Lillian Hellman

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Irving Howe (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2589

SOURCE: Howe, Irving. “Lillian Hellman and the McCarthy Years.” In Irving Howe: Selected Writings, 1950-1990, pp. 340-46. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

[In the following essay, originally published in Dissent in 1976, Howe argues that Hellman's depiction of 1950s America in her memoirs is more mythology than fact.]

There are writers with so enticing a style that, in their own behalf, they must stop themselves and ask: “Is what I am saying true? Charming yes, persuasive also; but true?” This has, or should, become a problem for Lillian Hellman. Her three recent memoirs recalling her life with Dashiell Hammett and, in Scoundrel Time, her 1952 clash with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), all make attractive reading. By the same token, however, Miss Hellman has reached a point where she risks mythologizing her own life, transfiguring the story of a taciturn Dash and the peppery Lillian into a popular literary romance.

But let that pass, and let us turn to the claim of Miss Hellman and her admirers that in her latest book she provides an accurate and balanced record of the McCarthy years. My contention is that she does not. What she provides is half the story, a vivid and useful half, but no more.

Nothing, to be sure, in her book is as false and certainly nothing as vulgar as the Introduction Garry Wills has written for it. Yet, nuance and sensibility apart, Miss Hellman and Wills hold pretty much the same view of the early 1950s. Quickly summarized, it is this: The U.S. was seized in those years by an ideological fever, whipped up by Cold War reactionaries. America, says Wills, had fallen “in love with total war”; American intellectuals, says Miss Hellman, grew fearful that the spread of Communism might bring to an end “their pleasant way of life.” Now that the Nazis were smashed, a new scapegoat was needed and for this the Communists were ready at hand. The dirty work was done by congressional inquisitors, the intellectual support given by anti-Communist liberals and radicals. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), sneers Wills, did “the Committee's [HUAC's] kind of work in a more sophisticated way.”

This view of the McCarthy years is simple, self-serving, and untrue. It starts from a premise always dear to those who would deny the reality of Communism as problem or threat: the premise that there is a single, undifferentiated, and necessarily reactionary “anti-Communism.” Thus, writes Miss Hellman, the anti-Stalinist intellectuals have not yet found it “a part of conscience to admit that their Cold War anti-Communism was perverted, possibly against their wishes, into the Vietnam War and then into the reign of Nixon, their unwanted but inevitable leader.” It is an astonishing sentence, with gaps in the argument through which battalions of historical complications could march.

  • • It assumes the existence of a unified body of intellectuals, all holding the same views about Communism, McCarthyism, and so on. But even within the ranks of the New York intellectuals, whom Miss Hellman seems mostly to have in mind, this was untrue.
  • • It is preposterous as history. Complicated chains of events, as well as unforeseeable accidents, intervened between the McCarthy years and the Vietnam War; events and accidents that could more plausibly be assigned as causes of that war than could the McCarthyite inquisition. Equally preposterous is the claim that Nixon as leader was “inevitable.” What about the many intellectuals who did not follow Nixon, either evitably or inevitably? What about the possibility that the events of the late 1960s created a backlash from which Nixon profited? Suppose that in a few crucial states, like California, voters inclined toward the New Left had voted for Humphrey—might not Nixon have been defeated and not become our “inevitable” leader? Miss Hellman has wandered into a swamp of determinism/freedom that more experienced historians know it is wise to avoid.
  • • The shoddiness, in any case, of Miss Hellman's argument can be revealed by proposing an equivalent: “The uncritical support given Stalinist Russia by people like Dashiell Hammett and other literary people led, possibly against their wishes, to a whitewash of Gulag Archipelago and the murder of millions, and for this the fellow-traveling intellectuals must inevitably be held responsible.” I imagine Miss Hellman would be outraged by such an argument, insisting we must make discriminations as to kinds of support, degrees of involvement, and the nature of motives. Well, let her try to imagine as much for others.

Except as a rhetorical device for dull-witted reactionaries, on the one hand, and bashful fellow-travelers on the other, there was no such thing as a monolithic “anti-Communism.” Opposition to Communism by demagogues like McCarthy rested on reactionary opinions and a fear that privileges might be lost; opposition to Communism by liberals and radicals rested on libertarian opinions and a fear that freedoms might be lost. In political methods and outlook, Joe McCarthy was a lot closer to the Communist Khrushchev than to the anti-Communist Norman Thomas.

That “anti-Communism” was exploited by the McCarthy hooligans does not mean there was no reason for serious people to worry about Communism as a threat to freedom. The Soviet Union had just gobbled up Eastern Europe—but Garry Wills sees only the “aggressive” foreign policy of Harry Truman. If Miss Hellman and Wills want to provide a balanced picture of this historical period, they must point not only to the failures of American policy, real and grave as these were, but also to the reasons that led many of us to fear that the Communist movement in Europe had gathered a dynamic of expansion threatening political freedom.

At the least, a few simple facts! Though Wills carries on at length about foolishness spewed by Ayn Rand before HUAC in order to ridicule the very idea that there was any ground for concern about Communism, he says nothing, nor does Miss Hellman, about the discussions then being carried on throughout the world on this matter by such people as Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Nicola Chiaromonte, Willy Brandt, Norman Thomas, and many others. Really, to think you can dispose of any point of view by invoking Ayn Rand!

Still more—and here we come to a feat—both Wills and Miss Hellman talk about the early fifties without so much as mentioning the event that sent shivers through the hearts of intellectuals, and not theirs alone. Imagine writing about this period, imagine discussing the response of intellectuals to Communism, McCarthyism, and all the rest, without even mentioning the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. It would be like writing a study of the upheavals in the late 1960s without mentioning the Vietnam War! For it was the coup in Czechoslovakia that persuaded many people that there could be no lasting truce with the Communist world. I don't know whether Garry Wills is old enough to remember that event, or has troubled to read anything about it, but Lillian Hellman must remember it.

There were, to be sure, intellectuals who buckled under the McCarthyite assault (it was not, by the way, a “terror”: people could speak, write, agitate against it without fearing a knock on their doors at 4:00 in the morning). Other intellectuals allowed their hatred of Communism to deflect them from an adequate resistance to McCarthy. As instances of the latter, Miss Hellman cites Partisan Review and Commentary. She is largely unfair about the first, largely right about the second. Partisan Review, as she notes, printed in 1954 a violently anti-McCarthy and free-swinging attack by me on conformist intellectuals; the piece was written at the suggestion of Philip Rahv, then its leading editor; and it could hardly have gotten into the pages of PR behind the backs of the editors. What seems to me true is that the magazine didn't take a sufficiently bold lead in rallying intellectuals against McCarthyism; but that is something very different from what Miss Hellman says. As for Commentary, it was then controlled by intellectuals hurrying rightward (a fate that seems to befall that journal periodically) and its record on McCarthyism was, let us say, shabby. Two of its leading editors, Elliot Cohen and Irving Kristol, while not giving their approval to McCarthy, went to some lengths to dismiss the idea that the Wisconsin demagogue constituted a serious threat to American liberties.

Surely Miss Hellman must remember, as Wills might have troubled to find out, that there were old-fashioned liberals like Henry Steele Commager and Roger Baldwin and old-fashioned Socialists like Norman Thomas who combined a principle opposition to Communism with an utter rejection of McCarthyism. Thomas fought for the liberties of the very Stalinists who had supported the prosecution of Trotskyists in Minneapolis under the notorious Smith Act. In the early issues of Dissent there were attacks on McCarthy and all he stood for, as well as criticism of the Commentary people for their waffling.

The same holds for the liberal Americans for Democratic Action. Perhaps some people in that group had bad records in the early 1950s. There were cowards everywhere in scoundrel time. But as it happens, a hero of Miss Hellman's book is Joe Rauh, the lawyer who represented her before HUAC. Everyone who knows ADA also knows that Rauh has been one of its two or three central figures from the moment of its birth. If Garry Wills is so intent upon pillorying ADA, shouldn't he at least ask how he can reconcile the charge that ADA did “the work” of HUAC with the fact that this leading ADA figure emerges in the Hellman book as a staunch defender of liberties? Didn't Wills read Hellman or Hellman Wills?

Wills is equally feckless in writing about the once-famous Waldorf Conference in 1949, of which Miss Hellman was a prominent sponsor. In the name of peace, this gathering was organized by “the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace,” a group Wills neglects, somehow, to characterize politically. In fact, it was dominated by Communists and their friends, and represented the last hurrah of the fellow-traveling intellectuals in the United States. Its overwhelming stress was to blame the developing Cold War on the United States.

Wills tells us that U.S. footpads and intellectual auxiliaries joined at this conference to harass lovers of peace. “Guardians of liberalism” like Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald went to the sessions “in order to disrupt them.” The composer Shostakovich, who was one of the Russian delegates, “was, in the name of freedom, publicly insulted for not being free.”

False, every word. In 1949 Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald were anti-Stalinist, independent radicals—to speak of them as “guardians of liberalism” is gratuitously patronizing. Nor did they disrupt the conference. McCarthy, Macdonald, and Robert Lowell asked questions of Shostakovich (who looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was) and of the Russian culture commissar, Alexander Fedayev (who looked as if he'd like to get these American wiseguys back home; he'd teach them to ask questions!). The questions concerned the fate of Russian writers persecuted by the regime and, in the case of Lowell, the sufferings of conscientious objectors in the Soviet Union.

Now to someone trained in a GPU school all this might have seemed “disruptive.” But to Garry Wills, so severe in his judgments about standing up for freedom?

In her own essay Miss Hellman is more charming and certainly writes better than Wills. She has earned the right to be proud of her record in defying the HUAC bums, though her explanation of why some of her friends, like Clifford Odets, lost their nerve and gave names to the committee is very disturbing. “The children of timid immigrants [Jewish immigrants?] are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hard-working; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost.” Are we to infer that the children of bourgeois German Jews or starchy Protestant Americans have proven themselves to be rocks of fortitude in resisting tyrannical authority? And as for that remark about “timid immigrants,” Miss Hellman ought to look at a recent book called World of Our Fathers, where she can learn just how “timid” many of those immigrants were.

Miss Hellman's main target is finally the intellectuals, those—mostly unnamed—who failed to stand up or stand up strongly enough to McCarthy. “Up to the late 1940s,” she had believed that “the educated, the intellectual lived by what they claimed to believe: freedom of thought and speech, the right of each man to his own convictions.” Well, as I've indicated, a number of American intellectuals did just that. Yet before Miss Hellman grows so furious with the others, those who caved in and those who wobbled, oughtn't she to be asking the same kind of questions about the people with whom she collaborated politically over the years, signing statements, organizing the Waldorf Conference, sponsoring the Progressive party? How can it be that someone who believed in such splendid things didn't trouble to ask friends and collaborators whether they lived by “freedom of thought and speech, the right of each man to his own convictions”?

Miss Hellman doesn't ask such questions; she isn't inclined to make things hard for herself. She is riding high these days—and no one, really, should begrudge Lillian Hellman her success, for she is a gifted writer. Still, I find myself disturbed by the way she clings to fragments of old dogmas that, at other and more lucid moments, she knows she should have given up long ago. “Most of the Communists I had met,” she writes, “seemed to me people who wanted to make a better world; many of them were silly people and a few of them were genuine nuts, but that doesn't make for denunciations. …”

No individual should be harassed or persecuted, or denounced to the cops, for holding even the most obnoxious opinions. But what about judgments of the opinions themselves and of the public consequences of holding them?

Most of the Communists Miss Hellman met may have wanted a better world, but the better world they wanted came down to a soul-destroying and body-tormenting prison: the Moscow trials, the Stalin dictatorship, the destruction of millions during the forced collectivization, and a systematic denial of the slave camps in Siberia. (Do you really think we didn't know about Gulag Archipelago until Solzhenitsyn published his remarkable book? He offered new material, but the essential facts were known as far back as the late 1930s—and were violently denied by many of the people with whom Miss Hellman worked at the Waldorf Conference and in the Progressive party.)

A final point and we are done. On her next-to-last page Miss Hellman writes that the intellectuals whom she has attacked have a right to criticize her for “taking too long to see what was going on in the Soviet Union. But whatever our mistakes, I do not believe we did our country any harm.”

Lillian Hellman could not be more mistaken! Those who supported Stalinism and its political enterprises, either here or abroad, helped befoul the cultural atmosphere, helped bring totalitarian methods into trade unions, helped perpetuate one of the great lies of our century, helped destroy whatever possibilities there might have been for a resurgence of serious radicalism in America. Isn't that harm enough?

Scoundrels there were in the 1950s, as in all other times, and Lillian Hellman has pointed to some of them accurately. But she would have done both her readers and herself a greater service if she had been more precise—and more comprehensive—in her pointing.


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Lillian Hellman 1906–-1984

(Full name Lillian Florence Hellman) American playwright and autobiographer.

Hellman is considered one of the most acclaimed American dramatists of the first half of the twentieth century. In an era that largely favored lighthearted romantic plays and drawing-room comedies, her works explored the human capacity for malice, the allure of power and money, and the dichotomy between individual interests and social conscience. Hellman's preference for confronting more complex issues of the human condition has earned her a reputation as a leading American female playwright. Hellman also wrote several acclaimed and controversial memoirs that illuminate such historical events as the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Purge Trials, and the McCarthy hearings.

Biographical Information

Born in New Orleans, Hellman was the only child of a southern Jewish shoe manufacturer and a Manhattan socialite. She attended New York University and Columbia University, leaving Columbia after her junior year in 1925 to work as a manuscript reader at the publishing firm of Boni and Liveright. After Hellman resigned her position the following year, she married publicist Arthur Kober and began contributing book reviews to the New York Herald Tribune. In late 1925, Hellman and Kober left New York for Paris, where Kober assumed editorship of a new literary journal, the Paris Comet. During this period, Hellman published short stories and traveled extensively throughout Europe. The couple returned to New York in 1929, and Hellman worked as a reader for several Broadway producers before moving with her husband to Hollywood in 1930. While working in a similar position at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, Hellman met detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, and their friendship developed into a thirty-one-year personal and professional partnership during which Hammett guided Hellman in her initial attempts as a playwright and supplied her with material that she incorporated into several of her best-known dramas. Hellman subsequently divorced her husband and returned to New York City with Hammett.

In the 1930s two of Hellman's most acclaimed dramas, The Children's Hour (1934) and The Little Foxes (1939), were produced. Both were critically and commercially successful—The Children's Hour was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—and Hellman continued to pursue a career in the theater for over two more decades. Throughout her writing life, Hellman was also politically active, raising money for the Spanish loyalists fighting the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and lending her name to various leftist causes. In addition, she visited Russia and other communist countries and continued to support Soviet premier Joseph Stalin after most American intellectuals and political writers had repudiated his violent regime. In 1947 Hellman wrote a scathing editorial published in the Screen Writers' Guild magazine in response to the Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings held in Hollywood, in the course of which several writers and film directors were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to identify their peers as members of the Communist Party. Although Hellman was never formally accused of being a communist, she discovered in 1948 that she had been included on the Committee's blacklist. In 1952 she was served with a subpoena to appear before HUAC and responded by writing a letter to the Committee indicating that she would only answer questions related to her political activities. During this time, Hellman wrote and directed Montserrat (1949), the first of several adaptations on which she worked. Taken from a play by Emmanuel Roblès, Montserrat was followed by The Lark (1955), a reworking of Jean Anouilh's drama L'alouette, and Candide (1956), adapted from Voltaire's classic novel. Hellman's last two original dramas were The Autumn Garden (1951) and Toys in the Attic (1960), the latter of which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. Following the 1963 production of My Mother, My Father, and Me, adapted from a novel by Burt Blechman, Hellman retired from the theater and renewed her political activities by becoming a staunch opponent of the Vietnam War.

In 1969 Hellman published An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir, the first of several autobiographical works that introduced her to a larger, mainstream audience. This book contains sketches of such literary figures as Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker, as well as a poignant tribute to Hammett, who died in 1961. In Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (1974), Hellman similarly provided anecdotes of people and events from various periods of her life. Perhaps Hellman's best-known sketch is “Julia,” which recounts her enduring relationship with a childhood friend whose involvement with the European Resistance during World War II led to her murder by Nazi collaborators. Hellman's next memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), chronicled her political activities and provided a detailed account of the events that led to her appearance before HUAC. This volume provoked much controversy for Hellman's unflattering portraits of such liberal writers and intellectuals as Lionel and Diana Trilling, Clifford Odets, and Elia Kazan, all of whom, she believed, had compromised their political convictions for fear of retribution from Congress. Scoundrel Time also initiated reassessment of her previous autobiographical works, and many critics subsequently accused Hellman of deliberately distorting facts for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. The most serious threat to Hellman's integrity occurred in 1980, when novelist and critic Mary McCarthy called her “a bad writer and a dishonest writer” on national television. This incident fueled further debate concerning the accuracy of Hellman's nonfiction works, particularly “Julia,” and several writers published detailed essays discrediting the portrait of her friend and her brief participation in the Resistance movement. Hellman responded to these charges by filing a defamation suit against McCarthy that was dismissed following Hellman's death in 1984.

Major Works

Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour, is based on an actual British court case cited in William Roughead's Bad Companions, in which two headmistresses of a Scottish girls' academy were falsely accused by a student of homosexual behavior. While nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the play was not awarded the honor, and it was later revealed that one of the Pulitzer judges had not seen the play because he found its subject matter morally offensive. To counteract what they considered artistic censorship, the leading New York City reviewers formed the New York Drama Critics Circle Award committee for the purpose of establishing its own annual prize for theatrical works. The Children's Hour also gained notoriety in other cities in which it was produced. The play was banned in Boston and Chicago and was clandestinely staged at a private theater club in London to avoid government censorship during an international tour. Hellman's next notable play, The Little Foxes, is the first of four dramas in which the author explored the conflict between self-interest and moral responsibility. Set in a small southern town in 1900, The Little Foxes depicts greed and sibling rivalry among members of the affluent Hubbard family, who are offered the opportunity to become even wealthier by investing in a local cotton mill, a venture that ultimately destroys the family. The play received widespread acclaim for its strong characterization, tightly woven plot, and spirited dialogue. Hellman's next play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), for which she won her first New York Drama Critics Circle Award, centers on a family involved in the anti-Nazi movement during World War II. Among Hellman's other major dramatic works is Toys in the Attic, which many critics regard as her best play. The plot of Toys in the Attic was conceived by Dashiell Hammett, who suggested that Hellman write a play about a man who deliberately squanders his fortune when he discovers his family's resentment of his new found wealth. Hellman incorporated Hammett's ideas into a Southern Gothic piece revolving around the destructive relationship between spinster sisters Carrie and Anna Berniers and their younger brother Julian, whose sudden wealth and marriage threaten their domination of him.

