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Lillian Hellman was sixty-four years old when An Unfinished Woman was published. She had had twelve plays produced and published, most of which had been highly successful. The plays had long runs on Broadway, and Hellman was viewed as one of the most important American dramatists. Her last play, however, had been a failure, and she was inclined to think that her playwriting career was over. She had also been a very successful screenwriter in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but that career had been suspended when she was blacklisted in the 1950’s. In addition, her last screenplay, written in the early 1960’s, had not been well received.

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As she turned to teaching college classes, Hellman began to think of writing nonfiction. She was not attracted to the form of autobiography, having no wish—as she says in An Unfinished Woman—to be the “bookkeeper” of her life. She did not have the memory or the interest to chronicle her existence from its beginning—but the memoir form was appealing. She could concentrate on the dramatic incidents of her life and narrate her experiences in story form. Early in her career she had tried writing novels and short stories, without success. Memoir writing provided a fresh approach to the narrative prose she had always wanted to write.

Because of her public prominence as a playwright and her participation in politics, Hellman had written a significant amount of journalism. Her first thought was to collect and revise her articles. When she examined them, however, she realized that they were quite ephemeral pieces—perhaps good enough for their time but not important enough to justify reprinting. Instead, Hellman turned to memories of her personal life, to her childhood in New Orleans and New York, to diaries of her trips to Spain and the Soviet Union, and to people—such as Dorothy Parker (one of her closest friends), Helen Jackson (her maid), and Dashiell Hammett (her lover)— who had meant so much to her.

The title of Hellman’s first memoir evokes the myth of herself as a person who never quite matured. She brilliantly conveys the image of an older woman reflecting on the gaps in her life, admitting her faults, and finding the origins of her formidable character. Her memories are often fragmentary—they literally break off because she has forgotten something or has failed to formulate her opinions about someone or something. She quotes liberally from her diaries—which are themselves unfinished bits of writing—to suggest the disjointed quality of her life. At the same time, her power as an artist comes through in the portraits that conclude the memoir.

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An Unfinished Woman is a memoir, not an autobiography. In Hellman’s case, the distinction is important because she is not claiming to present an orderly, elaborated, and chronological account of her life. Instead, she is remembering those events that shaped her character; sometimes they are presented in chronological fashion, but just as often she is apt to skip ahead in time or shift backward to a number of different incidents in her past. She does include a number of the elements of a traditional autobiography—including a description of her family background and history—but she refuses to be consistent. Parts of An Unfinished Woman are interrupted by extracts from diaries she kept many years before she began to compose her memoir, so that the book is not even a consistent narrative; on the contrary, it insists on the disjointed aspects of Hellman’s life.

Although the title of Hellman’s work mentions her sex, her memoir is not an overtly feminist work. She does not dwell on her character as a woman per se, although she certainly gives evidence of what it is like to be a woman in professions (playwriting and screenwriting) dominated by male producers and corporation executives. In her relationship with Dashiell Hammett, she dramatizes (without much comment) the problematic nature of loving a man who encourages her work but who also is unfaithful to her and is unwilling, at times, to treat her as an equal.

The title emphasizes incompleteness and fragmentation and makes a virtue of it. To Hellman, it seems more honest to have gaps—to leap, for example, from Russia in 1944 to Russia in 1966. That is how memory works. The grain, the feel of experience recalled is her aim. As she remarks, she does not intend to be the bookkeeper of her life, minutely recording in mechanical sequence each event as it occurred. Certain experiences are more important than others, and thus her memoir is highly selective in what she chooses to tell about her life.

