The Mary McCarthy Case

The Group

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…

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