Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Groves of Academe is McCarthy’s satiric foray against the administrations and the faculties of liberal higher education. The title is derived from a Horatian quote concerning the search for “truth” within the “groves” of academia. Clearly, from the opening of the first chapter, Henry Mulcahy and the other erudites who scheme to manipulate people and situations to their own ends do not have the search for truth first on their agenda. Even the most nobly portrayed professor, Domna Rejnev, places her own self-interest above truth and the safety of a colleague.
The plot of this scathing comedy of manners advances through the psychological machinations of Mulcahy, a pale, bulbous, tense, incompetent but intelligent instructor with a one-year contract, who fights for reinstatement on the basis of having previously been a member of the Communist Party and of his wife’s devastatingly poor health. The ingenuity of his first claim is that no progressive college such as Jocelyn College, in the age of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch-hunts, would risk a public accusation of terminating a contract on the basis of political beliefs. Underlying his second claim is the idea that the news of his termination would seriously endanger the life of his wife, Cathy, because of the dangerous illness of which she has no knowledge. Neither basis is true; however, Mulcahy has a facility for convincing himself that a lie is truth and then for rallying others to believe. His perceptive reading of what motivates others to act, as well as of their subsequent predictable actions, illustrates his perverted brilliance.
He is also capable of...
(The entire section is 679 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
In The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy presents a typical academic novel in that the events that dominate and determine the lives of the characters gain their importance from their roles in a specific academic culture. In the very first paragraph, literature instructor Henry Mulcahy receives notice that his contract at the fictitious Jocelyn College will not be renewed. The entire plot revolves around his reaction to this termination, ending in revenge when Mulcahy’s contract is renewed and the president who tried to fire him is forced to resign.
Mulcahy’s methods define academic politics through which people try to win at any cost, with no concern for the truth that an academic institution is supposed to uphold. Mulcahy immediately circulates two lies that are calculated to put pressure on Maynard Hoar to rehire him. He claims that at one time he was a member of the Communist Party, and he claims that his wife Catherine is suffering from a vaguely defined medical problem, which would mean that the pressure of his job change might kill her.
The direct confrontation between the literature professor and the college president draws on the situation that would have prevailed in a small liberal arts college in the early 1950’s. This was a situation Mary McCarthy would have experienced firsthand while teaching at Bard College and later at Sarah Lawrence. Before the American Association of University Professors encouraged the establishment of procedures for granting tenure, college presidents had a free hand in governing faculties. Thus, Maynard Hoar can dictate the fate of Henry Mulcahy,...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A chronologically arranged biography. Chapter 11 discusses Mary McCarthy’s formative experiences on college faculties. Chapter 13 traces influences in The Groves of Academe, setting the novel in the context of the anticommunist investigations of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Hardy, Willene Schaefer. Mary McCarthy. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Chapter 6 analyzes The Groves of Academe in detail, with examples of the symbolic value of how characters are portrayed. A generous plot summary follows the machinations and psychological relationships of the characters. The volume contains a chronology of Mary McCarthy’s life and bibliography.
McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966. A biography in the Twayne’s United States Authors Series, with bibliography. The latter part of chapter 5 situates the novel and summarizes its plot.
Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. A brief biography with bibliography. Pages 24 to 29 focus on The Groves of Academe.
Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work, edited by Eve Stwertka and Margo Viscusi. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996. A gathering of papers from a conference held in 1993, with references to the novel throughout. In chapter 10, Timothy F. Waples examines “Political Dilemma in The Groves of Academe.”