Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1905
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 begins just after the death of Arendt’s husband, Heinrich. Here the correspondence is marked with pain and grief and by an increasing preoccupation with issues of illness and infirmity. Part 3 seems to stand alone, its major subject matter being the public controversy over the two works mentioned above.
Although the chronicle of the first ten years of the friendship (March, 1949, to November, 1959) covers the longest period, it takes up only sixty-six pages of the text. From the letters of this period readers learn a considerable amount about McCarthy, since all but five of the existent letters are from her. The impatient Arendt enthusiast who begins reading the book may be tempted to stop before reaching the second section. After a brief note to McCarthy heralding the mutual-admiration tone that the book will manifest from time to time, Arendt remains without lines until twenty pages later. While readers do learn something of Arendt from her own thoughts in the five surviving letters from this period, the character who is most completely fleshed out is McCarthy. Her own indictment that she has “never learned to communicate in a brief style” proves accurate and sustainable throughout the volume. Her own hand draws a picture of a vital young writer, flamboyant and impulsive. Her flight of ideas runs from the sale of a house to current events and meanderings on works in progress. When commenting on current events, she exhibits a keen, almost prophetic sense about how powerful the media and advertising will become in the making of political figures (in this case she speaks about Richard Nixon).
As the friendship deepens in its second decade (part 2 of the book), Arendt’s voice emerges more strongly. Readers are treated to her prudent advice regarding love, discourses on philosophy, and other insights. Arendt at last emerges as a parallel, if not the dominant, voice in the dialogue. By 1959, the friendship and the exchange of letters has settled down to the richer rhythm that will characterize the remainder of the book.
The second section of the book also chronicles the gradual dissolution of McCarthy’s marriage to Bowden Broadwater and her extramarital involvement with James West. McCarthy’s relationship with West lasts for twenty-eight years, sustaining her throughout the remainder of her life and providing her with a window on the diplomatic world of the United States in its relationship to Europe. Readers follow Arendt’s rise in professional popularity, McCarthy’s involvement in political issues, and the intellectual life of both Europe and the United States.
As the letters progress, in addition to the strong portrait of Arendt as person and philosopher, her lasting devotion and commitment to her second husband stand out. So, too, does her outspokenness on such diverse issues as the future of university life, the pope, and the state of the United States in the throes of the late 1960’s. In her critique of McCarthy’s work and indeed of her life, Arendt demonstrates a tenderness and tenacity that demand admiration.
Tidbits of gossip about contemporary figures sustain interest for the less high-minded reader. Readers learn, for example, about Paul Tillich’s unsuccessful attempt to seduce McCarthy while on a transcontinental trip in 1956. “I’ve never met a man with so much egoism and so little confidence in himself,” McCarthy comments, although she admits to feeling sorry for him, “in a repelled sort of way.” The indiscretions of the poet Robert Lowell and the ardors of W. H. Auden do not escape the writer’s caustic pen. Arendt likewise pulls no punches when she describes Truman Capote as “very unpleasant, vain and vulgar.” The letters thus provide juicy slices of insight into many contemporary personages who are known only, or at least predominantly, through their published work.
From her perspective Arendt affords the reader some insight into Karl Jaspers, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship, and Martin Heidegger, whom she admired professionally and who had been her teacher at the University of Marburg. She mentions that Heidegger, with whom she had had an affair, has sent her a poem in sympathy at the death of her husband.
Events of contemporary and historical relevance become snapshots in the album of these letters. Readers see through the careful lens of McCarthy’s camera the escalation of the prolonged war in Vietnam. They are treated to personal vignettes as well as such high-profile events as the political and physical demise of Adlai Stevenson. It is interesting to watch the ideas nascent in these private letters that will mature into strong public works. Arendt, from the vantage point of someone not born in the United States, can comment candidly on the American scene. Her clear dislike for Lyndon B. Johnson and disapproval of the war in Vietnam serve as examples.
The audience for this volume is varied. Certainly scholars who are interested in either of the principal authors will find here an intimate portrait of each that goes beyond the public corpus of either writer. Especially for those interested in Arendt, this volume offers a quite different picture from what one might derive from her philosophical work. Yet the casual reader who likes biography or even the literary voyeur who enjoys seeing the underbelly of famous folk will not be disappointed.
Perhaps Brightman engages in a bit of hyperbole when she speaks of this friendship as “unmatched among modern intellectuals,” but she is accurate in her enthusiasm for a genuine and rich relationship that flourished between these two complex women. As one finishes the book, one is left with a certain sadness. Not only is Hannah Arendt dead, quite abruptly and without much warning to herself or to her friends, but McCarthy is deprived of the opportunity to express to her friend all she has meant to her. Readers who have become familiar with two women through this exchange of letters for twenty-five years will also miss this final epistle. They have, in the end, been drawn deeply into this friendship.
Brightman’s editorial comments are of great value to the reader. She sets the context and adds substantive footnotes to help orient those unfamiliar with the period and its characters. Perhaps her intense enthusiasm—she suggests that reading these letters is like reading a good novel—is overly devotional. Others may not find the collection quite so captivating as well-crafted fiction. Nevertheless, the letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy offer an existential admixture of laughter and tears, passion and politics, good sense and gossip. They are well worth reading.
Sources for Further Study
ARTforum. XXXIII, Summer, 1995, p. B12.
Commentary. XCIX, February, 1995, p. 60.
Commonweal. CXXII, October 20, 1995, p. 25.
The Nation. CCLX, March 27, 1995, p. 423.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, July 28, 1995, p. 39.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, April 6, 1995, p. 9.
The New York Times Book Review. C, February 19, 1995, p. 14.
The New Yorker. LXXI, March 20, 1995, p. 97.
Time. CXLV, January 30, 1995, p. 84.
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