What Elites Got Wrong About Mary McCarthy’s The Group
They Dismissed It As a "Lady-Writer’s Novel"
Within six weeks of when Mary McCarthy’s The Group came out in August 1963, the book was number one on the New York Times best-seller list; before the year was out, film rights had been purchased. Sixteen years later, in an interview with the Observer, McCarthy remembered thinking that the book had ruined her life. Today, it remains the book for which she is best known, her first commercial success and her only book that penetrated all levels of American audiences.
There was a “group” in real life. They, like their fictional counterparts—and McCarthy—were from the Vassar class of 1933. They had jobs and sex lives that bore funny resemblances to the careers and the notorious sex scenes described in the book, and in January 1964, the New York Herald Tribune Book Review ran a front-page response from some of them. In “Miss McCarthy’s Subjects Return the Compliments,” the real-life members of the Group observed that the Mary McCarthy they knew at Vassar was too “unwashed and unbrushed” to write a real sex scene anyway.
More wounding to McCarthy were the reactions of her treasured circle of New York intellectuals, who were varying shades of uncomfortable and disgusted. Elizabeth Hardwick, one of McCarthy’s best friends, thought The Group was an “awful fatuous superficial book,” and wrote an anonymous, scathing parody of it for the New York Review of Books. Her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, dismissed it as a “very labored, somehow silly Vassar affair.” Who are these women, these critics seemed to wonder, who tinkle around cocktail parties dreaming aloud of their new Venetian blinds that shall somehow become a part of their future in Robert Moses’s new New York? For some of her critics, McCarthy shouldn’t have been writing about such girls at all. To others, the problem was that she wrote about them with such an “amused superiority.” Pauline Kael called The Group “very snobbish.”
The book is, to be sure, vastly different from McCarthy’s previous ones. Here there are no Martha Sinnotts or Margaret Sargents, women of McCarthy’s earlier creation, who argue passionately over literature while toying with power dynamics in the beds of aggressive men. The girls of the group (“not really women,” McCarthy mused in an interview during her book tour) are apparently frivolous and materialistic. In contrast to the concentrated quest of McCarthy’s previous characters for “self-revelation,” they seem to consider sex and cocktail parties as ends in themselves.
The book traces the FDR years from beginning to end, looking at New Deal America and “the idea of progress seen in the female sphere, the feminine sphere,” McCarthy said. Science, engineering, psychoanalysis—and the promise of all these things to transform social relations for the better—are fresh. They are also, according to McCarthy, false. By the time the book ends, the war has begun, and the Vassar girls are only eight of the millions of Americans destined to experience a “loss of faith” in the American idea. Perhaps influenced by those in her intellectual circle, McCarthy herself suggested the girls were “comic” characters. “It’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them,” she said. “They really can’t develop.”McCarthy’s companions among the New York intellectuals called this a “lady-writer’s novel” and wondered why the girls of the Group were so fatuous and shallow.
And yet the novel’s enduring popularity cannot be dissociated from McCarthy’s ability to understand her characters’ absorption in their sometimes vain or materialistic pursuits as something more interesting, and arguably more serious, than the self-serious way in which many of her contemporaries—and many of ours—treat American social life. Of all of McCarthy’s creations, the girls of The Group have the most interest in material and conventional pleasure. But this pleasure is connected to a search for self-knowledge that is no less complicated, even if it is less self-conscious, than that of her earlier protagonists. Far from being about a “loss of faith,” The Group can offer us a much-needed reminder of the novel’s capacity to reflect American society through the eyes of characters who still believe, for better and worse, in its capacity to satisfy them.