Critical Reception

Hellman's plays have been analyzed from various critical perspectives, most prominently from the viewpoint of her politics, her concern with the corrosive effect of power and money on the lives of individuals, and her disaffection with the American capitalist system. While early evaluations of Hellman's plays placed her in the tradition of nineteenth-century dramatists Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, later assessments more often group her among such modern playwrights as Bertold Brecht, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. Commentators have also examined Hellman's dramatic works as forerunners of feminist theater. Regardless of the critical slant imposed on her works, Hellman retains her importance as a significant contributor to twentieth-century American theater.

Sidney Hook (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: Hook, Sidney. “The Scoundrel in the Looking Glass.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 148-65. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1989.

[In the following essay, originally published in Philosophy and Public Policy in 1980, Hook excoriates what he considers Hellman's total misrepresentation of history in her memoir Scoundrel Time, in particular her paradoxical vindication of Stalinism and vocal stand against McCarthyism.]

Lillian Hellman enjoys a wide reputation: students pay her homage, reviewers praise her books. A recent play on the McCarthy era presents her as a martyred heroine, radiant in the glow of the spotlight. She is also a brilliant polemicist, skilled in moralizing even at the expense of truth, honor, and common sense. And she has spun a myth about her past that has misled the reading public of at least two countries.

Let us imagine the following case.

A woman of some literary talent and reputation who, although not a cardholding member of the Nazi German-American Bund, which flourished in the 1930s, is the mistress of one of its leading figures, and hobnobs with its political leaders in the circles in which she moves. She signs denunciations of the victims of Hitler's purges and frame-up trials as “spies and wreckers” whose degenerate character has been established, and characterizes the Nazi holocaust as a purely internal affair of a progressive country whose “policies have resulted in a higher standard of living for the people.” She attacks a commission of inquiry, headed by a noted American philosopher, to discover the truth about juridical affairs in Nazi Germany. At every political turn as Hitler consolidates his power and screws tighter the pitch of his terror against his own people and those of other lands, she lauds his rule. She plays a leading role in organizing cultural front organizations as transmission belts for the Nazi party line. When Berlin launches a phony peace conference, she serves as a keynote speaker denying its true auspices and savagely assailing its critics. When artists and literary figures rally to provide relief for the victims of Nazi oppression, she sabotages their efforts by insisting that charity begins at home. She visits Nazi Germany four times and returns without uttering a single word of criticism of its gleichgeschaltet culture, and its concentration camps.

Disturbed by the growing influence of the German-American Bund and other political groups controlled by foreign governments, Congress authorizes one of its committees to investigate their activities and the sources of their plentiful funds. The legitimacy of the inquiry is upheld by the highest courts. It turns out that many members and sympathizers of the Bund are found in the entertainment industry. By this time because the true nature of the Nazi regime has been discovered by many, and because the United States is virtually at war with Hitler, some witnesses subpoenaed and under oath, and therefore subject to penalties of perjury, testify truly about their past involvements and experiences. Some refuse to testify about their membership, invoke the First Amendment, and risk being jailed for contempt. Others invoke the privilege of the Fifth Amendment on the ground that their truthful testimony would tend to incriminate them. Some like the woman in question invoke the Fifth Amendment not on the ground that their truthful testimony would tend to incriminate them but that it would tend to incriminate others—which really constitutes an abuse of the Fifth Amendment. Some who publicly claim to have been falsely identified as members of the Bund, when invited to confirm or deny the charge, nonetheless invoke the Fifth Amendment.

Much of the interrogation appears, and indeed is, irrelevant or foolish. Some of the committee members are interested in making headlines and (in the changed climate of hostile opinion to Germany) political capital out of the investigation. Nonetheless, considerable evidence is uncovered of penetration by members and sympathizers of the Bund into various areas of American cultural life, especially the entertainment industry. Partly out of conviction and partly out of a sense of guilt at the shabby way they earned their swollen salaries in Hollywood, members and fellow travelers paid large sums of money into the coffers of the Bund. Some of them were well enough organized to place obstacles in the way of outspoken critics of Nazi causes who sought employment.

The entertainment industry is run for profit. Its moguls are exceedingly sensitive to what affects public favor and box-office receipts. Not surprisingly, owners and producers became fearful of employing those identified under oath as members of the Nazi German-American Bund, or who invoked the Fifth Amendment, lest any film, play, or program with which they are associated become the target of a public boycott. An informal blacklist developed and some racketeers sought to exploit the situation. Some economic hardship resulted. Blacklisted writers peddled their scripts under pseudonyms. However, in a few short years, the wartime hostilities with Germany having been forgotten, those who suffered temporary economic hardship resumed their prosperous careers.

What would one think of the woman in this parable who, in 1976, strikes the pose of a heroine who defied the congressional inquisition and empties the vials of her wrath on anti-Fascists in the intellectual and literary community who allegedly stood idly by when she was questioned about her involvement with leading Nazi members and organizations? What would one think of this woman who now lamely asserts that her only fault was being a little late in recognizing “the sins” of Hitler—despite all the evidence that had accumulated over the forty years from the time she had endorsed the first of Hitler's mass purges?

For the Nazi German-American Bund in the above hypothetical account substitute the Communist party. For the woman in question—Lillian Hellman who in her book Scoundrel Time1 seems to have duped a generation of critics devoid of historical memory and critical common sense.

When Lillian Hellman was subpoenaed to appear before the House committee, the United States was in effect at war with two Communist powers—North Korea and China. The threat of involvement with the U.S.S.R. loomed large in popular consciousness. The leaders of the Communist party had declared that in case of conflict with the Soviet Union they would not support the United States. The record of Communist actions, at home and abroad, had generated fear in the American people—and not only among them—of forcible Communist expansion. It began with the violation of the treaties about free elections in Eastern Europe; followed by the revelations of Igor Gouzenko (the code clerk in the Russian embassy in Ottawa) of massive Soviet espionage in Canada and the United States by domestic Communists; the Communist take-over in Czechoslovakia; the arrest and conviction of Klaus Fuchs, Allen Nunn May, Harry Gold, the Rosenbergs, David Greenglass, and other atomic spies; testimony of Communist penetration into some of the most sensitive areas of government; the trials and conviction of Alger Hiss; the Communist blockade of Berlin; the hazardous and costly Berlin airlift; Communist support of rebels in Greece and Turkey; the invasion of South Korea (June 1950). Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of congressional investigations—and despite Lillian Hellman's contention to the contrary, their methods and areas of investigations were often criticized by liberals!—they did not create the climate of concern about Communist aggression abroad and Communist penetration within. That was a consequence of historical events. CIO trade-unionists and NAACP Negro leaders were barring Communist-controlled locals from their organizations; leading figures in Americans for Democratic Action and the Socialist party (notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Norman Thomas) as well as independent anti-Communist liberals, even when criticizing the excesses of the investigating committees, were exposing the unscrupulous behavior of Communist cells in every organization they joined. The concern on the part of the public with security was quite legitimate. One of the great spokesmen of the liberal tradition, Walter Lippmann, even advocated outlawing the Communist party; fortunately it was never done. Certainly the public had a right to know who was financing the Communist party—why nothing had been done to counteract the infiltration of members of its underground apparatus into sensitive government agencies—and what ostensibly neutral organizations, political and cultural, that party had established in order to penetrate the structure of American life.

That Lillian Hellman should have been called as a witness before a congressional committee investigating Communist organizations and activity in the entertainment industry (even if she had not been identified in sworn testimony as present at a meeting organized by Communist party functionaries to enlist prominent writers as members-at-large) was to be expected. The record of her activity as a participant and defender of Communist causes was notorious.

During the 1930s she defended all the Moscow trials, attacked the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry for trying to establish the truth about them, worked hand-in-glove with the party fraction in organizations like the League of American Writers and the Theatre Arts Committee. She went along with almost every twist and turn of the party line. During the Soviet-Finnish War when a theatrical relief committee for the victims of Soviet aggression was organized, it was attacked by Lillian Hellman (among others in the Theatre Arts Committee) on the grounds that “charity begins at home,” and that it was a disguised form of intervention abroad—this from the very persons who had been conspicuously active in organizing or supporting committees for Communist relief causes all over the world!

Throughout her self-serving book Lillian Hellman fails to distinguish between two types of witnesses charged with membership before the congressional committees—those who were truly identified as being members of the Communist party, and those who were falsely so identified. To her all investigation of Communist activity was a witch-hunt. One could argue (and many liberal anti-Communists did) that congressional inquiries into education and culture would have a chilling effect upon teachers and other professionals, and that whatever abuses and misconduct by Communists existed in those fields—and there were plenty!—could be dealt with by the practitioners in these fields themselves, without bringing in the state or government. Some took the same position with respect to Communist infiltration in the fields of labor and religion (see, for example, the editorial in the New Republic for 20 April 1953, “Communists in the Chruches”). But this is not at all Miss Hellman's view. She is opposed to any investigation of members of the Communist party under any auspices. She fiercely attacks any attempt by congressional committees to identify members of the Communist party, even in the most sensitive posts of government, who had slipped through defective and often nonexistent safeguards of the security system. She dismisses the evidence against Alger Hiss in passages that betray her ignorance, really indifference, to the evidence.

According to Miss Hellman the only evidence against Hiss was contained in the documents secreted by Whittaker Chambers in the famous pumpkin. And of these she says that “the only things that had been found in Chambers' pumpkin were five rolls of microfilm, two developed, three in metal containers, most of the frames were unreadable, none of them had anything to do with the charges against Alger Hiss.” She could not be more wrong. A great deal of the evidence against Hiss had nothing to do with the contents of the pumpkin (namely, all of the papers that were typed on the Hiss Woodstock typewriter). The two developed microfilm rolls of the five in the pumpkin consisted of photographs of memoranda from State Department office files to which Hiss had access and of mimeographed copies of cables from abroad that were initialled by Hiss. The other three microfilms—which were not introduced in evidence at the trials—contained unclassified material. (Espionage agents never know what the home office already has or might find useful.)

Miss Hellman's reference to the Hiss case is characteristic. On crucial matters, whenever her testimony can be checked by the record it turns out to be misleading or false. The two rolls of developed microfilm bore directly on the charge against Alger Hiss.

Roger Baldwin (the founder and long-time head of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a consistent critic of some of the techniques of congressional investigations) once observed, “A superior loyalty to a foreign government disqualifies a citizen for service to our own.” Miss Hellman would have us believe, despite the oaths and pledges that Communist party members took during those years to defend the Soviet Union, that they were no more of a security risk than any others. To be sure membership in the Communist party did not mean that given the opportunity, all members necessarily would be guilty of betrayal of their trust. One may ask, “Are there not some who would refuse to play this role?” The best answer to this question was made by Clement Attlee after the Pontecorvo affair in Britain, “There is no way of distinguishing such people from those who, if opportunity offered, would be prepared to endanger the security of the state in the interests of another power.”

Of course there can be no reasonable comparison between the capacities and opportunities for mischief of Communists in sensitive posts in government and Communists in the field of education and culture. Had Miss Hellman recognized this her position would be a little stronger. But her unqualified contention that the investigation of Communists any time and anywhere was a witch-hunt—a subversion of freedom of thought, a persecution of mere heresy rather than of conspiracy and underground secrecy wherever Communist cells functioned—testifies to the faithfulness with which she has followed the official Communist line. She does not regard it as conceivable that one could sincerely oppose both the Communists and Senator Joseph McCarthy—the Communists for what they truly represented, the existence and extension of the Gulag Archipelago—and McCarthy for making their work easier by his irresponsible accusations and exaggerations.

Individuals identified as members of the Communist party, and who did not deny it, fell into three main groups—1) those who told the truth, 2) those who refused to answer questions about their membership on grounds of the First Amendment, and 3) those who invoked the privilege against self-incrimination of the First Amendment. In all such cases the motivations for testifying, or not testifying, were mixed; but to Miss Hellman this needlessly complicates matters.

She refers to those who told the truth about their past as “friendly witnesses”: These are the “scoundrels.” She refuses to believe that anyone who told the truth could have been genuinely disillusioned with Communist behavior or, as the record of Communist penetration and deception unfolded, that they could be shamed by a sense of guilt at having abetted the Communist cause at home and Communist regimes of terror abroad. To her the only “honorable” persons were those who refused to testify if their truthful testimony required that others be implicated. The “betrayers” were only those who did testify regardless of the consequences to others and themselves. But these terms are narrowly defined to fit only the Communist cause.

When the director of the Ku Klux Klan of the state of Alabama was sentenced to jail for refusing to produce Klan records of membership before a grand jury, he pleaded that he was bound by a sacred oath of secrecy, and that to reveal the names of the members would be an act of betrayal. Miss Hellman never raised a murmur against his conviction, and it is not likely that she would characterize his actions as “honorable.” She scoffs at the notion that members of the Communist party—even their hardened functionaries—in defending the political and cultural terror of the Soviet regime and its satellites were actually “betraying” the ideals of human freedom and of their own country. Even those like Eric Russell Bentley, who disapproved of the congressional inquiries, wrote apropos of the Miller case: “I object … to the assumption that what is involved is the question of honor and betrayal with “honor” always meaning the protection of Communists and “betrayal” always meaning the revelation of Communist activity. For after all, there is also such a thing as betrayal of the United States and honorable refusal to betray the United States. Who has been betraying whom?” (New Republic, 10 September 1956).

Since writing this and other pieces in a similar vein, and at the time in personal letters to me, Eric Bentley has reversed himself. In his Thirty Years of Treason (New York, 1970) he praises both Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman for the stand they took, and out-McCarthys McCarthy by identifying the position of liberal critics of McCarthy—who attacked McCarthy when Bentley remained silent—with the position of “McCarthyism.”

Not only is Lillian Hellman altogether unreliable in describing the “friendly” witnesses before the congressional committees, she does not tell the truth about the liberal and socialist anti-Communists of the time. She gives the impression that with hardly any exceptions they were either sympathetic to the investigations or silent out of fear of losing the perquisites of the high positions they occupied. She states flatly, “No editor or contributor of Commentary ever protested against McCarthy.” The truth is that several editors and contributors protested at his vicious exaggerations not only in the relatively uninfluential pages of that publication but frequently in the New York Times.

The first call for the organization of a national movement to retire McCarthy from public life was published in the New York Times (3 May 1953) by a contributor to Commentary, Partisan Review, and the New Leader—at the height of Senator McCarthy's power. The best book on the subject during that period, McCarthy and Communism, was published by James Rorty and Moshe Decter in 1954 under the auspices of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and received the encomiums of liberal figures like Reinhold Niebuhr and Elmer Davis.

The manner in which Lillian Hellman refers to these anti-Communist liberals shows that what she cannot forgive them for is not so much their alleged failure to criticize McCarthy but (despite her belated—in 1976!—acknowledgment of Stalin's “sins”) their criticism of the crimes of Stalin and his successors during the forty years in which she apologized for them. Her reference to these anti-Communist liberals also betrays the priggishness of the unconsciously would-be-assimilated 100 percent American whose ancestors had reached American shores a few boatloads ahead of other immigrants. Of these intellectuals she writes that “many of them found in the sins of Stalin Communism—and there were plenty of sins and plenty that for a long time I mistakenly denied—the excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies. Perhaps that in part was the penalty of nineteenth-century immigration. The children of timid immigrants are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hardworking, and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at all costs.”

What she conceals from the reader is that those she criticizes did not wait for the emergence of McCarthy to combat Stalinism at home and abroad. They began in 1933 when Stalin did his bit to help Hitler come to power. She also conceals the fact that McCarthy was elected with the support of the Communist party to the Senate in 1946, defeating the incumbent liberal anti-Communist Robert La Follette, Jr., who had opposed the treaties of Teheran and Yalta. It took McCarthy four years to become an “anti-Communist crusader” of the nationalist, isolationist variety. She conceals the facts that when McCarthy was riding high, like Congressman Martin Dies before him, he lumped together welfare-state socialists and liberals with Communists; that what contributed to McCarthy's influence (before he did himself in by attacking the army) was the spectacle of scores of Communist witnesses remaining silent, or invoking the Fifth Amendment, as the picture of Communist penetration in American life unfolded; that American reactionaries (who were criticized by those whom Lillian Hellman attacks) seem to have agreed with her that these children of immigrants were the “penalty” for America's past immigration policy; and that few, if any, of these anti-Communist liberals and socialists ever “made it so good” as Lillian Hellman. Indeed, had they been as much concerned with “making it” as she, they would not have taken an open anti-Communist position when Miss Hellman and her Communist associates were running rampant in Hollywood and elsewhere and trying to bar “Trotskyite-Fascists”—as all anti-Stalinists were then called—from getting work or getting published.

Lillian Hellman pictures herself as a heroine defending intellectual and cultural freedom against her inquisitors. But she actually had nothing to fear from them. She claims that she was never a cardholding member of the Communist party. If true she could not by her testimony identify on the basis of her own knowledge anyone else as a member. Anything else would merely be hearsay. She herself was never clearly identified as a member but only as “present” with leading Communists at a meeting fifteen years earlier—a meeting she cannot recall as having taken place. Since she has denied that she ever was a member of the Communist party, to any question about any other person's membership she could have truthfully responded that she did not know. The person who placed her at the meeting had admitted his own membership—she certainly could not have hurt him. Two days before her appearance she wrote the committee that she was prepared to answer all questions about herself; but, if questioned about others, she would invoke the Fifth Amendment because she did not want to bring “bad trouble” to anyone else. She claims that she was the first witness to brave the wrath of the committee with this defiant position.

The official records of her interrogation reveal that her entire present account is a compound of falsity and deliberate obfuscation. First of all, it is not true that she was the first of the witnesses to have taken the position that only if she were not questioned about others would she answer questions truthfully about herself—a condition that no court or committee of inquiry can grant. Communists who were identified as members of the party by the sworn testimony of former members had taken precisely the same approach, and Miss Hellman was merely following the pattern with minor variations. For example, on 19 May 1952 (the very day she wrote her letter and two days before her own appearance) a University of Buffalo teacher of philosophy refused on grounds of the Fifth Amendment to answer the question whether he had been a member of a Communist party cell at Harvard during the late 1930s. He, too, had offered (in a letter to the committee earlier in the month) to testify concerning his own “past associations and activities” but not about others.

The reason why members of the Communist party took this tack should be clear. If they refused to answer any question on the grounds of the First Amendment, they risked an action for contempt. If they denied membership (as some members of the Communist party had done in previous investigations in local areas like New York) they risked an action for perjury, if two witnesses who had been former members identified them. By invoking the Fifth Amendment as the ground for their refusal, they escaped answering any questions with impunity. In their case the admission of membership in the Communist party might be self-incriminating under the Smith Act—although no ordinary member of the party was ever prosecuted under it. The first victims of the Smith Act were Trotskyists whose conviction Miss Hellman's political allies gleefully applauded. In Miss Hellman's case, since she explicitly claims that she was not a member of the Communist party—and that her refusal to say so was motivated only by reluctance to incriminate others—her invocation of the Fifth Amendment was really illegitimate because her truthful testimony could never have incriminated her.

