Sunday, 6 May 2012

Final part: Mary McCarthy, Are You...a Feminist?

This is the last instalment of my interview with McCarthy from January 1982, The first parts are published elsewhere on this blog.

RL. You once said that the Group was ‘supposed to be the history of the loss of faith in progress.’ Were you out to shatter female illusions, particularly in marriage as an institution that could be liberalised in some way?

MM. No. The Group was conceived essentially as a comic novel. Apart from Lakey, none of the girls are very bright and I was interested in satirising the way each of them embraces the New Deal era, in fashions, domestic appliances, ideas, sex and so on. The girls are meant to be funny, especially in the way they parrot the progressive opinions of their husbands or boyfriends, and I wanted to show how their often rather naïve expectations are ultimately confounded.

RL. From what political standpoint?

MM. From the left, but not with any great seriousness. I was more interested in describing the girls’ gullibility and self-deception than anything else. That their attitudes hadn’t really changed from their mothers’ was, for me, one of the most comic aspects of the book.  Kay was the real power in ‘The Group’ and her death was meant to represent the end of that whole liberal-progressive era in American life.

RL. Were you surprised by the success of The Group?

MM. Yes.

RL. Why do you think it was so popular?

MM. Sex! Initially I thought it would be banned – but, as it turned out, only Ireland and one state in Australia outlawed it. I think sexual attitudes had changed just enough for it to be published. Part of its popularity was word of mouth, particularly mothers and daughters recommending it to each other; and the first steps of the women’s movement also helped, I think.

And it was on that intriguing note – that the success of her most famous novel may have been due, at least in part, to its striking a common chord (or cause?) with the beginnings of the feminist resurgence – that she called time on our discussion.

It’s tempting for me to speculate on the possible effect such a revelation might have had on McCarthy’s standing, had it been expanded and made more public at the time. Could it have signalled a new phase in the dialogue between McCarthy and feminists? Would that have led to a more explicit acknowledgement of common ground or shared values? Who knows – it might have. As it turned out, the only people to hear about my encounter with MM were fellow students at a seminar for Marion Shaw’s ‘Women in Literature’ module at Hull University, and, of course, Dr John, who suggested the names of a few literary journals that might be interested in publishing my account. However, it was around this time that I became more involved in anti-racist politics andless with academia, my interest in scholarship fading so quickly that this meeting with one of 20th century America’s literary giants was almost forgotten. Until now, of course.

Thirty years on and the literary landscape has changed considerably, but in thinking about McCarthy’s significance to contemporary readers, it’s interesting to note that, although she may have denied feminism during her lifetime, some academics on the left have begun to re-assess her status as a figure of growing importance in the history of feminist literature. In ‘Labor and Desire: Women’s Revolutionary Fiction in Depression America’, Paula Rabinowitz questions the idea that feminism was silenced in the 1930s and 40s and views ‘The Company She Keeps’ as a ‘pivotal’ novel, which not only ‘constructs a narrative of female class consciousness out of the woman’s body’ but ‘narrates class as a fundamentally gendered construct and gender as a fundamentally classed one’, which is, more or less, what I was trying to say back in 1982, I think.