abroad roommates in Beijing when this photo was taken. Gillibrand included the photo in her new book, Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World.

via NY Mag: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/09/connie-britton-and-kirsten-gillibrand-roommates.html

The emotions I think this photo evoked in my friends—and in me—were a little complex: there was a general connection made to the joy of remembering how close one could be to one’s roommate, how intense and fulfilling that relationship could be. But there was also, since most of my friends who were sharing the photo were doing so because both Britton and Gillibrand are fellow graduates of our alma mater, Dartmouth College, a sense of vicarious ambition that is instilled quietly in environments like Dartmouth or Vassar—a whispered belief that the luck of the draw could have roomed you with a future senator.

This is probably an entirely bogus connection, but I will offer it any way: Polly Andrews’s hometown is Fall River, Massachusetts, which also happens to be the childhood home of Lowell Schmaltz, the Babbitt-clone protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s forgotten novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge. The first part of that novel is a shaggy dog story told by Schmaltz about how he attended Amherst College at the same time as Calvin Coolidge, and later decided to look up his old friend in the White House. Schmaltz now lives in Zenith, the fictional Midwestern city in which Lewis set a number of his other novels, and the bulk of the story is a series of digressions on his adventures getting to DC. It turns out that, after waiting for an hour or more in a White House anteroom, the secretary was obviously stalling Schmaltz and Coolidge doesn’t know him from Adam. The Man who Knew Coolidge didn’t.

But what we might glean from this implausible bit of intertextuality is a rather humorous sidelight on the tendentious nature of our investment in school ties. It is meaningful to many people that their classmates, or members of a class a year above or below them, made good, and in places like Amherst or Vassar or Dartmouth there is a feathery layer of careerism nestled in among the genuinely offered love for one’s roommates or floormates.

Chapters Eleven and Twelve of The Group offer an implicit comparison of this kind of bond with two other relationships which, on their face, ought to come off well in comparison, though they do not: political comradeship and marriage. Polly is surrounded by members of one left-wing sect or another: she is seeing a Stalinist at first, later marries an indifferent supporter of Norman Thomas, and shares a rooming house with a charming Trotskyist, who in turn converts her aristocratic father to the cause in a rather hilarious turn of events. She herself remains unpersuaded—though she does say that presented with a picket line she would join the Trotskyists—and is generally unruffled as she also encounters Lovestoneites, Musteites… the full panoply, evidently.[1] Polly compares joining one or another of these sects or cells to mental illnesses, although she is not sure which is given to manic-depression and which exhibits mere neuroticism.

Marriage is also held somewhat suspect. Two marital separations—one a failure, one a success—run through these chapters, and at the end of it Polly does marry, but in a manner that deliberately resolves like a story from Redbook: Polly has been worrying about money so she begins donating her blood at the hospital at which she works; a doctor who has been admiring her from afar sees this, is overcome with pity and passion, and proposes on the spot. McCarthy’s great talent is manifest in pulling this scene off, but part of her success is due to the very obvious laugh she is having while writing it.

Politics and love—one would think that those forces would be held much the stronger in comparison with mere circumstance—the coincidence of attending the same school at the same time. McCarthy doesn’t so much suggest that they cannot be stronger as she allows her wry skepticism to suggest that they often aren’t. It is yet another tough “truth” that she presents to us, in a book full of them.

But the solidity of the school tie is, come to think of it, often the underlying message of many of these college group romances: lovers come and go, political allegiances sway with the times, but freshman year is forever.

[1] Oddly, McCarthy, whose sympathies also ran in that direction, insists on using the derogatory term “Trotskyite” rather than “Trotskyist” throughout the chapter.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, thanks for this post. I was wondering, as I was getting into the awfulness of chapter eleven — insipid, gutless Gus has to be the anti-hero of the book — how you were going to connect these chapters to college ties, since the connection was quite minimal in the narrative itself. I think you’re right about the connection of the Group being a conceit. This is a device that allows McCarthy to explore multiple narrative arcs for women. In this section, she takes a close look at a woman worried specifically about life as a narrative arc.

    I agree that McCarthy was having fun with the marriage-as-rescue story in chapter 12 — at one point Polly even rolls her eyes at herself for the way the situation mirrors a women’s magazine short story. There’s also a lot of reflection on what to do about narratives that don’t fit — the “problem” of Jim not knowing the narrative of the Trotskyites, or of Middlemarch, etc. “As for those old friends, the characters in books — King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Mr. Micawber and Mr. Collins and Vronsky and darling Prince Andrei, who were like members of the family–why, Jim seemed hardly to recall them.” Chapter 12 seems to me to be suggesting that this “storybook” ending for Polly will be so precisely because it doesn’t fit any of the narratives frames familiar to Polly, her family, or her friends. Jim doesn’t know (or doesn’t care) how the story is supposed to go for the Vassar girl, and re-writes the sequence of events — once again flummoxing the Group with another bizarre and atypical wedding that doesn’t stick to the script. However, there’s no escaping the larger narrative arc, the one that Polly’s father had envisioned all along: a man swoops in to the rescue with a sudden marriage proposal, and Polly and her prince charming get married and (expect to) live happily ever after, with a room upstairs for dear old dad. So even an unconventional marriage, even an unconventional arrangement for newlyweds, is conventional — a rescue of the damsel in distress, and a return to (presumed) Victorian conventions of the multi-generational household. In all this Polly is still not the heroine of her own story — maybe because she can’t seem to see herself or those around her as something more than characters in a book. Ironies within ironies.

  2. Thanks, LD! I suppose I see the notion of “the group” not just as a conceit or a pretext, any more than the family in a family chronicle is a conceit. I think McCarthy, particularly since family does play a very important role throughout the novel, with mothers–and now, a father–often taking up significant places in the action and, sometimes, the commentary. “The group,” I think McCarthy is saying, was an important part of the experience of being a certain kind of young woman in the Thirties. (But only a certain kind–the anomic Norine demonstrates the specialness of the experience of having a “group.”)

    That said, I suppose what I should have argued above is that I felt like Polly was the first member of the group to make me wonder what she was doing with everyone else. Not that there haven’t been clear differences from one to another, but Polly has a sharpness of independent judgment that I think McCarthy doesn’t give the others. She seems self-sufficient in a way the others aren’t. So her “commitment” to the group–to use such an important Thirties word–is thereby highlighted. And once I started thinking about that commitment, I saw that it was contrasted throughout the chapter with two other kinds of commitment (there’s yet another coming in this week’s reading) that are taken to be stronger–love and politics. For Polly, political commitments and marital commitments are both funny and dubious in ways that she doesn’t really apply to her commitment to the group, or at least it seems so to me.

    Part of that may very well be her attachment to quite traditional narratives, and you make a beautiful reading of the Jim plot, but I think that the narrative deficiency is really a problem with all of the men in her life: not just Jim but Gus and her father as well. Her father acts like a character, but he disrupts the narratives she begins to create–the fortuitous inheritance narrative (“I wouldn’t count on Aunt Julia”) or the honor defended narrative (he simply beats Gus at ping-pong). Gus himself is too indecisive for any narrative to coalesce around, and too oblivious to the grander meaning of his actions: he doesn’t go to Spain because his analyst suggests that he’s doing so to escape his marriage, an interpretation he shruggingly accepts. And he can’t narrate even part of his life to the analyst–the ultimate failure of narrative!

Comments are closed.