Friday, 26 September 2008

'The Group' in print

In downtime from 'work' work, I'm re-reading Mary McCarthy's The Group (truly excellent post about it, by litove, at the other end of that link), and being most forcibly struck again by what a great novel it is, smart and funny and rich and dense, and feeling very excited about the prospect of teaching it next year in my 20thC+ women writing course. It feels like the centrepiece or anchor of the course to me, and I expect that almost none of the students will have read it before, since this seems to be true of the reading population at large. It will be fun to discuss it with them, and I will use the time to write something about the novel. What I'd really like to do is an edition. I wonder how editions of relatively recent novels (1960s) come about - I guess publishers initiate them usually rather than potential editors. I have been thinking about this for years, really, since well before doing scholarly editing on a major work was remotely a possibilty for me. I used to think it would always be beyond my abilities because apart from anything else I lack native fluency in Americana; but now I think that's possibly an advantage because I can see what needs explicating. Why, for instance, does Dottie's mother worry that Dottie's Boston background might make her more than usually fearful of becoming an old maid? Are we supposed to recognise the portrait of the birth control doctor, and if so who is she based on? What is the difference between Sutton Place and Chestnut Street? When and how did breastfeeding becone fashionable among upper-middle-class mothers? What is Macy's? When was Katherine Hepburn at Bryn Mawr? Could a husband really have his wife committed because he was angry with her? Did Dorothy Parker really support a New York waiters' strike? Who is Norman Thomas, and might an aristocratic WASP college girl really have voted for him because he bred spaniels?

But: why is this novel so little known? For the reason litlove alludes to at the beginning of her post - it's almost out of print. You can buy it from Amazon at the moment (and if you go to Amazon, do me a favour and click the 'request this for Kindle' button), in an obscure press edition that is eighteen years old and might dry up any time. It appears Penguin fairly recently had it in their Modern Classics imprint but not any more. I checked the situation with the campus bookshop person who manages text orders and she said there is stock available now but there's no guarantee it will be available on an ongoing basis into the future. Virginia alerted me to Angus & Robertson's plan to roll out print on demand machines in their shops. This sounds like a really good thing, if it happens (there was talk about a similar operation a few years ago that didn't really amount to much) but it won't help with books that are so profoundly out of print that publishers don't have electronic versions of them.

Meanwhile, it's a very easy book to get second-hand because it was so huge in its day. Bestsellers are not all trash, although it's usually assumed that they are. There are at least half a dozen copies of The Group on eBay at the moment, all of them under $15 including postage (hint, hint)


Pavlov's Cat said...

I'm so glad someone else loves this book! My folks had it when I was a kid. Heavy going for a 12-year-old, especially when read in secret, but more became clear to me later, as you'd expect.

You'll know the icky Norman Mailer critical smackdown about how awful it is that the novel is full of material objects -- 'her group, her glop, her impacted mass'. I think that is verbatim & remember it because it was my 'text' (in the sermon sense) for the first conference paper I ever gave, which was about the materiality of female culture in Aust fiction.

To this day I think the scene where Dottie sits in the park for six hours with the box of contraceptive paraphernalia under the park bench is one of the great scenes of modern fiction. Poops all over Portnoy.* And to this day I never say 'I couldn't help but [insert verb of choice]'. Which completely wrecked every ep of every season of SATC.

*Sophisticated literary critcism

lucy tartan said...

Ah, I'm very glad you love it too.

The materiality is very much one of the attractive things about it. Norman Mailer can get stuffed.

I didn't read The Group until I was a bit older. The first McCarthys I read were Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and The Company She Keeps, and I found them because they were in the house. I love them too, but The Group isn't appreciated as those books are. I think it's still thought of as a vulgar potboiler.

Tracey said...

Delurking especially to say that I also love this book. I found The Group when I was a teenager through references to it in another novel (racked my brains but can't remember which one). Got to read it when I came across a copy in Vinnie's one day (an edition I assume was released after the feature film, as the cover featured a flower with each character's face as a petal.)

I don't know many people who've read it. I assumed it was one of those books that, when it fell from favour, *really fell.

What always struck me about the book was the vulnerability of the young women, despite their education and (mostly) privileged backgrounds.

I've reread The Group a few times over the years. Each time, as my understanding of Americana and social/ feminist history has deepened, I've found more in it.

BTW the bit about Dorothy Parker is true. It's detailed in the bio of Parker What Fresh Hell is This? by Marion Meade. I remember thinking about that reference inThe Group as I was reading the bio :)

Ampersand Duck said...

There you go. I always thought that it was very well known because I'd read it and I see it in nearly every fete, secondhand bookshop and market stall that I visit. But obviously not. It's been a while since I read it, must be time for a revisit. I'm rereading madly at the moment, stockpiling all the new books for convalescence.

Zoe said...

I've never ever heard of it.

Tell me if you have it Duck, or I'm off to eBay.

lucy tartan said...

Tracey, thank you for delurking and with such a fab comment.

Zoe, The Group was written expressly for you.

genevieve said...

It is fun to take the Vassar virtual tour and speculate which tower they were in (if you're like me and too lazy to scan the book and find out for sure.)
The Group must have been on school reading lists in the early seventies, I think - I can't think of another reason why there would be so many fete and market copies still in circulation. It would have to come in at a slightly lower rate than (say) Randolph Stow's The Merry-Go-Round In The Sea. It always surprises me too when it turns up.

I also hate Uncle Remus stories since reading the first McCarthy memoir.

lucy tartan said...

I think it was the South tower - at least, that was the one the 'real group occupied. It would be interesting to find out if it was a school book. Its having got all that publicity from being initially banned here can't have hurt sales, though. The Dottie chapter makes me doubt that it would have been an easy book to put on any syllabus.

genevieve said...

First year mebbe?

genevieve said...

Hmm. Probably not.
Your theory stands, LT.