In some circles Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy will always be the pariah and the gorgon. Among the most controversial players in the cultural and political wars that divided America at mid-century, their vivid words and bold pronouncements remain the stuff of fascination and strife in our own bitter and brutish times.
Arendt, a learned political theorist, was a Jewish refugee from Berlin. McCarthy, an essayist and novelist forever identified with "The Group" out of Vassar, was a mostly Catholic orphan with a Jewish grandmother. They met in 1944 at New York's Murray Hill Bar--brought together by their scribbling friends who contributed to those magazines of political debate and sometimes high culture, the Nation, Commentary, Partisan Review. If not quite love at first sight, they were charmed and intrigued by each other. Despite bumps along the way, for the next 30 years their friendship flourished: a rare, inspiring achievement.
Arendt considered McCarthy the best representative of her adopted country: dazzling, generous, beautiful, brilliant and loyal. McCarthy was attracted by Arendt's robust intellectual imagination, her "electric vitality." In 1985 she told her biographer Carol Brightman: "She filled me with delight and wonder." McCarthy encouraged Brightman to publish this marvelous record of friendship, a task well fulfilled--with introduction, informative notes and appendix of their published works. This correspondence will stimulate most readers to get Brightman's biography, "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World" (Harcourt, 1992) and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's "Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World" (Yale, 1982).
In a friendship defined by absolute trust and respect, Arendt and McCarthy edited each other's manuscripts and told each other their deepest secrets. They criticized each other with blunt honesty, and disagreed with fervor. When either was attacked, the other flew for her pen in a fury of righteous indignation. Their correspondence, like their friendship, sparkles with wit, politics, intimate domestic details and glorious, sometimes shocking, gossip about everybody else in their extended, argumentative circle. However caustic, neither Arendt nor McCarthy were ever merely petty, and I mean gossip here in the reclaimed biographer's sense--the old sense: ringing the bell, spreading the gospel, relating the news.
Mavericks politically, they both bounced around the civil libertarian, anti-Communist Left, despising the reactionary fanaticism that certain of their former associates preached. In March, 1952, McCarthy wrote to Arendt about the obsessive views that now dominated Sidney Hook's wing of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom: Joseph McCarthy's extremist "Witch Hunt" meant nothing to them. Rather they were terrified by a revival of the 1930s anti-fascist united front, when "fellow-travelers were powerful in teaching, publishing, the theatre." These former liberals now saw Stalinists under every bed, smothering everything else--including justice, dissent, reason.
"We saw a perfect madman, Varian Fry. . . . He was fulminating about the necessity of 'protecting our society from dangerous elements' and proposing that the New Yorker magazine be investigated by Congress. He himself, ironically, had been investigated for nine months, having been denounced to the military as an 'open Communist,' and had the greatest difficulty getting cleared, despite letters from (many fervent anti-Communists) attesting his anti-Communism." Bowden Broadwater, McCarthy's third husband, said to him: " 'All you lacked was a letter from Hitler.' But he accepted his ordeal with graceful heroism. 'It was right that I should suffer,' he said, 'if our society can be safe.' "
Ironically, there is no response to this letter. Yet between 1939-1940, Varian Fry had courageously worked to rescue more than 2,000 notable Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees, including Pablo Cassals, Marc Chagall, Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blucher. Only recently, during the Varian Fry exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, might one read his carefully numbered triage list of those to be spirited out of Hitler's Europe by any means necessary. But by 1952 old connections had become threadbare.
McCarthy considered the new intellectual Right, a "curious amalgam" of leftist, anarchist, nihilist, opportunist elements; a "regular Narrenshiffe (ship of fools)." They desire to be "accepted as normal," yet publish the most dangerous trash in their effort to destroy New Deal social programs domestically and the concept of internationalism abroad: "Have you seen Encounter?"
The new British-based magazine, then edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol, was funded by the Congress for Cultural Freedom until 1964, when its ties to the CIA were exposed, and seemed symptomatic to McCarthy: "It is surely the most vapid thing yet, like a college magazine got out by long-dead and putrefying undergraduates. . . ."
Besides gossip and politics, this rich and entertaining correspondence is filled with advice, grammatical corrections, travel arrangements. McCarthy gives Arendt English lessons. Arendt warns McCarthy: "Don't think of precedents, they are always wrong." At one point, Hannah and Heinrich are comfortable in their rustic country retreat, longing for Mary's company: "I often imagine you here and ask myself if you would think we are a bit nuts. But . . . we have a phonograph and records . . . and, for the first time in 19 years, a set of chessmen."