Even more surprising are the details of her testimony. Some questions about her membership in the Communist party she answers without invoking the Fifth Amendment. To the question, “Are you now a member of the Communist Party?” She answers, “No.” “Were you yesterday?” She still answers, “No.” “Were you last year at this time?” “No.” “Two years ago from this time?” “No.” But to the question, “Three years ago at this time?” she refuses to answer on the grounds of self-incrimination. She does not explain why a truthful answer would tend to be self-incriminating to the question about her membership in the Communist party in 1949 but not in 1950, 1951, and 1952.

The committee was satisfied with her response and, happily for her, took no legal action, for its apparent strategy was to convince the country that those who invoked the Fifth Amendment had something to hide. Technically, of course, under the law an innocent person could invoke the Fifth Amendment. A police officer, for example, earning $15,000 a year and questioned as to whether the $500,000 in his vault was “graft,” could invoke the Fifth Amendment, whether he was guilty or innocent, and stay out of jail. But, after a departmental hearing, he could very well lose his post, unless he could rebut the presumption of unfitness to hold a position of trust created by his refusal to answer a question germane to his professional responsibilities. As Jeremy Bentham pointed out long ago the refusal to answer on grounds of possible self-incrimination creates an inescapable presumption of guilt even if that presumption is rebuttable.

Whether or not one agrees with his politics—which were abominable since he, too, was a committed apologist for Stalin's terror and upheld its necessity as a teacher in the party school—Dashiell Hammett's course in refusing to testify was certainly more straightforward than Lillian Hellman's. The record of her own interrogation as well as of others gives the lie to the artful reconstruction of her behavior as a morally defiant witness. She relates an incident—unreported by anyone else present (newsmen were there in large numbers)—according to which after her letter had been read by the committee's counsel, a journalist loudly exclaimed, “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it!” This is implausible on its face. What she did had indeed been done before, and it required no guts at all to invoke the Fifth Amendment. It was a ticket to safety.

Oddly enough, although her reason for refusing to testify truthfully about herself was that she would cause “bad trouble” to others, on the occasions when she proceeded to invoke the Fifth Amendment she could not possibly have compromised or even embarrassed them. When asked if she was “acquainted” with Martin Berkeley she invoked the Fifth. But since Berkeley was a self-confirmed former member whose testimony had identified her as present at a meeting in his house, she could not have harmed him in the least. When asked if she was “acquainted” with V. J. Jerome (who was a member of the Political Committee of the Communist party and in charge of organizing Communist party cells in Hollywood), she also invoked the Fifth. The same for John Howard Lawson. She could not have possibly caused them trouble if, as she now assures us, she was not a member of the Communist party during that time. By denying that she was a member in 1952, 1951, and 1950, and invoking the privilege against self-incrimination for periods earlier, she creates the presumption that she told the truth neither then nor now.

Lillian Hellman is not only disingenuous, to put it mildly, about her defiance of the House committee but also about her “involvement” with the Communist movement even if she is given the benefit of every doubt about whether she was technically a dues-paying member. Throughout her book she gives the impression that she really knew little about the political doings going on around her; that the discussions she heard or overheard made no sense to her; that it sounded like gobbledygook; and that her relations with the Communist party were remote, the result of association with Dashiell Hammett on the one hand, and her opposition to fascism on the other. Yet the internal evidence of this book, and her explicit statement about her political education in a previous book, make it extremely difficult to swallow her artful picture of herself as a rebel and a Bohemian not seriously interested in politics.

By her own account in this book she was up to her neck in politics. She played an important role in both the official and unofficial front activities of the Communist party. She met with “high officials” of the party to discuss the behavior of the party fraction in former Vice-President Henry Wallace's Progressive party. She was privately opposed (she tells us) to the Communist domination of the Progressive party although its role in organizing it was patent even to outsiders. She presents a jeering caricature of Henry Wallace as a kind of eccentric hick and skinflint at a time when the worst thing about him was his invincible political innocence. Subsequently, when he turned against the Communists and denounced them (New York Herald Tribune, 14 February 1952) for their “force, deceit, and intrigues,” and their activities in the Progressive party, Miss Hellman taxes him with lying—that is, he knew it all along because she had told him that Communists were in the Progressive party when he had asked her about it.

But Lillian Hellman is no more just to Henry Wallace than to others. Wallace had publicly recognized the damage the Communist party was doing to the cause of genuine Progressives when he declared in a speech at Center Sandwich, N.H., in the Fall of 1948, “If the Communists would only run a ticket of their own, the Progressive Party would gain 3,000,000 votes.” What Wallace did not know is what Miss Hellman did not tell him—that the Communist party had infiltrated into the strategic organizational posts of the Progressive party, and that she had the evidence of it. What she did tell him when he questioned her was that indeed there were some Communists in the Progressive party and “that the hard, dirty work in the office is done by them. … I don't think they mean any harm: they're stubborn men.” This was not an accurate account of their role, and she knew it.

In her previous book,2 Miss Hellman has said enough to make incredible her claim in this book that all the strange talk about “dictatorship and revolution” she heard in Communist circles struck her as outlandish. She says she came late to radicalism. But toward the end of the 1930s she undertook a study of Communist doctrine and embarked on an intensive “kind of reading I had never seriously done before. In the next few years, I put aside most other books for Marx and Engels, Lenin, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Feuerbach. Certainly I did not study with the dedication of a scholar, but I did read with the attention of a good student, and Marx as a man, and Engels and his Mary became for a while, more real to me than my friends.”

If she could read Hegel we can be sure that she had no difficulty with the catechismic texts of Stalin although she curiously omits his name. Nor did she stop with reading. She checked her knowledge against the superior knowledge of Dashiell Hammett whose Communist political orthodoxy, despite any private doubts, was sufficiently reliable to qualify him for teaching at the party school. “I would test my reading on Dash, who had years before, in his usual thorough fashion, read all the books I was reading and more.”

Therefore, when she tells us in her most recent book that precisely during and after this period of intensive study “the over-heated arguments, spoken and printed about dictatorship and repression puzzled me”—as if she were a Marilyn Monroe who had fallen among Marxists—she is singularly unpersuasive. Miss Hellman may or may not have been a member of the Communist party but until Stalin died she was not only a convinced Communist but a Stalinist; and for all her posturing about not really knowing what “dictatorship” means she may still be a Communist. She is no longer a Stalinist but it is not clear when she ceased being one. Communists ceased defending Stalin only after Nikita Khrushchev's revelations at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union in 1956.

Lillian Hellman's most valuable contribution to the Communist cause was her activity on behalf of their front organizations. A few months after the Progressive party imbroglio she was called upon to serve as a keynote speaker at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria (New York, 25-26 March 1949). This conference was a follow-up of the World Congress of Intellectuals for Peace at Wroclau-Breslau in Communist Poland (25-28 August 1948) and was preparatory to the World Peace Conference in Paris (20-23 April 1949). The Waldorf meeting was held at the height of the Zhdanov purge of Soviet intellectuals. It barred from its program anyone who was critical of Communist party dogma of the class nature of science (including this writer who had, at first, been accepted by a rather careless program committee). The foreign-policy line the conference took was identical with that of the Kremlin: to wit, the United States was the chief enemy of peace and the instigator of the Cold War against the peaceful and freedom-loving Soviet Union. It even refused to give the platform to the Reverend A. J. Muste who was prepared to blame both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. for the Cold War. Lillian Hellman valiantly defended the conference against its critics—whose chief point of protest was the refusal of the conference to speak up for the dissenting or nonconforming intellectuals who were being martyred in Communist countries (although the conference adopted resolutions condemning the court proceedings against Communist leaders under the Smith Act as “heresy trials of political philosophies and attempts to limit and destroy the right of association”). To serve as spokesman for a conference of this kind was a very strange role indeed for a self-denominated life-long “rebel” against organization—at a time when the location and character of the slave-labor camps in the Gulag Archipelago had become public knowledge.

Throughout her book Miss Hellman claims to be aware of “the sins of Stalin” acknowledging only that she was a little late in seeing them. It is only natural to wonder at what point, or when, she saw them; and what she did after she saw them.

It is reasonable to assume that whenever she became aware of them, even if she remained a critic of the sins of her own country, she would not have endorsed measures and organizations that extended the sway or influence of the sinful Stalin and his regime. For otherwise it would have betrayed a degree of hypocrisy and deviousness hard to reconcile with her celebrated forthright nature—so quick to anger when she is bamboozled or pushed around. Nor is it unreasonable to expect that after endorsing in her ignorance so many of “the sins of Stalin”—a curious phrase for “political crimes” since Miss Hellman does not really believe in sin—when she realized their true nature, she would in some way at some point make some public acknowledgment of her discovery. This has been the history of many idealistic Communists and Communist sympathizers who became alienated by some particularly vile outrage or betrayal of the cause with which they had been publicly identified. Certainly, if some former Nazi fellow-traveler were to write in 1976 that, although late, he had become aware of “the sins of Hitler,” we would be curious to know when he learned about them, and what he had said or done on making the discovery. (Even Albert Speer has given us thousands of pages of details.)

The record of what Lillian Hellman has written—and not written—makes it clear that she did not know about the political crimes of Stalin during the purges and Moscow frame-up trials of the thirties, the deportations of the peasants and the resulting famine in the Ukraine; the Nazi-Soviet Pact; the invasion of Poland and the destruction of the Baltic States; the Soviet attack on Finland; the surrender of German Jewish Communists who had fled in 1933 to the Soviet Union by Stalin to Hitler in 1940; the liquidation of the anti-Fascist Jewish leaders, Alter and Ehrlich, by Stalin as “spies for Hitler”; the Katyn massacre of the Polish officers; the mass executions and deportations of returning Russian prisoners-of-war after World War II; the overthrow of the democratic Czechoslovak government in 1948; the Zhdanov purges and executions; the Berlin blockade; the Communist invasion of South Korea; the suppression of the German workers' revolt in East Berlin and East Germany in 1953.

Until Stalin died there is not a particle of evidence that Lillian Hellman regarded any of his actions as sinful or politically criminal. Even after Khrushchev's revelations in which he more than confirmed the findings of the John Dewey Commission of Inquiry, denounced by Miss Hellman twenty years earlier, did she by so much as a word signal her awareness of the nature of Stalin's crimes. She remained mute.

Nor did she speak out when Khrushchev sent in Red Army tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Nor has her voice been heard in criticism of “the sins” or political crimes of Stalin's and Khrushchev's successors—the construction of (and the shootings at) the Berlin Wall, or the renewed persecutions of Soviet dissenters and their incarceration in insane asylums. After all, Miss Hellman visited the Soviet Union in 1937, 1944, 1966, and 1967. But not a single word of criticism of what she saw or heard or of disavowal of her past tributes to the Soviet Union appeared. Not even the brutal invasion of 1968 by Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia moved her to public protest. By this time even the American Communist party, the most supine of the Kremlin's pensioners, had shown enough independence to make a feeble protest against Soviet anti-Semitism.

Writing in 1976 she expects us to accept without question her assurance that she had long seen through the horrors and systematic oppression of the Communist regimes. It is hard to do this if only because, as this book reveals, she still regards those opposed to the extension of Communist influence as greater enemies of human freedom and the decencies of political life than the Communists ever were. Of the Communists she writes with sadness and pity: of the liberal anti-Communists she writes with virulent hatred. By her attack on them she seeks to distract attention from the many years she faithfully served as an acolyte in the “personality cult,” Khrushchev's euphemism for the total terror under Stalin. In this she is banking on the absence of historical memory on the part of most of her readers.

This absence of historical memory is illustrated in the introductions to both the American and English editions of [Scoundrel Time] by Garry Wills and James Cameron.

The introduction by Wills, reprinted as an appendix in the English edition, goes further than the most extreme of the revisionist positions on the Cold War. According to him, Truman (despite his opposition to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and to McCarthy) was the true architect of the Cold War. The Communists abroad were blameless, and the Communists at home were merely victims of a reaction to Roosevelt's enlightened policies. Indeed, the Cold War was inspired by domestic considerations. Wills flatly states that “Truman launched the Cold War in the Spring of 1947 with his plan to ‘rescue’ Greece and Turkey.” All unprovoked, of course. There was nothing, or no one, to rescue them from. “We had a world to save with just those plans,” he goes on to say, “from NATO to the Korean War.” It appears, then, that Truman's plan, with which all of America's Western allies readily agreed, as early as 1947 envisaged the invasion of Korea in the summer of 1950. Wills must believe that either Dean Acheson's declaration that Korea was beyond the sphere of American national interest was a deliberate provocation by the State Department to lure the North Koreans into invading South Korea or that South Korea at the instigation of the United States invaded North Korea. Presumably the United States intimidated the United Nations to support the defense of South Korea. Wills has unconsciously reconstructed the Kremlin's propaganda line. The only omission is the failure to charge the United States with the guilt of conducting germ warfare in North Korea. Wills's account of the domestic political scene in the United States during this period is no more accurate than his flyer in foreign-policy demonology.

It is not likely that Wills will find many credulous readers who are old enough to remember the past. But among them we must number James Cameron who has written the introduction to the English edition. He confesses that he does not know Lillian Hellman, and it is clear that he does not know the United States, its recent history, and the details of the period he writes about with such sublime indifference to the record. He even believes that “Scoundrel Time is come again” in America although he leaves unclear who the scoundrels are this time: The John Deans whose testimony, bartered for immunity from prosecution, helped convict the Watergate defendants? Or those convicted? He is also unclear about the British scene. He asks: “Why did our society never have the McCarthy trauma? Because we were too mature … ? Because our constitution, being unwritten, was too flexible? Because we produced no paranoiac like McCarthy? Perhaps—but also because we had too few Lillian Hellmans.”

But why should the presence of more Lillian Hellmans generate McCarthyism? Is Cameron saying that if there had been as many Communist fellow-travelers, guilty of the same hypocrisy and duplicity in British cultural and political life as in the United States, the reaction would have been the same? The British Communists, except for those recruited by the Soviets as espionage agents, were never as conspiratorial as the American Communists and were not instructed to penetrate government agencies.

Nor does the English constitution have anything to do with it. If anything its flexibility could lend itself to even greater abuse since there is no Supreme Court to nullify or overrule Parliamentary legislation. English courts have never made absolutes of any right, or tolerated abuses of the privilege against self-incrimination. Actually, in Britain from 1947 on, not only were members of the Communist party completely barred from secret work but also all persons associated with the party in such a way “as to raise reasonable doubts about their reliability.” After the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean the recommendations of a White Paper by Privy Councillors were accepted by the British government in 1956. It reaffirmed the basic principle on which earlier security measures were based that “the Communist faith overrides a man's normal loyalties to his country,” and extended them to embrace the much wider circle of “sympathizers” and “associates.” These are vague and ill-defined terms, and they required good sense and a genuine dedication to liberal values and individual liberties to apply them without miscarriages of justice. The procedures of American security boards were in some respects much fairer than their British counterparts. Civil servants in Britain who were under investigation were never told of the evidence against them; they were denied rights of legal counsel and even of representation at hearings. They had no right of appeal from the verdict of the tribunal to a higher administrative body or to a court.

Nonetheless, the American procedures worked more hardships and injustices because they were, as a rule, administered by Democratic and Republican party regulars who were politically ignorant of the wide spectrum of beliefs different from their own and who, as I once put it, “found the distinctions between member, sympathizer, front, dupe, innocent, and an honestly mistaken liberal as mysterious as the order of beings in the science of angelology.”

Even before Joe McCarthy appeared on the scene, public identification under sworn testimony had been made of individuals occupying the following posts in the American government: 1) an executive assistant to the president; 2) an assistant secretary of the Treasury; 3) the director of the Office of Special Political Affairs in the State Department; 4) the secretary of the International Monetary Fund; 5) the chief of the Latin American Division of the Office of Strategic Services; 6) a member of the National Labor Relations Board; 7) the chief counsel of the Senate Subcommittee on Civil Liberties; 8) the chief of the Statistical Analysis Branch of the War Production Board; 9) a United States Treasury attaché in China; 10) the Treasury Department representatives and adviser in the Financial Control Division of the North African Economic Board in UNRRA, and at the meeting of the Foreign Ministers Council in Moscow in 1947; 11) the director of the National Research Project of the Works Progress Administration.

What would the public reaction in Britain have been if individuals of similar government rank and influence had been identified as members of the Communist party after the Klaus Fuchs case? Probably not as virulent as the American reaction, but it is not altogether excluded that even James Cameron might have been more perturbed than he seems to be. He would have to recognize the difference between nonexistent witches and Communist subversives.

It was in this atmosphere that demagogues like McCarthy seized their opportunity. Ritualistic liberals played into their hands, not by deservedly criticizing their excesses and irresponsibility, but by denying that Communist party infiltration into government existed. The Communists and their sympathizers contributed to eliciting public support for the investigative committees by invoking the Fifth Amendment, even when it was unnecessary, thus generating the impression that the conspiratorial activity was on a vaster scale than it actually was.

The greatest damage done by Senator Joseph McCarthy—whom Miss Hellman never faced—was to the American Foreign Service. His irresponsible charges against a few who may have been guilty of political naïveté—the Chinese Communists were, after all, not mere “agrarian reformers”—tended to inhibit critical independent judgment of American policy among their colleagues. McCarthy headed the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which should not be confused with the Subcommittee on Internal Security of the Committee on the Judiciary whose proceedings, in comparison with McCarthy's committee as well as those of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, were fairly meticulously conducted. There is no need to deny, as Miss Hellman does, that the disclosures before the House Committee about Alger Hiss and other key figures named by Whittaker Chambers were genuine. But they would not have been necessary had responsible security officers quietly acted on information which they had long before the hearings. The aura of the Hiss case kept the House committee going for a long time, but it hardly compensated for the vigilantism, cultural irrationalism, and national distrust generated by its successive chairmen and leading members who exploited their roles for cheap political publicity. Their excesses made intelligent criticism of the communism of that period—the heyday of Stalinism—more difficult.

For someone like Lillian Hellman, who loyally cooperated with members of the Communist party in all sorts of political and cultural enterprises for almost forty years, to impugn the integrity of liberal anti-Communists like Lionel Trilling and others of his circle is an act of political obscenity.

The criticisms made by anti-Communist socialists and liberals during these years have been vindicated by events. They insisted on the central distinction between “heresy” whose defense is integral to a free society and “conspiracy” whose secrecy is inimical to it.

