During my college days, I would ransack the university library
periodical racks for the latest copies of my favorite journals, making
my way through everything from Down Beat to Salmagundi with sly
satisfaction from the knowledge that I could read every issue without
paying a penny for the privilege. (Alas, years later, when I started
settling my supersized student loans, I learned that my 'free access'
hadn't been as free as I thought.) But my favorite periodical was the
Partisan Review, where current-day intellectual heavyweights, and a
few stray dinosaurs from the past, engaged in fierce battle over
academic subjects, but without any of the coldness of academia.
Here great minds wrestled over values and principles, with high
stakes attached, no matter how esoteric the
ostensible subject. This was what I had come
to college to find, and if it only rarely showed
up in a classroom, I could at least hold it in my
hands at a library kiosk.
This may have been where I first encountered
Mary McCarthy, along with so many other
provocative thinkers of the mid- and late-20th
century. Partisan Review was where Susan
Sontag made her name, and published, among
other pieces, her famous (notorious?) "Notes
on Camp." T.S. Eliot contributed two of his Four
Quartets to PR. Clement Greenberg assessed
the art scene for the periodical's readers. Lionel
Trilling, perhaps my favorite of the group, weighed
in on cultural and literary matters. Other contributors, over the
years, included George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow,
Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Dylan Thomas, Alfred Kazin, Irving
Howe, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and many, many others.
By the time, I started reading and eventually (after I lost my 'free
access') subscribing, the glory days of the Partisan Review were in
the past, but even at the very end of its life, before its demise in 2003,
this journal still packed a punch. To this day, I miss it, and don’t see
any other periodical that has filled its gap.
But a place at the Partisan Review table didn't always pay the bills—
at its peak, the journal only had around 15,000 subscribers—and Ms.
McCarthy had to find other ways to monetize her writing talent. Few
of her generation were better positioned to thrive as a freelancer.
McCarthy's writing talent seemingly knew no bounds, and could
handle memoirs, criticism, fiction, political commentary, even travel
literature, with aplomb. When I spent six months in Tuscany on a
student program, my favorite literary guide was McCarthy’s The
Stones of Florence (1956), and a few years later I was reminded,
in the pages of her Ideas and the Novel (1980), of her formidable
skills as a literary critic. But McCarthy's big commercial break-
through came with The Group (1963)—some of it published initially
in Partisan Review—which reached the top of the New York Times
bestseller list in October 1963, and stayed in first place until February
1964—beating out, during that period, the
latest and greatest of Ian Fleming, James
Michener, Pearl Buck and a host of other high-
octane popular authors. McCarthy later sold
movie rights for $162,000, and Sidney Lumet's
1966 film adaptation with Candice Bergen in
the starring role, was the 25th highest-grossing
release of 1966.
McCarthy’s fans and friends should have
rejoiced, but many did not. Literati thought
that the author had concocted a deliberately
trashy book just to make money—and money
was one thing that invariably rankled the
Partisan Review crowd. Even critics could
see that the book had its merits, but could
these compensate for the other ingredients?
Norman Mailer, writing in the New York
Review of Books, claimed that The Group
"could be said to squat on the Grand Avenue
of the Novel like a shabby little boutique, a
place which offers treasure in the trash." His
final, snide verdict: McCarthy had managed
to write "the best novel the editors of the women’s magazines
ever conceived in their secret ambitions.” Elizabeth Hardwick couldn't
resist the temptation, and concocted a parody of The Group, upsetting
McCarthy and briefly rupturing the friendship between the two authors.
Indeed, McCarthy's friends may have had an even harder time
swallowing The Group than her critics—especially McCarthy's fellow
students from Vassar, class of 1933. The Group, you see, is about
a clique of recent graduates from this same Vassar class, and their
sordid affairs, failed marriages, bad parenting and self-serving
hypocrisies. Okay, I know Tom Brokaw called this demographic
cohort the "greatest generation," but he must not have met many
ladies from this particular edition of Vassar grads. McCarthy has
built her novel around a large cast of characters, but not one of them
seems ready to take on the mantle of heroine.
Three Literary Gossip Novels
Lakey may be one of the wealthiest and prettiest of the group, but
her elitism and aloofness disqualify her from heroine status,
especially since she spends most of the novel overseas and out of
sight, relaxing in villas and palaces. Kay is a more trustworthy friend,
but she submerges her own talent in her advocacy of her 'genius'
husband—who can neither keep a paying job nor give up his casual
affairs; Kay eventually ends in a psychiatric hospital, and that's just
the start of her irreversible decline. Dottie finds a more stable
husband, but unfortunately the guy she really loves is a narcissistic
artist of mediocre talent. Polly also latches on to a husband—
unfortunately the guy is another woman's husband. Pokey is rich
and stupid, but to her credit she has her own plane and a very astute
butler. Norine, an outsider from the group, takes her delight in
denouncing their elitist ways, and in trying to steal Kay's spouse.
The butler is the most impressive of the bunch. Unfortunately, he
never went to Vassar, isn't a member of 'The Group', and gets only
a few lines before getting dismissed to the servant's quarters. He
deserves a book of his own.
You get the idea. Much of The Group comes across like Sex in the
City, without the jokes. Some have compared this book to John
Updike's novels of the same period, but I don't think that’s quite fair.
Updike never paid much attention to diaphragms and breastfeeding
and a host of other issues that periodically disturb the self-satisfied
psyches of the group. No matter what your assessment of The Group,
give McCarthy some credit: she wrote a trashy feminist book, not a
trashy imitation of a masculinist work.
The caustic depiction of the characters' foibles raises the inevitable
question of whether these ladies were based on McCarthy’s actual
classmates at Vassar. When an interviewer asked McCarthy this
question, she replied: "Some of them are drawn pretty much from
life, and some of them are rather composite. I've tried to keep
myself out of this book. Oh, and all their mothers are in it. That's
the part I almost like the best…. The fathers vaguely figure, offstage
and so on, but the mothers are really monumentally present!"
In other words, Mary McCarthy is telling tales out of school. I can
imagine that many of the women who knew her at Vassar opened
the pages of this gossipy novel with some trepidation. And their
moms too! The dads didn't need to worry, but they probably don’t
read novels anyway, judging by their depiction in these pages.
McCarthy must have realized that stitching together bits of gossip is
not the same thing as writing a novel. She at least tries to insert a
larger narrative arc into The Group—which is more than, for example,
Truman Capote managed to accomplish with his similarly gossipy
Answered Prayers—but it is ultimately a sagging arc. She allows her
characters to develop, but only by giving them a taste of disillusionment
and a glimpse of the void. At the end of the novel, Lakey is still aloof,
Norine is still envious, and Pokey is still rich and stupid, but perhaps
they have started to grasp the price they pay for these traits.
Unfortunately, if they were in twelve-step program, they would still
be working on step one. As for the readers, they can hardly find
such a development surprising or intriguing, because they sniffed
out the rot and decay back in chapter one.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published June 24, 2013
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