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The correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy

Between friends

Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt
  • Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt

Authors: Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), born in Germany, received her Ph.D. in 1928 at Heidelberg University, where she studied with Karl Jaspers. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, Arendt fled Germany, going first to Paris and later, in 1941, to the United States. Arendt taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the New School for Social Research. Arendt married Heinrich Bluecher, a professor of philosophy, in 1940. Bluecher taught philosophy at Bard until his death in 1970. Arendt died in 1975, of an apparent heart attack, in New York. Arendt’s major works are The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963).

Novelist, memoirist, and critic Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) is a more familiar figure to Americans than is Arendt. McCarthy graduated from Vassar in 1933, marrying after graduation and heading for Manhattan. Her marriage ended in 1936. She became mistress to Philip Rahv and critic for Partisan Review, where Rahv, handily, was editor. She left Rahv for literary panjandrum Edmund Wilson, whom she married in 1938. Her marriage to Wilson produced her only child, Reuel. During McCarthy’s tenure as Mrs. Wilson she became queen bee to Manhattan’s left-wing literary set. McCarthy divorced Wilson in 1946, complaining of violence and infidelity. After their divorce, McCarthy married teacher Bowden Broadwater, about whom McCarthy’s principal objection would seem to be that Broadwater was tedious. In 1961 McCarthy married diplomat James West; the marriage lasted until McCarthy’s death. The couple divided their time between Paris and Maine. McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) and her novel The Group (1963) made McCarthy a literary celebrity, and The Group, made into a movie in 1966, left her relatively wealthy.

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975: edited by Carol Brightman; 412 pages; Harcourt Brace 8( Company. $34.95.

Arendt and McCarthy met at a party in 1944. McCarthy, who tended to speak without thinking, said she felt sorry for Hitler, who “was so absurd as to want the love of his victims.” Arendt, offended by McCarthy’s attempt at levity, replied, “How can you say such a thing in front of me — a victim of Hitler!”

Five years passed before the first letter was mailed on March 10, 1949. Arendt was 43 and McCarthy, 37. Arendt writes, complimenting McCarthy’s novel The Oasis. Over the next five years, only McCarthy’s letters to Arendt, mixing gossip with diatribes against McCarthyism (the senator’s, not Mary’s), were not lost.

August 20, 1954, Arendt writes the first long letter of hers that survives.

She responds to a question asked by McCarthy. “The ritual of doubt,” writes Arendt, “started with Descartes and only in him will you find the original motives, the real anxiety that not God but an evil spirit is behind the whole spectacle of Being.” She praises Martin Heidegger, her mentor and lover during her undergraduate years: “He tries to think Nietzsche through in all his consequences while, at the same time, he keeps the whole tradition of philosophy in mind and alive.” She concludes: “The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of thought; thinking is always result-less. That is the difference between ‘philosophy’ and science.”

The women knew many people in common — Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick; Rahv and his wife, Natalie; Lionel and Diana Trilling; politically radical theologian Paul Tillich and his wife, Hannah; W.H. Auden; Dwight MacDonald and his two wives. The routine comments on this cast of characters add a novelistic aspect to the letters.

Tillich, a notorious womanizer, attempts to seduce McCarthy who reports the attempted seduction to Arendt. “I’m not so naive as to be surprised at a religious man’s having...‘pagan moments,’ but he takes it too much for granted in himself somehow, as though it were an effusion of godhead in him.”

Poor lunatic Robert Lowell is a constant. One signal that Lowell was near breakdown was obsessive talk about Hitler. McCarthy sees Lowell in London: “He is still taking his pills. And he spoke with horror of his old mania. If one has known him so long, one is alert to the signs. There was one ominous note,

'I must admit, during the evening we spent together: he mentioned Hitler. In a guarded but somewhat commendatory way. I said: ‘Cal [Lowell’s nickname], if I hear the word “Hitler” again, that finishes it.’ ”

Arendt’s husband died in 1970. Arendt writes about her terror at being without him. Then W.H. Auden shows up drunk at Arendt’s Riverside Drive apartment and asks Arendt to marry him. Auden, of course, was homosexual." Arendt writes: “I am almost beside myself when I think of the whole matter.” McCarthy answers, “Stephen Spender was here and announced that he was feeling like a matchmaker, wouldn’t Wystan make a good husband for Hannah? I said coldly, ‘Are you mad?’...At the time I thought Stephen was simply being frivolous and callous, but probably he spoke with Auden’s interests really at heart.”

Carol Brightman, author of the McCarthy biography, Writing Dangerously, and McCarthy worked on the letters’ editing up to the time of McCarthy’s death. McCarthy insisted that the letters be published with only minimal cuts. Between Friends offers the pleasures of intelligently observed gossip and a study in East Coast intellectual life from the McCarthy era to Watergate.

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