You Love MM ! : part 1 of Laura Jacobs' 'Vassar Unzipped'
Shocking, titillating, and acid-laced, The Group, Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel about eight Vassar girls, turned the feared and revered literary critic into a wealthy, world-famous author. But the backlash was brutal, not least from her Vassar classmates. Laura Jacobs explores why the book still dazzles as a generational portrait, falters as fiction, and blighted McCarthy’s life.
Everyone loved Chapter Two. Straitlaced Dottie Renfrew—Vassar class of 1933 and a virgin—has gone home with the handsome but dissipated Dick Brown. He undresses her slowly, so that she “was hardly trembling when she stood there in front of him with nothing on but her pearls.” Dick makes Dottie lie down on a towel, and after she experiences some “rubbing and stroking,” and then some “pushing and stabbing,” she starts to get the hang of things. “All of a sudden, she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups … ” No hearts and flowers here, simply a female orgasm described by a female writer who was as empirical and precise as the male writers of her day—perhaps more so—yet always attuned to the social niceties imprinted upon a certain class of female mind. Dick removes the towel, impressed by the minute stain, and in a remark that pulled the romantic veil from the usual novelistic pillow talk, says of his ex-wife, “Betty bled like a pig.”
It was the first line of Chapter Three, however, that brought mythic status to Mary McCarthy’s fifth novel, The Group. “Get yourself a pessary,” Dick says the next morning, walking Dottie to the door. The chapter proceeds to offer a tutorial on the etiquette, economics, semiotics, and symbolism of this particular form of contraception, circa 1933. Diaphragm, ring, plug—call it what you will—when The Group was published, in 1963, the subject was still shocking. Sidney Lumet’s movie of The Group—released three years later, smack in the middle of the sexual revolution—included Dottie’s deflowering and subsequent trip to a gynecologist but substituted euphemisms for McCarthy’s blunt language. Instead, Dick Brown says, “The right lady doctor could make us a lot happier.”
Critics of The Group would call it Mary McCarthy’s “lady-writer’s novel” and “lady-book,” insults meant to suggest it was a falling-off from her previous work. And it was different from what she’d done before. Up until The Group, McCarthy was feared and revered in the smart, tight, testy, and frequently backstabbing world of midcentury literary quarterlies and political reviews. Her critical assessments of theater and literature were scathing, and no one was too high to be brought low. Arthur Miller, J. D. Salinger, and Tennessee Williams—the greats of the day—all came in for vivisection, McCarthy’s own Theater of Cruelty on the page. (“Torn animals,” poet Randall Jarrell wrote of a character based on McCarthy, “were removed at sunset from that smile.”) Her early novels read like moral chess matches where everyone is a pawn. And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear in the hearts of male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed withouttrembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.
But The Group—a novel that followed eight Vassar roommates from commencement in 1933 to the brink of war in 1940—was her Mount Olympus and her Achilles’ heel, a monster international success that brought world fame yet failed to impress the peers who mattered most.
“Women’s secrets again,” the poet Louise Bogan wrote to a friend, “told in clinical detail.”
“No one in the know likes the book,” poet Robert Lowell wrote to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s.
“Mary tried for something very big,” critic Dwight Macdonald wrote to historian Nicola Chiaromonte, “but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”
All true, and all beside the point. Published on August 28, 1963, with a whopping first printing of 75,000, The Group was a sensation. By September 8 it was No. 9 on theNew York Times best-seller list for adult fiction, with booksellers ordering 5,000 copies a day. By October 6 it had dethroned Morris L. West’s The Shoes of the Fisherman to become No. 1, where it would stay for the next five months. By the end of 1964, nearly 300,000 copies had been sold, though now and then Harcourt Brace Jovanovich had to refund the price of a book. Women’s secrets “told in clinical detail” were, for some, tantamount to pornography. The book was banned in Australia, Italy, and Ireland.
