U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Regarding the Pain of Others: Part 3 of “The Group” Group Read

It is only the inevitable cultural lag that makes us insist that the old must be discovered again in the new, that there is no solution but to find the old certainty and stability in the new plasticity. The recognition of cultural relativity carries with it its own values, which need not be those of the absolutist philosophies. It challenges customary opinions and causes those who have been bred to them acute discomfort. It rouses pessimism because it throws old formulas into confusion, not because it contains anything intrinsically difficult. As soon as the new opinion is embraced as customary belief, it will be another trusted bulwark of the good life. We shall arrive then at a more realistic social faith, accepting as grounds of hope and as new bases for tolerance the coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence.

That is the last paragraph of Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, which has almost always (Christopher Shannon aside) been held as a beacon of tolerance. This is not the place for a revaluation of Benedict’s work—and frankly, I have not done enough research into her broader career to have the temerity to do so—but after reading Chapter Ten of The Group I read this paragraph with new eyes, so to speak.

Chapter Ten may in fact be the richest and most complex of all those we have yet read and a truly incisive and concise commentary on the differentially gendered effects of social engineering. This chapter is ostensibly a slice-of-life glimpse into Priss Hartshorn Crockett’s struggles first to bear a child to term after three miscarriages and then to nurse her newborn son—despite a much-discussed ‘handicap’ of being “so flat that she’s never had to wear a brassière,” in the words of her martini-swilling Lucille Bluth of a mother, but it gives us a great deal more.

Priss’s husband is a pediatrician named Sloan, and he has convinced Priss that bottle feeding, which has become de rigueur among their social set due to the working-class connotations of breastfeeding, discards all the natural advantages of breast milk.[1] Sloan insists upon the biological advantages (passing immunities from mother to child) but derogates any potential psychological benefits—“Psychology is still a long way from being a science… Let’s stick to measurable facts. Demonstrable facts.”

The problem with demonstrable facts, however, turns out to be that they are not very evenly distributed. While still at the hospital (it’s a different era—it seems she stays there for more than a week), Priss is forced to endure the almost constant sound of her son Stephen (McCarthy is heavy-handed—or one might say formulaic—throughout this chapter—she reminds us that Stephen was the first Christian martyr) bawling, hungry and alone. Sloan is not only insisting that Stephen be exclusively breast-fed, but that he also be what we would today call Ferberized. Sloan, like all doctors, Priss notes, is rarely around to witness the effects of his prescriptions and “experiments,” as he forthrightly calls them.

For the doctors agreed that it did not hurt a baby to cry; it only hurt grown-ups to listen to him. She supposed this was true. The nurses here wrote down every day on Stephen’s chart how many hours he cried, but neither Sloan nor Dr. Turner turned a hair when they looked at that on the chart; all they cared about was the weight curve.

When Priss expresses her concern about how much Stephen is crying, he tells her to put cotton in her ears. She begins to wrorry that “Sloan was using her to prove his theories, like a testimonial in a magazine.”

This basic dynamic is mapped onto a basic political division between Democrats and Republicans throughout the chapter: very simply, Priss is a Democrat, and Sloan is a Republican, and they intertwine very self-consciously their disagreements about child care and their disagreements about the New Deal. Priss thinks to herself, “There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans—it was almost a part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby.”

nursing motherFor his part, Sloan believes that it is precisely the same austere measures he counsels in child-rearing that are most needed in place of the New Deal: the President should be a pediatrician and Ferberize the country. “Nobody here has the guts to go through with an experiment. A baby yells and they hand him a bottle. You can’t make any progress in medicine unless you’re willing to be hard. It’s the same with your friend Roosevelt and those soft-headed social workers in the White House. The economy would have recovered by itself if they’d left it alone, instead of listening to the whimpers of the down-and-outs. Recovery! There hasn’t been any recovery. The economy is sick and pumped full of formula.”

But the question of why the nurses oppose Sloan’s methods causes Priss to reflect whether it is really guts that are missing in the maternity ward.

Poor Sloan was impatient with suffering; that was why, probably, he had become a doctor. But he hid his idealism behind an armor of hardness; otherwise, he could not go on practicing, seeing all the pain he saw. She had often formulated this theory about Sloan when they had words about crossing a picket line or boycotting Spain and Japan (“Little Captain Boycott,” he called her, to their friends), but now, in the hospital, it struck her as peculiar that nurses, who heard more crying than doctors did, did not develop an armor against it. And she did not think that it was only for their own peace of mind that the nurses had begun muttering among themselves (she had heard them) that they would like to see Dr. Turner spend just one night in the patient’s place.

Here Priss’s tendency to align herself with labor (neatly doubled in meaning throughout this chapter) comes to the fore.[2] But this is also, obviously, a gendered division of labor. In Benedict’s terms (from above), it is quite simple to say that there is nothing “intrinsically difficult” to overcoming cultural lag and throwing oneself upon the “bulwark” of the new “good life” when one can leave the room whenever the baby begins wailing. One can look at bottle-feeding and breast-feeding as “plastic,” as “coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself from the raw materials of existence,” as differentiated only by the science of immunology, when one can bracket the lived experience and look solely at the weight chart.

