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Hannah and Her Soul Sister : Two players in the cultural and political wars of mid-century America : BETWEEN FRIENDS: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, Edited by Carol Brightman (Harcourt Brace: $34.95; 412 pp.)

March 12, 1995|Blanche Wiesen Cook | Blanche Wiesen Cook is a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center at CUNY and author of "Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1" (Viking)

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. . . ."

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