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Mary McCarthy and The Group

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

I knew of Mary McCarthy and her novels The Group and The Groves of Academe but had not read her until I was intrigued by her depiction in the film Hannah Arendt, an account of Arendt's reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. (Director Margarethe von Trotta also made a good documentary about Ingmar Bergman). The portrayal of McCarthy is fairly one-sided, featuring her sharp wit to lighten up a film whose focus is on weighty political and philosophical issues. For instance, when McCarthy makes a reference to wild Europeans during an exchange about the state of her marital and other affairs, Arendt tells her, "you say we're wild because we don't marry our lovers," to which McCarthy replies, "I didn't marry all of them." I have a hold request out at the library for a collection of the Arendt-McCarthy correspondence and anticipate a look at the more substantive, intellectual side of the friendship between these two formidable women.

McCarthy was born in Seattle in 1912. Orphaned at the age of six, she endured a few unhappy years in Minnesota with strict Catholic relatives from her father's family before being sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Seattle where life was better. She graduated from Vassar with a B.A. in 1933 and went on to work as a critic for The New Republic, The Nation, and Partisan Review, where she served on the editorial staff from 1937 to 1948. In 1938 the critic Edmund Wilson became the second of her four husbands and encouraged her to write fiction. Her first novel, The Company She Keeps, was published four years later. Among her lifelong friends were Arendt and such notable literary figures of her day as Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv (also a lover), and Elizabeth Hardwick.

McCarthy was a contributor to the inaugural issue of the The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1963, with Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, a review of William S. Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch. US publication of the "controversial drug-and-sex-fuelled classic" was accompanied by obscenity trials (Naked Lunch still fresh). McCarthy argued that Burroughs and the scandalous novel are to be taken seriously:

Burroughs’s remarkable talent is only part of the reason; the other part is that, finally, for the first time in recent years, a talented writer means what he says to be taken and used literally…The literalness of Burroughs is the opposite of "literature." Unsentimental and factual, he writes as though his thoughts had the quality of self-evidence. In short, he has a crankish courage, but all courage nowadays is probably crankish.

In a letter published in the June 1, 1963, issue, Louis Untermeyer wrote of finding the first issue of NYR waiting upon his return home from a long western lecture trip and welcomed it as the first "attempt to raise reviewing in America to an intelligent level." He went on to say he particularly admired McCarthy's "penetrating appraisal of Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, James Newman’s examination of Lovell’s Exploration of Outer Space and Elizabeth Hardwick’s brilliant causerie."

There is no getting around mention of the celebrated feud with Lillian Hellman. A cursory search failed to turn up a definitive account of the its origin. It seems that mutual contempt dates to the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, where Hellman as a Stalinist and McCarthy the Trotskyite did not see eye to eye about the proceedings (Dick Cavett Relives the Carnage). The feud appears to have kicked off in earnest when they first met at a writer's conference at Sarah Lawrence College in 1948 (Imaginary Friends).

The affair topped out in a 1979 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. McCarthy declared that Hellman was tremendously overrated, a bad and dishonest writer. When Cavett asked what was dishonest, McCarthy said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'" (Quote Investigator). Hellman thereupon filed a lawsuit against McCarthy, PBS, and Cavett, claiming $2.2 million in damages for libel. Cavett recounts that the morning after the interview Hellman called and "in the familiar whiskey-and-cigarettes baritone rasped, 'Why the hell didn't you defend me.'" Cavett replied that he never thought of her as defenseless. "That's bullshit," said Hellman. "I'm suing the whole damn bunch of you" (Legendary Literary Feuds).

Hellman was quite well off from her writing and the estate of her deceased husband Dashiell Hammett. McCarthy was not. She faced financial ruin if Hellman prevailed in court. Writers and free speech advocates came to McCarthy's defense, but the judge was sympathetic to Hellman. Hellman died in 1981 before the suit came to trial ( Said Cavett, "Both women's health suffered from it. And barrels of ink were spilled about the controversy, virtually all of it against Lillian. But that didn't stop the old bag" (Dick Cavett Relives the Carnage).

Published in 1963, set in New York in the 1930s, The Group is about eight friends who graduate from Vassar, class of '31. The story opens with the first in the group to marry, Kay, a girl from out West who aspires to be a theater director. She weds an aspiring playwright in what turns out to be a bumpy ride. From there the narrative follows the group through the remainder of the decade. Although the friends do not remain close as they were in college, their lives intersect repeatedly by happenstance and in these chance encounters they flesh out their stories for each other.