Countless novels have topped the best-seller list for months. Mention them now—The Shoes of the Fisherman, for instance—and people go blank. Not so with The Group. While its plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil, the secrets of these Vassar girls were chinked in stone and the racy one-liners etched in memory. As Helen Downes Light, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s, told Frances Kiernan, the author of the biography Seeing Mary Plain,“I used to keep seventy-five dollars of mad money in a book. We had The Group on the shelf in our guest room and I thought, I’ll remember where it is if I put it in there. Every guest we had would come down the next morning and say, ‘Did you know you had money in that book?’ ”
Money in that book! Avon paid $100,000 for the paperback rights. Movie rights sold to producer-agent Charles Feldman for $162,500. The Group made Mary McCarthy a very rich intellectual, one of America’s first highbrows to receive gargantuan sums, thus changing the financial expectations of serious writers and the scale on which their work could be judged.
By the time McCarthy began The Group she had been writing about groups for years. It was a fascination of hers, and you could say it was fated. When McCarthy was six, she and her three younger brothers lost both parents in the 1918 flu pandemic. Gone the beatific home created by an adored mother and charismatic father; gone the intimate group that is one’s family. Her father, Roy McCarthy, was the son of J. H. McCarthy, a wealthy, self-made grain merchant in Minneapolis. Roy was charming and handsome, but he was a binge drinker, which made it difficult for him to hold a job. At 30, he went west to Oregon for a fresh start in a timber-brokerage business, and it was there that he met 21-year-old Tess Preston, dark-haired, beautiful, and accepting of Roy’s alcoholism. They married in 1911, and when Mary was born, in 1912 in Seattle, Roy not only stopped drinking for good, he became a lawyer at 32. Unfortunately, the ill effects of childhood rheumatic fever left him increasingly bedridden. The decision to move the family back to Minneapolis, to be close to Roy’s parents, proved fatal. Upon arrival, Roy and Tess died within a day of each other. The orphans would be shuttled between unsympathetic and sometimes sadistic relatives.
A little girl with a gimlet eye, Mary was acutely aware of her new status—the outsider looking in—and she became well acquainted with the power games played by those on the inside. Her coming-of-age brought more of the same. As a Seattle girl of uncertain class (not to mention—and she didn’t—a Jewish grandmother), she was an outsider at East Coast, upper-crust Vassar. As an Irish Catholic of bourgeois upbringing, she was an outsider among Partisan Review’s gang of first-generation Jews, even as she ruled from within as the magazine’s theater critic and queen cobra, entrancing male colleagues while living with P.R.’s editor Philip Rahv. In fact, being “inside” only brought ambivalence. “A princess among the trolls” is how she came to characterize her position at P.R., rather nastily, in her astonishing short story of 1941, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt.” This frank and often bawdy portrayal of a one-night stand on a cross-country train, its details drawn from McCarthy’s own past tryst on a train, was a dropped bomb that brought career-making notoriety. “I was at Exeter at the time,” the late George Plimpton told Frances Kiernan, “and it made almost as much of an impression as Pearl Harbor.”
The Group is considered McCarthy’s fifth novel, but, truth be told, it’s hard to know exactly which of her books is the first. The Company She Keeps, published in 1942 and cited as the first, was actually a collection of previously published short stories, including “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” all sharing a protagonist, Margaret Sargent. Her piercing sensibility takes the place of a plot, sending waves of pitiless social insight and irony rippling through the book. McCarthy’s “second” novel, The Oasis, was the winning entry in a 1949 fiction contest sponsored by the English literary monthly Horizon. A novelette in length, a political satire in tone, The Oasis was also a roman à clef that spoofed the Partisan Review intellectuals, presenting them as Realists or Purists and plopping them into a rural Utopia where they attempt to live outside society, without modern conveniences or class distinctions. Former lover Rahv, caricatured as the leader of the Realists, was so stung by the book he threatened to sue. In an interview with The Paris Review, McCarthy clarified: “The Oasis is not a novel It’s a conte, a conte philosophique.”
