by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, Brace, 378 pp., $5.95
It had to happen. It was in the command of all the ironies that there would come a day when our First Lady of Letters would write a book and lo! the lovers would stand. Arthur Mizener would stand to be counted, and Granville Hicks, Clifton Fadiman, W. G. Rogers, and Gilbert Highet, Edmund Fuller, all those Virgilia Petersons, Dennis Powers’s and Glendy Culligans. The reviews came in on wings of gold, “Brilliant” “Sheer” “Superlative” “Highly” “Generous” “Wonderfully Worth” “Great Joy To.” Not since Elizabeth Janeway wrote The Walsh Girls has any lady-book been given such praise by people such as these. Yet it has happened to Mary, our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc, the only Joan of Arc to travel up and down our raddled literary world, our poor damp kingdom, her sword breathing fire while she looked for a Dauphin to save us, looked these twenty years, and brought back nought. Even the patience of Joan cannot endure. She found a Dauphin at last in the collective masculinity which is to be scraped together out of eight Vassar girls, class of ‘33. “Miss McCarthy has come through brilliantly,” writes David Boroff. “It is sheer exhilaration to watch her nimble intelligence at work, great joy to read her rich and supple prose. The Group clearly is one of the best novels of the decade.” What has Mary done that now she is guilty by association with the Boroffs and the Fullers and the Hicks? Is this true guilt or innocence in disarray? Can she be conspiring with the epigones? Is the witch plotting how not to give the goose away? What a case!
Barrister William Barrett, late of Heidegger Row, finds for the defendant:
The novel opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. The two scenes, particularly the first, are beautifully composed tableaux, magnificent photographs of an occasion with all the details meticulously assembled, including those that give the picture its haunting period quality. Between these two scenes, in which all of the group are assembled, the tangled skeins of eight different lives unwind and interweave. Yet the eight different stories have the unity of a novel, for they turn around the pivotal figure of the group, Kay Strong….Kay is the bellwether of the group in their struggle for emancipation. Though the girls are all solidly middle-class, and six of them from the Social Register, they insist on meeting life free from parental protection or guidance. Kay’s death at the end—whether by accident or suicide—is a symbol of a kind. It is now 1940, the time of the Battle of Britain, and she falls from the window of her room in the Vassar Club while doing some volunteer airplane spotting. “In a sense,” somebody remarks at her funeral, “Kay is the first war casualty.” This is Miss McCarthy’s neat way of ringing out the old years of the New Deal and ushering in the new period of the war.
Mr. Norman Podhoretz is a villainous, impressive, and magnetically disdainful prosecutor. What demolishment in his summation!
Any Vassar girl of the Class of ‘33 who could so violate her true nature as to have a wedding like that was bound to jump out of a window sooner or later. The leopard ought to know better than to think he can change his spots.
It is this aspect of the Thirties that Miss McCarthy finally hates the most: the atmosphere of the period demanded of all the leopards that they work as hard as they could at doing something about their spots. Wilfully blind to the spirit of moral ambition and the dream of self-transcendence that animated this demand, she can see nothing in it but foolishness and insincerity—despite the fact that she herself was produced by that spirit and was beautified once by the dream. The Muses have rewarded her for the trahison she is now committing by presenting her with a flatly written and incoherently structured book, a trivial lady writer’s novel that bears scarcely a trace of the wit, the sharpness and the vivacity which glowed so often in her earlier work. A well-deserved fiasco, if you ask me.
Well, what is one to do? It is a busy season and the aspect most annoying of this trial is the time it will take to render a fair verdict for the defendant. The case begs for a brief of ten or fifteen thousand words. Yet it is a matter of dispute whether it is worth anything like this at all. Still, it is annoying to pass judgment lightly, for the defendant has curious merits and odd charms, little glints of gold in a ton of clay.
It is as if one were panning a sample. The nuggets are few, but the ore washes oddly. Only a step away, a shovelful deeper, perhaps there is high rich count. The Group is thus a book which 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. One has even had to ignore rumors that the nice shabby saleslady—alias Joan of Arc—is a princess whose family lost its fortune in the revolution, one hears other reports that she is also a miser and the swag is buried in the cellar.
That is why a concentrated act of detection is necessary. For this little shop don’t belong on the Avenue, and it’s got to be improved or else ripped down. Yet the saleslady is a good worker considering she’s a princess; even a literary commissar might regret an act of inégalité here.
