Mary McCarthy, “The Group” (1954) – Is there anywhere like New York for producing literary fiction that’s just about generic upper-middle class life there, as though it is interesting in and of itself? Paris, I suppose, and maybe London. Novels about Los Angeles are at least supposed to be about something- Hollywood, malaise, something. Maybe other countries have dedicated little literatis churning out novels dedicated to observing the minute habits of fancy inhabitants of their capitals, but if they do, I’m sadly ignorant of them. The materialist in me wants to say that you get this kind of fiction (and eventually movies and tv) set in New York because there was sufficient density of people living in and around there willing to plonk good American dollars on the counter for lengthy, closely-observed prose works on their lives starting from at least the late nineteenth century. This explains why the second center for this kind of American fiction is New England- it too has the right density of the right kind of bourgeoisie, and has since back when that kind of literature was both a meaningful status marker and a viable pastime. I say this as someone with a deep attachment to New England, and no small fondness for New York, where I lived for a couple of years.
The mid-twentieth century in the US saw a conjuncture of widespread prosperity, the maturation of mass media, and the remnants of a status culture that took highbrow literature seriously. So this was probably the high point of people eating up these kind of books, and the high point for literary New York, at least from a status/attention standpoint… it was all downhill from there. Mary McCarthy was there at the height, and at this point is probably less known for her novels and more for documenting the intellectual and personal travails of the “New York Intellectuals” (you’ll notice, they only get proper noun status in the mid-twentieth century, not before or after). This group is perhaps the most needlessly well-documented group of people never actively pursued by tabloid paparazzi. Don’t get me wrong- I’m a historian, I love documentation. But, like… we still don’t really know what the Mayans were saying. But we know A LOT about what Alfred Kazin thought about Edmund Wilson, and about what Mary McCarthy thought about a whole range of people who moved the needle back then, but other than Hannah Arendt and maybe a couple of others, don’t really now.
All this and I still haven’t described the book… eight Vassar grads experience the 1930s. They dabble in various causes (mostly naively), get involved with men (mostly lousy), and experience the general mismatch between the high degree of education they acquired and their very narrow socially-expected roles as upper class women. My understanding is that at the time, “The Group” was pretty radical in terms of depicting premarital sex, sexual assault, contraception, and so on in a realist manner. I could see how it would be a big deal at the time.
But god help me if I could tell the characters — the group members or the men in their lives — apart. All those WASPy names, all those status markers in personal possessions and food that mean nothing to me. I could track some of the ideological stuff and clung to that like a life jacket. But seeing as the whole point is that the 30s were this time of experimentation, few of them stuck with a given line for long, so… out to sea again.
This is the point where the assumptions of New York literature really starts to work against it’s supposed point (trying to be nice here and not leap to the conclusion that “the point” was always inter-bourgeois signaling). McCarthy isn’t too bad as a prose stylist. She clearly had a lot of ideas and insights about what was going on around her, as her correspondence with Arendt (I wonder if that’s her best seller, now) shows. But how many lengthy, class-signifier-laden chapters can we be expected to get through to get at whatever a writer is saying? **’