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An interesting choice of words on McCarthy’s part, conte versus “story,” for the French conte not only translates as “tale,” it also connotes a narration, a story told orally. Setting aside the fact that McCarthy could be quite theatrical when reading her work before an audience, there is a distinctly narrated, documentary-voice-over quality to her fiction, as if her tales came straight from her head—eyes, ears, brain, mouth—without ever having traveled through her heart.
The Groves of Academe followed in 1951 and A Charmed Life in 1954. Groves is yet another chess match, an example of what the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, a lifelong friend of McCarthy’s, termed her “ideological follies,” this one between academics (recognizable to those in the know, naturally) at a small college modeled on Bard, where McCarthy had taught for a year. As for A Charmed Life, the plot, not ideological but still a kind of folly, zeroes in on the emotional dynamics of an iffy marriage dropped into a tiny community of bohemians, further complicated when the protagonist’s former husband (based, in part, on McCarthy’s second husband, the writer Edmund Wilson) lures her into a drunken roll on the couch. Booze and bad sex were never far apart in the world of Mary McCarthy, and A Charmed Life turns on what will be done with the pregnancy that follows.
In the year that brought forth A Charmed Life, the Partisan Review published yet another McCarthy tale, this one called “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” Hard to believe Mary could go one better than “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” but she did. Sandwiched between an Irving Howe essay, “This Age of Conformity,” and Hannah Arendt’s “Tradition and the Modern Age” was the unabashed third chapter of The Group—“Get yourself a pessary.” It was a scandalous sneak preview that made everyone want more.
Portrait of the Ladies
According to biographer Carol Gelderman (Mary McCarthy: A Life), the idea was articulated in 1951, when McCarthy applied for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant. She wanted to write about “a group of newly married couples who emerge out of the Depression with a series of optimistic beliefs in science, engineering, rural electrification, the Aga stove, technocracy, psychoanalysis In a certain sense, the ideas are the villains and the people their hapless victims.” It was a concept novel, with not so much a plot as a plan: the characters conned by progress with a capital P. The grant was denied, but McCarthy went ahead and began writing.
In 1959, five years after “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself” was published, McCarthy again applied for a Guggenheim, this time describing the book as a “history of the faith in progress of the nineteen-thirties and forties as reflected in the behavior and notions of young women—college graduates of the year 1933 It is a crazy quilt of clichés, platitudes, and idées reçues. Yet the book is not meant to be a joke or even a satire, exactly, but a ‘true history’ of the times … ”
The concept had been simplified and refined. In a way, it was the fictional flower of a nonfiction essay McCarthy had written in 1951, for Holiday magazine, in which she stated, “For different people … at different periods, Vassar can stand for whatever is felt to be wrong with the modern female: humanism, atheism, Communism, short skirts, cigarettes, psychiatry, votes for women, free love, intellectualism. Pre-eminently among American college women, the Vassar girl is thought of as carrying a banner.” The Group was now the book McCarthy was destined to write. Her editor, William Jovanovich, of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, thought it “might be one of the few important books that is about women without being actually for women.” The jury at the Guggenheim must have thought so too, for the grant was given.
