Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’ Is the Definitive Young Woman’s Sex Narrative


Fifty years ago this week, Mary McCarthy’s bestselling novel The Group was published. And 50 years later, people are still arguing vociferously about the legacy of the book. A couple of things are agreed upon. One is that The Group was a pioneer of the young-ladies-come-to-New-York-and-get-jobs-and-date genre that sustains women’s narratives from Sylvia Plath to Lena Dunham. It also blazed a trail for dismissive, angry, befuddled non-sequitur reviews from men who wanted to know what this girl stuff was all about, and why on earth anyone with a brain and some testicles might take it seriously.Norman Mailer wrote the most famous review of this genre in his “The Mary McCarthy Case,” which began:

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.

For such a bold statement you’d expect a heavy hitter like Mailer to instantly begin excoriating the book, but instead we are treated to a long slog through more rhetorical flourishes before any kind of reasoning beyond “I disagree” is offered. You have to scroll down quite a way, actually, to get to the part where Mailer explains why the book’s “lovers” were wrong:

[The Group] tacitly states that a mixture of passionless goodness and squashed mendacity, precisely the lot of average nice rich bright young Protestant girls, is so regurgitative a violation of their nature that cancer or psychosis are now house percentage against any decent woman.

It is somewhat hard to say what Mailer actually means here. It seems he doesn’t like The Group‘s suggestion that women didn’t necessarily enjoy being encouraged to abstain from sex or honesty, for that matter. From there went into even longer set of ad hominem attacks on his target, which after all was McCarthy, a woman Mailer sometimes professed to admire. But his admiration was tinged with a clear sense of injury that the feeling was not reciprocal. To one of McCarthy’s biographers, Frances Kissling, he whined:

There was a remoteness about Mary. And element of noli me tangere. She was eleven years older than I was and there was always an element of the older sister.

How he quite squares the older-sister thing with the remoteness thing will have to remain in the grave with Mailer himself. But his particular brand of love-hate continues to plague the book’s reputation; every piece on The Group must begin, as this one does, by remarking on the man-on-a-mission slanderousness of it. The book had other detractors, too. Mailer’s review actually bumped another one the New York Review was to publish, by Pauline Kael, and she also turned in a pan.

So, you might ask, is the novel good? Well, happily, it is available in ebook form these days, and back in print so you can judge for yourself. The plot trajectory is now archetypal: girls, eight of them instead of the now-standard four, come to big city and are alternately titillated and disappointed by its professional and romantic possibilities. For my part, I think it is at its best when it is frankly depicting sex, a great talent of McCarthy’s traceable to her earliest short stories. As the critic Laura Jacobs recently argued in Vanity Fair, the chapter that burned itself into most women’s minds was the second one. In it, McCarthy gives one of her heroines an orgasm, and the particular metaphor she chooses to describe it is this:

… she seemed to explode in a series of long, uncontrollable contractions that embarrassed her, like the hiccups…

Which is definitely not how I’ve always put it. But it has its elements of truth to it, particularly in the mild embarassment one might feel in such circumstances without the proper introduction to the experience of sex. Like, say, The Group itself. These days we have real trash to accomplish this, the kind of thing we passed around in middle school, but when The Group came out that sort of sexual frankness was still more the province of men, if it was anyone’s at all. 1963 was still a little early in the sexual revolution.

Most of McCarthy’s snobby literary friends agreed more privately than Mailer that it wasn’t her best work, but the life of a book after publication isn’t always just about what is sometimes called “craft”; the way the story hits the ground also counts for a lot in the matter of crafting a legacy. This is particularly true in The Group‘s case, as women turned the book into a bestseller, the one real juggernaut in McCarthy’s hitherto modestly successful literary career. And as such it’s easy to read all the critics through the lens of their bewilderment at the book’s success — a kind of popular credibility that many of them, though they were excellent critics and novelists, would never quite enjoy.

If touching a popular chord can’t be and shouldn’t be enough for literary greatness — such a criterion would make a masterpiece of every BuzzFeed cat list — it ought, in some cases, to be enough to say that a book changed how we think about a certain kind of experience. Mary McCarthy was one of the first to declare that the life of a woman in the big city involved, well, sex, and lots of it. (Yes, Candace Bushnell has sometimes credited The Group with the inspiration for her oeuvre.) She got, as women who write about sex always do, more than her fair share of crap for it. But in the end, it’s her book I’m writing this post about, her book that can trace itself in most of the women’s zeitgeist of the half-century it’s been around. I’d say she won the war.