(Masterpieces of American Literature)

An Unfinished Woman had a ravishing impact on its first readers. Hellman wrote engagingly about her childhood in New Orleans and New York, of her handsome, philandering father, of her dizzy but warmhearted mother, and of her shrewd and compassionate aunts. It was all very dramatic—Hellman’s jump from her favorite tree (breaking her nose) when she discovered that her father was seeing another woman, her running away from home and being surprised by her first period, her confused first years in Hollywood as a reader of scripts (and her later ambivalent relationship with film mogul Samuel Goldwyn), the stormy affair with Dashiell Hammett. These incidents and many others revealed a fiery, independent, comic, and defiant personality.

As Hellman notes in An Unfinished Woman, she did not intend to be the bookkeeper of her life—that is, relating in strict chronological fashion every period and incident in her career. She would, rather, trust to her memory to evoke the crucial events and characters. She devotes, for example, whole chapters to Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, because her friendships with them spanned much of her adult life. The structures of these chapters are built around the personalities she describes and not on any consistent time sequence.

Indeed, Hellman is not willing to vouch for her dates; she stresses that she is remembering and reshaping the events that have remained important to her. In her...

(The entire section is 521 words.)