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Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975.

It's always hard to choose the best of anything for a given year. Most of the books that moved me this year--Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun (Beacon Press) and Mumia Abu-Jamal's Live From Death Row (Addison-Wesley) deserve special mention--addressed issues of racial injustice.

But after much thought, I've decided to write about a book that did receive a lot of notice, but not for any of the reasons that made it so special to me. And it did have a profound political message, although no reviewer seemed to have picked up on it. The book is Between Friends. The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975 (Harcourt Brace).

It was understandable, inevitable even, that this book should get a lot of upscale media attention. Arendt was an influential, controversial philosopher and public intellectual, after all, while McCarthy, a novelist and public figure in her own right, was well known for her juicy sexual entanglements and her propensity for nasty public squabbles. There was no end of academics and pundits dying to build their own reputations by taking swats at these two fascinating figures and their equally fascinating ideas and lives.

My own longstanding interest in Arendt's ideas led me to the book. What held me rapt from the first page to the last, and left me inspired and hopeful about feminism--yes, feminism--at not much does, was the portrait it presented of the deep, passionate friendship of these two exceptional women and the way it both empowered and supported them, intellectually, emotionally, and politically through decades of intensely lived, often difficult experiences.

Certainly, neither McCarthy nor Arendt would have called herself a feminist. Gender politics was apparently the last thing on their busy minds. They were of the generation--my mother's generation--which preceded (and produced) the Second Wave of feminism. They were the kind of exceptional--we would later call them "token"--women, who forged ahead, against the grain of masculinist prejudice and even contempt, and claimed a place for themselves in the male world of ideas and public affairs because their passions drove them to do so.

But what comes through loud and clear, throughout their quarter-century-long correspondence, is a sense of solidarity, respect, and intimacy so profound that they serve as role models of what "sisterhood"--a term not heard much these days--might actually mean.

First, they shared an intense, deeply serious concern about ideas and politics that was inspiring. As colleagues they wrote long, complex letters back and forth about each other's ideas and work in a way that was at once respectful and challenging.

As comrades-in-arms, they agonized over the political crises and tragedies of the times and struggled to find appropriate responses--seeing themselves as obligated to respond and act. I didn't always agree with their positions--sometimes they infuriated me--but their seriousness and commitment were inspiring.

Finally, they supported each other throughout a lifetime of personal struggle to live as independent women and also achieve sexual and family happiness. And they loyally defended each other against the frequent attacks and disrespect suffered at the hands of "the boys," as they called them, who controlled the liberal New York literary establishment--Partisan Review, Dissent, Commentary, The New York Review of Books.

I loved this book the way, as a girl, I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries and other "girl-series" books. It showed a side of women's lives and relationships, a possibility for them, that the larger male world--and the women's magazines of the time--denied, as it pushed us into a lifetime of domestic invisibility, and isolation from and contempt for each other.
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Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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