Biography presents a picture of a person’s life through the eyes as well as the bias of the biographer. Autobiography does much the same, except that its perspective is presumed to be more accurate, since it is the unique view of the subject. Yet even autobiography records from a distance, through the filter of time and space. Therefore it is not quite congruent to the actual event or to the person it highlights. A letter, on the other hand, offers an existential yet enduring window into a lived reality and into the person experiencing it as it occurs. The strength of the letter is its immediacy. As Claude Monet’s impressionistic series of paintings of a haystack reveal that a morning haystack is not identical to its evening clone, letters set the reader at different places to view the same subject as she changes and grows in the kaleidoscope of time’s light. Given the rapidity of development in many areas of American culture during the twentieth century, and considering the significant position that both Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy occupy in it, their letters offer a perfect opportunity to experience their lives almost as they occurred.
At first blush, Arendt and McCarthy seem unlikely candidates for an epistolary relationship—the editor calls it “romance”—that would survive the disparity of their backgrounds, their personalities, and even their interests. The existential Jewish philosopher reared in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the convent-educated orphan writer from Seattle seem to have little in common. Yet the span of an ocean and changes and losses in their personal lives, as well as the public vilification of their respective work, seem increasingly to have bonded them rather than pushed them apart.
Their first meeting was in 1944, during World War II. It was not immediately a match made in heaven. Only later, after Arendt had made a conciliatory gesture, did the friendship blossom. The text of these letters traces that flowering, perhaps better than a biographer could do.
The relationship is, first of all, a personal one. Bits and pieces of ordinary life are lived, enjoyed, and finally tucked away in letters for safekeeping. Like schoolgirls, as editor Carol Brightman calls them, the pair send gifts—a scarf or an arrangement of flowers—share an opinion about a mutual acquaintance or the vagaries of the French postal service, and suffer the comings and goings of the various men in their lives. Homey notes filled with arrangements for weekends together or a forgotten tooth powder punctuate the letters. Laughter and tears alike are set down, sealed, and delivered across the miles. Arendt is ear to McCarthy’s love life in good times and bad; McCarthy consoles her older friend when her husband dies.
Perhaps the most important part of their relationship for those who are heirs to their professional work is the commentary each richly provides on the other’s work-in- progress. From the first short congratulatory note in March of 1949 that begins the quarter-century-long correspondence to the hurried exchanges of the last few months of Arendt’s life (in 1975), many of the letters include candid and constructive, if not always gentle, critique on what the two prominent authors are writing. Arendt’s comments generally fit her strong, steady philosophical bent. She expresses her admiration for McCarthy’s work even as she helps expand its viewpoint with the richness of her European philosophical background. McCarthy tends relentlessly to push points she is trying to make about Arendt’s work. For example, she explains in painful detail that Arendt inadvertently has used certain English words incorrectly.
Yet the tenderness of their friendship is not missing from these passages. When their work is publicly criticized, they offer each other warm support. Especially Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and McCarthy’s The Group, published during the same year (1963), drew negative reaction from the literary establishment. Each woman is determined in her support of the other’s labor.
The editor has divided the book into six sections. The divisions appear to have been made for inconsistent reasons. Some reflect a turn in public events, such as the escalation of activity in Vietnam (part 4) or the breaking of the Watergate scandal (part 6). Other sections appear to be delineated because of more personal events. Part 2 marks the beginning of McCarthy’s relationship with James West and her subse-quent marriage to him. Arendt is a key player in this period of McCarthy’s life, offering her consolation and prudent counsel in the awkward situation of being friend to both. Part 6...
(The entire section is 1905 words.)