In the Saturday Review, Granville Hicks observed that it was “perhaps as social history that the novel will chiefly be remembered.” It was a bleak social history, McCarthy insisted. In November 1963 she described it as a story of girls in “consumer training,” living “vicariously through objects.” From the year of their graduation in 1933 up until the beginning of the war, most of the members of the Vassar Group live and work in New York City; they host parties, chase careers and eligible men, try to sculpt their lives to fit their aspirations. With the exception of Elinor Eastlake, who is relatively independent and spends most of the story in the company of women in Europe, the characters’ social worlds reflect particularly American ideas of progress. Dorothy Renfrew is the book’s representation of sex and birth control in the 1930s; Libby MacAusland personifies the cutthroat world of New York publishing. Priss Hartshorn, watching her husband’s campaign to return society to breastfeeding to “tap nature’s resource,” wonders if as a Republican he will make a good father; Polly Andrews agonizingly receives her married lover every week “fresh from the couch,” before she finally loses him to analysis completely; Kay Strong, with whom the novel begins and ends and whose innocence and ultimate death serve as the arc of the story, is thrilled thinking of the future promised by Robert Moses, of “mass abundance through the machine.”
This is how, in the world of The Group, the New Deal permeates the average educated American household: through dream-translation dictionaries and fantasies of Venetian blinds and the new subscriptions to the Nation and the New Republic that taught their readers about “privilege.” Kay “did not want to be left behind by history,” she muses, attentively listening to the husband who will soon lock her up in a psychiatric ward pontificate about progress.
Many of the protagonists have very specific, arguably nearsighted goals for their lives: husbands, home furnishings, attention at parties. McCarthy said that little girls have always seemed to her like “miniature adults,” who had “sold out to the adult world. They’re traitors to the world of childhood.” Everyone, including the author herself, acknowledged that these girls were painfully simple. On the surface they seem to not have the slightest idea of how to go about living in the “real” world, and after the book was published, McCarthy told an interviewer that she almost hadn’t been able to finish it because the fate of the girls made her “too depressed.”
But is what is true about the girls really as depressing as McCarthy implies? One contemporaneous review observes, “If they seem to some readers grotesque, it is because we are made to see them, with unsentimental clarity, as all too human.” It’s precisely in their everyday, all-too-human moments that The Group grabs our full attention. The girls take the El, do the daily marketing and plan the week’s dinner menu; they keep accounts, admire majestic mahogany desks at which dignified ladies write their letters, cry over men while they do their Saturday night washing and hang their stockings out to dry. Life was not exactly extraordinary for the Vassar Class of ’33, but they all held out hope that it might be. In the meantime, it was real and true, every day that the girls went about their unextraordinary business. This may not be where history was made, but it was certainly where life, glamorous or not, happened.
McCarthy’s companions among the New York intellectuals called this a “lady-writer’s novel” and wondered why the girls of the Group were so fatuous and shallow. “I admire her for doing it really,” mused Bishop, condescendingly, noting that the book’s “set-fireworks-sex pieces,” were sure to win McCarthy “huge sales.” This attitude, and the general uproar over the book’s “preoccupation” with sex in particular, is worth pausing over. It’s especially interesting in light of the fact that McCarthy’s previous female characters were notorious for thinking constantly about sex.
Sex in McCarthy’s fiction had always been an existential project, an opportunity for internal monologue and for characters to lay out for themselves their own agendas. While they undertake these mental tussles with each other and themselves, even the most frightening or distasteful or borderline sex takes on a physically automatic quality. In A Charmed Life, the protagonist, Martha Sinnott, returns with her new husband to the small New England town where her violent ex-husband Miles, whom she fled in the middle of the night, lives. After a party with too many cocktails, Miles takes her home and climbs on top of her. With the “occasional muffled ‘Stop’ from Martha,” the two of them remind Miles of “a pair of wrestlers, heaving and gasping, while taking care to obey the rules.” For Martha, too, the act has high stakes: in it is some morsel of reality, of truth, that needs deeply to be expressed. This is why Martha feels vexed with her more protective second husband, who treats her with more care and tenderness than Miles ever did. “It seemed to her somehow undemocratic. She believed firmly in use.” McCarthy’s women would rather be used than remain untouched; their own use in this wretched, dark, ugly act seems to hold the key to something fundamental.