This distinction was often ignored by the investigating committees and sometimes by their critics. A heretic is an honest defender of an unpopular idea. A conspirator is one who works stealthily and dishonestly outside the rules of the game. Our moral obligation is to the toleration of dissent, no matter how heretical, not to the toleration of conspiracy, no matter how disguised or secret. When that secrecy is combined with loyalty to a foreign power dedicated to the overthrow of free and open societies, a power that manipulates the activities of conspirators wherever they operate, the pitiless light of publicity must be brought to bear on the situation. Whatever may be the case in these polycentric days, during the years Miss Hellman writes about the evidence is overwhelming that Communists, even though their party was legal, were organized secretly in parallel underground organizations under assumed names working for political objectives framed by the party fraction. To be sure, they sometimes did other things as well, some of them worthy and all of them under deceptively high-sounding phrases, but only to increase their influence in furthering their underlying political purposes. Those who wittingly helped them, even if they paid no party dues, were morally as guilty in the deceptions they practiced. They were engaged in helping to destroy the open society whose benefits and freedoms they enjoyed.


Since the above was written, Lillian Hellman dramatically confirmed the double-dealing nature of her political judgment, its use of double standards and convenient invention.

In the course of a colloquy with Dan Rather of the Columbia Broadcasting Company, Lillian Hellman was asked about the charge that she could see what was wrong with McCarthy and that whole era but failed to see anything wrong with Stalinism. After all, if considered from the point of view of loss of human life, deprivation of freedom, torture, and suffering of innocent human beings, Stalinism was infinitely worse than McCarthyism.

To which she replied: “I happen never to have been a Communist for one thing, which is left out of this story. I didn't quite understand the argument, I mean I don't really know what has one thing to do with another. I was not a Russian, I was an American.” To which Rather responded: “You can't see that the basic argument here is that you applied a double standard? You applied one standard to McCarthy and the United States and another standard to Stalin and the Soviet Union.” “No,” replied Lillian Hellman, “I don't think I did. I was injured by McCarthy for one thing. I was not personally injured by Stalin, which is not a very high class reason but it's a very—it's a good practical reason.”3

Lillian Hellman is an eager but unaccomplished liar. She was not German. Nor was she personally injured by Hitler. But she protested vigorously his terror regime. She was not Italian. Nor was she personally injured by Mussolini but she joined liberals in denouncing him. She was not Spanish. Nor was she personally injured by Franco but she was very active in the defense of the Loyalist Spanish cause. Only when called upon to protest against the infamies of Stalin and Stalinism did she suddenly discover that she was not Russian and that as an American she had no business abroad. But then if the fact that she was not Russian and suffered no injury at Stalin's hands exonerates her from failure to criticize Stalin's crimes, why then did she defend them, especially the monstrous Moscow frame-up trials, and defame those who, like John Dewey, sought to establish the truth about them?

Lillian Hellman's shabby justification for her sustained role as minnesinger of Stalin's regime is so transparent that it is perhaps needless to point out that “personally” she was never injured by McCarthy (whom she never even confronted) or by the House committee before which she testified.


  1. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976).

  2. An Unfinished Woman (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1969).

  3. Excerpts from the transcript of the interview with Dan Rather as published in the New York Post, March 23, 1977.

Principal Works

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The Children's Hour (play) 1934

Days to Come (play) 1936

The Little Foxes (play) 1939

Watch on the Rhine (play) 1941

The Searching Wind (play) 1944

Another Part of the Forest (play) 1946

Montserrat [adapted from the play by Emmanuel Roblès] (play) 1949

The Autumn Garden (play) 1951

The Lark [adapted from the play by Jean Anouilh] (play) 1955

Candide [adapted from the novel by Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire] (play) 1956

Toys in the Attic (play) 1960

My Mother, My Father, and Me [adapted from the novel How Much? by Burt Blechman] (play) 1963

The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas (notebooks) 1968

An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (memoir) 1969

The Collected Plays (collected works) 1972

Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (memoir) 1974

Scoundrel Time (memoir) 1976

Three (collected works) 1979

Maybe: A Story (memoir) 1980

Eating Together: Recipes and Recollections (conversations) 1984

Conversations with Lillian Hellman (conversations) 1986

Maurice F. Brown (essay date winter 1985)

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SOURCE: Brown, Maurice F. “Autobiography and Memory: The Case of Lillian Hellman.” Biography 8, no. 1 (winter 1985): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Brown argues that Hellman's dependence on memory rather than factual evidence in her autobiographies helped to transform the genre into a specific literary form.]

Lillian Hellman's autobiographical writing is of interest because it extends the range of the form and explores significant theoretical issues. Hellman presents herself as both human being and writer in process, exposing her methods of recall, probing the multiple meanings of the past, and commenting on her problems as investigator and writer. Her focus has been on the nature of her personal involvement with herself and others, not on her career as dramatist nor on herself as a political person. Hellman's “life-record” is a full one: among her documents are the many detailed notebooks she began keeping when she was fourteen. While she turned to a fully-documented autobiographical format in Scoundrel Time, the body of her work presents a quest for the truth of life as experienced—for the poetic and philosophical life. Hellman confronts the tension in her motives in this passage from the Dashiell Hammett chapter of her first volume, An Unfinished Woman:

Thirty years is a long time, I guess, and yet as I come now to write about them the memories skip about and make no pattern and I know only certain of them are to be trusted. I know about that first meeting and the next, and there are many other pictures and sounds, but they are out of order and out of time, and I don't seem to want to put them into place. (I could have done a research job, I have on other people, but I didn't want to do one on Hammett, or to be a bookkeeper of my own life.)

(Three, 279)1

Hellman is grappling with the issue central to any consideration of biography as a literary form. The historian's instinct and training lead him to seek pattern by arranging documents and memories chronologically and evoking meaning with the aid of the discursive reason. But memory is “out of order and out of time.” Or rather, it has its own perverse order, its irrational metonymies and opaque symbolisms. The “memory work” is poetic in nature. As such, it bears relation to the dream work as Freud came to understand it. If the dream work sometimes takes the form of disguised wish fulfillment, the memory work should be viewed as a restructuring of the past to sustain and integrate a positive personality structure. Contemporary theoretical work by Erik Erikson in ego psychology suggests the complexity of the memory work, which involves self-creation through a non-rational process of rejection of “negative identity fragments.” Erikson writes:

Identity formation normatively has its dark and negative side, which throughout life can remain an unruly part of the total identity. Every person and every group harbors a negative identity as the sum of all those identifications and identity fragments which the individual had to submerge in himself as undesirable or irreconcilable. …2

Furthermore, disciplined study of poetry, of myth and dream, of legend and folklore, and of subliminal psychological process has provided students of life-writing with insights and analytical tools by which we have gained access to the poetics of memory. We cannot accept mere “memory,” even when well-documented, as valid life-history; and the truth revealed by critical probing of memory is more relevant to the structure of human personality and life than a bookkeeper's record, however adequate that might be to the historian.

For such probing in the context of literary criticism, William C. Spengemann has recently provided a promising approach. In The Forms of Autobiography3 he identifies St. Augustine's Confessions as a formal paradigm for Western autobiography, distinguishing three modes which are interwoven but given different emphasis in any given text. Drawing upon his paradigm, I shall consider Hellman's quest for her life and its appropriate form as a dialectical process in which life is presented as 1) history of the self (a chronological, developmental record of actions and conscious motivations); 2) philosophy (a process of discovery of the self); and 3) poetry (the presentation of self and its contexts in literary form). Spengemann's modes have a relationship to traditional classifications of autobiography: the memoir tends to take on the historical mode; confession, the philosophical; and apology, the poetic. But Spengemann's approach frees us from these casual nineteenth-century classifications to focus on literary process and style.

There are strong movements to all three of Spengemann's modes in Hellman's work. An Unfinished Woman (1969) opens in historical mode. The work's first half is structured chronologically in terms of life-stages identified by developmental psychology (childhood, latency, adolescence, etc.). Tension between the contrasting heritages of her father's and her mother's families and between New Orleans and New York City provides the context for Hellman's early development, much as it does in the autobiographical models provided by Henry Adams and George Santayana in the early modern period. The later portion of the volume rests heavily on long sections of selected but apparently undoctored diary relating to Hellman's European trips and her involvement in anti-Fascist movements. At the end of the book, three portraits are presented—one of Dorothy Parker (her closest friend), one of Hammett (with whom she lived tumultuously for over thirty years), and one of the two black women of significance in her life. Hellman's second and third autobiographical volumes develop the two sides of her antithetical approaches to autobiography. She treats her personal life in poetic mode in Pentimento (1973), and her political life in a relentlessly documented historical mode in Scoundrel Time (1977). Maybe (1980) is subtitled “a story,” but it is an extension of the mode of Pentimento. Perhaps Hellman is suggesting that life fragments that do not take palpable form can stand as contemporary fiction but not as authentic life-writing. Here autobiographical materials turn into a fascinating tone-poem, steeped in dream/alcohol/disguise states of semi-awareness with sharp, irrational leaps and turns of motive, character, and event. Hellman presents two metaphors for her autobiographical memory data: 1) memory is a hodgepodge of bundles of ribbons and rags, and 2) life is a puzzle with missing pieces. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by sections in italics, in one of which she writes:

What I have written is the truth as I saw it, but the truth as I saw it, of course, doesn't have much to do with the truth. It's as if I have fitted parts of a picture puzzle and then a child overturned it and threw out some pieces.4

At book's end we are left with six or seven characters, including Hellman, in search of an author. In brief, the sequence of volumes suggests an underlying philosophical concern which increasingly dictates autobiographical form. Hellman's life-writing turned into a quest for her “true” life—a quest which pushed both her historical and poetic commitments to their ragged outer edges.

Considered in the context of Hellman's entire body of work, much of An Unfinished Woman is a frustrated venture in autobiography. Long periods of Hellman's life—1931-35, 1942-44, and 1945-65—are omitted except for a casual reference here and there. Though we can perhaps excuse fragmented and bored treatment of her career, several relationships central to her personal life are practically ignored. Hellman's early affair and her abortion, her life with husband Arthur Kober, her years with Hammett, and her late affair with Carter Cameron are not presented in any detail until Maybe. Other significant relationships surface in Pentimento and Scoundrel Time. Hellman's later volumes move to fill gaps in An Unfinished Woman—gaps which required a deeper confrontation with herself and her experience than she previously had wanted to or was able to deal with. There is conscious concealment in that volume, and perhaps throughout her autobiographical writing, which represents an effort to avoid embarrassment of herself and others. And some segments of her life simply do not interest her. But more often, especially in regard to sexual relationships and political activity, Hellman seems to have been unable to arrive at a coherent sense of her actions and motives.

On the public side, mere inclusion of the European diaries in An Unfinished Woman suggests the conflict between her deeply personal human involvements and the vagueness of her public, political stance and its implications. The abrupt stylistic shift to direct documentation of life through diary entries seems almost desperate, with an extreme analogue, perhaps, in the later pages of Rousseau's Confessions. It took Hellman seven more years to come to terms with the trauma of the McCarthy witch hunt, and she was torn by her sense of the conflicting commitments and perspectives of her multiple audiences for that book. The intensity of Hellman's desire to find the truth about herself is present in the text, and even more in her later displeasure with the way she came to feel Scoundrel Time misrepresented her. Commenting on the book in 1979, she wrote:

I am angrier now than I hope I will ever be again; more disturbed now than when it all took place. I tried to avoid, when I wrote this book, what is called a moral stand. I'd like to take that stand now. I never want to live again to watch people turn into liars and cowards and others into frightened, silent collaborators. And to hell with the fancy reasons they give for what they did.

(Three, 726)

The issue is larger than that of adequate expression of emotion and moral stance in a work. Much of the fascination of autobiography for the literary critic lies in the fact that the style and form of the work are as much a revelation of the “life” of the protagonist as the ostensible content. The problem of “misrepresented” life is in part a stylistic one—Hellman's quest for appropriate style is part of our data for her “life.” At the age of sixty Hellman shifted from established dramatist to autobiographer. The considerable skill she had developed in dramatic projection of experience is evident in the power of her life-writing. And she was able to draw on experimentation with the short story form that went back to her twenties. The strengths of these “apprenticeships,” together with her strong sense for historical contexts of the action in her dramas, transfer to her work in autobiography. But Hellman had to learn to deal with the problem of presentation of memory in narrative and with the larger philosophical demands of a maturely conceived autobiographical form.

Hellman's early inclination and experience had prepared her to view life as a constantly shifting pattern. Childhood experiences were uprooting, complex, and confusing. Hellman learned to approach life as a mystery which offered her tantalizing clues to dimly-understood human motivations and relationships. At twelve she and Julia (the Julia of her chapter in Pentimento) formed a secret espionage society of two and took to following strange characters about the streets of New York, observing their movements and on one occasion alerting a policeman to suspected evil.5 Dashiell Hammett was the major influence in her later career as dramatist, and we should not forget that Hellman was the model for Nora in his Thin Man series. The stance to life carries over into Hellman's writing methods. Revising—“re-seeing”—became an obsessive gesture in her work in the drama. Her manuscripts for the final book for the original Bernstein-Wilbur-Hellman production of Candide include twelve complete and varying versions of it and twenty-five folders of individual scenes.6 Hellman's need was to find a stylistic correlative to her sense of life that was appropriate to writing her own life. In the effect known as “pentimento” in painting, she located a metaphor for the method appropriate to her vision. She writes:

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.

(Three, 309)

Passage of time affords a means by which an event is placed outside of time—it provides for the medium's shift from opacity to transparency and to multiple vision. Both the earlier and later visions of the painter are present in overlay, revealing a shift not only of style and judgment but also of the data themselves.

Hellman's stylistic solution involves identification of both past and present selves in sensory, emotional, active immediacy. Under psychoanalysis for long periods of time beginning as early as the nineteen-thirties, Hellman was familiar with eliciting otherwise unavailable life data by the use of psychoanalytic methods of recall and interpretation. In her writing conscious analysis and artistry enter the process to develop context through description and narration or, occasionally, to make a brief observation or judgment. Hellman's desire is to strip away defenses and distortions to reveal emotions, values, motivations, traits of character, and quirks of personality basic to the evoked living presence in action and event. She writes in a tradition which looks back through contemporary writers she admired, like Faulkner and Proust, to that master autobiographer, Rousseau. James A. Boon has explored this tradition in From Symbolism to Structuralism. He observes that Rousseau, though committed to presenting past as palpable present, adopted a linear chronology which does not catch the diachronic complexity of multiple versions of an event. Marcel Proust developed such complexity. Boon's observation on Proust is applicable to Hellman's mature autobiographical method. Boon writes:

It is perhaps only with Proust that this full implication of such multiplicity—in his case due to time passing—is captured. For Proust's narrator has experienced a series of interpenetrating orderings each time his ‘involuntary memory’ was triggered. This enables him to move back and forth between different conceptualized versions of what constituted any particular event. He can conceive of the event as the narrator remembering it, as the narrator thinking of it while living it, as the narrator remembering remembering it during an instance of ‘involuntary memory’ (etc?)7

Hellman's memory flashbacks, triggered by a minor and casual event are sometimes developed, sometimes merely recorded, producing in a reader the effect of living in several time slots at once. Occasionally we are able to intuit Hellman's unexplained metonymic leaps. For example, in the midst of a passage closely focused on her relationship with Julia, she writes:

I was pleased that she [Julia] thought I knew the excellence of Toulouse-Lautrec, because I didn't, and had to be told about him by a fellow student who used to buy me hamburgers in order, I think, to tell me about his homosexual experiences. (He was a very decorated hero during the Second World War and was killed a week before it ended.)

(Three, 418-9)

The sentence runs on in the pattern of an uncontrolled memory drift, to be capped by what seems to be a parenthetical chunk of irrelevant, gratuitous information. It “fits,” however, when we come to realize that the hero has sprung back to life in Hellman's involuntary memory leap because he is a male analogue of Julia herself. Hellman increasingly exposes her memory processes as part of her creation and re-creation of self in Pentimento and Maybe. And in those volumes she occasionally speculates on that process in paragraphs she italicizes.

But presentation of the memory process almost always moves to poetic fulfillment in dramatization and dialogue. In scenic presentation, Hellman's mastery of the arts of theatre and film enables her to create autobiography more fully dramatized than almost anything in biography since Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. Techniques of camera work, lighting, and film editing are adapted to literary use, and she built on William Faulkner's achievements in such adaptation, which she admired. In addition, we find Hellman's sense of theatre in the significant dramatic gesture, brisk dialogue weighted with implication, the sense of half-glimpsed backgrounds and motives, the invitation to participate in clues leading to the solution of a mystery, and emerging unifying symbols—a fig tree, a suitcase full of family data, a dying snapping turtle, pentimento as recognition of love, and (in Maybe) the peculiar odor Hellman's first lover ascribes to her vagina. Hellman's stylistic development in the use of symbol to focus the implication of plot parallels the development in her handling of data, memory, and voice. The fig tree symbol is modernist, heavy with Freudian implication, and used to support a coherent narrative structure. Her turtle is at the center of the chapter in Pentimento titled “Turtle” and is not a modernist symbol but what critics of contemporary poetry have identified as “deep image.” In Maybe an absurdist fragmented plot rests on an undescribable sensory non-image—the odor of the protagonist's vagina.

The portrait, “Helen,” in An Unfinished Woman signals the method and the mature autobiographical style which was to dominate Pentimento. “Helen” begins, “In many places I have spent many days on small boats” (Three, 249). The generalized scene, unlocated in space or time, shifts as a camera focus might to a descriptive revery, anchored by references to beachcombing in New Orleans and Martha's Vineyard. A concrete and specific catalogue of her findings is given: “periwinkles and mussels, driftwood, shells, horseshoe crabs, gull feathers, the small fry of bass and blues, the remarkable skin of a dead sand shark, the shining life in rockweed.”

Hellman's second paragraph places the reader in a time and place, and it turns her opening into the vehicle for an extended metaphor: “One night about six months ago, when I was teaching at Harvard, it occurred to me that these childish, aimless pleasures … might have something to do with the digging about that occasionally happens when I am asleep.” And she proceeds to develop her metaphor in an extravagant metaphysical conceit: her head becomes the sandy beach from which the pole of her attention catches a card which answers “a long-forgotten problem,” now solved as if arranged for her “on a night table.” Mind has retrieved a set of scraps from memory “arranged” by the poetic of dream.

Opening paragraph three with “On that night …,” the narrative camera zooms in on a physical event which clicks in memory networks. The night is stormy. Hellman, disturbed by a noise downstairs, descends and sees a fallen, shattered light fixture at the foot of the stairs. (The mythic motif is introduced naturally and effortlessly.) Involuntary memory flows, presented in a long tumbling sentence which piles up different but now related experiences from time-sets clued by verbs in all the tenses but future and future perfect:

I thought: Of course, one has been dead three years this month, one has been dead for over thirty, but they were one person to you, these two black women you loved more than you ever loved any other women, Sophronia from childhood, Helen so many years later, and it was all there for you to know two months ago when, poking about the beach, a long distance from the house Helen and I had lived in, I found a mangled watch, wondering where I had seen it, and knew a few hours later that it was the watch I had bought in the Zurich airport and that had disappeared a short time after I gave it to Helen.

