Magazine article World Literature Today

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Magazine article World Literature Today

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Article excerpt

Alice Kessler-Harris. A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. New York. Bloomsbury. 2012. isbn 9781596913639

"Unless you are a pathological escapist, there must be some sort of propaganda in everything you write," Lillian Hellman told an interviewer. Propaganda, she suggested, meant explicit advocacy of some moral position, some cause. She attributed her position not to any particular event, Alice Kessler-Harris writes, but to her moment in time. In 1961 Hellman told a Harvard audience that she belonged to a generation "too old to be Depression children, too young to have known the fun and brilliance of the 1920s."

Kessler-Harris, a history professor at Columbia, writes not a conventional chronological biography, but a series of intertwined essays. Her chapter headings cogently define the myriad aspects of a tumultuous life: "A Serious Playwright," "An American Jew," "A Self-Made Woman," "A Known Communist," "Liar, Liar." As a historian, Kessler-Harris interjects a perspective different from the four or five previous biographies of Hellman. She adroitly explores the economic, financial, and political strands of Hellman's life, in addition to her artistic talents. As a political scientist, I especially found the author's detailed and perceptive analysis of Hellman's moral crusades and infatuation with communism during the 1930s and '40s revealing.

Hellman, of course, perhaps the most successful playwright of her time, is remembered primarily for her plays: The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes, Toys in the Attic. …

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