“Does your mother know about the new iceberg lettuce? It’s a new variety, very crisp, with wonderful keeping powers.”
Fifty years ago today, Mary McCarthy’s most well-known novel The Group was published, a controversial best-seller of the 1960s and probably the source of McCarthy’s fame today. You do know Mary McCarthy (1912–1989), right? And you’ve read her novel about eight friends—”The Group”—embarking on life after graduating from Vassar in 1933? Well, possibly not—likely because the very things that made The Group so fascinating fifty years ago have become ho-hum now: women trying to balance careers with marriage, motherhood, and love; premarital sex and same-sex relationships; birth control and visits to the gynecologist; canned corn niblets. That’s right—canned corn, not to mention baked beans and iceberg lettuce. Though these newfangled foods are just a tiny part of the novel—part of a conversation, really—they capture the experience of the girls in The Group as they make the difficult transformation into young women:
Kay leaned forward. “You ought to get your cook to try the new way of fixing canned beans. You just add catsup and mustard and Worcestershire sauce and sprinkle them with plenty of brown sugar, cover them with bacon, and put them in the oven in a Pyrex dish.” “It sounds terribly good,” said Dottie, “but Daddy would die.” “Have you tasted the new Corn Niblets?” asked Kay. Dottie shook her head. “You ought to tell your mother about them. It’s the whole-kernel corn. Delicious. Almost like corn on the cob. Harald discovered them.”
Kay, the first one married among these new college graduates, is educating the more-naive Dottie about the new ways of modern women, not just convenience foods like corn niblets and iceberg lettuce but also the latest forms of birth control. “Daddy would die,” Dottie says, referring to the new American trend to make baked beans by stirring together canned beans with ketchup and mustard. But he’d also die if he knew that, at her boyfriend Dick’s urging, Dottie is headed to the gynecologist’s office to be fitted for a diaphragm.
Granted, as progressive, experimental, modern as Kay feels at this point, she’s still pretty much under the thumb of her overbearing husband, Harald, who is the lord of their kitchen and her life. And that leads to all sorts of problems, including her being sent to a psychiatric hospital and ultimately a mysterious end. Her story is the one around which all the other characters’ stories revolve, and what brings them together again several years after college.
Though the book is set in 1933, when The Group was published 30 years later in 1963, the sorts of topics it dealt with—breastfeeding, leftist politics, extramarital affairs—were still taboo. The book was banned in Australia and Italy, and a recent article in Vanity Fair called “Vassar Unzipped” details how American women in the 1960s may have put the book on the best-seller list without being willing to display it on their bookshelf at home. The Group has been compared to Sex and the City for women back in the day, and, indeed, you’ll recognize its honesty on all the issues women had to face then—and now.
These days, canned corn may be more readily available (though the whole farm-to-table movement is sending it back out of fashion), but how much has everything else on the menu of the modern woman really changed?