Margaret Sargent, the tantalizing heroine of The Company She Keeps, shares this sense of sex as sacrifice: as with Martha, whether Margaret wants to is almost beside the point. The purpose of Margaret’s many encounters with men at bars is the excavation of character, including her own. “Nothing that happened afterwards,” she thinks of each of these evenings and nights with various men, “counted for anything beside those first few hours of self-revelation.” In one scene, she has been approached in the club car of a train headed west, by a man who wants to discuss books and socialism; listening to him continue to talk, she feels like a “happy burglar” picking at this new personality, “listening for the locks to click and reveal the combination.”
The problem with the Vassar girls’ approach to sex, then, was not that they were obsessed with it, but that they were somehow not serious enough about its intellectual value. In one of those “fireworks-sex pieces” derided by Bishop, Dorothy Renfrew, the shyest member of the group, climbs the stairs to the apartment of a brooding young man whom she has known for two days and watches, almost wonderingly, as he undresses her, scowling with concentration. Dorothy’s cherry-popping is certainly both funny and grotesque: the boy’s seduction makes her think of “the way they were supposed to be in art class with the model.” When he is finished undressing her, having not yet actually touched her, he makes her study a book of drawings while he gets ready. The sex is mildly confusing, but businesslike; the boy wants to educate her. She is grateful to not have to look at the thing, which is “rather sweet, really, all curled up on itself like a fat worm,” and is pleasantly surprised when she begins “to like it a little.” Later she waits for him for an entire evening on a park bench with the birth control that he makes her buy, and goes home after sundown, quietly crying, when she realizes he has stood her up.
The Vassar girls try to be likable. What power they have over men comes from their kindness; their kindness comes from their self-centeredness. Self-centeredness presents itself as an interesting tool for the victim of the unfortunate sexual encounter. In spite or perhaps because of her somewhat blinkered view of the world, Dorothy narrates her sexual experience with disarming honesty: his strokes like “a violin bow,” her spasms like “hiccups.” She watches what he does to her, “fascinated,” does what he instructs her to do “wonderingly.” This is far too earnestly wide-eyed for the likes of Martha or Margaret; but the stakes of sex, and of self-improvement, seem to be high nonetheless. The whole scene is absurd and sad, but the boy comes off looking more pathetic than Dorothy, with his urgent emotions about not involving emotions in sex. Dorothy, who goes on to become besotted with him despite his instructions, is trying in her own way to do her experience justice; she too wants to convey the truth.
In a later, darker episode, Libby MacAusland is assaulted after a party by a man from “Old Europe,” whom she had been expecting to propose to her. Instead he leaves her half-naked and badly beaten, sparing her only when he finds she is a virgin. She recounts the story the next day like this: “When I turned him down, he tried to rape me! My new Bendel dress is in ribbons—did you like it? And I’m a mass of bruises.” Libby’s undramatic description of the violence of the encounter only amplifies its horror. The man had forced himself on her, pinned her down by the wrists, bitten her and ordered her to “give me your tongue,” baring his teeth “like a wild animal” when she tried to talk him down. He had shoved her away in disgust when she admitted she was a virgin, claiming her too much of “a bore” to rape. And yet when he began his assault she only “could not decide whether to laugh or be angry. How to show him his mistake, without hurting his feelings, so that they could still go out to dinner?”
To describe a rape, or a rape attempt, is a fundamentally slippery thing, perhaps the ultimate descriptive challenge. The dim awareness of a dinner date that might be missed because of the incident, the waste of a very pretty Bendel dress to be proud of—odd inclusions in the story, maybe, but firm and democratic uses of language—are certainly living up to the task of recounting. If sex is self-knowledge for Margaret Sargent and Martha Sinnott, self-knowledge is social for Dorothy and Libby. Their concern for other people’s feelings is inextricable from their self-serving impulse, just as their truth and their interest in self-knowledge seem inextricable from their social world, their relationships with other people. Some pleasure has been sought, a plan has been made, enjoyment is being demanded, they seem to be saying; and it cannot be forsaken simply because men do not always behave as they’re supposed to.