McCarthy would fulfill her proposal with i’s dotted (Dottied?) and t’s crossed. The Group isn’t a joke, and though satirical it isn’t a satire. The lives of McCarthy’s eight graduates—nine if you count Norine, a classmate who envied the group from afar and is the novel’s lone outsider—do indeed present a crazy quilt that captures the history of the time. Dottie proffers a peephole into the sexual mores of the 1930s and Priss into “enlightened” mothering. Literary Libby wants to be an editor but is steered toward agenting, while Polly’s love affairs shed light on the era’s attitudes toward psychoanalysis and psychiatry. In Kay we have the consumer as climber, a woman in love with the intellectual cachet of modernism; for this she is mocked by her philandering husband, Harald Petersen (modeled on McCarthy’s first husband, Harald Johnsrud). Androgynous Helena writes the class newsletter, and chubby heiress Pokey is present mostly through her butler, Hatton. Empress of them all is Lakey—Elinor Eastlake, of Lake Forest, Illinois—the aloof aesthete who’s studying art in Europe and spends most of the novel offstage. Most of the movie too. “Waiting for Lakey to reappear,” the film critic Pauline Kael wrote in a 1966 essay on the making of Lumet’s movie, “is about like waiting for Godot.” But worth the wait, for she was played with sublime hauteur by a young Candice Bergen. It is upon Lakey’s return from Europe that the group realizes she is a lesbian.
Getting the book written would take some doing. Late in 1959, the year McCarthy received her Guggenheim, she met the man who would become her fourth and last husband, the diplomat James West. McCarthy left her third husband, Bowden Broadwater, to wed West, who had to leave his second wife, Margaret. West was posted to Paris, where the couple bought a large apartment, and McCarthy took on extra writing assignments to help pay for its renovation. This annoyed Jovanovich, who’d drummed up huge advance interest in The Group and wanted to see it finished and in print pronto. Moreover, in early 1963, just as she should have been perfecting her final manuscript for its April deadline, McCarthy spent intellectual and emotional energy defending Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a bureaucratic cog in the Holocaust machine and the man who would embody, in the report’s infamous phrase, “the banality of evil.” First serialized in The New Yorker and deeply controversial, the book was written by McCarthy’s beloved friend and kindred spirit, the political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Yet even before the move to Paris and the Eichmann explosion McCarthy realized she couldn’t manage The Group’s projected time frame—the Roosevelt 30s to the Eisenhower 50s. In 1960 she told The Paris Review, “These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them.” She felt that comic figures, as if by Delphic decree, were not allowed to learn or grow. Reducing the time frame to seven years, she still had trouble wrapping it up. “I’ve lost all perspective,” McCarthy told Arendt. “The main thing is to push on and deposit the burden. On Jovanovich’s lap.” That said, when McCarthy suddenly found herself on the verge of best-sellerdom, she was, she wrote, “very much excited by all the excitement about the book.” The question of whether McCarthy had made the girls’ fates feel like more than faits accomplis would be left for the critics to settle.
The year 1963 was a big one for what is now termed “second-wave feminism.” McCarthy never rode any wave of feminism. Generously mentored by male editors and lovers, she scorned special pleading based on gender. Nevertheless, her Vassar girls burst upon the world in the same year that saw the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a groundbreaking study of the nameless unhappiness that was plaguing postwar housewives. (Friedan’s book was sparked by Smith girls, classmates she had surveyed at a 15th reunion.) Also in 1963, Radcliffe girl Adrienne Rich published her third collection of poetry, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a seismic shift into the terrain of gender politics. “All three of these books,” says Katha Pollitt, essayist for The Nation, “were about the way very smart, educated women get trapped in the lesser life they are compelled to lead.”
Unlike her sister-school sisters, McCarthy wasn’t taking on the present in a way that was radically or even covertly subversive. She was looking at the past, specifically, she said, at a “vanishing class”—upper-middle, Protestant, educated. Her girls were bluestockings, not rebels. They graduate from Vassar embracing the social responsibilities required of their class and believing that America is inevitably improving. Almost all of them become less acute with the passing of time. One could and probably should read this diminuendo as an authorial statement on life. As W. H. Auden wrote in the poem Lullaby, “Time and fevers burn away / Individual beauty from / Thoughtful children … ” But Pauline Kael also had a point when she said, “She beats up on those girls.”
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“I think she looked around at what happened to her classmates,” says the novelist Mary Gordon. “Because she’s really talking about what happened to women after the Second World War. They really got shut down. To give it a rosier coloration is something her honesty would never have allowed her to do.”
