Synopses & Reviews
German-Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–75) fled from the Nazis to New York in 1941, and during the next thirty years in America she wrote her best-known and most influential works, such as The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism,
and On Revolution
. Yet, despite the fact that a substantial portion of her oeuvre was written in America, not Europe, no one has directly considered the influence of America on her thought—until now. In Arendt and America
, historian Richard H. King argues that while all of Arendt’s work was haunted by her experience of totalitarianism, it was only in her adopted homeland that she was able to formulate the idea of the modern republic as an alternative to totalitarian rule.
Situating Arendt within the context of U.S. intellectual, political, and social history, King reveals how Arendt developed a fascination with the political thought of the Founding Fathers. King also re-creates her intellectual exchanges with American friends and colleagues, such as Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy, and shows how her lively correspondence with sociologist David Riesman helped her understand modern American culture and society. In the last section of Arendt and America, King sets out the context in which the Eichmann controversy took place and follows the debate about “the banality of evil” that has continued ever since. As King shows, Arendt’s work, regardless of focus, was shaped by postwar American thought, culture, and politics, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.
For Arendt, the United States was much more than a refuge from Nazi Germany; it was a stimulus to rethink the political, ethical, and historical traditions of human culture. This authoritative combination of intellectual history and biography offers a unique approach for thinking about the influence of America on Arendt’s ideas and also the effect of her ideas on American thought.
“A major work of scholarship and a truly original and pathbreaking way of looking at Arendt and her work. King situates Arendt in an American context in which she is rarely considered, and he draws on his deep knowledge of U.S. intellectual, political, and social history as well as German philosophy to create a book that is one of the most original and important works on Arendt to have been written in many years.”
“This remarkably erudite and elegantly written book explains what happened when Hannah met America. King ushers us into the cultural and intellectual milieu of post-WWII New York and invites us to listen in on conversations between some of the leading intellectuals of the time. Arendt—uncompromising, relentlessly thoughtful and downright difficult to the last—comes across as one of the great interpreters of modernity in all its tragic complexity. Forty years after her death, her thinking continues to enlighten the dark corners of our human condition.”
This highly acclaimed, prize-winning biography of one of the foremost political philosophers of the twentieth century is here reissued in a trade paperback edition for a new generation of readers. In a new preface the author offers an account of writings by and about Arendt that have appeared since the books 1982 publication, providing a reassessment of her subjects life and achievement.
Praise for the earlier edition:
“Both a personal and an intellectual biography . . . It represents biography at its best.”—Peter Berger, front page, The New York Times Book Review
“A story of surprising drama . . . . At last, we can see Arendt whole.”—Jim Miller, Newsweek
“Indispensable to anyone interested in the life, the thought, or . . . the example of Hannah Arendt.”—Mark Feeney, Boston Globe
“An adventure story that moves from pre-Nazi Germany to fame in the United States, and . . . a study of the influences that shaped a sharp political awareness.”—Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
Cover drawing by David Schorr
A biography of one of the leading intellectuals in postwar America, author of the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem, which introduced the concept of banality of evil, changing in a single phrase our view of humanity.
Part of James Atlas’s Icons series, a biography of one of the leading intellectuals in postwar America, and the author of the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Hannah Arendt was an eminent philosopher, a distinguished professor, and a famous journalist. When she wrote about the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann she not only recorded history but changed it. Her major works, The Origin of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, belong among the classics of Western thought. When she died in 1975 at the age of 69, she was revered as one of the major intellectual figures of her day.
In Anne Heller’s skilled telling, she was also an outsized personality, fearless and indifferent to the opinions of others. As a student in Germany, she had a controversial affair with her professor, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a supporter of the Nazi party. Barred from teaching because she was Jewish, she fled to France and, later, to New York. She made her way in the world of émigré Jews with force; Eichmann in Jerusalem, first published in The New Yorker, invoked a phrase — “the banality of evil” — that would forever alter how we view the Holocaust. Heller, the biographer of Ayn Rand, is accustomed to dealing with strong women; her portrait of Arendt engages both her private life — the philosopher Karl Jaspers was one of her professors, Mary McCarthy was her closest friend — and her role as a public intellectual in postwar New York. One of her most important books was a collection of biographical essays called Men in Dark Times; Arendt, too, lived through dark times, but managed to bring light.
