Even Mary McCarthy, no stranger to controversy in more than two decades of essays and fiction, was unprepared for the commotion generated by her novel The Group, published in the last week of August 1963 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. While it became the bestselling work of her career, it made her so tired of defending herself against the critical brickbats thrown her way that she confessed, not long before her death, that it had ruined her life.
I have written about McCarthy before, a post on the centennial of her birth. But The Group deserves extended treatment because it highlights the culture wars that periodically break out in America, the politics of literary celebrity, and the ways it figures into McCarthy’s oeuvre.
One cause of the whole mess—McCarthy’s sexual frankness—has led some observers to see the book as a precursor of Sex and the City. But that is a glib, even anachronistic, reading.
A half century after its release, the incidents and characters that made the novel notorious in its time—masturbation, diaphragms, lesbianism—have lost most of their shock value. Instead, The Group can be read more in the light that McCarthy, a writer and teacher familiar with European literature, intended: as a bildungsroman, or story of development.
The novel’s eight Vassar students are, in a psychological sense, sisters to the male college students of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, or Simon Gray’s play The Common Pursuit. But the young Vassar women, starting out with the highest hopes in the liberal 1930s, grow disillusioned with their place in the world by decade’s end. The novel was meant to represent, McCarthy said in an interview for The Paris Review, a “history of the loss of faith in progress, in the idea of progress”—and especially in the “feminine sphere,” in “home economics, architecture, domestic technology, contraception, childbearing; the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed.”
Even at the time of that interview, just a few years before the novel’s publication, McCarthy was starting to feel that her original intention—to carry the story to the start of the Eisenhower administration—was proving unwieldy. In that sense, her eventual decision to conclude on the brink of WWII might have been made out of weariness, but it turned out to be wise. Winding up with a conservative Republican administration would have represented an ironic reversal of her group’s New Deal idealism, but ending with a war merely underscored the aggressive impulses of males who bring the coeds to defeat, disillusionment, despair or death.
As a roman a clef (literally, “novel with a key”), The Group outraged many of McCarthy’s Vassar
classmates, who resented how she ridiculed real-life originals through sharp details. (For instance, the character Norine Schmittlapp lives in an apartment that smells of "soured dishcloth.") In addition, the poet Elizabeth Bishop refused to believe that she and her South American lover were not the models for the lesbian "Lakey" and the foreign lover she brings to a funeral.
But, while McCarthy might have derided the feminist notion of sisterhood being powerful, she was even more scathing about her male characters. They “behave with glibness, condescension, and even brutality toward the Vassar grads,” writes Nathaniel Rich in a post on the book for The Daily Beast. They are, variously, impotent, philandering, callous, bullying, and violent. (Harald, the self-absorbed actor-playwright husband of the iconoclast Kay, is modeled on McCarthy's first husband, whose first name was also Harald, with one detail—his attempt to have Kay committed to a mental institution following an argument—taken from her disastrous marriage to critic Edmund Wilson.)
The Group stayed on the bestseller list for nearly a year and was turned into a 1966 Sidney Lumet film starring a bevy of up-and-coming actresses, including Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Jessica Walter, and Kathleen Widdoes. But all the money did not translate into respect from her writing peers. The New York Review of Books, a new publication founded by a number of friends of McCarthy, published a negative review by Norman Mailer. Most wounding to the novelist might have been a parody featuring the non de plume “Xavier Prynne” that was actually the handiwork of McCarthy’s great friend Elizabeth Hardwick.
In some ways, the imbroglio resembled the controversy surrounding publication of John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live in 1949. O’Hara’s sprawling novel had featured descriptions of sex that, like McCarthy’s, were detailed but coldly clinical. A negative review by fellow New Yorker contributor Brendan Gill resulted not just in a permanent break between O’Hara and Gill, but also the novelist’s refusal to offer the magazine any of his marvelous short stories for a dozen years.
For years, McCarthy had been unafraid to take on the objects of her scorn—whether from traditional Catholics annoyed by her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, targets of her theater criticism, such as Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, American communists and fellow travelers, and ex-lovers and ex-husbands. But the reaction to The Group stunned her in its ferocity. Her friendship with Hardwick had been of such long standing that McCarthy got over her feelings of betrayal. But she could not get over the full force of multiple critics and members of the literary community taking whacks at her. At one point two months after publication, she uncharacteristically burst into tears when someone told her he did not like the book.
It’s hard not to conclude that many of McCarthy’s frenemies were jealous that she had reaped success while they had not. Hardwick particularly, for all her comments that the book was an aesthetic failure, could not surpass it with her own late-in-life impressionistic novel, Sleepless Nights. McCarthy’s perspective might not have been a particularly warm one, but little escaped her eye, and she managed to plot a highly complex narrative with aplomb.
It is telling, in the cable TV series about the Sixties, Mad Men, that when The Group is suggested for a book group, the idea is quickly dismissed in favor of a more middlebrow selection, Morris West's The Shoes of the Fishermen. Three decades after the events of the novel and McCarthy's own youth, women's bright hopes had still not been achieved. And, five decades after Mad Men's Peggy, Betty, and Joan--not to mention massive legislation and revolutionary technology--women still find themselves victimized by male manipulations, selfishness and violence. McCarthy would not have cheered, but she also would not have been surprised in the least.
(Photo of McCarthy by Dick DeMarsico, New York World-Telegram staff photographer, 1963; part of Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram and Sun Collection.)