It was honesty on another level that made the book controversial. McCarthy was matter-of-fact and often slapstick about subjects everyone else deemed sacred—sex, motherhood, one’s relationship with one’s shrink. And she was completely unfazed by physiology.
“ ‘Betty bled like a pig,’ ” reiterates the writer Penelope Rowlands. “My mother had a whole circle of friends that were parents. We kids would play in Central Park and they would sit on the bench. I have a distinct memory of the mothers sitting there giggling. One of them had a book and she said, ‘Read Chapter Two,’ and handed it to someone else. I can see them all just savoring it.”
Mary Gordon remembers “the pessary, that was such a major thing. I was in Catholic school at the time and I thought The Group was a dirty book. I read it under the covers, and it was very exciting among my friends. Even though it had taken place in the 30s, it still seemed like late-breaking news. Smart women able to be sexual—that just seemed, in 1963, very thrilling. And it had immense stylishness.”
“There were scenes that were neat and snappy,” recalls writer and critic Margo Jefferson. “Of course, everybody remembers Libby and her secret, what she called ‘going over the top.’ Written in that precise little way.”
The reviews rolled in as expected, acknowledging McCarthy’s reputation as a critic and trying, in the words of Jovanovich, “not to be wrong about the book.” Some even went as far as to quote back McCarthy’s own description of her objectives (progress, platitudes), a rare deference that attests to the fear factor attached to her name. In The Saturday Review, Granville Hicks lauded McCarthy’s newfound sympathy for her characters yet suggested it was as “social history that the novel will chiefly be remembered.” In The New York Times, Arthur Mizener detected no sympathy at all but decided that while The Group was not a conventional novel, “it is, in its own way, something pretty good.” The Chicago Daily News called it a “whopper … one of the best novels of the decade.”
Backlash arrived in October. Norman Podhoretz, writing in Show, went after the snobbery he perceived in McCarthy’s novel: “Willfully blind to the spirit of moral ambition and the dream of self-transcendence that animated [the 30s], she can see nothing in it but foolishness and insincerity—despite the fact that she herself was produced by that spirit.” Even worse was the broadside from a new publication—started up during the New York newspaper strike—The New York Review of Books, edited by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein. McCarthy considered The New York Review friendly, having written an essay on William Burroughs for its very first issue. Her good friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, then husband and wife, were part of The New York Review’s inner circle. So she was stunned when the fortnightly slammed her not once but twice.
On September 26, 1963, a three-paragraph parody called “The Gang” was published under the pseudonym Xavier Prynne (a play on Xavier Rynne, the famous pseudonym of Francis X. Murphy, who wrote extensively on the Vatican). It zeroed in on Dottie’s—now Maisie’s—defloration, mocking the way McCarthy’s avid, appraising omniscience doesn’t shut off even during a shtup: “Gasping for breath, Maisie giggled and said, ‘Remember Bernard Shaw? Something about brief and ridiculous.’ ”
McCarthy was not happy to be parodied so publicly and perfectly. And she was dumbfounded when she learned that Xavier Prynne was none other than her close friend Hardwick.
“Why did Lizzie do it?” asks Kiernan, who is now at work on a book about Robert Lowell and his wives. “Well, it was irresistible. And, to be fair, the one part she mocks is the best part of the book. She hasn’t picked one of the weaknesses.”
“Lizzie was a great friend of Mary’s, so it was obviously complex,” says someone who knew them both. “She felt it was a matter of justice—justice for literary judgment.”
Worse would come three weeks later, when The New York Review of Books published Norman Mailer’s strenuously virtuosic, outrageously sexist takedown. The razor sharpens on the strop in the opening paragraph, with Mailer hailing Mary as “our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc … ” et cetera. He gives The Group one compliment—“It has a conception of the novel which is Mary’s own”—and then goes on (and on and on) to say in a thousand different ways that it is “good but not nearly good enough.” In short, he gave her the Mary McCarthy treatment.
