Not many people remember Mary McCarthy anymore, but she was a household name among the literati back in the 50’s and 60’s, as both a novelist and a political activist. I’d never read any of her work, but noticed in an old review of her novel The Group that she was a Vassar grad. I used to date a Vassar girl, as my alma mater was West Point, about 30 miles down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and the novel was about Vassar girls, so for no more substantial reason than that, I decided to have a look. It was a good decision. Given what I look for in novels, The Group was one of the best I’ve ever read.
When it comes to literature, I agree with my favorite author, Stendhal. He said that novels were artifacts of the time in which they were written, and were meant to appeal to the tastes of people who lived in those times. I also agree with George Orwell, who held that novels are a way of expressing truths that the limitations of language make it difficult to express in any other way. From both points of view, I found The Group superb. It is full of the impressions left in the mind of a very intelligent woman by the life going on around her, in this case, in the 30’s, following her graduation from Vassar in 1933, told from the point of view of a “group” of her fellow graduates. It is a perfect time capsule.
What’s in the capsule? Well, to begin, I found an artifact of the contemporary “progressives'” embrace of eugenics before Hitler ruined everything, as exemplified by the father of Kay Strong, one of “the group.”
Dad, like all modern doctors, believed in birth control and was for sterilizing criminals and the unfit.
How about a morality inversion? Kay’s dad had sent her a check on the occasion of her marriage to a playwright by the name of Harald Peterson and she agreed with him that,
It was a declaration of faith… And she and Harald did not intend to betray that faith by breeding children(!, ed.), when Harald had his name to make in the theatre.
Which, of course, begs the question of why it is that anyone is predisposed to “make a name” for himself. My readers should know the answer to that question. I note in passing that McCarthy’s first husband was also named Harald. Another thing documented in the novel is the fact that, at least for some, the sexual revolution happened a long time before the pill was ever heard of. There are detailed descriptions of the prophylactic techniques of the day, including the diaphragm, sort of a trap door in the way of hopeful sperm that was carefully fitted to cover the opening of the cervix by a gynecologist. This was used in tandem with the douchebag, containing a spermicidal concoction to finish off the more recalcitrant searchers for the holy grail. According to the novel, women who were open to sexual adventures would announce the fact by hanging these on the back of their bathroom door.
Perhaps the most useful insight one can glean from The Group is the prevalence and matter-of-fact acceptance of Communists in the 30’s. Many magazines, some of which are still around today, were open advocates of Communism in those days. Kay’s classmate, Libby MacAusland, an aspiring book reviewer, noticed this in the case of two titles still familiar today. As she put it:
At the Nation and the New Republic they said too that you had to run a gauntlet of Communists before getting in to see the book editor – all sorts of strange characters, tattooed sailors right off the docks and longshoremen and tramps and bearded cranks from the Village cafeterias, none of them having had a bath for weeks.
Most of the action takes place in New York, and playwrights there noticed the same phenomenon. For example, Kay’s playwright husband, Harald,
…had been directing a play for a left-wing group downtown. It was one of those profit-sharing things, co-operatives, but run really by Communists behind the scenes, as Harald found out in due course. The play was about labor, and the audiences were mostly theatre parties got up by the trade unions.
Another of the Vassar classmates, Polly Andrews, became the lover of Gus LeRoy, a book reviewer for one of the big New York Publishers. He is described as a humdrum man whose embrace of Communism was described as something entirely commonplace and unremarkable:
His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression. (George Bernard) Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union. So Gus switched to Communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself. He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impresse3d by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl Guide. After that, Norman Thomas (longtime leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S., ed.) seemed pretty ineffectual.
Polly’s father, who comes to live with her after divorcing his wife, preferred another flavor of Communism:
And unlike the village cure in France, who had required him to take instruction before being “received,” the Trotskyites, apparently, had accepted him as he was. He never understood the “dialectic” and was lax in attendance at meetings, but he made up for this by the zeal with which, wearing a red necktie and an ancient pair of spats, he sold the Socialist Appeal on the street outside Stalinist rallies.
Polly’s dad has some choice words for the New York Times’ prize, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Moscow. Chagrined at the refusal of his daughter’s Aunt Julia to include a small behest to the Trotskyists in her will he remarks:
But Julia has been convinced by what she reads in the papers that we Trotskyites are counter-revolutionary agents bent on destroying the Soviet Union. Walter Duranty and those fellows, you know, have made her believe in the trials (the Great Purge Trials of the old Bolsheviks, ed.). If what they write wasn’t true, she says, it wouldn’t be in the New York Times, would it?
In short, what the novel is documenting here is the fact that, among the “woke” elements in the population back in the 30’s, Communism was a commonplace. Look at the entertainment and literary magazines of the day, and you’ll see that it was just as prevalent in Hollywood as it was in New York. Which brings us back to the title of this post. I refer, of course, to McCarthyism.
McCarthyism lays fair claim to being the next to the biggest media scam of the 20th century, taking second place only to the Watergate coup d’état. The news media were nearly as firmly in the grip of the ideological Left in Joe McCarthy’s day as they are now, and those who controlled the message were perfectly well aware that many of their friends and ideological soulmates had been party members or fellow travelers in the 30’s. Once it became obvious that Walter Duranty and his pals had been purveying some of the most egregious “fake news” ever heard of, and the Communists and their collaborators actually had the blood of tens of millions on their hands, all these would be saviors of the proletariat were in a precarious position. Then tail gunner Joe began seriously rocking the boat, “kicking ass and taking names,” as we used to say in the Army. Something had to be done. The result was the media-contrived charade we now know as McCarthyism. Instead of feeling sympathy for the tens of millions of voiceless victims of Communism lying in mass graves starved and tortured to death or with bullet holes in their skulls, the American people were successfully bamboozled into wringing their hands over blighted careers of those who had gleefully collaborated in their murder. McCarthy was cast in the role of one of the media’s greatest villains, an evil witch hunter. The fact that the witches were actually there, and in great abundance, didn’t seem to matter.
If you think Mary McCarthy was some right wing zealot who was trying to exonerate tail gunner Joe when The Group was published in 1954, guess again. Indeed, as Alex might have said in A Clockwork Orange, “now comes the weepy part of the story, oh my brothers (and sisters).” Mary McCarthy was actually a lesser, albeit smarter, version of Jane Fonda. That’s right. She, too, traveled to North Vietnam as the war was raging in the south and openly collaborated with the enemy. She was a leftist activist of the first water.
What can I say? I still loved the book. As it happens, not everyone agreed with me. Stanley Kauffmann, a noted critic back in the day, wrote a scathing review of The Group when it was republished in 1964. Kauffmann, too, was a leftist, and complained that McCarthy had been insufficiently zealous in portraying the oppression and victimization of his pet identity groups. Beyond that, however, he criticized the disconnected story line and McCarthy’s lack of “style.” To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the critics mean when they speak of “style,” and I could care less about it. It appears my favorite Stendhal was also lacking in “style.” It’s a matter of complete indifference to me. What I look for in novels are such things as the accurate portrayal of the times in which they were written, insight into human nature, and bits that teach me a little bit something about my own quirks and follies. I like Stendhal, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, and Kafka (because he’s so good at amplifying my worst nightmares). I don’t like Dickens, I don’t like Joyce, and I don’t like Proust. That’s not to say they aren’t great authors. I don’t doubt that they are, because people whose opinions I respect have found much to like in them. I just didn’t find what I like. I did find it in The Group. Have a look and see if you find it, too. Don’t miss the bits about “advanced” methods of child rearing back in the 30’s. I suspect they would make any modern pediatrician’s hair stand on end. Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out some of McCarthy’s other stuff.