The Classics Club helps make reading the classics more fun! What is a Spin? Read all the fun details here. In April we made our lists, the wheel was spun, and we were told to read number 6 by June 1st. You can read my list here. Number 6 was a kindle bargain book I got a while back–The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy, whose Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, I read too early in my life, in the literature of self-discovery–my freshman lit/writing class first semester in the Fall of 1980. The world was very different then–Ronald Regan was about to become president. Fast-forward more years than I like to say and I read and loved her novel, The Group. I’ve always planned to read her backlist, so this is my start at that goal.
Imagine teaching today at a very liberal Liberal Arts college and proclaiming your affiliation with Donald Trump? But not really–just saying you loved him. There you have the premise of this novel set in progressive Jocelyn College during the McCarthy era. Published in 1952, during the reign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, this novel has stood the test of time fairly well. In a few ways–too well.
The book opens with Henry Mulchay, an instructor who was
“…he was intermittently aware of a quality of personal unattractiveness that emanated from him like a miasma;” [Kindle location 57]
reading a letter telling of his position not being renewed. The book then showcases the machinations of Mulchay and other members of his department in concocting a narrative around the letter, including Henry’s outing himself as the Communist he never was.
McCarthy, described once as
“...earnest, and empty Liberal with no sense of how complicated it is to be human.” (Leslie A.Fiedler)
wrote this book following her own experience at progressive Bard College and another college, so it sparkles with subtle wit, making fun of the academic life and its many trivialities. Like many who have read and reviewed this book, I found the little things to be hilarious. That colleges nearly 70 years on are still debating stuff like:
“whether, for example, students in the dining hall, when surrendering their plates to the waiters, should pass them to the right or to the left…at an all-college meeting…compulsory for all...”[ Kindle location 780]
Another superb example was whether it is acceptable to drop the Latin diploma. Honestly, this stuff is still going on!
Many reviewers have loved the poetry conference–the ultimate send-up of academic pretensions. The will of the participants in ignoring the time-table, the egos that must be accommodated, the manners, the utter ridiculousness of the program–it is all there, beautifully written. I’ve helped with academic conferences. She nailed it, believe me.
“He had a style of old-fashioned, elaborate compliment, in which there could be detected the flourishes of an antique penmanship and the scratching for a bookkeeper’s quill.” [Kindle location 3224]
My first impression was: “Wow! They had it good back then!” Instructor Henry Mulchay (“the only Ph.d in the Literature Department,” but only an “instructor” still) complains:
“How was he expected to take care of forty students if other demands on his attention were continually being put in the way?”
Only forty? What, per class? lol. The golden days of University life!
“Hen” as Mulchay is known, then goes on to speak suggestively, and in private, to a female student to whom he is “tutor” [in the Oxbridge sense of the word]! With that, the story instantly seemed to make sense to my #metoo era academic’s brain!
There were oh, so, many familiar things here! Suggestions of work being done for students to get them a diploma and get them out of someone’s hair–very today. The unforeseen idiotic comment that loses the college a huge donation from a “liberal lady.” The backbiting, in-fighting, turf-protecting, knowledge-siloing–all still there today. And, no tenure either–at least at schools without a union. All for the equivalent of Hen’s precious $3200 a year–and Hen the only Ph.D. in the department yet an instructor–not a professor. How prescient.
I enjoyed this book as you can see. I still think The Group offers more to the general reader. So much of what was funny in Groves of Academe was funny to me because I’ve worked in two Universities. Some of that would not be as funny to someone looking in from outside.
The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy
For other fictional and funny, looks at Academic life read
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. My review is here.
Changing Places by David Lodge. My mini-review is here.