Fame comes in many sorts and sizes, from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name." When Hannah Arendt wrote this sentence 46 years ago in the pages of The New Yorker, she was reflecting on the newfound halo of attention atop one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known, Walter Benjamin.
In Benjamin’s case, fame had proved an odd and unpredictable phenomenon—the writer had, by Arendt’s reckoning, been all but forgotten in the years leading up to his death, spent largely in France in flight from the Nazi war machine. And following his suicide in 1940 at age 48, in Portbou, Spain, his name had been kept alive by a small number of friends and colleagues, the kind of trickle of a readership that hardly suggested he would one day be counted among the most significant and far-ranging critics, essayists, and thinkers of the past 100 years—and one whose reach may still not be completely fathomed. As impressive as the Walter Benjamin comeback tale looked to Arendt in 1968, it pales in comparison to the renown attached to his name today.
We get several glimpses of Arendt in the new Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, just published by Harvard University Press, an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity, written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Most poignantly, Eiland and Jennings—two veterans of Benjamin studies—recount Benjamin’s beginning to take English lessons with Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (and working their way through Bacon’s "Antitheta" as an English-language primer) in preparation for what seemed their likeliest safe haven, the United States. Of course, Arendt and Blücher would establish themselves in a new land; Benjamin would never probe the experience of being what he called the "last European" in a new world. (The day after he committed suicide, after being threatened with deportation back to France by Spanish customs officials, Benjamin’s traveling companions were permitted to continue their journey.)
Yet the story of his afterlife runs through the United States—and more specifically through Cambridge, Mass., and the offices of Harvard University Press. While it was the Institute for Social Research—relocated to New York from Germany (via Geneva) before its eventual repatriation to Frankfurt after World War II—that was responsible for the stipend that kept Benjamin alive in exile in Paris after Hitler’s ascent to power, his posthumous story can’t be recounted without consideration of Harvard’s positively European approach to bringing to print the critic’s writing, and sustaining it over time. Any writer should be so lucky to have such a long commitment—and it’s one that younger readers, who may find it impossible to recall how obscure Benjamin’s reputation was not so long ago, may not appreciate in its scope.