Although fiercely independent and endlessly introspective about the "crooked corkscrews of the heart," neither seriously considered the "woman's question," and McCarthy rejected feminism with sour contempt. In their personal lives, Arendt seems the steadier and was often remarkably wise--however tumultuous or strained her enduring marriage to Blucher. McCarthy, volatile and forever in and out of love, endured the complexities of four marriages. Although the worst, with Edmund Wilson who beat her violently and then had her institutionalized, predates this correspondence, her romantic travails continued. As she ends her third marriage, she notes her son Reuel's affection for her fourth husband, diplomat James West: "Reuel seems to be extremely attracted to Jim. I think he feels the lack of a virile and straightforward man in his family. Bowden is a child, and Edmund is an old woman."
Despite her messy, contentious divorces; despite the fact that she was frequently humiliated by men in public and in print, McCarthy remained curiously hostile to the movement for women's rights, and to feminists particularly. While she dismissed them as men manques, her works were frequently dismissed and ridiculed as womanish. In 1942, for example, William Carlos Williams reviewed "The Company She Keeps." It was a woman's book, he sneered: "Women smell and think differently from men." Still, when McCarthy met Germaine Greer in December, 1970, she wrote disdainfully: "I saw a lot of fashionable people" in London, including "the current women's lib idol, an absurd Australian giantess who made remarks like 'We must make them understand that f---ing is a political act.' "
For all their stubborn limitations, Arendt and McCarthy devoted most of their waking hours to considerations of the human condition. Like Heinrich, they believed that "erotics (friendship) and politics" were the essential elements of a considered life: a life in which erotics and politics were integrated into "some kind of human ethical responsibility." Arendt and McCarthy remain so intriguing because they each intellectually and actively pursued that responsibility.
In "The Origins of Totalitarianism," "The Human Condition," "On Revolution," and "On Violence," Arendt (always a philosopher, a historian of ideas) attempted to understand the nature of power, the role of bigotry, hate, imperialism, corporatism. Sometimes her understanding was flawed, as in her failure to comprehend the dimensions of U.S. racism, causing her to argue in 1954 that the fight for civil rights should begin with the legalization of biracial marriage rather than the education of school children. During the 1960s, for example, she celebrated student protest movements but opposed "open enrollment" and African-American studies because they would detract from what she considered a democracy of excellence.
But her vision was never simple, never static; and she left a legacy of useful and provocative questions: What is the nature of the wicked human heart? What, now, of "radical evil" and "the banality of evil"? Have Holocaust and hate, militarism and totalitarianism, transformed the human species? Will fascism triumph again? Does democracy have a present, and a future?
McCarthy and Arendt considered the war in Vietnam a great and shameful American disaster. McCarthy returned from Europe, to fight against the abuses of power. Arendt, increasingly perceived as an ungrateful refugee scold, unforgiven for "Eichmann in Jerusalem," contemplated returning to Europe, to "haven in Switzerland," "while there was still time."
McCarthy was stunned; "I feel very strongly that you would be wrong to take such a step. At least as long as it's still possible to fight in the United States, teach young people, encourage others. . . ."
Although beginning to weary of the fray, she stayed--and fought with ever more determination. When Heinrich died in November, 1970, she wondered: "How am I to live now?"
Surrounded by old and new friends, she traveled, taught and wrote. She spent weeks with Hans Morgenthau. She was amazed when W. H. Auden proposed marriage. Arendt turned him down, although feeling great pity at his utter deterioration. McCarthy consoled her: "Of course you had to turn him down. It would be worse than suicide. . . ." But when Auden died in September, 1973, she felt remorse. Her students at the New School remarked about her agitation after his death, in contrast to her seeming calm after Blucher's. She wrote in the margins of his memorial service program, his words: "Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress."
For Arendt and McCarthy Watergate was a portentous disaster. Neither saw any useful leadership emerging from the Democratic Party. McCarthy battled breast cancer, and Arendt's heart failed. She died instantly during a small dinner party at her home on Riverside Drive in 1975. McCarthy flew in from Paris. She suspended work on her own book to complete and annotate Arendt's last lecture series, "The Life of the Mind" and continued to promote her friend's work until her own death in 1989.
In December, 1974, Arendt wrote McCarthy: "I must admit that I mind this relentless defoliation (or deforestation) process. As though to grow old does not mean, as Goethe said, 'gradual withdrawal from appearance'--which I do not mind--but the gradual (rather sudden) transformation of a world with familiar faces (no matter, foe or friend) into a kind of desert, populated by strange faces. In other words, it is not me who withdraws but the world that dissolves. . . ."
Ultimately, the correspondence of these two cultural warriors is a testimony to a great and moving friendship; a brief and heartening journey around the most enduring and important issues of our century; a diverting and inspiring read on a stormy evening in the new age of mean.