Hannah Arendt’s declaration of revision of one of her most controversial essays is less than 25 lines long: It ends with the words: “But your comments seem so accurate to me that I now realize that I simply did not understand the complexity.” Arendt’s apology ended 1965 is not public. It is a letter addressed to the American writer Ralph Waldo Ellison, of which only a carbon copy survives in Arendt’s estate.
The author and translator Marie Luise Knott has now dedicated an essay on the history of ideas to this letter and its history: “370 Riverside Drive, 730 Riverside Drive”, published by Matthes
Why is? With the judgment of the Supreme Court in Washington in 1954, the school authorities were asked to abolish the racial segregation in public schools that had been in force until then. The verdict met with fierce resistance in many places in the southern states: in Little Rock, Arkansas, the National Guard sided with the protesters who wanted to prevent black youth from going to school with shouts of “lynch them” – until US President Eisenhower handed them over to the federal command subordinate and sent other units.
The pictures went around the world. Hannah Arendt was asked by the New York monthly magazine “Commentary” for an article on the events. It shouldn’t appear, at least not in “Commentary”. Arendt’s approach didn’t fit the attitude and expectations of the editors at all. It was hardly any different with “Dissent”: The magazine published the essay a good year later. However, as an editorial addition made clear, only because one felt committed to “dissident” positions.
The reluctance was well-founded: Arendt, who had fled Nazi Germany, seemed to be on the wrong side of history this time. Of course, she showed no sympathy for the protesting mob. But she also seemed to have little sensitivity to the conflicts of black families who wanted to send their children to non-segregated schools in the face of street pressure. Upbringing is a private matter, Arendt reported almost bluntly: it would be better to seek debate in the public arena, the place for politics.
Arendt’s coldness is doubly irritating: even against the background of her own experiences as a Jewess, her brusquely negative position is difficult to understand. Her explanation is even more disturbing when contrasted with Arendt’s own theory and philosophy: How was it possible that the author of The Elements and Origins of Total Domination, who vehemently criticized anti-Semitism and nationalism, remained so blind to American racism? How could it be that the philosopher of pluralism and judgment took such a stubborn and one-sided position?
Knott is not the first to investigate this: Maike Weißpflug, in her book “The Art of Thinking Politically” (also Matthes
In doing so, she first examines the letter itself: Since Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, researchers have assumed that the letter was sent. Knott puts a question mark behind this assumption: At least he is not found in Ellison’s estate. Ellison’s answer has also not survived, nor is there a draft answer. And don’t the tone and style also draw attention? The telegram-like brevity, the impersonal tone. The two had probably met at least once: at a dinner the year before, when they were accepted together into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Did Arendt want to start a conversation about racism and oppression, about self-assertion and dignity with her message, once she sent it? She bluntly admits that she misjudged the events in Little Rock.
An interview with Ellison convinced her. She didn’t understand the “naked violence, the elementary physical fear”. It almost sounds, however, as if she were just putting her error on record to close the matter. Marie Luise Knott’s book reveals that things are far from over.