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Letter Collection No. 1: Mary McCarthy

Over the next five months, we will be creating posts that highlight the correspondence of Hannah Arendt. Each letter collection will be introduced by an Arendt enthusiast. We welcome – and encourage – everyone to read the introductory letter and the attached pdf and provide comments.


Dear friends,

I am very glad to share this letter exchange between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. I think this selection is a great way to start our project because it resonates with me personally and begins a conversation on culture and performance. 

What you will find in this collection are the letters as they appear in Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy and images of the letters that I procured from the Mary McCarthy archive at Vassar. You will also find the essay “Society and Culture.” 

One of the things I treasure most in friendship is honest feedback. Not that it’s easy to give or receive. My two best friends are bright, creative, and successful women who run their own businesses. They listen to my troubles. They offer advice. They console. They give me pep talks. But they also hold me accountable for my actions and intentions. They have learned how to lovingly tell me that I need to get my shit together or I need to rethink how I have treated someone or that I need to come up with a better plan. I don’t always like to hear what they have to say, but I listen. (They are almost always right, by the way!) I have achieved goals and avoided disaster because I trust them to tell me the truth and I (try to) let go of my ego and listen to what they have to say. 

In this letter exchange, Mary McCarthy is giving Hannah Arendt feedback on the essay “Society and Culture” which was published in Daedelus Magazine. Hannah was not known for being the most forgiving intellectual. She was well-read. Her arguments were painstakingly thought-out. She expected everyone to come to the philosophical table with a level of knowledge and expertise that was incredibly unrealistic. Nonetheless, Hannah trusted Mary. Despite Mary’s lack of philosophical education, Hannah prized Mary’s creativity and insight. Hannah believed that Mary was a trusted ally. (Hannah trusted Mary so much in fact that Mary oversaw Hannah’s literary estate after her death.) In this letter exchange, Mary provides feedback to Hannah and Hannah incorporates her feedback into a new essay, “The Crisis of Culture” which was published in her book Between Past and Future

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal. Writers get feedback from editors all the time. It’s part of the job. But sending your thoughts to a friend can make you feel vulnerable. It can feel scary. Mary’s understanding of Hannah and her work reminds me of my friends who have learned how to lovingly guide me.

Philosophically, I am interested in Mary’s comments about the possible destruction of art through reproduction. Does showing an image over and over again destroy some of its magic? I don’t know. We hang up images so we can see them and be inspired by them every day? (I keep Manet’s “Olympia” and a section from the score of Stravinksy’s “Rite of Spring” hanging near my desk.) And what does reproduction mean for performance? Doesn’t the reproducibility of a musical score allow us to bathe in its magic multiple times, coming across whispers and beats that we didn’t hear the first time around?

These are not new questions for many artists, but Mary’s comments were likely quite new to Hannah. Hannah had a very conservative idea of what constituted art. Despite her husband Blucher’s participation in the Downtown New York art scene and their friendship with Harold Rosenberg, if you read Arendt closely, it becomes obvious that, for her, works of art are canvases and sculptures. For Arendt, performance sits between the categories or work and action. Unfortunately, performance’s place in the public world is never fully resolved in Arendt’s writings. There is definitely much more to say about this topic and this letter exchange!

I look forward to hearing from you!



PS – If this topic is interesting to you, I can pull together some other sources – like the essay from Between Past and Future.  

PPS – The below pdf is for educational purposes only. Details on citations can be found in the pdf but sources for this pdf include: Letter images from the Mary McCarthy archive at Vassar College. The transcribed letters come from Between Friends: the Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy” (Harcourt Brace). “Society and Culture” was first published in Daedelus Magazine in 1960. We would love for you to read this but please refrain from duplicating and reposting. Thanks!

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