If McCarthy’s critics thought the Vassar girls were pitifully naïve and shallow—about sex as about many other things—they might have recognized that what happens to any of these women cannot ruin the faith they have and the pleasure they take in their own experiences; and in this alone they must have had more to teach us than they were ever given credit for.
In a recent essay for the Baffler, Jess Bergman explored what she calls our “literature of relentless detachment.” Focusing on several recent novels about “alienated women”—Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Jessi Jezewska Stevens’s The Exhibition of Persephone Q, Halle Butler’s The New Me—Bergman reflects on how aloneness and withdrawal have come to seem the only choices in a society where an atomistic capitalism pervades every aspect of life, and “attempts at cooperative living tend to be disastrous.”
Percy, from The Exhibition of Persephone Q, describes herself as not “all there,” and spends the duration of the novel wondering if a collection of photographs of a woman in her old bedroom is really her, at “how hungry everyone was for the exegesis of herself.” Kleeman’s “A” sits with her boyfriend C and watches commercials and reality TV for days on end, eventually joining a cult church that instructs her to “unremember” her life. Megan, the protagonist of Halle Butler’s first novel Jillian, dismisses the social life she participates in as shallow, and the friends she parties with as people who are “just way too interested in things,” whether their “stupid fucking job” or their “homemade Tupperwares of kale.” Edie, the protagonist of the much-hyped Luster, would fit well into this family, with her hyper-conscious way of dancing at the disco (“like, how lame, like, I dig this, but not too much”) and her scornful treatment of her new boyfriend’s apparently sincere invitation for her to be herself in his company (“it’s all I can do not to laugh right in his face”).
Rather than what James Wood called hysterical realism, Bergman describes some of these stories as a “denuded” realism, where “rather than an excess of intimacy, there is a lack; rather than overly ornamental character sketches, there are half-finished ones. Personality languishes, and desire has been almost completely erased.” As fiction by Ben Lerner and Andrew Martin demonstrate, the sensibility is not limited to women authors. In Martin’s debut novel Early Work, the protagonist mourns her relationship with a partner with whom she could “fuck like they were continuing a conversation, without the anxiety and ritual that attended most such encounters,” because it meant they “couldn’t reach the heights of great, specifically memorable sex.” Adam Gordon, the narrator of Lerner’s The Topeka School, is a version of Dorothy’s repulsively self-obsessed lover. His “cunnilingus, cunning linguist,” ironic though it may be, is also revealing of Lerner’s chronic intellectualization of experience. Adam seeks to distinguish himself from his Midwestern classmates (“the types”) by consulting a textbook on sex, one that will show him “how to interact with Amber in a way that at once asserted his good difference as a poet, proto-feminist, Ivy-bound alternative to the types without neutering himself in the process.”
Bergman suggests, through Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, that the antidote to this alienation brought about by capitalism might be solidarity. The novel, an absurdist portrait of a temp worker’s search for stability in a series of ever-more surreal jobs, creates a mythical origin story for the “First Temporary,” forced by the gods to learn the “drudgery of tasks done and undone.” When she becomes the First Temp to Cry in the Bathroom at Work, she is met by a group of other female temp workers who soothe her and wait with her, and finally take her back to her chair, where she continues to look for, and help others look for, “something more sacred than survival.”
Temporary is more poignant than the other contemporary fiction Bergman discusses: at least in this case political commitment comes out of a shared life experience, rather than—as is the case for Lerner and Martin—an obscure sense of guilt. Still, if, in Bergman’s reading, Leichter’s novel “points to a new direction,” it also leaves out some important steps. Without the belief in people and social life that can only come from sincere human interaction—and not only the kind that comes from crying in the bathroom together at work—the specific political commitment expressed here appears likely to be as temporary as the precarious employment that motivates it.
