By Gilion Dumas
White Russians, communists, atheists, Catholics, progressives, classicists, English professors, and visiting poets all roam the halls of Jocelyn College and the pages of Mary McCarthy’s 1951 campus novel classic, The Groves of Academe. Jocelyn is an experimental liberal arts college somewhere in New England and prides itself on the academic freedom enjoyed by its professors and students. But when Henry Mulcahy gets a letter from the college president informing him that his contract will not be renewed in the fall, he tries to twist the college’s liberal Zeitgeist to his own advantage.
Mulcahy starts the rumor that he was let go because he was a member of the Communist Party. In the era of McCarthy hearings and Hollywood blacklists, Mulcahy perversely figures that his fellow academics in the English department would rally to support him in his hour of prosecution, championing his cause for political freedom.
What follows is a series of closed-door conspiracies, petty intrigues, and shuffling alliances, as the English department debates Mulcahy’s future and tries to persuade the president to keep him on. Meanwhile, Jocelyn hosts its first-ever poetry conference, introducing a dozen new characters and opportunity for greater mischief.
Freedom is the underlying theme to all threads of the story. Debates rage (in the civilized, over-intellectual tones of college professors) around the idea of freedom: freedom in academics, politics, sex, ideology, religion, poetry, movement, and expression. Specific discussions address whether, in a supposed bastion of academic freedom, a card-carrying Communist can be intellectually free or must take orders from the Party? Are Catholics in the same position, bound by the dictates of Rome? Are the students of Jocelyn really academically free to choose their fields of study, as advertised, if the professors, anxious to reduce their own workload, steer the students towards a select syllabus? Are the students, in fact, better off with a little intellectual steering?
Often, McCarthy raises the idea of personal freedom more subtly, in the choices the characters make or descriptions of college life. For instance, the new-found freedom enjoyed by college students sparkles in this gem, describing the professor who always volunteered to chaperone student trips abroad in exchange for free travel:
Whenever, during the summer, he took a party of students abroad under his genial wing, catastrophic event attended him. As he sat sipping his vermouth and introducing himself to tourists at the Flore or the Deux Magots, the boys and girls under his guidance were being robbed, eloping to Italy, losing their passports, slipping off to Monte Carlo, seeking out an abortionist, deciding to turn queer, cabling the decision to their parents, while he took out his watch and wondered why they were late in meeting him for the expedition to Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
With that kind of wit and insight, the story plays out like the best drawing room drama. It is sneakily funny, both as subtle and biting as a gin gimlet. For example, McCarthy deftly captures the character of the college president:
Like all such official types, he specialized in being his own antithesis: strong but understanding, boisterous but grave, pragmatic but speculative when need be. The necessity of encompassing such opposites had left him with a little wobble of uncertainty in the center of his personality, which made other people…feel embarrassed by him.
McCarthy is credited with inventing the “academic novel” with The Groves of Academe. This is satire at its best, finding absurdity in the minutia that drive the characters rather than clownish humor in exaggeration. As Commentary Magazine wrote when Groves was first published, McCarthy annoyed the politically correct before the term was even invented: “There is a particular kind of ‘right-thinking’ mind that is reduced to a frantic rage not only by what she says, but by her tone, her metaphorical habits, the very shape of her sentences.” Many have followed McCarthy’s campus novel template, but no one has exceeded her achievement.