Negative reviews on such a grand scale are no fun, but they can bring positive publicity to a book, a greater sense of moment. And then there’s the jealousy of friends. “The people at the Partisan Review were all very smart,” explains cultural critic Midge Decter, who knew McCarthy in those days, “and very catty with one another because they were all living as literary figures in a shortage economy of fame and money. Mary had published some fiction, but not much attention was paid to it. Then The Group was a big success and nobody could stand it. Everybody was very mean about Mary and envious of her. It wasn’t unheard of by then; Saul Bellow had had a big success. That was the first major trauma. But the idea that you could actually make money being a writer, that was new.”
“High art and popular art were in very different worlds,” says Pollitt. “You couldn’t be in both. You might want your book made into a movie, but if you did, that was selling out.”
“It was a best-seller and she was making all this money,” Kiernan says. “You’ve got to realize, she had always been an intellectual—a New York intellectual. And so the people who had respected her, they look at her again. And she’s now got Susan Sontag nipping at her heels, and Susan is suddenly the intellectual, and she looks a lot purer than Mary does at this point, and styles have changed. So did she sell out deliberately? I don’t think she ever intended The Group to be a big best-seller.”
The Pen Is Mightier than the Sword
Once critics and friends got their swipes in, Vassar classmates took their turn. For years McCarthy had been wounding friends and colleagues by liberally, transparently, and irreverently using them in her fiction. The Group was no different. But where her previous novels had highbrow readerships, vastly smaller, this one was titillating everybody. In her 1992 biography of the author, Writing Dangerously, Carol Brightman notes that among McCarthy’s set “identifying the bodies in the ‘blood-stained alley’ behind The Group quickly became a favorite pastime.” They knew that these girls were based on real people. It didn’t help that McCarthy had hardly changed the names of the victims—for instance, Dottie Renfrew derived from Dottie Newton. Yet she insisted the book could not be called a roman à clef because the girls were “unknown to the public.”
Whatever you call the book, the Vassar class of ’33 viewed it as a betrayal. In a story titled “Miss McCarthy’s Subjects Return the Compliments,” which ran on the front page of the Herald Tribune Book Review in January of 1964, one of the affronted said, “It’s all there—our parents, our habits, our prejudices, our classmates.” Interviewed by the journalist Sheila Tobias, the “real-life” roommates shot back, remembering McCarthy as narcissistic and unkempt. And they were withering about the bun she wore at the nape of her neck, a signature. “She may,” one said, “be the only Vassar girl not to have changed her hairstyle in 30 years.” Writing to Jovanovich in high dudgeon over the “horrible nasty piece,” McCarthy protested that “The Group is an idea, not a study of the actual group disguised—a Platonic ideal.” Sounds like the old conte philosophique defense. She did, however, finally cut her hair.
The provenance of the novel’s most mysterious character, Elinor Eastlake, is to this day a fascinating question. The character is as self-contained as a cat, and in the novel’s final scene—Lakey’s verbal duel, behind the wheel of her car, with Kay’s husband, Harald—she’s mesmerizing, which is to say brilliantly written. Although McCarthy eventually said Lakey owed her “Indian eyes” to Margaret Miller and her “fathomless scorn” to Nathalie Swan, both Vassar classmates, a description that arrives late in the novel superimposes Mary upon Lakey: “They had all cut their hair and had permanents, but Lakey still wore hers in a black knot at the nape of her neck, which gave her a girlish air.” Kiernan believes “she’s many people. I think partly she’s Mary, partly she was Margaret Miller, who had the physical beauty of Lakey. And Helen Dawes Watermulder, from Chicago, she thought she was Lakey.” Others believe that Lakey was based on one person, a Vassar graduate of quiet renown, Elizabeth Bishop.
