Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy Analysis

Carl Rollyson


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Rollyson wants to do justice to Hellman’s skill as a philosophical and evocative writer, especially in such works as AN UNFINISHED WOMAN and PENTIMENTO, in which she meditates on the difficulties of capturing without betraying mysterious memories or impenetrable experiences. He also wants to affirm that even an artist must be held accountable for his or her fictions and lies, especially when they are presented not as art but as historical record. Rollyson begins and ends the book with anecdotes that dramatize how insistently Hellman relied on her version of events as the only acceptable truth: In a trivial but telling incident, she refused to be corrected when she turned “raspberries” into “strawberries” in a story she retold; far more seriously, she misrepresented herself as one of the only real heroes standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950’s. Rollyson is of course not the first to point out the ways in which her memoir SCOUNDREL TIME is self-serving.

Throughout the book Rollyson attempts to be even-handed, but his praise of Hellman is never as forceful as the many stories he tells that show her as manipulative and unlikable. He always speaks of her as one of the great modern American playwrights, but does little to support that judgment. He stresses her personal magnetism and gift of intimacy, but the most compelling incidents he relates revolve around her many moments of pettiness and jealousy. Overall she comes...

(The entire section is 463 words.)