Books about Hannah Arendt abound; but there are none that deal with Arendt’s 30-year time in America, at least not until now. Richard King’s study of Arendt and America will be quick to establish itself as one of the most significant publications in intellectual history in recent years. Arendt’s major works—The Human Condition, The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution—were written in America. King tells us how Arendt came to America in 1941, at the midpoint of her life, rising to prominence among American intellectuals, and what it is she brought with her by way of intellectual and cultural equipment. We get a fully fleshed portrait of Arendt’s position among the New York intellectual of the post-War/Cold War world, and King looks closely at Arendt’s sharply framed responses to the political upheavals of the 1960s. By no means does King elide the great controversy over Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), her major claim to fame, its notoriety still very much alive today. Arendt focused on Eichmann’s use of language and how that affected the working of his conscience. (King also take up the Eichmann affair in the book’s conclusion, where he discusses the feature film, Hannah Arendt (2012), directed by Margarethe von Trotta, and the recent book by Bettina Stangneth on Eichmann arguing against the “banality of evil” notion of Arendt, and in favor of finding Eichmann to be an anti-Semite who played a key role in organizing the Holocaust.) King maintains that Arendt’s experience in America shaped what she thought and wrote. The pivot of that experience is found in Arendt’s ambivalence about America—the tension between the idea of the “republic” as formulated by the Framers, and the threat to this idea posed by mass consumer society, particularly after 1945. In the end, the book as a whole is a mediation on the question of whether Arendt ever became an American rather than German thinker. Her major contribution to American intellectual history and political thought was an American version of republicanism; her great worry was that this republic would be lost.
Hannah Arendt, one of the most gifted and provocative voices of her era, was a polarizing cultural theorist—extolled by her peers as a visionary and berated by her critics as a poseur and a fraud. Born in Prussia to assimilated Jewish parents, she escaped from Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and is now best remembered for the storm of controversy that arose after the publication of her 1963 New Yorker series on the trial of the kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Arendt was a woman of many contradictions. She was brilliant, beautiful when young, and irresistible to gifted men, even in her chain-smoking, intellectually provocative middle age. She learned to write in English only at the age of thirty-six, and yet her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, single-handedly altered the way generations of Americans and Europeans viewed fascism and genocide. Her most famous—and most divisive—work, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, created fierce controversy that continues to this day, exacerbated by the posthumous discovery that she had been the lover of the great romantic philosopher and Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger. In this fast-paced, comprehensive biography, Anne C. Heller tracks the source of Arendt’s apparent contradictions and her greatest achievements to her sense of being what she called a “conscious pariah”—one of those few people in every time and place who doesn’t “lose confidence in ourselves if society does not approve us” and will not “pay any price” to gain the acceptance of others.
About the Author
Richard H. King is professor emeritus of US intellectual history at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is the editor of Obama and Race: History, Culture, Politics, coeditor of Hannah Arendt and the Uses of History: Imperialism, Race, Nation, Genocide, and the author of Race, Culture and the Intellectuals, 1940–1970, among other books.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Hannah Arendt’s World
1 Guilt and Responsibility
2 The Origins of Totalitarianism in America
3 Rediscovering the World
4 Arendt, Tocqueville, and Cold War America
5 Arendt, Riesman, and America as Mass Society
6 Arendt and Postwar American Thought
7 Reflections/Refractions of Race, 1945–1955
8 Arendt, the Schools, and Civil Rights
9 The Eichmann Case
10 Against the Liberal Grain
11 The Revolutionary Traditions
12 The Crises of Arendt’s Republic
Conclusion—Once More: The Film, Eichmann, and Evil