For Stephen actually does gain weight even though Priss’s milk supply is minimal. Stephen gets enough nutrition to grow, but cries because he is not getting enough volume. For Sloan and the other attending doctor, that is good enough—the point is to fatten the baby, not to quiet him. There is no “intrinsic difficulty” presented by Stephen’s shrieks of hunger. It is Priss’s—and the nurses’—own weakness or “selfishness” that produces their discomfort with the crying: the weight curve proves that the crying doesn’t hurt anything!

It is a master-stroke of McCarthy’s to align this Gradgrindian empiricism with the unquestionably “natural” act of breast-feeding, especially given that by 1963, the La Leche League had already become relatively widespread and movements like Dr. Grantly Dick-Read’s natural childbirth advocacy were also gaining traction. Priss’s last thoughts in the chapter are, in fact, “what she had been doing was horrid, and right now, in the nursery, a baby’s voice was rising to tell her so—the voice, in fact, that she had been refusing to listen to, though she had heard it for at least a week. It was making a natural request, in this day and age; it was asking for a bottle.”

McCarthy is obviously taking a very strong position there, although I think we can question whether she is rejecting breastfeeding as unnatural tout court, or just for Priss. My feeling is that it is more the latter, and that what McCarthy is critiquing is not so much breastfeeding as the obliviousness of social engineers like Sloan to the possibility that obstinacy is not always a human flaw but rather a circumstantial reality. She is not at all arguing that progress–Sloan’s progress from bottle to breast–is just a more subtle form of discipline, but rather, and rather simply, that pain is worth listening to without skepticism.

[1] McCarthy actually introduces some fairly complex themes regarding femininity and breast milk a chapter earlier—Libby hosts a party at which she serves Liebfraumilch, and some of the party-goers make jokes about the relatively ample-bosomed Polly attracting a man with a low-cut top.

[2] Priss had in fact been employed by the National Recovery Administration until the NIRA was struck down by the Supreme Court (meaning we’ve moved forward in time at least two years).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. She is not at all arguing that progress–Sloan’s progress from bottle to breast–is just a more subtle form of discipline, but rather, and rather simply, that pain is worth listening to without skepticism.

    McCarthy followed the elder (maternal) Hartshorn’s query to Polly Andrews, “Which way progress, Polly?” with “Medicine seems to be all cycles” and “That’s the bone I pick with Sloan. Like what’s his name’s new theory of history. First we nursed our babies; then science told us not to. Now it tells us we were right in the first place. Or were we wrong then but would be right now? Reminds me of relativity, if I understand Mr. Einstein.” I briefly contemplated whether “natural,” entwined with “labor,” also “doubled in meaning.” Thanks for encouraging responses.

  2. Andy, thank you for another excellent post.

    More importantly, thank you for persevering in this series of posts. Even if they aren’t sparking a lot of discussion at the moment, they’re here on the web for anybody who might be looking for a new intellectual/cultural history angle on the Cold War, or the New York Intellectuals, or masscult/midcult, or gender studies, or Mary McCarthy’s work — whatever. It’s here, and it’s good writing, and I thank you for it.

    There were a few things about these chapters that were quite striking. The narrative voice for Libby’s chapter, its theatrical “writerliness,” is masterful — all the cliches McCarthy puts in Libby’s inner voice, the unnecessary adjectives piled on top of one another as we get Libby’s nostrum on trimming unnecessary adjectives. So smart. And of course the rape scene in chapter nine — how it was set up, the preceding discussion of (assumed) consent, the calculus going on in Libby’s head as she’s trying to figure out how to survive what is happening, and the whole way the experience is framed with poetry — it’s just a phenomenal piece of writing. I think you are right to emphasize the connection between this chapter and the one that follows. In a sense, they are both about women’s bodies and men’s choices.

    Priss’s chapter is rich — rich in its exploration of class, as you note above, and rich in irony. “Wet nursing,” once the job of a working-class woman (or a slave), becomes a badge of class prestige — maybe something like the slow food movement avant la lettre, and McCarthy is not shy about skewering the pretense of it. And then there are Priss’s reflections about how breastfeeding, as opposed to bottle feeding, is going to lead to a completely new world with a completely different kind of man — another dizzying irony.

    What struck me the most, though, about this chapter, was Priss’s fear when she was left alone with her baby. Husband gone, nurses gone, hospital quiet and dark, and here she was, feeling so inept and unequal to the task of mothering, convinced that she was either starving or suffocating her sleeping baby, needing to overcome her social delicacy in order to call out for help. It’s a finely-drawn portrait of the anxieties of a new mother — and a portrait devoid of any hint of motherhood as “natural” or “instinctive.” I’m not sure yet about what Mary McCarthy thinks of women, or of being one. But I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think that it’s simply a matter of doing what comes naturally, not “in this day and age” — which is part of what gives the end of the chapter such fine force.

    Anyway, thanks as always for such good writing and good thinking.

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