Post, Undaunted

Hannah Arendt, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion, and Betty Friedan Share This Sweetest of Fates

March 3, 2023

 

The New Yorker lifted “Eichmann in Jerusalem” out of its archive for a newsletter last month, noting how the controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s interrogation of the “banality of evil” was still raging as her series turned sixty. Not mentioned was the work’s other significant dimension, especially considering the unestablished place of women writers in elite mainstream journalism in 1963.

It’s true that from the outset, The New Yorker was receptive to publishing women. Jane Grant, an avid Lucy Stoner, co-founded the magazine with her husband Harold Ross in 1925; the ethos was baked in. Yet it is also fair to say that in the early 1960s, for a top magazine to entrust such a coveted, competitive assignment to a woman, even someone of Arendt’s background and stature, to have her cover the trial of such a key figure in the perpetration of the Nazi extermination of Jews during World War II, was an achievement in itself.

During the decades before the women’s discrimination lawsuits of the 1970s and even long after, the barriers that kept most women from the grandest journalistic opportunities were real. Undaunted documents this 180-year journey. And yet a closer look at the 1960s awards lists for the Pulitzers, the DuPonts, the George Polks, the Peabodys, and the OPCs tell a somewhat different story. More than a few women’s names are attached to major prizes, some datelined Vietnam. Even in the 1950s, a (very) few women managed to win the profession’s most prestigious honors—a DuPont to Pauline Frederick for her U.N.reporting; Pulitzers to Marguerite Higgins for her Korean War reporting, to Virginia Schau for a snapshot taken with a Brownie camera, to Caro Brown for local political reporting in a Texas town, and to Mary Lou Werner for coverage of Virginia’s integration crisis. Earlier yet, Anne O’Hare McCormick won her Pulitzer for foreign correspondence in 1937.

This was all good to learn, since the information had to be excavated. More than half a century later, none of this prize-worthy work survives in any appreciable sense, nor, in fact, should it. In a field like journalism, “quick read, quick lost” (as Mary Clemmer pointed out in her 1881 ode), is a given, not an insult. This makes work that defies journalism’s disposable nature—work with enduring significance—all the more noteworthy. We can document this achievement for Arendt, for Rachel Carson, for Joan Didion, and also for Betty Friedan.

In 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” also published in The New Yorker, occasioned retrospective appreciations in such publications as Nature, Yale Environment 360, The Atlantic, E: The Environmental Magazine, Scientific American (which wrote about it again for the 60th anniversary last year) and from the American Chemical Society. E declared it “The Book That Changed the World.”

For Arendt’s “Eichmann,” at its fiftieth anniversary in 2013, the discussion continued in fresh essays published in The New Yorker (twice), American Scholar, The New York Times (twice), and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Yale and Wesleyan each organized academic conferences around it and the Harvard Bookstore offered a panel discussion.

That same year, the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe built an exhibit to look back on the fifty years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique unleashed second wave feminism, although the commentary in this instance was mixed, in part because of how dated the book had become and in part because of its neglect of the specific issues affecting women of color. Friedan’s cri de coeur is journalistic in style. Before writing the book, Friedan had background in labor reporting and freelanced mostly to women’s magazines.”A writer who keeps house,” one publication called her. More decades would have to pass before editors put a check on the use of descriptors for women with a deprecating edge.

No ambivalence accompanied the adoring tributes Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem received in 2018 as her first book turned fifty. The response at that point to this collection of her essays published earlier in The Saturday Evening Post, Holiday, Vogue, and American Scholar resembled the reception the book received on publication in 1968 and the reaction to her work more generally when she died in 2021. That recently, Nathan Heller would tell New Yorker readers that the book has “claims to being the most influential essay collection of the past sixty years.” In the Times, Katie Roiphe would be quoted as saying Didion created “a perfect conjunction of the writer with the moment.” Parul Sehgal would add that what Didion elicits is not mere admiration. “It is love.”