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A Difficult Woman

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris attempts an artistic, political, and moral portrait of a challenging subject: Lillian Hellman.

By Jenny Hendrix / May 2, 2012

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman By Alice Kessler-Harris Bloomsbury USA 448 pp.

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At Hardscrabble, the farm in Pleasantville, N.Y. she’d bought after the success of "Little Foxes," Lillian Hellman slaughtered animals, made sausage and headcheese, hunted, trapped turtles, and fished.  She surrounded herself with famous guests of all sorts, and worked diligently on her plays. The place, aptly named, witnessed the flowering of her many-sided persona: as a best-selling playwright and memoirist, and as a celebrity with an outsized social and political life. 

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It is a life that’s been both celebrated and reviled, and one that proves a doughty challenge for the biographer. In A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, historian Alice Kessler-Harris tries a new approach, attempting a kind of portrait, through Hellman, of 20th-century artistic, political, and moral life.  Hellman – Southern Jew, independent woman, and erstwhile communist – intersected with many flashpoints of her time. Kessler-Harris takes her as a historical lightning rod, her “identity woven into the fabric of political debate.”

History allows Kessler-Harris to forgive. She writes that the labels Helman received – unrepentant Stalinist, self-hating Jew, liar – as well as her reputation for being rude and vindictive, emerged less from her beliefs and practices than from the public mind-set at the time they were applied. Hence, while “in the sharp glare of history, neither the act of signing [a letter defending Stalin’s purge trials] nor her failure to repudiate the document thereafter is defensible. But by the dim light of the 1930s, both acts are understandable.”

This charitable understanding, though tempered by rigorous detail, can, in the case of personality smack of historical determinism, and fail to give Hellman herself her due. So, if Hellman appeared needy and emotionally dependent, “surely this is linked to the devastating betrayals of the McCarthy period and the dissolution of many friendships under the stress of government investigation.” This is generous, yet maybe overly so – the line between explanation and explaining away is a thin one.

The book is organized by theme, in chapters detailing, for instance, Hellman’s unconventional love life, her plays, and her HUAC hearing.  Placing her each time in a different context, the division is part of Kessler-Harris’s project, to “explore not only how the world in which Hellman lived shaped the choices she made, but to ask how the life she lived illuminates the world she confronted.” Hellman’s negotiation of gender roles, for instance, shows the difficulty for a woman of the time to both work in traditionally male fields and yet remain feminine.

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