Mary McCarthy’s the Group

The connections here were Slow Philosophy–Hannah Arendt–biopic about Hannah Arend–friendship between Arendt and novelist Mary McCarthy–McCarthy novel, The Group, checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library last week and utterly devoured even though there are a million other things, like writing and painting. I cracked it open and rolled my eyes: damnit, another novel about New England elites and their stupid problems they make for themselves by obsessed about status hierarchies, Oh, Golly, the family fortunes have waned and now our house on Cape Code must be sold…ask me to give a shit.

Um, McCarthy does ask that I give a shit, and she made me do so. Don’t get me wrong; this is, indeed, a send-up of all their snobberies and mores, but mixed up in there are genuine, fully-formed, beautifully observed characters that she had me caring about. If anybody wonders about what kinds of truths there are in novels, here. By looking depth from the perspective of these highly privileged young women, you see the way gender presses in on them, undermines their agency, and blames them. Highly recommended. Be patient with the first chapter; it takes awhile to see it all.

I did, however, want to share a quote, largely because it helps illustrate how reading comes together with the lived world so well. I sat down and read this novel in summer 2017, at exactly the same time the US Senate decided to deliberate Trumpcare. There are real problems with ACA, and what strike me as some obvious changes that need to happen, but the GOP bill is terrible. I’m not a health specialist, but this thing isn’t a health policy. It’s a tax bill, and it’s an object lesson in letting ideology get in the way of the realpolitik of governing.

The set-up: this chapter is from the point of a view of a young mother, Priss, who is frantic (like a lot of The Group, the Vassar girls), about doing things the Right Way, for her newborn son. Her husband, a pediatrician, who comes second in the “Men I’d Most Like to Throat Punch” ranking I kept throughout the novel, believes in SCIENCE, and he makes their baby, her body and her breastfeeding the grist for his various crackpot principles about child-rearing. The young mother is trapped in a web of modernism, and it’s heartbreaking to read. Dr. KnowsItAll knows, simply knows, that a newborn can be put effortlessly on a schedule (come on; babies gotta eat, they gotta sleep, they gotta poop. Fortunately they are cute while they do that. It’s their entire job for a long time.) if you just enforce the schedule ruthlessly enough. And babies must never be held or cuddled; they must be picked up only to be fed or changed. Cuddling a baby! Ridiculous! Soft!

So Priss sits alone in her room, isolated, listening to her hungry baby wail himself into exhaustion, doubting her every move, because of course her body and her own beliefs about how to handle the baby are wrong-wrong-wrongity-wrong-wrong.

Anybody who doesn’t immediately line up with her husband’s rigid claptrap–other doctors, nurses, and the young mother herself become the objects of contempt and blame for why the baby isn’t showing the behavioral outcomes he says are inevitable, if only. Those weak-minded nurses hold the baby when he isn’t looking. That senile old doctor allows the baby to have a supplementary bottle (the worst thing that could ever happen!)

Priss, mild and very sweet, reflects:

Up to now, this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans–it was part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a tiny baby.


BTW, before anybody gets all shouty, you could tell the same story today with some hippy-dippy anti-vaxxer who puts their crank principles ahead of their child’s welfare. Plenty of people put their theories above humanity.