Brightman, Carol, (editor). “Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975”, Harvest Books, 1996.
Two Loyal Friends
American author Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who managed to get out of Nazi Germany met in New York City and became the closest and loyalist of friends over a 25 year period. “Between Friends” is their complete correspondence and these two intellectual women talk about everything and trade ideas about politics, literature, morality and they share gossip and small talk. The letters range from just musings to literary gossip. I remember how enamored I was with Arendt when she covered the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker Magazine and how upset I was when I read her “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. But I am older and wiser now and find myself having a new respect for the woman who wrote the magnificent “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. I had actually put Arendt out of mind after the Eichmann trial and it was not until Margarethe von Trotta’s new film reawakened my interest in her. I also realize now and too late that one of my professors was the autobiographer of Mary McCarthy, Carol Gelderman, and I never had the chance to speak with her about McCarthy and Arendt.
Now some time after the trial is over and Eichmann is dead, many are going back and looking at Arendt differently. There is no question that she was one of the brilliant minds of the 20th century and whether we agree with her or not does not take that away from her. She has a whole new group of young Israeli supporters and I am glad to be back with her again and reading everything I can by her and about her.
Mary McCarthy (1912-89) and Hannah Arendt (1906-75) shared a special friendship and their correspondence is fascinating. We see two very different personalities writing about things that are important as well as mundane or as Arendt might have said “banal”. We learn of their views about political, philosophical and literary figures and happenings of the day—Karl Jaspers, Robert Lowell, the Vietnam War, of course Adolf Eichmann, Richard Nixon, Watergate and this little surprise—after the death of Arendt’s husband, a very drunk and very gay W.H. Auden proposed marriage to her.
Both women were intellectuals and at a time that there were not many female intellectuals. They shared personal and professional concerns and they critique each other’s works.
If there is a problem with the book it is that it is not balanced. There is much more McCarthy than Arendt but then Arendt was much more intellectual than McCarthy.
McCarthy writes more frequently about the most intimate questions in her life (mainly her marriages). Arendt does not provide such personal information. She does write about her devotion to her husband and a separate unit of the book begins after he dies in 1970. They were very much in love and she only lasted another five years after his death. During that time she relied on McCarthy and her friendship. When the two women are apart they seem to really miss each other and remain especially loyal intellectually with each woman giving high praise to the other. They defend each other against many criticisms made against them. But there is something else— this strong loyalty also would seem to bring with it a certain intellectual dishonesty. When Arendt is under fire for her ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ neither she nor McCarthy show any real understanding of the criticism that is launched at Arendt especially by Gershom Scholem who had been her close friend. When McCarthy is criticized by other authors, Arendt sees it as little more than envy.
Politically there is a lack of balance in intellectual discussions and Arendt is always the more profound of the two. There is really no critical give and take with many of the letters having to do with McCarthy’s marriage to her third and last husband, Anthony West, the American diplomat. There is a great deal exchanged about the previous husband who refuses at first to give a divorce and Arendt plays the role of loyal helper to her friend in pushing for the divorce. “Again there is much gossip about mutual friends Dwight Macdonald, Robert Lowell, Nicola Chiaromente, Natalie Sarraute and intellectual acquaintances they both seem not to like very much i.e. Alfred Kazin, Norman Podhoretz”. Arendt says nothing about her relationship with her mentor and former lover, Martin Heidegger. Arendt was the key person in rehabilitating Heidegger after the War, when it is now well established that he was a full participant in the “Nazification” of the German universities. The editor, Carol Brightman also alleges that Arendt had once had an affair with Harold Rosenberg, the critic and this has not seen the light of day elsewhere. “This charge is raised in a note with no confirmation or refutation of it in any of the letters. And this when the notes which come after each letter identifying various people mentioned in them are useful”.
The feeling comes that both Arendt and McCarthy wanted to be friends just for the purpose of complimenting and helping each other which is noble to a degree. But that Arendt intellectualism that I love so much is simply not here. Nowhere in these letters do we experience the wonderful writing that both of these women were capable of.
Contextual notes are placed at the beginning of the correspondence or at the end, with the exception of explanatory terms found in brackets within the letters, a practice that is both helpful and distracting.
Of course this review is merely my opinion and I am not an Arendt scholar so I think only fair to show you what another reviewer said:
“What a wonderful collection of letters! It’s such a privilege to be able to see inside the relationship of these two brilliant women. To read what they were thinking about, how they were thinking about things — it’s truly very exciting. They were so different from one another, yet you can feel how necessary their friendship was to them. It’s very inspiring”.