What is the Kazin Method

Issue 1, Volume 2 - September 2006

"Behind the price I hear the tone of our old friendship"

The correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin 1947-1974

The correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin. Edited and with an Introduction by Helgard Mahrdt, in: Samtiden No. 1 / February 2005, Aschehoug Publishing House, Oslo 2005, pp. 107 - 154. Can be ordered from www.samtiden.no. The edition is related to Helgard Mahrdt's book on "Hannah Arendt's political thinking as reflected in her literary portraits", which is expected to appear in 2006. Contact: [email protected]

As if it didn't need a prelude, as if they had always been in conversation: "Your excellent review of Kafka in the Herald Tribune", Hannah Arendt opened the correspondence with Alfred Kazin in April 1947, had made her happy. Because the discussion names the philosophical core of Kafka's writing: to connect the private fear of the time with public reality and to draw the path from one's own suffering to the fundamentals of human coexistence. Kazin's article also reminded Arendt of a never redeemed "lunch appointment", so she closes her letter with the request: "Please call me up soon."

Arendt and Kazin met in 1946 at a dinner party at Elliot Cohen's, the editor of the Commentary. At that time both wrote for the left-wing Jewish magazine and belonged to the extended circle of the so-called "New York Intellectuals". And this despite the fact that they both had entered metropolitan society as outsiders: Arendt is known to have escaped the Nazis in 1941, and Kazin as the son of poor Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn.

After meeting Hannah Arendt again, Kazin gave her a copy of his first book On Native Grounds, which had suddenly made the 27-year-old famous in the early 1940s. Arendt reads the collection of literary critical essays on American storytellers of the late 19th century every morning at breakfast - and is enthusiastic: "I don’t remember that I ever learned so much about this country with so great delight." A gesture of thanks and appreciation that Kazin returned years later when he put Arendt on a par with “my most beloved poets” after reading Between Past and Future.

The correspondence partners agree on their professional self-image: "writer, not an academic servant", as Kazin once put it. Literature plays an important role in her letters. In addition to Kafka and Broch, they mainly correspond with American authors, from Melville to Faulkner to E.E. Cummings. 'Writing' does not only mean something strange, but above all your own writing. Alfred Kazin, who made the decisive connection to Harcourt and Brace, where the first edition of the book on totalitarianism was published, helps Arendt, for example, in the difficult search for a suitable title for the three-part work. He also bears an important responsibility in its production: "going over the manuscript to de-Teutonize many of the ... sentences." When again the publication of Kazin's A Walker in the City, the first part of his New York trilogy, Arendt takes on the task of checking the position of the illustrations and the consistency of Yiddish transliterations. In the mid-1950s, Arendt and Blücher authorized their mutual friend in a will as “literary executor” of the English part of their estate; later this is carried over to Mary McCarthy.

The circles of friends overlap. Arendt and Kazin are friends with many authors and intellectuals at the same time. This means that in sad moments they have to say goodbye to mutual friends. The two correspondents send their reminder texts - about Randall Jarrell or Dylan Thomas - to each other's house. As a gesture of pain at the loss, but also as an emphatic assurance of closeness, the presence of the other. "So powerful, and dear", Kazin replies to Arendt's obituary on Waldemar Gurian, "so inimitable, is the passionate voice of your prose."

Arendt wrote one of the most moving letters in June 1951 after the death of their mutual friend Hermann Broch. An event that hits Arendt as a "sudden and deep shock" and makes you think about "the problem of 'surviving" ". Can you live and survive in this world without friends? Arendt answers seriously and cheerfully. On the one hand with the story of Broch's funeral, at which a bevy of widows in the Puritan Yale got into each other's hair within a very short time because no one knew that the writer was married. On the other hand, Arendt replies with a memory of Anne Weil, for whose existence she is infinitely grateful for a very specific reason: "that it is possible to say at the ripe age of 14: this is going to be my best friend throughout my life, and that it then turns out that this was not youthful romantic but the perfect truth ".

Letters are hardly exchanged in the 1960s; only eight of the forty documents date from the years until Hannah Arendt's death in 1975. This may have something to do with the fact that Arendt and Kazin were practically neighbors at the time. Both lived just a few blocks apart on Manhattan's Riverside Drive, so talking on the phone or meeting in person was more likely than correspondence by letter. The decisive turning point in the connection with Kazin was, as in other friendly relationships with Hannah Arendt, her controversial report on the Eichmann trial. During a public discussion in New York, Kazin was one of the few to take the floor and opposed the attacks on her dear friend. In his private notes, however, he noted - after Arendt had given him the manuscript of the Eichmann report to read - the tone in which she wrote about the murdered, “made me suffer”. An impairment of their relationship could no longer be averted, they were no longer “the friends we used to be”.

The friendship peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This is where what Helgard Mahrdt calls the “transatlantical spirit” of the relationship “[of] the Jewish-American writer Alfred Kazin, and the Jewish-European thinker Hannah Arendt” in the beautiful foreword to her letter edition. While he enthusiastically describes the unseen European culture from a trip through France and Italy, she reports on the depressing change in the intellectual atmosphere and the political landscape in America during the Korean crisis. When Hannah Arendt was teaching in Berkeley, she complained to her friend of the nonsensical teaching methods, showering the students with countless theories and overdimensioned reading: "they literally have no time to think or even to read properly." Germany stays and teaches American studies as a guest at the University of Cologne, is amazed at the philistine small-scale thinking of the students. There Arendt sends him in the only letter written in German - as a language exercise for Kazin - the request, the advice, the threat: "Don't come home as a German professor."

The correspondence between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin documents a friendship that is important for both parties and about which little was known until now. A private friendship that is expressed in greetings like “I miss you both so much” or “yours, as always”. But also a public friendship that is indirectly recorded in the texts of both authors; The carefully annotated edition is a reminder of the wonderful writer and literary essayist Alfred Kazin, author of the New York trilogy A Walker in The City, Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew as well as the journal A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment to thank. Unimpressed by the disciplinary boundaries of political theory, philosophy or literature, Arendt and Kazin are looking for a language for their own thinking. A way of thinking and a language in a time whose “inheritance was not preceded by any testament”, as Hannah Arendt says in the foreword to Between Past and Future with an aphorism René Char. When Kazin dedicated a hymn of praise in Harper's Magazine to those Six Exercises in Political Thought in 1961, Arendt replied, at the apex of their three decades of association, with the words: “Behind the praise I hear the old tone of our friendship, of those elementary things we always had in common and - obviously - still have. Thank you!"


Thomas Wild