The young women come from well to do, upper crust families, with one exception seemingly untouched by the depression. Their world and how they see themselves in it will be quite different from that of their parents. Each has a career in mind. Libby wants to get into publishing, Helena to be a teacher. Dottie is going in for social work, and Pokey is getting her pilot's license so she can commute from her parents' home three days a week to Cornell Agricultural School on her way to becoming a veterinarian. Priss lands a job with the N.R.A. (National Recovery Administration) and a fiancé who is a young doctor.

Polly is the exception. Her parents lost everything when the market crashed. She attended Vassar on scholarship, something her peers do not see as an accomplishment. To the contrary, it is snobbishly, albeit quietly, something unspoken, looked down on, as in, poor thing, her parents could not afford to pay her way.

Polly's father had been hospitalized suffering from what was traditionally called melancholia but in the new scientific jargon of the day is now known as manic-depression. Mr. Andrews comes to live with her in her small New York apartment after he and her mother split up. There he is delighted to find that his illness has a mania component, having known only the melancholia until then, and he becomes an enthusiastic Trotskyite under the influence of Polly's elderly upstairs neighbor. After college Polly works as a medical technician and eventually meets a handsome young psychiatrist who falls for her and offers all manner of what he considers helpful advice about her father's condition.

The eighth friend, Elinor "Lakey" Eastlake, "the taciturn brunette beauty of the group…intellectual, impeccable, disdainful…the only one the group stood in awe of," splits for Europe after graduation to study art history in Paris. After Kay's wedding Lakey disappears from the story save for occasional reference to a letter received by one friend or another telling of where she is traveling or living at the time, until the very end when she returns to America with France fallen and the Luftwaffe bombing England.

In the years after graduation the friends go about the uncertain business of figuring out just who they are and what exactly they will makes of themselves as careers do not work out as anticipated and they experience romance, betrayal, and heartbreak, affairs, marriage, housewifery, and motherhood in the midst of the social and political tumult of the 1930s. The issues of the day are ever present and never wholly separable from personal joys and conflicts that lead to difficult decisions where it is not clear who is right or wrong and what the best course forward might be. Never didactic, McCarthy captures the idealism that animates artistic dreams and social conscience, New Dealers, labor organizers, liberals, and radicals while skewering pretension and falsity with that always ready wit.

The Group is a novel about women. Mothers figure in to a greater extent than fathers, with the exception of Mr. Andrews. Other male characters are secondary, a supporting cast of romantic interests and husbands. The prominent among them are not cast in the most favorable of lights: a callous seducer, an equivocating lover who cannot bring himself to make a final break with his estranged wife, a controlling and unfaithful husband, another husband, this one with a "mother-tie," who can only be aroused with "whores and fallen women." And it almost goes without saying they are often patronizing. Not an admirable bunch. Then, too, members of the group are not exactly paragons and exemplars. They are all too human, which the narration does not shrink from showing.

Some of it is dated and quaintly amusing, for instance, the excitement about wonderful dishes that can be made from recipes calling for canned goods, references to Maxwell House as the good coffee, the innocent faith in the latest ideas about care of infants and psychoanalysis. Some narrative threads run longer than need be. On more than a few occasions the thoughts and actions of characters seemed unrealistic—would someone really say or do that?—until I reflected upon the wackiness of our own world and thought, well, maybe not so unrealistic after all. These quibbles are more than offset by humor and pathos as the friends navigate the treacherous deeps of life, often perilously alone despite the presence of friends, mothers, husbands, and lovers.

As often happens, the decision to read The Group at this time was the culmination of a fortuitous sequence of events. The Bergman documentary begat the Arendt film and that brought me to McCarthy, who I found to be an interesting character and a fine writer. The Group turned out to be as enjoyable and engaging as anything I have read in a while. I was unable to put it aside in the final chapters where the friends are brought back together by the funeral of one of their number. While they agree among themselves with the official verdict that the death was an accident, I came away with the sense that they could not dismiss a nagging fear that it may have been suicide, although this is not made explicit. Maybe I am reading something into it.

The ending is quite moving and the ending of the ending near superb as Lakey takes center stage for the first time, offering fresh insight into the group in their college days and messing with the head of an unsavory character who is served up his just deserts in delicious fashion.


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