February 24, 1952
When Suspicion Fell on the Impossible Mulcahy
By ALICE MORRIS
side from her sheer skill as a writer, her gift for the clean, knife-edged satiric shaft, Mary McCarthy has made her mark chiefly as an analyst of the cerebral fringe. The intellectual and the would-be intellectual in their several callings - this is the company she keeps and on which she casts a cold eye brightly: an eye undimmed and undeterred by the milk of human kindness. Some may deplore her disclosures, others bridle at them; it is difficult to substantiate flaws in them.
The intellectual oasis focused with a serene and expert competence by Miss McCarthy in her new novel, "The Groves of Academe," is a middle-sized experimental college that appears to be a distillation of Sarah Lawrence, Bennington and Bard.
At Jocelyn (not too far from New York and New Haven), the tuition is high, the student body handpicked and heterogeneous, the faculty made up - at a ratio of one instructor to every seven students - of "migrants from the centers of progressive orthodoxy," a loosely knit company in whom the spirit of free inquiry is rife.
Over this uneven assembly presides Maynard Hoar, a buoyant and boyish administrator dedicated to the individual tutorial (as a teaching method) and the liberal view (as a professional stand). "Like all such official types, he specialized in being his own antithesis: strong but understanding, boisterous but grave, pragmatic but speculative when need be. The necessity of encompassing such opposites had left him with a little wobble of uncertainty in the center of his personality, which made other people *** feel embarrassed by him."
This somewhat hodgepodge, avant-garde Jocelyn set-up, Miss McCarthy makes clear as diamonds. The pagan and peripheral atmosphere it fosters is conducive to political ambiguity, to frenzies over gnats (which are mistaken for camels), to fractious breezes and sudden squalls.
The immediate tempest in the Jocelyn teapot blows up over the threatened dismissal from the faculty of Henry Mulcahy, prophet of modern literature and of James Joyce in particular, arch-irreconcilable, and insatiable victim of academic witch hunts, whom Hoar has taken on as a public avowal of academic freedom.
"A tall soft-bellied, lisping man with a tense, mushroom-white face, rimless bifocals, and graying thin red hair," writes Miss McCarthy of Mulcahy, "he was intermittently aware of a quality of personal unattractiveness that emanated from him like a miasma: this made him self-pitying, uxorious, and addicted also to self-love, for he associated it with his destiny as a portent of some personal epiphany *** He carried an ashplant stick, in imitation of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus; subscribed to Science and Society, the Communist scholarly publication; and proclaimed the Irish, his ancestors, to be the ten lost tribes of Israel."
While Mulcahy's incensed colleagues rally to his defense, resign, form deputations, while they freely inquire en masse, in splinter conspiracies and in lonely vigils, Mulcahy himself moves against Hoar with the furious guile of a marmoset attacked by a cobra.
Mulcahy's pettifogging strategy of lies and half-truths, of shifts and reversals, his unscrupulous use of his students and friends, of a domestic misfortune, and of the embarrassing possibility that he is, after all, a card-carrying Communist, are expedients based on a solitary ethic: his right as a man of superior intellect, in his middle years with a family of five, to food, shelter, and a kind of blanket amnesty.
That the calamitous and dogged Mulcahy manages to elicit from the reader (as he does from the more charitable of his disenchanted defenders) a sneaking, if ill-founded, compassion is a tribute to Miss McCarthy's satiric manner, which is based on a stunning, narrowly aimed accuracy rather than exaggeration. While she provides her specimens of men and mores with few softening extra-curriculum features, neither does she deny them their humanity by making caricatures of them
Miss McCarthy's report on the Jocelynians - down to the magnificent lady poet who "turned her whole body from the waist when addressed by a new interlocutor, as though she were an obliging ear-trumpet maneuvering into position to take account of some strange new noise reaching her from afar" - is fierce and faithful. And, for anyone interested in the conduct or our least orthodox campuses, mortally entertaining.
Miss Morris is fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar.