Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a former student of Hannah Arendt, begins her biography of her eminent teacher with a study of Arendt’s family and educational background (1906-1933), proceeds to a description of her life in Europe as a refugee (1933-1941), and concludes with a series of chapters concerning her life in the United States (1941-1975). Young-Bruehl’s stated intention is to produce a work of “philosophical biography,” a work which shows the “historical bases for [Arendt’s] generalizations, the particular experiences that launched her thought, the friendships and loves that nourished her, and—if possible—her thinking manner or thinking style.”
Inevitably, the result of such an ambitious enterprise is a book of considerable length, well over five hundred pages. Young-Bruehl is at her best when she analyzes Hannah Arendt’s philosophical theories, the assumptions underlying those theories, and her style of presentation. Her examination of the controversy which arose over Arendt’s articles on the Eichmann trial is impressive because of the kinds of questions she considers. Instead of arguing simplistically for or against Arendt’s positions, she examines the reasons why her articles on the Eichmann trial became so controversial.
In spite of its obvious strengths, however, Young-Bruehl’s biography is marred by a number of significant weaknesses. There are times when the book seems too heavily psychological, veering into psychohistory. It is problematical to find a biographer explaining Arendt, a Jew who was very critical of Zionism for political reasons, and who psychologically identified with Rahel Varnhagen. If in fact Arendt did identify with Varnhagen, it was probably because the latter represented certain abstract ideas which interested Arendt as a philosopher. As Young-Bruehl acknowledges, Arendt herself resisted psychological explanations of political events and causes.
Frequently, Young-Bruehl seems to lack a clear sense of her audience. Those who are interested in Arendt’s thought will find the painstaking attention to the stories of her infancy related in Martha Arendt’s diary, Unser Kind, merely boring. Those who are interested in Arendt’s early intellectual development will be surprised by certain omissions. “Die Schatten,” the poem which Young-Bruehl mentions as a particularly important revelation of Arendt’s psychology, is discussed or referred to on pages xix, 26, 50, 51-56, 87-88, 90, and 308. Without any explanation, however, the original German version is omitted from the appendix which contains the original German texts of Arendt’s poetry.
Young-Bruehl’s account of Arendt’s early love affair with Martin Heidegger seems to have been dredged up from correspondence, sometimes from letters written to third parties by Arendt. The source, for example, of Heidegger’s reported revelation to his wife that Arendt was the “passion of his life and the inspiration of his work” is a letter from Arendt to Hilde Fränkel. Young-Bruehl should have either resisted the desire to include such a quote or invited the reader to approach it with some skepticism.
The biographical details of Arendt’s life are interesting, but the social context of her thought, particularly the intellectual and literary circles to which she belonged, receives less attention in this study than many readers might wish. For example, Hannah Arendt reportedly described Rosalie Colie, her colleague at Wesleyan University, as the most erudite woman she had ever met, but the reader learns almost nothing here of the interaction between the two women. Young-Bruehl does give an account of Arendt’s long friendship with Mary McCarthy, who became her literary executor.
Many readers interested in Arendt’s life will be disappointed at the degree to which Young-Bruehl depends upon written sources, upon letters rather than the anecdotes of Arendt’s acquaintances and friends. Arendt’s correspondence will one day be...
(The entire section is 1,474 words.)