SHARP: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
By Michelle Dean
New York: Grove Press. 362 pages, $26.00
Atop the Acropolis in Athens is the Erechtheion, where six caryatids — pillars in the form of female figures — support the structure sacred to Athena. Michelle Dean’s “Sharp,” the incisive and engaging stories of female intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt,Pauline Kael and Susan Sontag, is a portable Erechtheion, one supported by 10 women of 20th-century letters. (Seven of them had at least one Jewish parent, and I’ve long suspected that three of them — Kael, Sontag and Nora Ephron — approached movies as a Talmud to be studied and analyzed.)
What connects her subjects, Dean says, is that each of these piercing intellects was in her day called “sharp,” and that this keenness surely helped cut through the rampant sexism that attended their work.
Dean’s not-so-hidden agenda is to write these women into the 20th-century literary canon. While Dean wrestles with the feminism(s) of these women, many who professed ambivalence, if not antipathy, toward the label, she neither evaluates them by their adherence to suffragism or feminism. She evaluates them by their work.
Having “devoured” biographies of her subjects, Dean remained hungry. She wanted more about their connections and interconnections, the qualities of their work and personalities. She thought it important to share their history with other women “of a certain kind of ambition.”
In reading these 10 linked minibiographies together, rather than about each of the women in isolation from the others, certain rhythms and patterns emerge.
How did this primal loss mark them? Of West and her wayward parent, an unsuccessful entrepreneur and gambler, Dean says, “her father’s ruin defined his daughter in the best possible way. It taught her an unforgettable lesson in the necessity of self-sufficiency.” Decades before the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, many of these women took it as a given that they would have to make their own way financially.
Autonomy didn’t preclude passion, however. While both were still in their teens, West and Arendt, subjects of the book’s liveliest chapters, were romantically linked with Great Men of letters, H.G. Wells and Martin Heidegger, respectively, both of whom were married at the time. (Wells and West would have a son out of wedlock.) These formative experiences shaped them as women and writers. Ultimately, West — whose work Dean describes as “one long, run-on sentence punctuated only occasionally for want of money” — would marry an investment banker. And Arendt would wed Heinrich Blucher, “who could joust intellectually with [her], something she demanded in a partner.”
As one who knew Arendt only from her monumental work of political philosophy, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), I was deeply moved by Dean’s discussion of her first book, “Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess,” which wasn’t published until 1958. Varnhagen, an 18th-century Berliner and salonnière, hosted Romantic poets, including Schlegel and Tieck.
Seeing herself in Varnhagen’s diaries, Arendt mourned that Varnhagen had no outlet for “her extraordinary intelligence and passionate originality.” Arendt also noted of her subject that “‘the Woman Problem,’… the discrepancy between what men expected of women ‘in general’ and what women could give or wanted in return,” represented a gap “that virtually could not be closed.” Could it be that Arendt, the woman who held that the “Woman Problem” was not a problem for her, a closet feminist? In Arendt’s interest in Varnhagen, Dean comments that the philosopher started her career by noting that Varnhagen’s “outsider status, “ — as a woman and a Jew — “was not a difficulty to be overcome but something to be dug into, mined for strength.”
Among Dean’s subjects, Arendt emerges in highest relief. She is both the most singular figure in “Sharp,” the one who occupies three chapters of this 14-chapter book, and the one who would in a Venn diagram overlap the most with the others. She studied philosophy, as did Kael, Sontag and Renata Adler. She was a Jewish refugee to the United States in the 1930s, as were Adler and Janet Malcolm, and therefore had to learn to write and think in English.
An undercurrent of “Sharp” is the extent to which these women variously admired, disliked and mutually supported each other — occasionally using one another for target practice. West was a fan of Parker’s sardonic genius; Arendt and McCarthy were close friends; Sontag sought Arendt as an intellectual godmother, but instead Arendt effectively adopted Adler, who dated McCarthy’s son and, famously, wrote a hit job on Kael. Small demimonde, no?
In championing Ephron, who today is less well known for her essays than her movies, Dean strips the writer down to her atomic weight. She writes, “This ability to speak from inside a wide phenomenon, to know how it catered to and tricked the basest aspects of one’s personality, and then be able to criticize it from the perspective of an insider would make Ephron a better chronicler of the 1970s — and especially the women’s movement — than just about anybody else.”
Dean particularly relishes Ephron’s voice on Helen Gurley Brown, her onetime employer at Cosmopolitan: “She is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are well over a million women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man.”
Listening carefully to how writers express their intellectual personality, Dean deftly contrasts Ephron’s conversational tone with Adler’s polemical voice. Describing Adler’s approach to what politely might be called eviscerations of Norman Podhoretz and Pauline Kael, Dean notes, “She rarely tells any kind of story, but amasses evidence for a thesis and bears down on the subject with terrier determination. Adler often feels more like a prosecutor than a storyteller.”
As Arendt did with Varnhagen, Dean mines the lives of these women in order to fortify herself and her readers. It’s a book I didn’t know I wanted, one that makes me wish that McCarthy and Ephron were around to write and direct a movie version of these 10 lives that intersect and interdepend on each other — like “The Group meets Julie & Julia,” but sharper.
Carrie Rickey is the film critic emerita of The Philadelphia Inquirer.