Friday, November 11, 2011


The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy, Harcourt Brace & World, 1952, 255 pp

Another campus novel of the several I read this fall. (You Deserve Nothing; The Secret History) I wonder if Donna Tartt read Mary McCarthy. One difference from Tartt's book is that in The Groves of Academe the professors and President of Jocelyn College are the focus of the novel rather than the students. A similarity is that in both books the colleges are small and progressive though the stories are 30 years apart in time.

Henry Mulcahy, middle-aged, unsuccessful, overburdened, renegade literature instructor, gets a letter from President Maynard Hoar informing him that his appointment will not be confirmed in the next academic year. Henry has a wife and four children living with him in substandard conditions. They are permanently in debt and his wife has had health issues since the birth of their last child.

In desperation, he cooks up a plot based on exaggerations of his wife's condition and an untruthful account of his political past. He intimates these "facts" to one of his students and to a young, beautiful, Russian colleague in his department. The student is responsible for a viral rumor line and Domna Rejnev becomes his accomplice, tirelessly gathering faculty support for Mulcahy. The gist is that by means of pity and political pressure, President Hoar will be forced to keep Mulcahy. Hoar is a published opponent of the current loyalty oath and Mulcahy claims to have been a communist in his youth.

It is all quite complex to read about in 2011. As much as I have come across about the anti-communist witch hunts in the fiction of the early 1950s, I felt that I would have caught on faster if I had been reading the newspapers in those years. More than that, the political implications aside, the entire novel is a continuous spoof on colleges, progressive education, the claustrophobic infighting and personality conflicts on a small campus, topped off by a hilarious send up on poets.

Mary McCarthy is a perceptive, intellectually rigorous writer and assumes that her readers are on a similar level. She is also a savage satirist given to mocking pretensions and dearly held ideas. Once I got my head around the various views and vested interests of the characters, I was amused, intrigued and a victim of the suspense inherent in her story. Most hilarious of all, after all the drama is over, nothing really has changed. Life goes on at Jocelyn College.

This is McCarthy's third novel. She achieved bestseller status with her fifth, The Group, in 1962 and made her name through political journalism. I think her novels were almost too brilliant and intellectual for the male dominated publishing world of the 1940s and 1950s. I love fiction written by dazzlingly intelligent women. If only they could run the world.

The Groves of Academe is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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