(Three, 250)

Hellman's access to the structure of the memory work is marked by self-directed recognition with the opening phrase, “of course.” Her primary audience is herself, the “you” with whom she is engaged in dialogue, but the sentence is filled with data which would have come instantaneously to Hellman. A larger audience of readers is prepared to overhear a self-absorbed protagonist discovering something that had escaped her two months earlier in a different setting. A simple shift from second to first person pronoun in the middle of the sentence further suggests the integration that comes in the shock of recognition triggered by the chance event. The paragraph continues, retaining the first person pronoun, but moving to cognitive mode, presented in short declarative sentences. The style is now that of conscious reconstruction of past even and motive:

The answer now was easy. She [Helen] never walked much because her legs hurt. Sam had brought it down to the beach and she didn't want to tell me that my dog [Sam], who loved her but didn't love me, could have done anything for which he could be blamed.

(Three, 250)

What has happened? The broken light fixture calls forth the broken crystal of the watch she had found on the beach two months earlier. It was the watch she had bought in Zurich five years earlier for Helen, who had died in 1965. (These dates are not given in Hellman's text.) Helen couldn't have dropped it—the beach was too long a walk for her. Sam must have picked it up and taken it there, and Helen said nothing, out of protective love for the dog. What does Sophronia have to do with it? Helen's silence was exactly what Sophronia's response would have been under similar circumstances fifty years earlier, but the reader doesn't know that yet. In this opening, persons, times and places have coalesced in an instant of unsolicited memory work that Hellman here recreates in a verbal sequence with a stylistic complexity which is unusual to biography, even biography of the self. Furthermore, the relation of the reader to the life is immediate and participatory: we are involved in reconstruction of the events and share in the illumination.

Something more of the brilliance and variety of Hellman's style in “Helen” can be suggested by brief glances at several transitional passages in the chapter. For example, she lays bare the process of her conscious mental work in a passage like this one:

How often Helen had made me angry, but with Sophronia nothing had ever been bad. … But the answer there is easy: Sophronia was the anchor for a little girl, the beloved of a young woman, but by the time I had met the other, years had brought acid to a nature that hadn't begun that way—or is that a lie?—and in any case …

(Three, 251)

Here the reader is involved in the writer's ambivalence, one keyed by verb alternation of past-perfect with present and simple past tenses, and by her alertness to possible deception in her image of herself as a child. An outburst of emotion provides a second daring and abrupt transition from Helen to Sophronia: “Oh, Sophronia, it's you I want back always. It's by you I still so often measure, guess, transmute, translate and act” (Three, 255). The outcry moves us into two sharply realized incidents involving Sophronia and the child, Lilly, followed by a shift back to Helen gazing at a photograph of Sophronia and young Lilly and finding a protective love there that Hellman herself had not seen in all her fifty years of living with the photograph. From this base (the first half of the chapter), Hellman moves to consider other black/white relationships in her life, presented in narration and dramatic vignettes. The chapter ends with a final reconsideration of the overlap of black and white worlds in American society. At one point she crosses the invisible line between them into a guarded all-black world, and Helen roughly thrusts her back into neutral territory. Hellman intuits and evokes an unknown black world of shadows thrown by her own lighted experience, but she cannot enter or understand it, nor does she try.

I have hoped to suggest something of the complexity of an autobiographical style and form which Hellman casually refers to as “stream-of-consciousness.” I do not wish to label it, but that label is surely incorrect. In “Helen” Lillian Hellman finds and presents many overlapping selves in a variety of places and times in relationship with two dead black women, and she enters upon a new and life-giving love and understanding of them, of herself, and of human experience. We begin to see, not merely through a glass darkly, but in a transparency of vision, placed in time but free from its distortions and tyrannies. Hellman turns flotsam and jetsam—scraps on the surface of life or partially buried by tidal ebb and flow—to present possession and wholeness. Hellman's past, with its distinctive shades and passions, comes alive in the present, illuminating present life in a new structure of understanding and emotional balance—a fresh sense of identity. Hellman would not claim transcendence of place and time for her art—her position is too rigorously existential for that. Rather, self is found—or perhaps only a small part of self—for right now in participation by Hellman and her involved readers in the on-going process of making art and thereby making life.

Hellman's work has helped move autobiography as a literary form into our time. Her autobiographical materials have shifted from dates and historical records to memory and its processes. Voice has shifted from objective, if personal, narration to presented and involved writer/protagonist, acting, creating, revising, speculating, and questioning. From a frustrated modernist style, Hellman has moved to multilayered pentimento and to baffling tone-poem. As a quest for self and for answerable autobiographical style and form, Hellman's is a significant achievement in contemporary autobiography and a provocative probing of philosophical issues basic to the development of autobiography as a literary form.


  1. All citations of Hellman's autobiographical writing will follow this form, giving book title and page numbers in parentheses. References are to Three (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), a one volume collection of An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time, intro. by Richard Poirier, with new commentaries by the author.

  2. Life History and the Historical Moment (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 20.

  3. (New Haven: Yale U. P., 1980), pp. 5-6, 32-3, and passim.

  4. Maybe (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), pp. 51-2.

  5. Richard Moody, Lillian Hellman, Playwright (New York: Pegasus, 1972), pp. 4-5.

  6. Ibid., pp. 270-1.

  7. (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 154-5.

Anita Susan Grossman (essay date spring 1985)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Anita Susan. “Art versus Truth in Autobiography: The Case of Lillian Hellman.” CLIO 14, no. 3 (spring 1985): 289-308.

[In the following essay, Grossman examines the common technique of autobiographers and memoirists deliberately dramatizing and occasionally falsifying information for the sake of artistic integrity and the ways Hellman used this method in her own memoirs.]

The forthcoming appearance of Lillian Hellman's biography by her longtime editor, William Abrahams, promises to shed some new light on a literary figure who has frequently been a subject of controversy. The outline of her long career which ended in June 1984 is now well known: the years as a successful playwright in the 1930s, beginning with The Children's Hour and continuing with The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine; her thirty-year on-again off-again relationship with Dashiell Hammett; her appearance in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which led to years of being blacklisted for refusing to testify; her comeback on Broadway with the production of her play Toys in the Attic; and, beginning in 1969 in her seventh decade of life, her new success as a writer of memoirs with An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1972), and Scoundrel Time (1974). The publication of the last-named account of her life during the McCarthy era raised a storm of criticism after the initial laudatory reviews, and led to questions about her veracity as an autobiographer that remain unanswered today. To many of her critics she seemed to have minimized her own Stalinist politics during the 1930s and 40s while lashing out at anti-Communist liberals among her contemporaries; more generally, she was accused of reducing a complex era in American political history to the crudest melodrama with herself as heroine. The work occasioned further unpleasantness for the author when her publisher, Little, Brown, attempted to stop publication of Diana Trilling's We Must March My Darlings after the author refused to delete from it a few passages mildly critical of Scoundrel Time. (Trilling quickly found another publisher when Little, Brown broke their contract with her, but the publicity reflected badly on Hellman, who had presented herself as a champion of free speech in Scoundrel Time.) Worse yet was the feud which developed with Mary MacCarthy, who had called Hellman a liar on national television and was promptly slapped with a suit—still pending at the time of Hellman's death—for having caused her mental anguish (that is to say, for slander).

Since that time Hellman's reliability as a memoirist has been attacked in other quarters. In a 1981 Paris Review article, Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway's third wife, contested the unflattering portrait of the writer given by Hellman in An Unfinished Woman, offering a point-by-point rebuttal of her account of their meetings during the Spanish Civil War. For Gellhorn, as for other critics, Hellman was attempting to glorify herself by making others (in this case, Hemingway) look like knaves and fools. Along with this was yet another dispute concerning Hellman's veracity—the long-held suspicion that the “Julia” episode in Pentimento, made into a successful film in 1978, was fiction, not fact. Critics both friendly and unfriendly have raised the suggestion over the years, most recently after the 1983 publication of Muriel Gardiner's book about her real-life work in the anti-Nazi underground which parallels some of the exploits of Julia (who Hellman claimed was killed by the Nazis in 1938).

With hindsight it is easy to see that Scoundrel Time, as a political memoir, was bound to be controversial because of the strong passions still aroused by its subject-matter. The book reopened old wounds among writers of the Left, and revealed the extent of the split between the younger generation of revisionist historians and the older generation of anti-Communist liberals. Indeed, while reading reviews of Scoundrel Time and other books about the period, such as Victor S. Navasky's Naming Names (1982)—an account of the testimony offered by “friendly witnesses” in the entertainment industry—one is astonished to find opinion so polarized that there is not even consensus on what should be matters of sheer fact, let alone interpretation. Did the Committee really need any of the information publicly given by the witnesses it summoned, or did it have it all already, and the testimony was simply a “degradation ritual,” as Navasky and others contend? Was the influence of the Communist Party in the post-war years to any degree a legitimate subject of public concern? Did most American liberals betray their own principles by failing to attack McCarthyism and by not rushing to the defense of those HUAC witnesses who claimed the Fifth Amendment? And what of Hellman's refusal to answer the question of whether she was a member of the Communist party in 1949, when she denied that she had been one when separately questioned about 1950, 1951, and 1952? For Sidney Hook, one of her fiercest critics, it signifies that she was not as candid with the Committee—or with her later readers—as she would appear to be; for another writer, Bernard Dick, it simply means that Hellman was “so rattled that she took the Fifth Amendment when she did not have to.”1 In short, whether one sees her as a heroine or not depends a good deal on how one views the period; judgment of her account seems to depend on the political persuasion of the reviewer. Some saw her as a figure of uncompromised integrity; others detected a lack of generosity towards others in her writing—a failing Hellman readily admits to and takes pride in. (When Scoundrel Time was republished along with the two earlier memoirs in a volume entitled Three in 1979, she wrote of herself in an afterword that “you do not forgive people.”)

For all these reasons An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento would seem to be safer critical grounds on which to discuss Hellman's veracity as an autobiographer. Although both works, especially the earlier memoir, deal with Hellman's political commitments and sympathies, they are more concerned with her personal life and, if not more easily subject to factual verification, at least would tend to engender fewer passions. In any case, Martha Gellhorn's violent objections to Hellman's memoirs is all the more surprising. It would take far too long to detail all of her charges against Hellman, but some of the anecdotes she considers self-serving fabrications of the author are as follows:

  1. Hellman's description of the Hollywood party she helped give in 1938 for the screening of The Spanish Earth (just made by Hemingway and Joris Ivens), where Hemingway vented his ill-temper, much to the distress of an already shaky Scott Fitzgerald. Gellhorn points out that Hellman first met Hemingway in Paris some weeks after the only Hollywood showing of the film in July 1937, which Hellman could not have attended.
  2. Hellman's claim in Pentimento that she and the financier Arthur Cowan sent money to an impoverished friend, Gustav Regler, who was ill in Paris after the Spanish Civil War. In fact, Gellhorn notes, Regler was released in 1939 from a concentration camp in Vernet through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt and subsequently lived in Mexico; although his autobiography lists the many friends who helped him, it does not mention Hellman: “Where did that money of Miss Hellman's and Mr. Cowan's go?” she asks.
  3. Hellman's accounts of her trip from Paris to Moscow via Berlin in 1937, as given in both An Unfinished Woman and the “Julia” section of Pentimento. Gellhorn, checking her own records of their meeting in Paris, and the timetables Hellman gives, notes that the chronology is simply impossible. For example, Hellman could not have enjoyed the Moscow Theater Festival production of Hamlet, as she claimed, because the Festival took place a month before the earliest date Hellman could have been in Moscow—and that besides, there was no production of Hamlet in Moscow that year (only in Leningrad).
  4. Hellman's general portrayal of Hemingway as having “danced attendance on her,” particularly during her last night in Paris before the trip to Moscow. According to An Unfinished Woman, Hemingway pounded on her door with the proofs of To Have and Have Not, asking her to read it and give her critical opinion. She obliged, reading through the night. Later he told her that he wished he could sleep with her but could not, since he was already involved with someone else. Gellhorn reminds us that Hellman presents an entirely different account of the same night in “Julia,” where Hellman tells that she said goodbye to her friends Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell and went to bed early, sleeping through the night and rising early to catch the morning train. Moreover, Hemingway had already read his proofs for the novel before sailing for Paris.
  5. Hellman's description of an evening spent in October 1937 173Madrid with Hemingway, Gellhorn, and two other friends, during which time the others went out to the balcony to “enjoy” the spectacle of the bombardment of the city, while the terrified Hellman huddled on the sofa. Later, however, she left them to make a broadcast from the radio station, even though she had just heard that the station had been bombed and that it would have been too dangerous to ride out there. Hemingway whispered to her, “So you have cojones, after all; I didn't think so upstairs,” and Hellman notes that “I kept wanting to tell him that I would have gone into far more dangerous places to get out of that apartment that night.” False on every count, says Gellhorn, including even what Hellman claims they ate for dinner. There was no bombing of Madrid that night, according to both her memory of the evening and the contemporary newspaper accounts; and had there been, their behavior would have been different from that of the “monsters” Hellman depicts. Nor would there have been anything to see since incendiary shells were not used in Spain, and if any windows were opened during a bombing, it was simply because plate glass was irreplaceable. Lastly, if the radio station was being hit, Hellman could not have broadcast from it that night (“Miss H. cannot have rushed into a rain of shells to do her superb bit for the Republic at a microphone that was not operational”); moreover, if Hellman had actually driven to the station through such a bombing, she would have described the trip in detail. Instead, such description of the shellings that Hellman gives us sounds more like romantic imaginings than the real thing.

What, then, are we to make of Gellhorn's claims? Offered space to reply by Paris Review editor George Plimpton, Hellman declined to say anything, unlike Stephen Spender, who was also criticized by Gellhorn for creating Hemingway “apocrypha,” but who attempted to rebut her assertions.2 Certainly Gellhorn's attack would have been more convincing had it been less obviously ill-tempered, badly organized and long-winded. Moreover, from the exchange with Spender we learn that Gellhorn is apt to forget facts herself: her categorical denial of ever having met Spender's first wife—or even heard of her—is answered by Spender's account of their luncheon together, along with details of an additional meeting, which gives us less than total confidence in Gellhorn's memory. Still, even when the fallibility of memory is taken into account and we remind ourselves that we are all the heroes and heroines of our own autobiographies, we are left with the uneasy feeling that Hellman has rewritten her own history out of the desire for self-glorification.

One should note parenthetically that there is a certain irony in Gellhorn's attacking Hellman for caricaturing Hemingway after his death when he could not defend himself. Did not Hemingway do much the same to others in his posthumously published A Movable Feast a decade before, where he presented Scott Fitzgerald obsessed with an adolescent anxiety about the length of his penis, Pauline Pfeiffer as a predatory femme fatale breaking up the happy marriage of Ernest and Hadley Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein engaged in unsavory (sado-masochistic?) rituals with her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas? In the case of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway was getting back at her for her earlier portrayal of him in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as an immature young writer and unwilling father-to-be, unsure of everything save his wholehearted admiration for the older, successful Gertrude. (One has a certain feeling of compassion for the hapless Hemingway, skewered early and late in the memoirs of such formidable women.) All three autobiographers can be said to have engaged in self-promotion, although Stein is the most high-spirited and least censorious, her distortions of fact being more in the interests of comedy.

At any rate, Hellman's memoirs have been questioned over the years (more politely but just as insistently) on other grounds than those that Gellhorn chose to discuss. Reviewers of both An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento have occasionally suggested that the memory pieces “read like fiction” because of their dramatic vividness and clipped dialogue of conversations recalled verbatim forty years after the fact. Nowhere is this so true as in “Julia,” with its suspenseful action and its mythic heroine, a millionaire American socialist who comes to Vienna to study medicine and joins the anti-Nazi underground. After losing a leg in the 1934 right-wing riots, she is visited in the hospital by Hellman and later gets Hellman to smuggle $50,000 across the German border during her next visit to the Continent. She dies heroically in 1938, her mutilated body lying unclaimed in London until Hellman arrives to take charge. Her illegitimate child, named Lilly, is presumably left to die in Occupied France by Julia's uncaring American relations, for when Hellman attempts to contact them about the child, they threaten legal action.

From the beginning of her career, Hellman always had a penchant for melodrama and a tendency to view people according to simple moral categories. This is especially true of “Julia,” with its stark opposition of good and evil. There are the heroic few, like Julia and Hellman, who struggle against fascism, and the corrupt many, who betray Julia or her memory: her former lover, the father of her child; her idle mother, living the good life at the expense of others; her snobbish grandparents, who want no part of Julia or her child; the false friend, Ann Marie, a shallow society woman; and Ann Marie's brother, who insults Hellman for her friendship with Julia, implying that they are lesbians. Even Hellman's friend Dorothy Parker, who was with her in Paris in 1937, here represents, along with her husband, a pleasure-loving frivolity that seems almost morally culpable in comparison with Hellman's dangerous mission. Those who feel that life offers more complex choices than the either/or situation presented in “Julia” may feel irritated by the sentimentality of its vision, and dismiss the story as hopelessly contrived.

But aside from the stereotypes and melodrama of “Julia,” there were other indications of fictionality. One was the strong similarity between the character Julia and a woman friend Hellman briefly mentions as “Alice” in An Unfinished Woman of whom she says, “Her father was a rich Jew from Detroit and she was already started on the road to Marxism that would lead her, as a student doctor, to be killed in the Vienna riots of 1934.”3 Clearly the two figures seem to be the same woman, revived in “Julia” for further antifascist adventures under a new name. Then, too, there was the deliberate lack of surnames in a memoir that otherwise bristles with them. Hellman claimed in “Julia” that she did this out of fear of litigation from Julia's surviving relations and because she was not sure, even now, that Germans honored their premature anti-fascists. As John Simon has pointed out, both arguments are implausible, and what casts further doubt on the story is that no one, after the publicity generated by the 1978 film, stepped forward with information to identify Julia. Even the film's director, Fred Zinnemann, when questioned by a skeptical London Times interviewer, conceded, “It's difficult to understand how a wealthy American woman, presumably a woman of a well-known family, could have been so ill-used by the Nazis without some kind of outcry being raised.”4

When in fact someone did appear in 1981 to confirm a part of Hellman's story, it only served to cast further suspicion on Hellman's veracity. Muriel Gardiner's autobiographical account of her life in the anti-Nazi underground pre-War Austria, Code Name “Mary,” had many striking parallels with Julia's life: a background of great wealth, an Oxford degree followed by medical school and psychiatric training in Vienna (with a disciple of Freud rather than with the master himself, as Julia had), and a splendid record of heroism in helping to smuggle victims of the Nazis out of Austria—all of this while being a single mother of a young daughter from a brief early marriage. The parallels were enough to convince Gardiner that she was, at least in part, the model for Julia, especially in view of the fact that although she and Hellman had never met, they shared for many years a mutual friend, the late attorney Wolf Schwabacher, who related stories of the theatrical life to Gardiner and presumably had the opportunity to tell Hellman of Gardiner's exploits in Vienna. She wrote to Hellman in October 1976 asking whether Julia was a composite figure based in part on her experience, but received no reply; when questioned by the New York Times about the letter from Gardiner, Hellman said that she did not remember receiving it. “She may have been the model for somebody else's Julia, but she was certainly not the model for my Julia,” she remarked to the Times.5

Hellman's denial of any relationship of her account to the life of Gardiner is understandable, for she had an enormous investment in claiming that the story of Julia is real and just as she has told it. For one thing, Gardiner's story belies the tragic, bitter moral of “Julia”: she escaped Austria to have a long and distinguished career as a psychiatrist; she found enduring love with her third husband, Joseph Budinger, leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialist Party, whom she met in the 1930s; her child, Connie, far from being murdered in France, is now herself the mother of six children in Aspen, Colorado. Gardiner's account of her adventures in Austria is flatter and less artfully narrated than Hellman's. Even so, for all its occasional dullness and mass of detail, it reminds us that people are far more complex than Hellman would have them. To cite a small example, Gardiner discovered that some of her fellow conspirators were morally obtuse and even inept at their underground activities—unlike the efficient group of heroes shepherding Hellman on the train ride across Europe with her smuggled cash.

