An Unfinished Woman Essay - Critical Context

Lillian Hellman

Critical Context

When An Unfinished Woman appeared in 1969, it was greeted by reviewers as a triumph of memoir writing. Hellman was hailed as a survivor of the political battles of the 1930’s, a strong woman who made her fame and fortune in a man’s world, a pillar of honesty, and a role model for a whole new generation of women. While she had been a public figure for many years, her memoir made her a national celebrity and won for her an audience of readers largely unfamiliar with her plays and not especially knowledgeable about her political background.

Several reviewers commented on Hellman’s elliptical style. So much seemed to be left out of her stories. That is what made her fascinating and tantalizing. There was a craving for more of her memories, especially since she virtually ignored the writing and reception of her plays. She had yet to explain adequately her leftist politics. Hellman did not disappoint her audience, producing Pentimento in 1972, Scoundrel Time in 1976, and Maybe in 1980. As with An Unfinished Woman, these books were memoirs, not autobiographies; that is, in each book Hellman concentrated on important periods in her life—her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, more episodes from her childhood, the production of her plays, her years in Hollywood—but did not offer a detailed chronology or explanation of her personal and political development.

Pentimento, which employs the portrait format of the last three chapters of An Unfinished Woman, was considered to be an unqualified artistic success. Scoundrel Time was at first greeted with enthusiastic reviews and then became the subject of virulent attacks by critics who accused Hellman of lying about her Stalinism and fabricating parts of her past. By the time Maybe appeared, her memoirs were received much more skeptically, with reviewers commenting on the self-serving nature of her memories. Although the veracity of her memoirs has been under attack, and the style of her nonfiction writing has been criticized for imitating Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, there seems little doubt that Hellman’s powerful imaginative depiction of herself will secure for her an important niche in American literature.