“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Chris Kraus reflects on Mary McCarthy’s reading, in November 1963, from her novel The Group.
Mary McCarthy took the stage of the 92nd Street Y to thunderous applause on a brisk Sunday in November 1963. She was fifty-one and wearing an elegant white dress. “One thing that gave me the courage to go on with this book, which I was working on since 1952, was reading the first chapter of it out loud here,” she said before she began. “And the audience liked it. And I took it up again after this reading I gave that night, for good or ill. So. Uh … I’m assuming that, uh, most people here have read this book, and I don’t have to explain who the characters are, or what happened before. Is that true? No?” The audience laughs. “Is somebody kidding?”
The Group, McCarthy’s tenth book, had been published in August and almost immediately rose to the top of the best-seller lists. Her depiction of the aspirations and friendships of eight Vassar girls from the class of ’33 who seek to make their own lives as different as possible from those of their mothers was a middlebrow hit. Except for the mysterious Lakey, who escapes the United States for Europe and a lesbian relationship, the girls stumble over the conflicting mores of their generation’s sexual liberation and must navigate the unbridled cruelty of their employers, husbands, and boyfriends; of course they will fail. McCarthy brilliantly captures the anxious, chattering pitch of the women’s conversations and thoughts. Their preoccupations are made even more bitter in contrast to the high-minded concerns they have absorbed from their unmarried Vassar professors. As always, McCarthy treats sex as high comedy. There’s a lot of sex in the book. Never before had a woman attempted such an audacious American comedy of sexual manners.
Before The Group, McCarthy’s work had been almost exclusively read in the hothouse of New York’s feuding leftist intellectual circles. Her relentlessly intelligent, often scathing book and theater reviews were published in the socialist-leaning New Republic, The Nation, Encounter, and The Partisan Review, as well as in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Rancor over aesthetic and ideological issues was common among that group at the time and was often forgiven; commercial success was not.
Just one month before McCarthy read at the Y, Norman Mailer’s notoriously slimy, misogynistic four-thousand-word attack had appeared in The New York Review of Books. Mailer depicted The Group as a “lady-book” infused with a “communal odor [that] is a cross between Ma Griffe and contraceptive jelly.” Appointing himself the defender of masculinist proletarian Literature, capital L, he is repelled by “the profound materiality of women … given its full stop until the Eggs Benedict and the dress with the white fichu, the pessary and the whatnot, sit on the line of the narrative like commas and periods … Mary is a bit of a duncey broad herself.” Mailer’s attack was an inside job, arranged by their mutual friend Robert Lowell. The insult was made even harsher by the fact that Lowell’s wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, had pseudonymously published a mean-spirited parody of Dottie Renfrew’s defloration in chapter 2 in the Review one month before. These were McCarthy’s friends. Even Dwight Macdonald, who defends The Group in his nine-minute-long introduction to this reading (at the expense of Virginia Woolf, whose books, he complained, were lacking in “gossip”), privately wrote to a friend that McCarthy lacked the “creative force” to pull the book off. At a dinner that month, McCarthy burst into tears when an acquaintance confessed he hadn’t cared for The Group.
Born into an upper-class family, MacDonald speaks with a salt-of-the-earth proletarian rasp, while McCarthy, whose entrée to upper-middle-class life didn’t really occur until she entered Vassar, speaks in the clipped dulcet tones of an already nearly extinct mid-Atlantic accent. About fifteen minutes into the reading, McCarthy pauses and explains what her strategies were in writing The Group. She mentions her use of indirect free speech—the same device used by Flaubert in Madame Bovary, whose gift for harsh pathos McCarthy shares. She explains, “The voice of the author is heard, but very rarely, and quickly lost. All through the book, when a girl is thinking about her own life or telling her own story … the tone of the chapter is as if she were telling a story to a group of friends.” “Everything,” she goes on, “in the girls’ lives tends to be technologized—the breastfeeding and contraception problems—that is, technologized, and in some ways socialized and alienated in some way. Everything that happens to these girls is turned into a subject for group conversation … What I’m trying to do in this book is to make some kind of study of what it meant to be young, for one thing, and what it meant to be a young American trained in progressive ideas, and trained to be a consumer … I hope that I made myself clear. I thought I made myself clear when I was writing it, but it appears that I hadn’t.”
And from here, she relaxes. When she reads the passage about the domestically slovenly staunch communist Norine going to Bloomingdale’s to buy black chiffon underwear to turn on her impotent husband—“that should get his pecker up”—she puts her hand on her hip, and the audience roars.
Chris Kraus, whose book I Love Dick was recently adapted for television, is the author of a forthcoming biography of Kathy Acker.