The Group offers something different, a more basic or “traditional” kind of community. What makes it such an instructive “social novel” to read today is that it pays full attention to the material and social world where its characters live and carry out their days. This attention is not always approving, but neither is it—as critics like Kael believed—condescending or dismissive. The Vassar girls do not shy away from accepting the things—men, sex, money, a boss’s approval, a friend’s baby, a good cocktail party, nice wallpaper—that matter to them, yet their sometimes misguided interest in material gain, particularly when seen in the context of the years leading up to the war, coexists with the same interest in morality and self-knowledge that appears in McCarthy’s more critically acclaimed fiction. Conversely, the strong moral frameworks that are articulated by Martha Sinnott and Margaret Sargent in those earlier novels could hardly sustain themselves without the faith in experience that the Vassar girls embody. The girls put in practice the question of how to be good people. And they do so not only in their discussions about politics but also, and more importantly, in their own sympathetic engagement with the people in their social circle.
Early on in The Group, in one of the most striking scenes from McCarthy’s fiction, Helena and Norine, both from the Class of ’33, are sitting in Norine’s basement apartment off of Lexington Avenue. Norine is a young socialist and hostess of an up-and-coming salon; Helena has just discovered Norine having an affair with Kay’s husband, Harald.
Norine and her husband perform their politics with utmost seriousness; they remain together (despite her husband’s impotence) because they consider themselves a couple who “stand for something meaningful to other people.” The walls of their apartment are painted black, and there is dog hair and tobacco all over the floor, a dirty rug that is shedding, a soured dishcloth in the sink. Norine speaks “as if through a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke.” When she complains about her unhappiness and her marital problems, Helena suggests that she might try scrubbing the floors, boiling out the dish cloth, taking a bath and letting the dog out for some air (and most definitely changing his name from Nietzsche to Rover).
“Tell me something more basic,” Norine says. “You’re hipped on forms, while I’m concerned with meanings. … I grant you we ought to have toilet paper in the bathroom … But that won’t solve the important questions. Poor people don’t have toilet paper.” “I should have thought that one of your aims was to see that they did,” Helena retorts.
Neither do Norine’s attempts to intellectualize her affair with Kay’s husband—that it is inevitable, that it is a part of their political project, that it says something important about the state of the world—impress Helena. Indeed, she sees them straightforwardly as the evasions they are. Norine claims to want to improve the world, but she refuses to take into account the feelings of the people in her own social circle. Again, Helena gets the last word: “If I were a socialist, I would try to be a good person.”
McCarthy may have insisted that her girls were simpletons, but far from treating them with pity and disrespect, she often uses them to critique the snobbery and hypocrisy of self-proclaimed intellectuals and radicals. Along with Norine, Kay’s husband Harald Petersen, a struggling playwright, is the only other character who makes a show of their leftist politics. Harald ends up alone, jealously and furiously trying to have the last word with Kay’s friends when he sees them at her funeral, while they silently pass him by (with the exception of Lakey, who first amusedly torments him, reminds him that he has been left behind, and then lets him out of her car in the middle of a highway). Norine, who has watched the bombing of Munich and caught her husband sleeping with her infant’s nanny, pronounces herself “burned out on politics,” and moves on to religion.
Norman Mailer complained that the characters in The Group lacked “the power or dedication to wish to force events,” and it’s true that American politics carried on without them, and the nation left them behind the way nations tend to do, especially in times of war. McCarthy’s critics looked at the girls in the same condescending way that Harald and Norine looked at them. But to think through the question of how to be in the world, not by rejecting it, but by existing in it—and existing in it with earnestness—is not always to be pitiful or lacking in agency, as our perennially disenchanted intellectuals seem to think. Perhaps it is no mystery why The Group was so much more popular with American readers than with the critical voices in McCarthy’s own circle. “It’s easy for the masses” to rediscover faith, Norine says shortly before Kay’s death, with a self-satisfaction the reader has learned by then to view as a sign of vacuity, “but for the elite it’s another story.”
From Issue 23 of The Point Magazine, available now.