Hellman instead chose to write a morality play about good and evil, and as a result painted herself into a corner: “I think I have always known about my memory: I know when it is to be trusted and when some dream or fantasy entered on the life, and the dream, the need of dream, led to distortion of what happened. … But I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia,” she writes in the story. In later interviews she remained rock-like in her insistence on the truthfulness of her memories: to a Rolling Stone reporter she said that writing “Julia” was difficult but that “nothing on God's earth could have shaken my memory about her.”6 In fact, the evidence points strongly to Hellman's fictionalizing in “Julia,” using the story of Muriel Gardiner, combined perhaps with features of a real-life friend from her youth in New York, to create simultaneously the effects of mystery and veracity. The story of Julia's life gradually unfolds in the course of Hellman's elliptical narrative using flashbacks which relate the story on several levels of time, ending with a party in 1952 where she met the son of Julia's family's lawyer. In an afterword to the story, when it was reprinted in Three (1979), Hellman lets drop further tantalizing hints to deepen the mystery and substantiate her claims for the truthfulness of the story: only one person half-guessed the true identity of Julia, and the son of the English doctor to whose office the dying Julia was brought, calls Hellman up when she is in London years later to baffle her with his equivocations and secrecy. (She does learn from him, however, that Julia's child was definitely murdered by the Germans.) All these sequelae further the portrayal of Hellman herself as a heroine attempting to discover the truth about Julia and her child. Just as the living Julia stood for truth. Hellman, in recounting the story of her friend and seeking to locate the missing daughter, participates by extension in her noble mission. Needless to say, the entire effect of the story—its heroic portrayal of Julia and Hellman, and its air of mystery—depends on the assertion of Julia's real-life existence. Once we perceive that “Julia” is indeed a work of fiction, and that Hellman may well have fictionalized some of the other episodes in her memoirs, we read the pieces very differently. We may perhaps enjoy them as much, and be more appreciative of Hellman's creative powers; or we may instead simply feel disillusioned, seeing the “Julia” episode as a meaningless exercise in sentimental melodrama. In either case her work now belongs to a different realm of discourse. Is such fictionalizing a legitimate prerequisite of the autobiographer, or are we to agree with Martha Gellhorn that Hellman is an “apocryphiar?”

For Hellman apologists like Bernard Dick, there is no problem at all. She has fictionalized, but never mind: “Hellman was not aiming for factual accuracy in her memoirs; she was seeking the essence of events,” he claims as though there were a natural antipathy between “facts” on the one hand and “the essence of events” on the other. (Do we live in a Platonic universe in which earthly life as we know it is but a dim shadow of the real?) At another point he attempts another argument: “What Gellhorn keeps forgetting is that Hellman is not writing history, and that what might be reprehensible to a journalist might not be to a literary critic,”7 implying that autobiographers need not be called on to tell the truth and that Gellhorn's insistence on veracity is merely the idosyncrasy of her particular profession (we all have our narrow specialities). The same arguments have appeared of late in more general form in the work of literary critics of autobiography, who find the reader's intuitive expectations of veracity evidence of a naive and benighted literalism; for them a person who inquires as to the truth-value of an autobiography is cousin to the puritan who centuries ago scorned art for not being “true.” Unlike biography, autobiography for these writers is inherently subjective and therefore must give up all claims to historicity. In the words of Georges Gusdorf, one of the most influential theoreticians of autobiography, “One must choose a side and give up all pretense of objectivity, abandoning a sort of false scientific attitude that would judge a work by the precision of its details”; in autobiography “the literary, artistic function is … of greater importance than the historic and objective function.”8 Another critic, James Olney, holds a more extreme position; in one of his most recent essays, “How Many Children Had Jean-Jacques Rousseau?,”9 he dismisses as misguided any concern with the historical truth of Rousseau's Confessions and insists that we should concentrate rather on its aesthetic, narrative values. To do otherwise is to be nearly as simple-minded as some earlier readers who discussed Shakespeare's characters as though they had a separate existence outside the text.

It is easy to see why such critics should want to argue for the aesthetic autonomy of autobiography, once we understand their concomitant desire to expand the traditional definition of autobiography to include any work, whether prose or verse, narrative or non-narrative, in which the self-reflective element is present. (Lyric poems, for example, become fair game, so we should not be surprised to find Professor Olney discussing T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets as a specimen of autobiography in his study Metaphors of Self; indeed, by such a definition few literary works would not qualify as autobiography.) Any aggrandizement of their subject-matter naturally reflects credit on the critics themselves: by annexing further, more varied territory to their purview, they can stress autobiography's more creative aspects and glory in its (newfound) aesthetic autonomy. Accordingly, they have been forced to downplay or ignore the element of factuality essential to the traditional definition of the genre; hence the claim that biography and autobiography are diametrically opposed activities, one dealing with the objective and the other with the subjective. To quote Gusdorf again,

We must, therefore, … give up thinking about autobiography in the same way as we do an objective biography, regulated only by the requirements of the genre of history. Every autobiography is a work of art and at the same time a work of enlightenment; it does not show us the individual seen from outside in his visible actions but the person in his inner privacy, not as he was, not as he is, but as he believes and wishes himself to be and to have been [emphasis added].10

If the autobiographer wishes to appear in a certain way that is utterly repudiated by contemporary witnesses, so much the worse for them: historical truth is of little value to the memoirist, who is apparently free to dispense with it entirely.

Of course, when we have so defined autobiography to include much of what was formerly termed imaginative literature, only the most misguided of philistines would insist on any obligation to literal veracity; but when discussing those works that have always been known as autobiography, the critics also take care to reason away any ethical obligation on the part of the autobiographer. Their argument is based on the fact that autobiography is by its very nature a work of selection, interpretation, and imaginative re-creation—in short, what the critic Roy Pascal has called a combination of “truth” and “design,” each of which imposes its limitations on the other.11 Going beyond this rather commonsensical view, they argue that we can never “remember” our past, for, as Heraclitus has observed, you cannot step into the same river twice, and the very act of recalling the past (assuming we could recall it) alters our perception of it. Therefore, argues Olney, “we are left with a present no doubt formed by the past but utterly sundered from it. … In the act of remembering the past in the present, the autobiographer imagines into existence another person, another world, and surely it is not the same in any real sense, as that past world that does not, under any circumstances, nor however much we may wish it, now exist.”12

Thus denied the possibility of any meaningful knowledge of the past and/or the means to convey it in language, the autobiographer is freed to be as creative as he likes in dealing with his past, presenting, in Gusdorf's phrase, the past as “he wished it to have been”; indeed, such distortions may allow the autobiographer to express the “true” or “essential” nature of his lie in contrast to the mere “facts.” Here we are back in the realm of Platonic essences invoked by Bernard Dick in discussing Hellman, and it is a favorite argument of current theorists. Yeats's notoriously unreliable anecdotes in his Autobiographies are described by Olney as portraying “a truer truth than fact, a deeper reality than history. … how various people would speak and act if their speech and action were always in keeping with their deepest character” (“Ontology,” 263). Or, as one critic has written of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her flights of imagination allowed her to escape “the tyranny of time and memory” and transcend “the merely subjective of egotistical identity” by “dramatizing her position at the center of movements in art and literature”: Stein “idealized, even advertised herself as a mature, established, normal, successful, and above all, serene writer … the prophet of new art, presiding over the creation of twentieth-century art and literature.”13 That the idealized self-portrait which allowed her such transcendence was at times at variance with the facts and caused pain to the named individuals misrepresented in it is supremely irrelevant.

In extolling the creative power of the autobiographical imagination, critics tend to stress the activity of consciousness or memory rather than the product of such activity; it is no coincidence that Elizabeth Bruss's influential book is titled Autobiographical Acts. As Olney has noted in his brief history of autobiographical criticism in “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment,” there has been a shift of critical attention from the bios to the autos in “autobiography,” a fascination with the self “and its profound, its endless mysteries.”14 (I am here referring to the middle-of-the-road critics like Olney and Gusdorf rather than the poststructuralist and deconstructionist critics for whom autobiography, like other forms of literature, is impossible, where intentionality is abolished, and a text is completely divorced from its author.) Such an approach would seem to run the risk of ignoring the rhetorical function of autobiography vis-à-vis its audience in favor of speculative generalities on language, epistemology, and ontology. One may detect here, too, a tendency toward a neo-romantic glorification of subjectivity. Readers of M. H. Abrams's classic history, The Mirror and the Lamp, will recall his apt metaphor for the change of critical consciousness in the late eighteenth century, by which a mimetic theory of art was replaced by a doctrine of inspiration: instead of holding a glass up to nature, the poet himself (the lamp) became the center of attention, and his subject-matter was his own feelings. The notion of truth to objective reality has little place in such a schema, any more than it does in contemporary definitions of autobiography. Yet, autobiography as it is traditionally known, does make certain claims to veracity, and so to say that the autobiographer, like Sir Philip Sidney's poet, cannot lie because he “nothing affirmeth” is simply wrong. Autobiographers do make factual claims and thus are theoretically capable of lying, although far more frequently it is a case of honest mistake of self-delusion. (Most lies are committed under some kind of duress, and few of us are under compulsion to produce our autobiographies.)

Moreover, in their zeal for claiming aesthetic autonomy for autobiography, such critics ignore the fact that works of art are hardly as autonomous as we sometimes think, for we habitually judge literature by values other than aesthetic ones. For example, if we find a writer's beliefs strongly at variance with our own, we may be repelled by the work itself, regardless of the genius which produced it (think of Pound's and Eliot's anti-Semitism); we do not come to literature as empty vessels waiting to be filled. Even in the supposedly aesthetically autonomous realms of painting, sculpture, and music—where, by their nonverbal nature, matters of veracity would be irrelevant—historical considerations inevitably influence our judgment. Thus we ascribe lower value to forgeries, even the most expert, because they lack the historical dimension that belongs only to an original work of art.15 (One might also note that scholarly journals as a rule demand biographical data on their would-be contributors, and are not prepared to pass judgment on essays submitted anonymously.)

All the more do we require external clues as to how to read a work of autobiography, and in the absence of any authorial indications to the contrary, correlate the claims made by the writer with what we know of his or her past life from other sources. Frequently the results are instructive. The reader who turns from Richard Wright's moving account of his youth, Black Boy, to the work of his various biographers will find a host of discrepancies, so that Michel Fabré in The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright can note casually by way of explaining his methods that his sources for his opening chapter are “certain episodes from the second draft of Black Boy that have not been disproven by evidence from other sources.”16 Among the details Wright fictionalized, apparently, was the episode of his uncle Silas Hoskins driving a carriage containing Richard and himself into the river, a prank which frightens the young child. According to another Wright biographer, Constance Webb, the episode never happened to Wright but rather was something told him in later life by his friend Ralph Ellison.17 (The case of Gertrude Stein has already been mentioned. Upon the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her brother Leo's response was, “God, what a liar she is!” and her former colleagues on the magazine transition devoted a supplementary number of an issue to rebutting her portrayal of them in her work.)18 Every reader has his own point at which an autobiographer's artistic shaping of his past exceeds the limits of rhetorical purpose to become fictionalizing; such fictionalizing may involve the omission of significant details as well as the invention of others. In Wright's case, for example, Fabré has shown how the novelist systematically excluded from his autobiography information about his cordial relations in his youth with some Southern whites since it would tend to work against his overall aim of depicting the destructiveness of racism on his life. Indeed, so close were his contacts with one white family (where, according to his biographer, “he met with more understanding than from his own family”)19 that his encounters with racism elsewhere were all the more shocking for his having been sheltered from it—a more interesting and subtle irony than the monochromatic picture of terror given in Black Boy.

The temptation to fictionalize may be well-nigh overpowering for a novelist or playwright accustomed to shaping his material and rewriting scenes to improve their effectiveness. Even those prose writers more interested in ideas than art may present a view of their past refracted through the prism of ideology and thus be tempted to alter incidents to make their rhetorical points more effective. Both aesthetic and ideological considerations seem to have been at work in the memoirs of Wright and Hellman. How dramatically appropriate that young Richard was compelled to quit his job as an optometrist's assistant after death threats from his white fellow-workers, instead of merely leaving this summer job to resume high school in the fall, as Fabré reports; how fitting that Julia's wealthy relations, true to their Marxist role in the class struggle, should be unrelievedly repellent, unlike Muriel Gardiner's family (and most other people we know).

On the other hand, one might ask what all the fuss is about over such lapses from veracity, since fact and fiction are so intermingled in contemporary autobiography that the line between novel and memoir would seem to be nonexistent.20 Much of the later writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example, has a quasi-factual framework based on his earlier life, whereas his latest volume of memoirs, Lost in America, is also somewhat fictionalized: Singer admits this himself in the preface, where he remarks that the book is “no more than fiction set against a background of truth.” To take a younger writer, Maxine Hong Kingston, in her much-praised The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts about her Chinese-American childhood, recounts her dreams and fantasies as a woman warrior in such detail that the reader is forced to perceive that the work is more a present-day meditation on a theme from her past than a literally factual account. And what are we to make of Anatoli Kuznetzov's work, Babi Yar, subtitled “a document in the form of a novel,” and opening with the sentence, “This book contains nothing but the truth?” One could multiply examples endlessly, including Lillian Hellman's last autobiographical volume, Maybe (1980), a testament to the fallibility of memory, which coyly refuses to attest to its own veracity. (The book's packaging, including the subtitle “a story” and a jacket blurb describing it as “drawn, it would seem, from life,” reinforces our sense of its generic ambiguity.)

We might then conceivably argue that the difference between fictionalizing and falsifying in autobiography lies simply in how the reader is meant to perceive the work—that is, whether we are informed, either explicitly or implicitly, of departures from literal fact. As William Hale White—himself the author of a fictitious autobiography—once wrote, “The point is what do people understand us to mean when we use certain words? Nobody supposes that a man is really dear to us when we say ‘Dear Sir’.”21 However, the question of determining the implied authorial intent is itself problematic—what may be an implied admission of fictionalizing may vary from reader to reader—and even when we are told unequivocally that the author has fictionalized, the mingling of fact and fiction in autobiography raises some serious questions of interpretation. Inasmuch as we are aware that the writer has fictionalized, we may admire the work, but are distanced from it: it is as though there is an inverse relationship between aesthetic coherence and verisimilitude.22

To be sure, our various responses to fact and fiction in literature are not all that simple: the human mind is flexible enough to accommodate different kinds and degrees of “belief” in a work of fiction. How else can we explain our different expectations for various literary genres across the spectrum from tales of fantasy and the supernatural through realistic fiction to historical or docu-drama? All types of fiction may be said to involve the willing suspension of disbelief, but to different degrees and to different ends; we only ask that the works in question be internally consistent. At the same time, there seems to be a primary distinction in the belief we accord works of fact and fiction, and the particular claim made by autobiography—to the degree that it is autobiography and not some other literary form—is to veracity to the best of the writer's knowledge. Unlike fiction and drama, where extra-textual matters are only of secondary interest and the writer can stand aloof and godlike, paring his fingernails over his creation (no matter how autobiographical the fictional material may actually be), the narrative in autobiography moves both centripetally and centrifugally, the “I” of the autobiographer existing both within and outside the text—and, as such, vulnerable to the remonstrances of contemporaries and the prying of biographers.

