Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The early tutor gets the afternoon ice cream?

I'm sure any current reader of Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy's classic novel of academic politics (1951) can point to their favorite examples that demonstrate how very different academic life and campus culture are a half century later.

As my wife and I rush around, trying to balance work, day care, after-school schedules, large amounts of homework for our first grader, we are always feeling rushed in the evenings as we try to eat dinner early enough to get the kids to bed early enough for them to get a good night of sleep and for us to get done all our after-kids-go-to-bed chores.

So this passage just sounds like something from a lost world:

"And yet in the darkening afternoons when he chugged up to the Co-op with Mrs. Mulcahy and the children, leaving the motor running while he hurried them into the counter for an after-school treat, ice-cream cones and Nabs [query: what are these?] all around, he and his wife, their noses white-tipped from the cold, were always brisk and merry." (1952 edition, p.22)

Now I am well aware that Mrs. Mulcahy is a stay-at-home-Mom (or housewife in 1950's parlance) and I do not regret for one moment the advances of feminism in the last 50 years that mean that Mrs. Tea-Lemon-Old Books is Dr. Tea-Lemon-Old Books, MD who works outside the home. My wistfulness about this passage has nothing to do with Mrs. Mulcahy's availability to spend time with her children after school.

On the contrary, it's the time available to Mr. Mulcahy and the kids that make me think about how foreign this passage sounds. These kids don't sound over-programmed. One might think they're rushing because they have to get the kids off to dance lessons or soccer, but one doesn't have that sense. The hurrying seems rather to come from a desire to come in from the cold; the motor running is to keep the car from dying (in the passages leading up to this, we've heard a lot about the Mulcahys' money problems and their old, unreliable car).

Naturally, I focus on Mulcahy: the amazing thing is that Mr. Mulcahy (he's a PhD, but it's a liberal arts college in the '50s, so Mr. fits better) is done with his work such that he can be with his family in the "after-school" hours. One figures he's got to leave the campus by not much after 3 to be driving up to the Co-op with his family for an after-school treat (4ish?) Maybe he only manages this every once in a while ("treat"), but McCarthy's phrasing here ("always brisk and merry") suggests some frequency at least. No afternoon classes? Office hours? Lectures and seminars? Class preparation? Committee meetings?

One clue: earlier in the book, in reference to an unfortunate nick-name he has gotten from the students, we hear about "eight-o'clock tutorials" (p.7). Imagine that.


Jason Levine said...

Dr. Shear,

I have not read this book, so you’ll have to enlighten me. Is Mr. Mulcahy tenured? If so, then perhaps he has more discretionary time than untenured professors who must publish articles and books on Jewish history to secure tenure (and more importantly, the funds to buy ice cream for their children). If Mr. Mulcahy has children, this may suggest that he is young and untenured unless he had children later in life. You may object to my assumption that tenured professors are less busy than untenured, but your post reminds me of a tenured professor in the Religion department at Wake Forest University. He spent about five hours on campus every school day. He refused to serve on MA thesis committees. He taught one class. He hadn’t published an article in a decade. I assumed that he went home early to do nothing in particular. Given the heat in North Carolina, I bet he was buying ice cream for his wife and kids. Finally, I’m persuaded by your interpretation why Mr. Mulcahy hurried to purchase ice cream. However, I’d like to offer another interpretation which depends on the context of the narrative – something to which I am not privy. Was Mr. Mulcahy rushing to buy ice cream because he was concerned that colleagues or friends would see him and think that he wasn’t spending his time on scholarly matters? The “brisk and merry” language may suggest not.

Adam said...

Actually, the plot of the book depends on Mulcahy's untenured status.

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