Oh, those incorrigible coeds! Remember reading The Group for the first time and finding out with shock that even back in the ‘30s, privileged Vassar girls – or at least, girls just out of Vassar – had affairs (sometimes adulterous or lesbian), used birth control, underwent psychoanalysis and became leftist organizers? Although Mary McCarthy’s semi-autobiographical breakout novel seemed slightly scandalous to stodgy barely-post-‘50s America when it first came out, Vassar College survived the scrutiny with flying colors and went on to embrace McCarthy as one of its most eminent alumnae in the sphere of American letters.
In fact, the institution is planning some hoopla this spring to mark the late author’s 100th birthday. “Mary McCarthy and Vassar,” an exhibit of writings, photos and ephemera from the College’s Mary McCarthy Papers collection, opens at the Thompson Memorial Library this Friday, March 16 and runs until June 4. Viewing hours will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Keynoting the exhibition will be a lecture by Los Angeles Times columnist and Vassar graduate Meghan Daum on Thursday, March 29 at 5:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall, room 203, titled “You Never Liked Me at College: Mary McCarthy’s Past Perfect Vassar.”
In putting together an exhibit like this, it helps tremendously, of course, that the literary lioness saw fit to leave her personal archives to her alma mater. According to curator Ronald Patkus, head of Special Collections at the Vassar College Libraries, “The first group of papers came to the College in 1985, and since then it has been followed by several large and significant additions. Vassar remains committed to building this collection and providing access to its contents. Today the collection serves as a window not only on the life and work of McCarthy, but also on 20th-century intellectual and political circles in general.”
McCarthy certainly did have a bird’s-eye view of the mid-20th century from her perch on the editorial staff of the Partisan Review from 1937 to 1948, and later as a widely traveled journalist, cultural critic and political gadfly. She published 28 books, including The Company She Keeps (1942), Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), Birds of America (1971) and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979), before her death from cancer in 1989. But she is perhaps as well-known today for some of her more incendiary public statements as for her writings – such as claiming on British TV after her first trip to Vietnam that there was not a single documented case of the Viet Cong deliberately killing a South Vietnamese woman or child, or igniting a long-running feud with Lillian Hellman by telling Dick Cavett on his ‘70s talk show that “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”
Indeed, the feisty McCarthy was never afraid to scrap with her literary peers. She took sides with the Trotskyites against the Stalinists among the New York intelligentsia in the ‘30s and ‘40s, then fell out with some of her former Partisan Review colleagues when they became more conservative during the Cold War. But she maintained a decades-long, intellectually intense correspondence with anti-totalitarian social theorist Hannah Arendt that will doubtless furnish some of the gems of the Vassar exhibit.
Besides The Group (1963), McCarthy drew extensively on her experiences at Vassar in her other writings, including her article “The Vassar Girl” published by Holiday magazine in 1951 and her 1987 memoir How I Grew. Part of the theme of Meghan Daum’s March 29 lecture will be the ambivalence that McCarthy expressed about her college years. Daum notes that “nostalgia – the love of having been there – is an integral and even priceless part of what it means to be a Vassar alum. My lecture will use Mary McCarthy’s relationship to Vassar as a framework for a discussion of the ups and downs of the Vassar experience.”
Both the lecture and the exhibition will be free and open to the public. Vassar College is located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, and people with disabilities can get special accessibility accommodations by contacting the Office of Campus Activities at (845) 437-5370 at least 48 hours in advance of their visit. For more information about Vassar’s Mary McCarthy centennial activities, visit www.vassar.edu; and to find out more about speaker Meghan Daum, visit www.meghandaum.com.