This is not to say that the autobiographer should be treated with automatic suspicion like a prisoner in the dock, his most trivial assertions requiring external verification. But just as one naturally looks for internal coherence within the text and perceives the self-portrait the writer has constructed from the totality of images he gives us, one may also need the additional perspective afforded by biography or history in order to make sense of his story—that is, to evaluate it in the proper context. Certainly in the case of a political figure like Hellman, one needs to know something of the period she is discussing, particularly in a polemical work like Scoundrel Time, with its accusations against her contemporaries and her dramatic presentation of her own behavior. In reading the book one cannot wholly separate the literary from the extra-literary experience: instead we are forced to take a stand on the case she presents. The passionate critics of Hellman's autobiographical writings may have been wrongheaded and biased by their own political orientation, but they paid the author the ultimate compliment of taking her ideas seriously, unlike those for whom she is merely a literary icon. Among the latter critics is Linda W. Wagner, in “Lillian Hellman: Autobiography and Truth,”23 who sees no disharmony between the demands of art and veracity in Hellman's writing, and who blandly ignores the controversy swirling around so much of her work. At times Wagner contends that historical truth is irrelevant to Hellman's purpose, since she is attempting to capture a more subjective truth than that of historical fact, one that must be re-created by the literary imagination—a reasonable contention, as far as it goes—but in dealing with Scoundrel Time, a work whose claims to historical veracity would be hard to ignore, Wagner simply assumes that Hellman's account is unquestionably the last word on the subject and that it presents no problem in interpretation. As a result, Wagner has to resort to political demonology to explain the hostility the book aroused: Scoundrel Time was “maligned” (note the verb) because Hellman, in her forthright way, “named names” of those intellectuals who behaved dishonorably during the McCarthy era, and they naturally rushed to attack her in their reviews. Nor does Wagner have any trouble with the introduction by Gary Wills, which, as she serenely puts it, gives the historical context for Hellman's account. (A born-again revisionist, having come from the far right of the political spectrum, Wills now feels that Harry Truman unilaterally started both the Cold War and the Korean War.) It apparently escaped Wagner's attention that Hellman's choice of Wills to introduce her work was a political act; as a best-selling author of Little, Brown of long standing, she obviously had editorial control over the introduction to her book and must have approved the version of recent history given by Mr. Wills, one which was almost universally condemned for its bias and intemperance. Critics more sensitive to political overtones also had no trouble connecting the fierceness of Hellman's denunciation of American intellectuals for their lack of moral fiber and her own lukewarm disavowal of the Stalinism she espoused long after most other intellectuals had abandoned it. (Many recalled her staunch defense of the Moscow trials, her applause at the Russian invasion of Finland, her participation in the 1949 Waldorf Conference.) I do not want to belabor the inadequacies of Wagner's discussion, or to attack Hellman's politics, but merely to point out the limitations of the ahistoric approach to this kind of autobiography. If the writer evinces an understandable partiality in her account, this does not excuse the critic from exercising reasonable judgment so as to be aware of possible distortion.24

It is entirely understandable that, after the bitter disputes occasioned by Scoundrel Time, Lillian Hellman retreated into the quasifictional form and purely private content of her last autobiographical work. With Maybe there was no chance that anyone would come forth to contest her account because the matters narrated therein are so shadowy to begin with: Sarah Cameron, her friends and family, are seen through a blur of time and contradictory evidence, and the whole book is testimony to the impossibility of ever knowing anything real about such a mysterious, distant figure. Hellman's own inability to learn the truth about Sarah is evidently meant to have metaphysical reverberations for us, the readers, and give us a sense of the ultimate elusiveness of truth. (Hellman uses the poor vision that has afflicted her later years to symbolic effect here.) Unfortunately, the slightness of the story cannot sustain the weight of import it was intended to bear, as Hellman herself admits halfway through the book when she asks, “Why am I writing about Sarah? I really only began to think about her a few years ago, and then not often. Although I always rather liked her, she is of no importance to my life and never was. I do not know the truth about her or much of what I write here.”25 By denying that her given subject-matter was either real or important to her, Hellman undemines the very structure she is erecting and works against her considerable gifts as a narrator. The book seems especially uncharacteristic of a writer who is best known for her uncompromising stand on issues and her passionate commitment, whether to individuals or causes. On the other hand, her last work can be seen as the logical extension of the tendency toward fiction already present in her earlier volumes: there, too, we found the famous elliptical, laconic style, the deliberate blurring of chronology, the juxtaposition of fragments of experience which lift her account out of the here and now to take on the dimensions of myth. The relative failure of Maybe was in the execution rather than in its conception as a literary experiment per se.26 That is, for all of her mystification about the Camerons, Hellman simply had not come up with a subject which could lay claim to significance, at least in the form she gave it. What was needed, perhaps, was more invention rather than less.

It remains to be seen whether Hellman left behind further autobiographical fragments for eventual publication which will cause us to reevaluate her collection of memoirs. Through the controversies attendant on her first three volumes, she found autobiography to be a risky business, particularly when—as in the case of “Julia” and Scoundrel Time—her need for a coherent aesthetic and moral vision went against the expectations of documentary veracity inherent in her chosen form. Perhaps such a conflict is inevitable in all memoirs by literary figures, with hers merely an extreme example of a general condition. Whatever the case, it seems likely that the issue of truth in autobiography raised by her work will continue to arouse debate among her readers for years to come.


  1. See Sidney Hook, “Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time,Encounter, Feb. 1977, 87 and Bernard F. Dick, Hellman in Hollywood (Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1983), 155.

  2. The Gellhorn critique appeared in the Paris Review, 23 (Spring 1981):281-309, and Spender's rebuttal immediately afterwards in the same issue.

  3. Quotations from Hellman, unless otherwise indicated, are from Three: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), in this case 54. Bernard Dick points out the resemblance between “Julia” and “Alice” in Hellman in Hollywood, 160.

  4. See John Simon, “Literary Lionesses,” National Review, 16 May 1980, 615-16; Zinnemann is quoted by Philip Oakes in “Looking for the Lady,” London Times, Sunday, 6 Nov. 1977, 35a.

  5. Edwin McDowell, “Publishing: New Memoir Stirs ‘Julia’ Controversy,” New York Times, 29 Apr. 1981, C30. Stephen Spender, in his review of Code Name “Mary” in the London Review of Books, 7-20 July 1983, 16, argued strongly that Gardiner was the unacknowledged model for Hellman's “Julia.” (Spender himself had been personally involved with Gardiner in Vienna in the 1930s, and their affair is described both in her book and in Spender's 1953 memoir, World Within World, where she is called “Elizabeth.”) The latest attack on the authenticity of the “Julia” story, by Samuel McCracken in the June 1984 Commentary (“‘Julia’ & Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman,” 35-43), notes that many of the details of Hellman's account of her travels through Europe are contradicted by contemporary records, so that, for example, she could not have gone from Paris to Berlin in the manner and at the times of day that she claimed, according to the monthly train schedules for 1937; nor is her name on the passenger list for the DeGrasse, the ship she says she took back to America in 1938. Moreover, McCracken's inquiries to Scotland Yard produced no evidence of the dying Julia's entry into England, or her body's departure, although both events must have come to the attention of the authorities had they, in fact, occurred.

  6. Quoted by Christine Doudna in “A Still Unfinished Woman: A Conversation With Lillian Hellman,” Rolling Stone, 24 Feb. 1977, 53. The immediately preceeding quotation is from Three, 412.

  7. Hellman in Hollywood, 157.

  8. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” trans. James Olney in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton University Press, 1980), 42-43.

  9. Paper read 23 June 1983 at a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on “The Forms of Autobiography” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The title alludes to a classic essay by the Shakespearean scholar L. C. Knights, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?,” which was itself a parody of such titles as “The Childhood of Shakespeare's Heroines.” Knights, reacting against the impressionistic criticism of his day, argued for viewing the plays as poetic dramas rather than stories about “real” individuals with extra-textual existences; Olney would do someting of the same thing for autobiographies.

  10. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” 45.

  11. Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960).

  12. “The Ontology of Autobiography” in Autobiography: Essays, 240-41.

  13. G. Thomas Couser, “Of Time and Identity: Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein as Autobiographers,” Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 17 (Winter 1976):795-97. For a brief summary of hostile contemporary reactions to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by those mentioned in it, see Janet Hobhouse, Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein (New York: Putnam's, 1975), 163-68.

  14. Autobiography: Essays, 19, 23.

  15. For a fascinating collection of essays on the question of the aesthetic value of forgeries, see The Forger's Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Denis Dutton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

  16. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, trans. Isabel Barzun (New York: Morrow, 1973), 533.

  17. Constance Webb, Richard Wright: A Biography (NY: Putnam, 1968), 409, n.9.

  18. See “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein,” supplement to transition, No. 23 (The Hague: Servire Press, 1934-35), which includes items by Georges Braque, Eugène and Marie Jolas, Henri Matisse, André Salmon, and Tristan Tzara. Leo Stein's remark is found in Journey Into the Self: Being the Letters, Papers and Journals of Leo Stein, ed. Edmund Fuller (New York: Crown, 1960), 134, and is reprinted in Hobhouse, 167.

  19. Fabré, 46-47.

  20. For a discussion of the overlapping of fiction and autobiography in contemporary American letters, see Albert E. Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts: Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 265-78.

  21. Letter to Sophia Partridge, 8-11 Sept. 1897, rpt. in Letters to Three Friends (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 159-60. White's fictionalized autobiography appeared as The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford and Mark Rutherford's Deliverance (1881; 1885).

  22. For discussion of this problem in the memoirs of I. B. Singer, see my recent article, “The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer: Lost in America and the Problem of Veracity,” in Twentieth Century Literaure 30 (1984):30-45.

  23. Southern Review 19 (Spring 1983):275-88. Another recent scholarly article, Maurice F. Brown's “Autobiography and Memory: The Case of Lillian Hellman,” Biography 8 (Winter 1983):1-11, similarly holds up Hellman's art for our admiration without any mention of the controversy over her veracity as an autobiographer. Indeed, far from questioning the accuracy of any of her recollections, he describes Scoundrel Time first as “fully-documented” and later as being in a “relentlessly documented historical mode.”

  24. To give one last example, Hellman in Scoundrel Time leads us to infer that Dashiell Hammett's financial trouble with the Internal Revenue Service was somehow an extension of the political persecution he suffered during the McCarthy era: we learn that the government attached all his income so that he was penniless for the last ten years of his life. What the memoir does not tell us is that Hammett owed the government back taxes amounting to $100,000 that he had failed to pay over an eight-year period beginning in 1943, and that he lost the tax judgment against him by default by not showing up at the court hearing. Hammett was indeed a victim of HUAC's witch-hunt, which landed him in prison for six months, but he brought financial ruin upon himself. That he simply couldn't manage his money had little to do with his political principles, and our knowledge of this puts Hellman's account in a somewhat different light, introducing an element of doubt in the morality play that she would have us believe that she and Dash acted out.

  25. Maybe: A Story by Lillian Hellman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 50.

  26. At least one reviewer took Hellman's publisher to task for not being more careful about the internal chronoglogy of the story, which seemed to be mistaken about the year of Ottoline Morrell's death. Since the whole book was suffused by an air of unreality, Robert Towers' complaint in the New York Times Book Review (1 June 1980, 3, 36) seems to miss the point. One might better criticize the book on purely aesthetic grounds. For instance, we could have done without Hellman's account of how an early lover persuaded her that she had an offensive vaginal odor, which occasioned years of compulsive bathing, despite the reassurances of the other men in her life. Whatever the intended effect was to be, the episode sinks into bathos (as it were), leaving us wondering why she didn't merely go to a gynecologist.

Further Reading

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Horn, Barbara Lee. Lillian Hellman: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998, 170 p.

Provides summaries of Hellman's plays and adaptations, along with production histories, and critical overviews, as well as comprehensive primary and secondary bibliographies devoted to all of Hellman's writings.


Newman, Robert P. The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989, 375 p.

Account of Hellman's longtime love affair that began in 1944 with John Fremont Melby, who worked for the State Department of the United States government.

Rollyson, Carol. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, 613 p.

Most complete biography of Hellman.


Abbott, Phillip. “‘Life Had Changed and There Were Many People Who Did Not Call Me.’” In States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and American Political Thought, pp. 110-24. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

Considers Hellman's four volumes of memoirs to be of questionable value as documents of her life and the lives of others who figure in those works.

Austin, Gayle. “The Exchange of Women and Male Homosocial Desire in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest.” In Feminist Rereadings of Modern American Drama, ed. June Schlueter, pp. 59-66. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Analysis of Hellman's play in accordance with Gayle Rubin's theory “of how women are exchanged among men, mainly through marriage, to maintain the ‘sex-gender system’ of a society.”

Coles, Robert. “‘Are You or Have You Ever Been ….’” In Times of Surrender: Selected Essays, pp. 244-46. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988.

Reprint of a favorable 1976 review of Scoundrel Time.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Blacklist Revisited.” In The Twilight of the Intellectuals: Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War, pp. 70-80. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1999.

Reprint of an unfavorable 1997 review of Scoundrel Time.

Additional coverage of Hellman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors in the News, Vols. 1, 2; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 8, 14, 18, 34, 44, 52; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 228; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1984; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 3; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; and Reference Guide to American Literature.

W. Kenneth Holditch (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Holditch, W. Kenneth. “Another Part of the Country: Lillian Hellman as Southern Playwright.” Southern Quarterly 25, no. 3 (spring 1987): 11-35.

[In the following essay, Holditch discusses elements of Hellman's life in the South that are reflected in her dramas.]

It seems strange, to say the least, that the last volume Lillian Hellman published before her death was a cookbook. The woman in the kitchen practicing the skills of the gourmet is an image decidedly at odds with that of the strong, independent writer, smoking and drinking with “tough guy” Dashiell Hammett, confronting the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in what may have been her finest moment (“I can't cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion”), hurling sarcastic barbs at a multitude of enemies, and finally, nearly blind and suffering from emphysema, undertaking the rigors of a lawsuit against that other iron-willed and indomitable lady of letters, Mary McCarthy, over a gratuitous and insulting but trivial remark that should, for the good of all concerned, have been ignored.

Significantly, many of the recipes in Eating Together are southern in origin, specifically from New Orleans or other parts of Louisiana (gumbo, red beans and rice, seafood dishes), a circumstance which attests to Hellman's never having lost touch with her origins, early in this century, in that region of the country that provided the setting of her best dramas. It is another surprising element of the life of this remarkable, if not especially lovable or even likable woman, that given the brevity of her time in the South in relation to the years in New York and New England, her interest in New Orleans, its people, its food and customs, and the general romantic mystique of the place should have continued many years after the fact. She theorizes in the book that “one of the reasons for fine New Orleans cooking is the absence of … second-generations snobbery” so that the Creoles in the city could adopt and adapt the recipes of the rural Cajuns into their own more “fancified” cuisine (10). She recalled in 1974 that “New Orleans had a live-and-let-live quality about it. That was rare in the South” (Bryer 197).

The abiding effect of the South on her finest writings, particularly The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest, is surely akin to the powerful influence exerted by the region on other native writers for a century and a half. Edgar Allan Poe, who had little cause to rejoice in the memory of the Virginia of his childhood, given what happened to him in the early years following his parents' deaths, continued to regard himself as a southerner and became, indeed, one of the first and perhaps the most ardent polemicist for the cause of southern authors and literature. In the twentieth century, Thomas Wolfe, who could not go home again in reality perhaps, in effect never left the hills of North Carolina insofar as his writing, his attitudes and his sentiments were concerned. William Styron, a later author of the eastern seaboard southern states, long an exile in New England, in his fiction returns again and again to the Virginia of his youth and young manhood, even interjecting a large portion of it into the story of a Polish refugee, her New York lover and the tragedy that engulfs and destroys them in the northern city. Others—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Reynolds Price—have, in effect, never left, either physically or spiritually, the region that gave them birth and nourished their creative gifts.

Hellman's childhood was not, of course, like those of many other southern writers, spent almost entirely in the region. Born in New Orleans though she was, she lived only the first six years in that city. The next decade, until she was sixteen, involved what might be described as a schizophrenic shuttling back and forth between that languid Latin city with its Caribbean mentality and New York with its frenetic pace, six months in one, six months in the other. In retrospect, however, she was in a 1974 interview to speak of herself as southern, stating that she was “very rebellious and that I think in part I inherited” since “I grew up in part of the South. …” Later she observed that “people who grew up in the South … consider themselves Southern,” and “I came from a family of Southerners. It wasn't simply a question that I was brought up and down from the South. I came from a family, on both sides, who had been Southerners for a great many generations” (Bryer 150, 186). Among her southern traits is one that she acknowledges herself in a 1975 interview when she recalls that a psychiatrist once told her that she looked at herself as if she were another person” (Bryer 181). Any number of modern authors from the region have commented upon that quality of irony in southern character. It is a significant part of the makeup of Will Barrett in Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, who attributes it to his having been born in the South; and in The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, the protagonist defines that trait in himself as being integral to most of his decisions and actions. In these writers as in Hellman, the characteristic contributes a distinct quality to the literature produced.

The image that best characterizes the southern half of those formative years of Hellman's life is the fig tree in the backyard of her two aunts' home in uptown New Orleans (a marked contrast to the large New York City apartment of her mother's family that exemplifies the northern segments of her young life). That tree, which she recalled in An Unfinished Woman as her “first and most beloved home” (321) where she fled to escape the adult world and learned to read, is an ideal symbol for the lazy, slow and unambitious existence in miasmic South Louisiana, a seasonless clime in which day blended into day, week into week. There was little to mark time's passing other than the occasional scrapes in which the already self-willed girl became involved (running away from home, hiding out in Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral, for example), the deaths of family members, the decline in her father's fortune; and the food, rich, heavy and spicy, redolent of the West Indies and Africa and, to a lesser extent, France and Spain, the food which she was to remember fondly and exactly until her dying days.

Fortunately for her, what she retained from that half of her early life were those memories which fed her work, provided the material with which her creative and dramatic powers could construct the melodramas which were to make her famous, while from the diametrically opposed times of residence in the northern city, she seems to have derived the push, the motivation, the ambition which drove her to move roughshod ahead, ignoring or overwhelming whatever obstacle, material or ideological or human, might stand in her predetermined way. A healthful injection of the Puritan work ethic obviously served to prevent her having been infected with that feverish torpor which has afflicted writers, artists, musicians and others from the time of the first settlement of the decidedly non-Puritanical Gulf Coast region of Louisiana, aptly described by A. J. Leibling as “one more city of the Graecia Maxima that rims the Mediterranean” (321). Authors from the time of W. C. C. Claiborne, the first American governor of the Louisiana territory, headquartered in New Orleans in the early 1800s, until the present day have bemoaned the combination of temperature and atmosphere and Latin American attitudes that more often than not results in a laissez faire approach that makes for a pleasant life of leisure but may be destructive to initiative, to creativity, to productivity. More than one writer has despaired at the enervating quality of the place which, delightful as it is in its more positive aspects, can thwart the ambitions of the artist. Many observed New Orleans, drew from its mystique, and then, like Faulkner, went away to write. Only George Washington Cable and Tennessee Williams among established authors of the last hundred years seem to have been able to work there successfully, and Cable was a Calvinist, strongly resistant to the hedonistic attractions of his hometown, and Williams a man driven by a compulsion to work that would have gladdened the heart of any seventeenth-century New England divine (who would not, of course, have approved of the dramas being produced).

If Lillian Hellman's family fate had ordained that she remain in the city, it is entirely possible that, had she not been Jewish, she might have become a debutante or Junior leaguer, even queen or at least maid in some minor Carnival organization. In a city, however, that has consistently through the years denied to Jews access to what its privileged few deem “aristocratic” pursuits (namely, being a member of Rex or Comus and such organizations as the Boston Club; making an appropriate debut), fate might have assigned her a role as supporter of the many charities and cultural organizations traditionally maintained to a large extent by Jewish benefactors and volunteers and, surely, given her political bent, as active member of groups such as the League of Women Voters. She addressed the issue in a 1976 interview by saying that like other New Orleanians, Jews there were a breed apart. “They had a pleasant community of their own and in turn the community allowed them to have it, although they never accepted them into their own circles.” She alludes to the rumor, much repeated in the city, that some Jews leave New Orleans during Carnival to avoid embarrassment (Bryer 196-7).