Which last remark must of course reveal the bias of the judge and the true nature of this court. Miss McCarthy has been summoned to a Tribunal, and will be offered revolutionary justice. All stand. The defendant’s Fellow-Worker’s Court will now find:
Ergo: The Group, as all good literary workers keeping up the work must know by now, is a collective novel about a near (or let us say quasi-) revolutionary period in American life, the nineteen-thirties; its heroines are eight nice girls, all or conceivably all of them Episcopalian at some time or another (one needs a revolutionary statistician to set these matters straight), all of them Upper-Middle Class and all of them civilized to that point of Christless High Church rectitude whose communal odor is a cross between Ma Griffe and contraceptive jelly. So it is no easy task Miss McCarthy has set herself. She has eight well-to-do young ladies moving through the thirties on the very outer fringe of events, and none of them has an inner passion large enough to take over the book and make it run away. Indeed the only character one would not likely flee at a cocktail party, a rich arrogant green-eyed beauty named Eastlake decides to separate from the book herself. She takes off for Europe after the first few chapters and does not get around to coming back until the book is almost done. She has in the interim become an open as opposed to—would it be a Closet King?—lesbian. Which encourages the single medical prescription one can elucidate from the book: It tacitly states that a mixture of passionless goodness and squashed mendacity, precisely the lot of average nice rich bright young Protestant girls, is so regurgitative a violation of their nature that cancer or psychosis are now house percentage against any decent woman. No wonder Miss Eastlake left—she would have been unconvincing if she had remained. Still, Lady McCarthy is an unhappy hostess. What if you were to give a party for Christine Keeler and invited all your friends. Then Christine didn’t show. What a party!
So, here, let’s refine Comrade Mary’s problem a little further. A collective novel in which the most interesting character is missing, a collective novel in which none of the characters have sufficient passion to be interesting in themselves, yet none have the power or dedication to wish to force events. Nor does any one of the characters move critically out of her class by marrying drastically up, or savagely down. Not one of the girls even exhibits an engaging bitchery. (The nearest to this existential condition, Norine Schmittlapp, is more pig than tootsie.) Correlatively, no one of the girls falls deeply and tragically in love. The formal heroine, Kay Strong Petersen, entered as evidence previously by Barrister Barrett, does indeed fall literally out of a twentystory window in the Vassar Club; clearly, she is a suicide-by-accident before the failure of her love, but she is somehow too horsey, and all-but-dyke, to buy a single revolutionary tear—one receives instead the impression that she might smell like a locker room of dedicated handball players—gloom, determination, and the void ooze from her persona. The nicest of the heroines by sentimental measure is Polly, but she and her husband are too nice; one cannot even cash an allusion to the Ladies Home Journal—some checks should not be spent. There is of course a second nice heroine named Dottie. She is clean, Boston clean, her conscience moves with the drilled but never unimpressive grace of a fine ballerina. Indeed she has the grace to come to orgasm on the night she gives her first flower to still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts. Did our First Lady of Letters never meet a gentleman on the flying trapeze? No, McCarthy’s lout smells like fertilizer and he ploughs Dottie under—there is a good novelistic harvest for the next twenty pages. We are given Dottie’s purchase of a diaphragm at her lover’s demand; her subsequent repudiation—he is not at home when she calls; her act of renunciation—she quits her purchase beneath a bench in Washington Square Park; and her moment of final suspense when chapters later she confesses to her mother (who has a first-rate sense of modest conscience) that she is still in love with the lout. Her mother’s conscience takes the inner journey from Boston to a village garret and she begs her daughter not to marry the new man she has taken in compensation (a nice rancher who is never to appear in evidence), but instead advises Dottie to go back to her lover of one night and find out what is finally in her love. It is the voice of a most refined moral instinct, and Dottie says no. Dottie ducks. She is our second-best nice heroine, but one crack on the mouth and she’s out.
Thus it goes. There’s Helena with the finest mind in the book, a quiet girl who rides her considerable culture like a consummater horseman. But she is a eunuch for others, void of relation. There’s Pokey Prothero, rich, society, dumb, sexy, potentially interesting, but never given attention; there’s Priss, a young New Dealer who has no breasts but breast-feeds her baby—one can hardly remember more about her. Finally there’s a real duncey broad who becomes a literary agent. One can’t even recall her name.