Even 50 years after it scandalized America with its frank sexuality, Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ still has the power to unsettle. Nathaniel Rich on the novel’s lessons on the ideological life.
American readers were scandalized by The Group when it was published in 1963; for quite different reasons, The Group also scandalized Mary McCarthy’s critics—many of whom happened to be her friends, rivals, and lovers. The novel follows nine Vassar girls, class of ’33, through their 20s and into their bathrooms, bedrooms, and the bedrooms of their friends’ husbands. Libby, the ambitious English major, has a little secret: “she sometimes made love to herself, on the bath mat, after having her tub,” achieving a state that she names “Over the Top.” Dottie Renfrew has a secret too: she has been deflowered by a callous lothario named Dick Brown during which, to her astonishment, she went Over the Top herself. Norine is having an affair with her friend’s husband, in part because her own husband can manage erections only with prostitutes. Norine wonders whether it might make things easier if she allowed her husband this one indiscretion. “Supposing Put were to spend five minutes a week with a whore—the time it takes him to shave? Why should I mind?” We also learn about the sensitivity of a new mother’s nipples; the proper way to emplace a diaphragm; and the secret fear, and resentment, that young mothers harbor toward their own children.
McCarthy’s candid accounts of female sexuality are accompanied by unsettlingly honest portraits of male cruelty. The men in The Group behave with glibness, condescension, and even brutality toward the Vassar grads. When Norine consults doctors about her husband’s problem, she is told that she should consider herself lucky that her husband is unable to have intercourse, and that, besides, sex isn’t necessary for a woman. Another doctor advises her to buy black chiffon underwear and cheap perfume, so that her husband will start thinking of her as a whore. Meanwhile, Libby is fired from her publishing job, even though she has done her work with exceptional diligence and passion. “Publishing’s a man’s business,” her editor informs her, “unless you marry into it. Marry a publisher, Miss MacAusland, and be his hostess.” There is an inverse correlation at play: the nicer a man appears, the greater his cruelty behind closed doors. Nils, Libby’s charming Norwegian suitor, turns violent when they are left alone in her apartment. He stops only when he discovers she’s a virgin. “It would not even be amusing to rape you,” he says, glaring down at her ruined dress. These gentlemen compare unfavorably with Dick Brown, who at least is honest about his interest in Dottie, is gentle in bed, and helpfully advises her to take birth control.
The candor of McCarthy’s treatment of these themes contributed to the novel’s enormous popular success—it was the bestselling hardcover in the country for five months and would sell nearly 300,000 copies in its first year. But those in McCarthy’s circle disapproved. Dwight Macdonald, her longtime friend and colleague, summarized the gossip: “Most of the intellectuals I’ve talked to, or read, about The Group, think it is the old Mary, cold and bitchy and superior.” Elizabeth Hardwick, one of her closest friends, wrote in TheNew York Review of Books under a pseudonym a nasty parody of Dottie’s defloration scene; this was a double betrayal, as McCarthy was one of the Review’s inaugural writers and close with its editorial staff. In the following issue, The Group was the subject of a snide, imperious review by Norman Mailer. It later turned out that Robert Lowell, Hardwick’s husband and a founder of the Review, had proposed Mailer for the essay; Lowell also disparaged the novel in his letters to friends. Norman Podhoretz joined in, calling the novel “flatly written and incoherently structured ... a trivial lady writer’s novel ... a well-deserved fiasco,” a comment echoed by Lillian Hellman, who called The Group the work of “a lady writer, a lady magazine writer.”
The critiques had little in common apart from their patronizing attitude, which channeled the tone used by The Group’s male characters in their dealings with the Vassar girls. Though why such vitriol? Biographers and cultural historians have blamed literary resentment. But the critical response reflected something stronger than jealousy; it had a quality of personal outrage. That is because The Group, more than exposing the largely hidden world of female sexuality, or the misogyny of the period, satirized the kind of thinking then in vogue among the intellectual set to which McCarthy belonged—the belief in the authority of ideology over personal experience. William Phillips, one of the editors of the Partisan Review, put it best when he said of McCarthy, “My main criticism is that she substituted morality for politics. She was always moralizing. She was always taking the high road. It could be annoying.”
What Phillips saw as a flaw, McCarthy considered a virtue. While McCarthy was deeply involved in the political questions of her time, she understood the danger in living a life too slavishly devoted to theory. This, after all, is The Group’s the dominant theme: the greatest tragedies befall those characters, both male and female, who pursue ideological obsessions at the expense of their own desires. This is true of Norine, who remains committed to a loveless and sexless marriage out of a sense of duty to her husband’s political activism, which has won him notoriety in their social set. “We’ve come to stand for something meaningful to other people,” says Norine, when explaining her determination to stand by him. Kay endures an equally excruciating marriage out of a conviction that her playwright husband is a genius, despite that all his plays fail to attract audiences or critical praise. Her suffering will be justified, she believes, if one day she will be seen as the woman behind a great man; when the couple finally separates, her life loses meaning, and she enters a terminal depression. Priss, meanwhile, forces herself to disobey her maternal instincts in order to satisfy the doctrine of her domineering husband—a decision that causes her to revile her own child. Only the aristocratic Lakey follows her private passion, taking a lesbian lover—though even then she exiles herself to Europe to avoid censure. From a remove of 50 years, the novel’s luridness seems quaint. But McCarthy’s evocation of the ways in which intellectual narcissism can ruin a life remains vivid and surprising.
The greatest tragedies befall those characters, both male and female, who pursue ideological obsessions at the expense of their own desires.
“You really feel our education was a mistake?” asks one Vassar grad, panicked, near the end of the novel.
“Oh, completely,” says Norine. “I’ve been crippled for life.”
But the problem, suggests McCarthy, isn’t too much education. The problem is not enough life.