Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At the same time The Groves of Academe appeared, higher education was a center of opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit of communists in positions of power. Maynard Hoar is described as having authored a pamphlet, “The Witch Hunt in Our Universities,” which he clearly composed to establish appropriate credentials as a college president, but the title of which aptly evokes the atmosphere of the day.

Domna Rejnev may be an extreme case, but she is not alone in her concern for political persecution. In reaction to government inquiry, college professors banded together in an automatic reaction against any investigation of an individual’s personal background, a reaction that, in effect, made it impossible to hold anything against anyone.

The communist poet who appears at the poetry conference that ends the novel continues the general evasion of truth through his use of two names. To maintain anonymity at meetings of the Party, he had been “John Marshall,” but he now appears as “Vincent Keogh.” Having adopted poetry as his profession, he is, like the faculty, in a field where eccentricity is the norm.

He has nothing to hide, but neither does he have any concern for moral principles or the fates of people around him. When the president asks him what he knows about Mulcahy’s alleged communist connections, Keogh’s reaction is cavalier. An outsider in the college, he sees events there as having no importance.

For insiders on the faculty, however, perception is all. If the government is seen as wrongly pursuing communists, one must be seen as defending the academy, even if one would rather be elsewhere. Truth, in any case, is only of secondary importance.