Women and Sex in ‘The Group’

6:36 p.m. | Updated Our live discussion of “The Group,” by Mary McCarthy is now taking place here. Read Ginia Bellafante’s first post on the book here. A response from James Collins, author of the novel “Beginner’s Greek,” is below.

It’s quite amazing to me that in the early 1960s, Mary McCarthy wanted “The Group” to show a loss of faith in the “idea of progress in the feminine sphere,” when she was speaking right on the cusp of the greatest revolution in the position of women since the (supposed) matriarchies of the late Paleolithic. How could someone who was so incredibly astute seemingly have no sense of what was about to happen?

Big City Book Club

A regular discussion with Ginia Bellafante.

To give a sense of what McCarthy’s own life was like when “The Group” was published, it’s interesting to read a letter that Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in August 1963. Lowell recounted a recent visit with McCarthy and her husband in Paris: “A lovely apartment, William Morris wallpaper, every item clean as a ship, meals planned and worked on for days … everything performed and executed to the last inch. … We had an incredible picnic on the grass of Saint Cloud, with the Spenders, Sonia Orwell, the Life photographer, minor expatriates, minor embassy officials, a 16-foot Polish tablecloth, magna of champagne, Flemish dining room groups of fruit.”

That sounds a bit like McCarthy herself describing one of her heroines, with those long lists. It also makes me think that, whatever her accomplishments, whatever her literary and sexual (and literary-sexual) daring, it was still of great concern for her to be seen as … a lady, and a good hostess, and a person who can choose wallpaper. Not that there is anything wrong with that! But an essential aspect of being a Vassar woman, I think, was being a lady (even during your first sexual experience). And that’s a value that still seemed important to McCarthy in 1963, which might point to a limitation in her concept of the “feminine sphere.” There are ladylike attainments to which women still aspire, but in the ’60s, McCarthy seemed to have no idea that that sphere would come to include law-partnerships, combat and alimony for men.

This brings us to the inevitable comparison to “Girls,” a show I have, unfortunately, watched too infrequently to count myself an expert on. But what I find so interesting is that the Vassar women of 1933, just because they have gotten an education, something relatively rare for women at that time, all leave school with a sense of purpose. They all want to do something, to make some contribution, even if it is just volunteer work. On “Girls,” in contrast, the characters are drifting, sometimes flailing, in the post-collegiate swamp. As far as I know, none of them arrived in Brooklyn with a job lined up and a plan (wanting “to be a writer” is not a plan). Having gone to college is not a big deal for these characters, and provides no motivation. So, oddly, the Vassar ’33 “women” are more advanced professionally than the Brooklyn ’13 “girls.”

If we go by “Girls,” one aspect of the feminine sphere where there does not seem to have been much progress from 1933 to 2013 is the sexual and romantic one. The “boys” of “Girls” are far different from the “men” of “The Group” (most of whom are absolutely horrible and horribly contrived — you often hear of male writers who can’t create female characters; McCarthy illustrates the converse). The modern men get emotional about their “relationships” but, ultimately, just as in “The Group,” heartbreak is a girl thing.

Ginia asks if I think that the 10 years McCarthy spent working on “The Group” were worth it. Well, she actually wrote much of the book in a rush over a few months. To put pressure on her, the publisher started setting the manuscript in type before she had even finished it. I think it reads that way: more like a series a vignettes than a carefully structured novel. It’s striking how little interaction there is among the female characters. For a book with its title, you’d think that female friendship would be central. But the vignettes focus on individual members and, generally, on their relations with men, not to each other.

The book lacks “incredible scenes” — I mean the kind of scenes that a novel builds and builds to until finally X confronts Y and reveals Z. There are no set pieces: no battle, no ball. So, to me, it isn’t really an accomplished literary work. (Dawn Powell covers some of the same territory as a real artist would, I think.) The essential question the story raises, to my mind, is the one Priss asks Norine toward the end: “You really feel our education was a mistake?” (“Oh, completely,” Norine replies.) But I don’t think that McCarthy’s tales illuminate that problem particularly well. Nor does she make clear, or richly ambiguous, the reason for and meaning of Kay’s destruction. It just happens — because she married an awful horrible guy who spells Harald with two A’s?

Be that as it may, the vignettes are often brilliant. McCarthy can be incredibly astute psychologically, the long lists are astounding in their precision, there is hardly a bad phrase and many of the images are wonderful. McCarthy is a terrific, clever writer, and “The Group” is a great read.

At the time, though, McCarthy’s friends were harsh. “No one in the know likes the book,” Lowell wrote Bishop. He found things to like himself, but called it “a very labored somehow silly Vassar affair.” Bishop, for her part, found the book dull but made an astute point: “I’m sure those set-fire-works-sex-pieces will insure huge sales.”

Undoubtedly, it was those sex pieces that made the book a phenomenon and at least got people to buy it, if not read it, so that it stayed on The Times’s best-seller list for a year and a half. But I wonder what people think of them today. Are they just shocking? Would the book be as good without them? Or do they serve a crucial purpose? “The Group” is much more specific (“There’s a little ridge there”) than “Ulysses” or “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” It’s dirtier than those famously scandalous books, but also more grown-up about sex. In that way, those scenes — grown-up writing about sex — might actually be McCarthy’s greatest literary contribution.

While always changing, New York never changes. As a native, I feel cheated of the experience of moving there after college to make my way, but all stories of that experience, whenever they are written, feel like the same story (in a good way) — whether by Mary McCarthy or Mary Cantwell or Patti Smith or Lena Dunham. The names of the drinks (or drugs) may change; the Village may appear in the form of Greenpoint; Scandinavian furniture may have given way to Italian. But the city’s size, the drunken cab rides home, the thwarted ambition, the sense that New York is the only place in the world that matters, the discovery of new neighborhoods, the sex, the espresso and the foreign films — these are permanent.

Finally, I have researched the matter and the Daisy Chain was a kind of May Court: one day each spring the members would process holding daisies. Membership was based entirely on looks and popularity.

Our live conversation is now taking place here.

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