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A distinguished poet, in literary stature right up there with Robert Lowell (and thus above Mary), Bishop happened to be a lesbian. When she first read The Group, she’d been amused. But, Kiernan writes, friends had persuaded her that “not only was she the model for Lakey … but Lota de Macedo Soares, her Brazilian lover, was the model for the baroness [Lakey’s lover].” Bishop went cold on McCarthy, who as late as 1979 appealed to her in a letter: “I promise you that no thought of you, or of Lota, even grazed my mind when I was writing The Group.”
“Mary thought that she had changed certain facts, and Elizabeth thought it was still too close,” says an editor who knew both women. “This is what one thinks: Would there have been a Lakey if there hadn’t been Elizabeth Bishop? The answer is probably no. Lakey is meant to be Mary-like in appearance and Elizabeth-like in superior sensibility. It’s very important to the novel actually, because it’s important to the novel’s tone, which has this superiority, this sense of knowingness about different lives, different people. She clearly had followed these women. Vassar had been very important to Mary as the place where she formed her view of things, and you feel her attempt to locate people socially, where they stood, where their family stood. It’s very much part of her writing and her sensibility, this question of who is superior in American social life.”
Not until 1976, when Esquire published Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque,” a short story that fouled the society dames he called his “swans,” would another work of fiction upset so many women.
Novelists lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young. She once said that the reason you write a novel is “to put something in the world that wasn’t there before,” so she had the artist’s impulse for creation. But she did not have the artist’s trust in stirrings that cannot quite be set to words. She couldn’t leave characters to a fate that was out of her control. This is why the word “novel” keeps slipping off her fiction and why she herself was constantly coming up with other terms for her work.
McCarthy grew to dislike The Group and the best-seller treatment that accompanied it. “I hated the whole business of interviews and TV. I felt I’d been corrupted,” she told the English newspaper The Observer in 1979, “that the world which I despised had somehow eaten its way into me.” There were two more novels and reams of nonfiction. She continued hurling judgments like thunderbolts. One in particular, lightly tossed, wreaked havoc. In 1979, on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asked McCarthy which writers she thought were overrated. “The only one I can think of,” she said, “is a holdover like Lillian Hellman.” She then uttered the actionable sentence, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Hellman was watching, and within weeks, citing defamation of character, she sued McCarthy, Cavett, and the Educational Broadcasting Corporation for $2.5 million. Hellman’s lawyer said she would drop the suit if McCarthy issued a retraction, but McCarthy wouldn’t, because she couldn’t lie. It wasn’t until 1984 that a first ruling came down, and it was in Hellman’s favor. McCarthy planned to appear in court, but Hellman died a month later, and with her the lawsuit. In 1989, McCarthy died of lung cancer. She never had another book as big as The Group.
Until the end, admiring writers and journalists made pilgrimages to the apartment in Paris and to Castine, Maine, where the Wests summered in a 19th-century sea captain’s house. While McCarthy remained politically left and in full support of reproductive rights, more than once she commented on her preference for doing things the old-fashioned way. “I like labor-intensive implements and practices. Cranking by hand an ice cream freezer … pushing a fruit or vegetable through a sieve … leaving some mark of the tools on the marble I think it has something to do with the truth.” And again, “I love recipes that involve pushing things through sieves.” In a way it describes her method as a novelist. McCarthy’s plots, their ingredients measured out and mixed with an almost scientific objective in mind, are like recipes—usually for disaster. And instead of fruits or vegetables, it is her characters that get pushed and strained through a sieve.
The poet Robert Lowell, whom McCarthy adored and revered, said something similar but with more eloquence. In a letter to Mary dated August 7, 1963, he described her Vassar girls as “cloistered, pastoral souls breaking on the real rocks of the time.” He went on to include himself in this group of cloistered souls, writing that in the late 30s “we were ignorant, dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear the wilderness.” Leave it to the poet to know an elegy when he sees it. Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.