She begins, conventionally enough, with the story of her parents and her childhood in New Orleans and New York City. She is a precocious only child with a vivid imagination and a lively tongue. It seems natural to her that at a very early age she should have decided to become a writer. She is not good in school, and she is a restless adolescent. She skims over these parts of her life rapidly, showing how she got to know Arthur Kober when she worked at the publishing firm of Horace Liveright. A writer of short stories and plays, Kober married Hellman and took her with him to Hollywood, where she got a job reading books that might be transformed into scripts for movies. There she met Dashiell Hammett, then at the peak of his fame as a detective story writer. He serves as a constant touchstone in the memoir; even when she is not directly writing about him, she will refer to comments he made or use his values as a way of defining her own or of assessing her own experience.

Hellman devotes separate chapters to her visits to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and to Russia during World War II and then again in the 1960’s. Her writing in these chapters tends to be elliptical, partly because she relies on passages from her diaries that give the immediate feel of her journeys but do not allow room for a retrospective, analytical account of what Hellman later thought of her radical politics and sympathy for the Soviet Union. She does befriend Soviet dissidents in the 1960’s, but it is not clear how she came to adopt this position in the light of her earlier support of Stalin. She seems to have changed her position, but she is not forthcoming on how her political views developed.

Hellman’s last two chapters are devoted to portraits of Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker, close friends who had an enormous influence on her personality and politics. Her ability to evoke their distinctive characteristics makes these chapters the highlight of An Unfinished Woman, and they presage her brilliant gallery of portraits in her next memoir, Pentimento (1972).

Context

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Hellman’s first two volumes of memoirs, An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento, were an enormous success, garnering for her the best reviews of her life. She became a cult figure lionized by young people, especially women, who saw in her a role model who had held her own in a man’s world while remaining feminine. There was criticism of her long-term relationship with Hammett—some women viewed Hellman as the subordinate partner—but on the whole she was praised for confronting the temper of her times with magnificent courage and candor.

Hellman’s life and work represent a challenge and an inspiration to women’s studies. On the one hand, she was a product of her time—especially of the 1930’s—when her works reflected the need of many writers to take part in some form of political engagement. She chose to pursue the hard-boiled creed of her mentor, Dashiell Hammett, never excusing or rationalizing her actions. On the other hand, her memoirs and plays provide ample criticism not merely of male chauvinism but also of her characters and of herself. She knew that she was “unfinished” and that many of her actions were contradictory. The very terms she used—such as “pentimento”—suggest that she recognized that human identity entailed constant revision and remaking—like the artist’s repenting, or changing and painting over, of his or her work. This dynamic process of self-creation is what accounted for the tremendous success of Hellman’s memoirs, and it is what is likely to repay study in considering Hellman’s place as a woman writer.

Regardless of the criticism that Hellman’s politics may receive, the style of her memoirs ensures continued interest in her work. She has made a distinctive contribution to autobiography because she has questioned the form itself, noting the fallibility of memory and the way in which the personality of the autobiographer or memorist inevitably shapes what he or she remembers. Several scholars have suggested that women are particularly sensitive to these issues, of the way in which the personality shapes the content of biography and autobiography. Because women were largely excluded from the genre of biography and autobiography until the twentieth century, many women writers have sought new, innovative ways of telling their life stories. Hellman has been recognized as a precursor of these experimental efforts because she is not content to retell her life in traditional narrative form. Instead, she uses the technique of the diary form, for example, to interrupt the narrative, and the conventions of the short story to suggest the art that must be employed in shaping any life story. This consciousness of the mode of storytelling puts her in the forefront of studies of women’s literature and especially of women’s autobiographies and memoirs.

Bibliography

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Gellhorn, Martha. “On Apocryphism.” Paris Review 23 (Spring, 1981): 280-301. An influential, highly critical view of An Unfinished Woman that contests the book’s veracity.

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979. A sound introductory study that includes a chapter on Hellman’s biography, discussions of her major plays and memoirs, notes, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. Contains a searching and highly critical discussion of Hellman’s memoirs.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A full-length biography concentrating on Hellman’s life. Wright is less concerned with her plays and memoirs than with her politics, which he treats in a fairly objective manner. Includes notes, and an index.

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