Not the least remarkable aspect of Hellman's very remarkable career, in fact, is that despite her ethnic background, she is one of the least Jewish of all Jewish authors, not merely in a religious sense but in terms of attitudes and choice of subject matter. She has acknowledged that she was not brought up religiously, and that “Southern Jews, particularly New Orleans Jews, had different histories than Northern Jews” (Bryer 196). The stories she chooses to tell in her dramas (and indeed in her autobiographical works as well) attest much more to her place of origin than to her ethnic background, and her view of humanity and its weaknesses seems surprisingly close to that of southern Protestantism, something that one does not expect, given the fact that she is not religious, indeed seems no more interested in theological and teleological concerns than a writer like Henry James. The only truly religious character in her southern plays is Lavinia in Another Part of the Forest, who is, of course, deranged. Yet in tone, Hellman is often strongly moral, and the righteous indignation with which she views the vices of the spoilers—greed, avarice, ruthlessness, for example—is more akin to Calvinism in its fervor than to the modern Jewish tradition that is part of her heritage. She acknowledges this ironic element herself in a 1975 conversation with Rex Reed: “Dashiell Hammett always said I was the only Jew he knew who was also a Puritan” (Bryer 183). Again in 1979, when an interviewer observed that she had used the word puritan several times to describe herself, she agreed that it was probably because of her sense of right and wrong (Bryer 269); in 1980 she recalled, “I remember Dorothy Parker saying about me that if I get a cold I feel I've sinned against God” (Bryer 274). Although she denied being preoccupied with evil in a 1974 conversation with Bill Moyers, she went on to state that “I'm a moral writer and looking at evil is a form of morality, isn't it?” (Bryer 148).

Like other writers from the region, Hellman's work is indelibly marked by the specific place of her origin, by the physical, intellectual and spiritual peculiarities that distinguish it from other locales; and, in general, by many of the attitudes and beliefs that constitute what Wilbur J. Cash called “the mind of the South.” Those elements of her best dramas which categorize them as southern include not only setting and characters, then, but her concern with traditions and those “old truths and verities of the heart,” to use Faulkner's phrase. Underlying her portrayals of human frailty and vice is an abiding conviction of the fallen state of the world, the natural depravity of human beings and their imperfectibility and a concomitant belief in the virtues often exhibited in the aristocratic class of society, perhaps more aptly called “the gentry.” Many of the above qualities would seem, obviously, to be at odds with the liberal political beliefs the playwright seemed to espouse for much of her career. There is an abiding distrust of progress, industrial, sociological or otherwise, and, to a lesser extent, a concern for ecology and the land, both aspects of southern Agrarianism. The plays exhibit as well the author's sense of one's obligations to family, society and race; a devotion to family pride, which includes the motif of inheritance; and a conviction that lost causes may somehow function beneficially in forging character.

In relation to setting, Hellman employs the Alabama of her mother's childhood and youth, the New Orleans of her own early years and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where well-to-do New Orleanians spent part or all of their summers in the early decades of this century as well as now. These settings are often more impressionistic than realistic, with an occasional detail to indicate that they are indeed southern. They are, after all, settings recalled for the most part from memory, since Hellman did not live in the area after her early teens. In some instances—the small Alabama town in which the Hubbards live, for example—they are probably imagined locales rather than those actually experienced. Of The Little Foxes she was to say that placing it in the south was “purely incidental and fortuitous. … That it was set in the milling district of the South stems from the circumstance that I wanted to set the time scheme of the play at about the turn of the century and that it was in the cotton states that these years witnessed the sort of exploitation I wanted to write about. … I merely chose the South because it fitted the period I wanted for dramatic purposes and because it is a part of the world whose atmosphere I personally am familiar with as a Southerner” (Bryer 8). This is recognizable, of course, as the sort of disavowal occasioned in author after author who has been labeled a southerner and fears that the next step is being called “provincial” or charged with slurring his native region.

Disavowals aside, it is apparent that the southern settings of several of her dramas are integral to and essential for their effectiveness. First of all, the dichotomies that concern her—the old landed gentry versus the nouveaux riches, the Old South traditions versus the New South movement, Agrarianism versus industrialism, a code of honor versus the new amorality—are inextricably linked to the milieu of the region, to the character of its inhabitants and to the times about which she wrote. The conflicts manifest in both The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest require the rural and small-town Alabama settings to give them meaning. In The Autumn Garden, set in the home of a woman fallen on hard times who has converted it into a boarding house, both locale and atmosphere are essential elements in the drama, one motif of which concerns itself with southern provincialism. For example, Mrs. Ellis, finding Nick Denery asleep on the couch which usually serves as a bed for the maid, observes that scandal is inevitable: “you are in Sophie's bed, in the living room of a house in a small Southern town where for a hundred and fifty years it has been impossible to take a daily bath without everybody in town knowing what hour the water went on” (524). While the choice of setting for Toys in the Attic seems perhaps less dictated by the demands of a southern theme and more by the fact of its characters having been based on Hellman's father's family, it is surely true that it would have been quite a different work had it been set anywhere other than New Orleans.

In terms of characters in general, Hellman's people often have one or two traits that distinguish them as being of the South, although the qualities that set apart her most remarkable creations are not confined to any region: greed and ruthlessness are, after all, without restrictions of time or place. Of her characters, Hellman observed in a 1939 interview that “I always wanted a certain naive or innocent quality in some of my characters which I could find in the South but which would have been quite out of place in any other American setting” (Bryer 8). Characters such as Lavinia (Another Part of the Forest), Birdie (The Little Foxes) and Carrie and Lily (Toys in the Attic) clearly exhibit such a quality in a distinctively southern mold. Lavinia, for example, is eccentric, transformed by memory of her husband's sins and her complicity in them into a ghost who walks about the house at night. In The Autumn Garden, there is considerable dialogue devoted to characterizing southern women. Rose Griggs is almost a stereotype of the “Southern Belle,” flighty, empty-headed, talking incessantly. She reports of her husband's Boston-born mother, “sometimes a little sharp about Southerners,” that “She used to say that Southern women painted a triangle of rouge on their faces as if they were going out to square the hypotenuse” (466). In the same play, southern men in general are portrayed in action and described in dialogue as romantic and immature, as when Edward Crossman observes that “boys will be boys and in the South there's no age limit on boyishness” (529).

Various segments of southern society play essential roles in the development of Hellman's dramaturgy. There are the aristocrats, all of them in her portrayal fallen on hard times perhaps because of moral weaknesses they display; they struggle ineptly to survive in a new world with new standards they do not comprehend or perhaps even perceive as existing, still clinging as they do to memories of “the War” and “the Lost Cause.” Doomed families, they are parallel to those in the classic Greek tragedies and, nearer to home in time and place, to those immortalized by William Faulkner in novel after novel. Juxtaposed to them are the nouveaux riches, those who made their money in illegal dealings during the War Between the States or, in the case of The Autumn Garden, World War II. They share many traits in common with the reprehensible Snopes family in Faulkner's fiction: they are voracious, destructive, materialistic and, although the playwright herself would perhaps disagree with such an interpretation, essentially amoral.

In her autobiographical writings she describes herself as a young girl distressed by the plight of blacks, and her devotion to Sophronia, who worked for her family, has been attested to in nonfiction and in her plays. Sophronia's name is given to a strong black character in The Searching Wind, and in other plays, it is the blacks who, chorus like, offer wise advice to the misguided white characters. In The Little Foxes, for example, it is the servant Addie who dispenses wry aphorisms on the actions of the region's inhabitants—“You ain't born in the South unless you're a fool” (186); who predicts the decline of the town due to industrialization and comments on the nefarious means whereby the Hubbards came into wealth and power; and who voices the central theme of the spoilers: “there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. And other people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it” (182). The significance of this comment is underscored when at the end of the play Alexandra repeats it to her mother while asserting her independence from the Hubbards and Hubbard ways. In addition, Hellman spices her Alabama plays with black dialogue and folk wisdom, both serious and humorous, some of which would probably be offensive to many readers or audiences in the 1980s. In The Little Foxes, for example, Cal remarks to Oscar, “Bet you got enough bobwhite and squirrel to give every nigger in town a Jesus-party” (157). In The Little Foxes, Leo, commenting on the yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans and the cresting of the river there, quotes the blacks who say, “a man born of woman can't build nothing high enough for the Mississippi” (173).

Other language specifically associated with the South and southern characters spices the plays. There is much talk of the cotton economy, predictions that cotton will be king once again, and of other staple crops of the area. Such regional flora as figs, plums and scuppernongs are mentioned in dialogue, as well as food such as grits. The evening meal, regardless of how large it may be, is termed “supper” by the Hubbards, and much is made of the fact that Horace Giddens has found northern coffee inferior to that of Alabama. Colloquialisms of the area abound, as when Ben uses the expression “a silver quarter” (141). (New Orleanians of Hellman's childhood regularly used the term “silver dime.”)

It is in the two Hubbard plays that Hellman employs the most southern elements, motifs and themes, and employs them to most effective advantage. An examination of those plays will reveal the extent to which she is aptly described as a “southern writer,” worthy of consideration with those other authors from the region who have achieved fame for their use of similar material. Since the two later works set in the area, The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, are less integrally connected to their settings, the Gulf Coast in the former, New Orleans in the latter case, they will be noted only briefly.

Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes are two parts of a trilogy detailing the history of the Hubbard family, loosely based on Hellman's mother's Alabama family, the Newhouses. The trilogy was never completed, apparently because the author lost interest in the project in later years. It is clear that her intention originally involved a triad of dramas based on the pattern of Greek tragedies, perhaps similar to what Eugene O'Neill had attempted in Mourning Becomes Electra a decade before The Little Foxes appeared. There are numerous standard trappings of the Greek model: for example, the doomed families, laboring under a curse because of the sins of their forebears; the chorus, usually in the person of servants, offering sane counsel, observing the beginning and the end, the inescapable destruction; the paradoxical sense of man's free will in contrast to the fatal trap in which he is caught, of the inevitable flaw which leads him to blunder and fall. In addition, Hellman makes frequent direct references to Greek history and mythology, using classical names such as Regina, Lavinia, Marcus, Horace and Alexandra. Marcus asserts proudly that he knows “more of the Greek wars than I do of our own” (367). There is a hint of incest between him and his daughter, standard fare for the classical tragedies, and frequent allusions to the customs of the ancients. Ben Hubbard, maliciously teasing his father with the threat that men in the community may lynch him for his misdeeds and making fun of his pretentions, inquires, “How did the Greeks bury fathers who were murdered? Tell me, and I'll see to it” (390). Later, after he has blackmailed his father into relinquishing his money, Ben explains having it by saying, “I'm the eldest son: isn't that the way with royalty? Maybe he could find me a Greek title” (397-8).

Although written almost eight years after The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest concerns an earlier period in the life of the Hubbard family and it seems appropriate to consider it first. Its title, alluding of course to the stage directions from Elizabethan drama, signals the author's implicit universalizing message by suggesting that the modern world is the forest, this particular locale only one portion of it. Set in the small town of Bowden, Alabama, the play opened 20 November 1946. Hellman employs a setting that alludes directly to the world of antiquity. The stage directions state that the Hubbard house is “Southern Greek. It is not a great mansion but it is a good house built by a man of taste. …” Marcus has purchased it from that builder and altered it to suit his own view of what is “correct” for a man moving up in the world. Now there is an excessive amount of furniture on the portico, two heads of Aristotle are displayed on pedestals, and the overall effect is “too austere, too pretended Greek … as if it followed one man's eccentric taste and was not designed to be comfortable for anyone else” (329). At the end of the play Ben, scornful of his father's attempts to elevate the family to the level of the aristocrats (who are, for Ben, has-beens, failures who stupidly supported a lost cause from which they could not have hoped for material gain), remarks, “I never liked this house; it wasn't meant for people like us. Too delicate, too fancy. Papa's idea of postwar swell” (397).

Marcus Hubbard's futile attempt to establish himself as an aristocrat bears striking parallels to the efforts of Thomas Sutpen in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, published three years before the play. There are, first of all, the Greek tragic elements delineated above, employed here as in the novel to portray a man who achieves great wealth through mysterious and suspicious means and launches a determined campaign to become an aristocrat, to acquire the trappings which he presumes will make him “cultured” or “southern” in the best sense of that word. The similarity of their dreams, despite the somewhat different methods they employ to try to realize them, becomes apparent if one compares Faulkner's text to Marcus Hubbard's description of his own past: “At nine years old I was carrying water for two bits a week. I took the first dollar I ever had and went to the paying library to buy a card. When I was twelve I was working out in the fields, and that same year I taught myself Latin and French. At fourteen I was driving mules all day and most of the night, and that was the year I learned my Greek, read my classics, taught myself—Think what I must have wanted for sons. And then think what I got” (376). There is, of course, an ersatz quality about Marcus's “culture” as about Sutpen's manner which, according to General Compson, subtly reveals his humble origins. Marcus, for example, composes music that is apparently mediocre and when he invites local musicians to perform it, Ben observes that “talk of money would disturb him on his music night” (364). In addition, there is a kind of “innocence” about him, in the sense of that word as it is applied by General Compson to Sutpen.

Both Faulkner's and Hellman's protagonists have vague, ineffectual, flightly wives from the Old Order who finally effect a kind of escape from painful reality in mental illness. There are parallels as well between their daughters: Regina, like Judith Sutpen and Clytie, is strong-willed, although she does not share their moral strength. Both Marcus and Sutpen have two sons who, in different ways, prove their undoing. Just as Marcus refers to Ben and Oscar as “One trickster, one illiterate” (376), so might Sutpen characterize his male offspring; and just as Charles Bon frustrates the dream of the father who will not acknowledge him, so does Ben terminate Marcus's grand scheme.

The basic historical social struggle against which the drama of the Hubbard family is cast is, of course, that between the Old South and the New South, between Agrarianism and the new order which desired to imitate the North for the purpose of moving the region into the modern world. From the beginning of the play to the end, that contrast is stated and reiterated by character after character in scene after scene. The Old Order here, that which Marcus would emulate, is that which, ironically, he also holds in contempt. There is much talk among the Hubbards of breeding and of class distinctions, as if they are obsessed with them, but Marcus and his offspring are scornful of those model aristocrats, the Bagtrys, of their obvious weaknesses, of what he considers to be their pretensions and of the fact that they are now forced to be reliant upon him to survive. Ben scoffs at them for their pride, their unwillingness to acknowledge their cause as lost and their inability to adapt themselves to “modern” ways. “I always said there wasn't a Southerner, born before the war, who ever had sense enough to trust a bank” (387). When Ben informs Marcus that Birdie wants to borrow money and that he has invited the Bagtrys for the musical evening, he adds, “I thought you'd like having the quality folk here. Come here to beg a favor of you.” Marcus, perversely intrigued, responds, “Bagtrys in this house, begging. Might be amusing for an hour. … I'll be charming to the visiting gentry” (349-50).

When later that evening John Bagtry asserts that he had believed that the South would win the war, Marcus, ever the cynic, responds, “I never did. Never, from the first foolish talk to the last foolish day.” Plaintively, Birdie observes that it is “hard for us to understand anybody who thought we'd lose. …” Upon learning that John wants to go to Brazil, as many ex-Confederate officers were in fact doing, for the purpose of defending slavery there, Marcus asks, “Why don't you choose the other side? Every man needs to win once in his life” (367). Subsequently, he characterizes John as “a foolish man, an empty man from an idiot world. A man who wants nothing but war, any war, just a war. A man who believes in nothing, and never will” (379). By extension, it is clear that what Marcus believes in is not ideals, not “Lost Causes” or, indeed, any causes, but solely in himself.

Like her father and brother, Regina, desiring John Bagtry though she may, observes and comments cynically and openly upon the weaknesses of his kind. In the opening scene she inquires why he did not meet her last night—“Plantation folks giving balls again? Or fancy dress parties?”—and he responds that those days are gone forever; indeed, he has not attended a ball since he was sixteen (330). The distinction between the families (and their classes) is stressed in the exchange which follows. Regina refers to his aunt and his cousin Birdie as “mummies” and threatens to go over “right on that sacred plantation grass and tell them the war's over, the old times are finished, and so are they.” He angrily replies that at least they are not “raising their voices in anger on an early Sunday day.” Regina insists that she does not want to hear about how the two families differ: “That's what you always mean when you say I'm screaming” (331). The same motif of the even temper of the gentry is voiced in The Little Foxes by Birdie Bagtry Hubbard, who remembers that “Papa used to say nobody has ever lost their temper at Lionnet, and nobody ever would. Papa would never let anybody be nasty-spoken or mean” (150). Like her father, Regina looks upon the war as productive of nothing of material value and therefore merely a ridiculous exercise in futility. When John states that it was the only time that he was ever “good” and happy, she answers, “wearily” the stage directions state, “Oh, don't tell me that again. You and your damn war. Wasn't it silly to be happy when you knew you were going to lose?” (332).

Although the Hubbards, exemplary of the New South nouveaux riches, come into money through whatever nefarious means during the war and Reconstruction, betray their own vices and lack of standards in their scornful evaluations of the Bagtrys, it is by no means to be assumed that the aristocrats are above reproach. Their fall has resulted not solely because they were defeated by the North but because of inherent weaknesses within their own character. Indeed, much of the Hubbards' criticism, grounded though it may be in a materialistic and secular view of the world, is not without truth. Through their own dialogue, John and Birdie reveal the weaknesses that mar their character, those “sins of the fathers” which surely contributed here, as in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, to the decline and fall of the Old Order. John, for example, despite his expressed contempt for the Hubbards and all they stand for, has been sleeping with Regina and allows her to control him, and his obsession with the war is surely not entirely idealistic. When Marcus, astonished to hear that John has no memory of an early trip to Europe, inquires what he does remember, John replies, “The war. … I can't remember the years before, and the years after have just passed like a wasted day. But the morning I rode off, and for three years, three months, and eight days after, well, I guess I remember every soldier, every gun, every meal, even every dream I had at night” (366). His decision to fight in Brazil is, contrary to what his cousin Birdie thinks and what he may believe, hardly altruistic. First of all, combat is, by his own admission, all he knows, all he wants: “I was only good once—in a war” (331). Secondly, there is no other way for him to make a living, given the condition of his class in those desperate Reconstruction years. Finally, it must be remembered that although he insists that “I fight for a way of life” (367), the “cause” to which he has committed himself this time is no idealistic battle for freedom but a defense of one of the modern world's most inhumane systems of slavery in which he has no personal stake. Birdie likewise demonstrates the weaknesses that have brought her class low. Defending John's decision to go to Brazil, she insists that he “wants to fight for his ideals” (367). In desperate financial straits, she seeks to borrow money from the Hubbards, even though she knows how they came by it and must remember that John's twin brother died the night of the raid which was, at least indirectly, caused by Marcus. She reveals, in line after line of dialogue, that she distrusts them, fears them and even, to some extent, holds them in contempt. Further, through her vague, not especially intelligent attitudes and actions, she exemplifes the inherent weakness of the aristocrats that resulted in their fall, so that the playgoer hearing her assertion that “when everything else is gone, Mama says you at least got pride left” (345) may wonder whether it is truth or merely truism.

As counterpoint to the aristocrats, the Hubbards embody the amorality, secularism and materialism of the modern world that has been decried not only by southern authors—William Alexander Percy, the Agrarians and Faulkner, for example—but by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and myriad others. Hellman has described them as “a very predatory middle class family, on its climb to enormous riches” (Bryer 113). Marcus is portrayed as a modern pragmatic Aristotelian, an American in the practical, Franklinesque mode, some of whose words may even remind one of the aphorisms of Poor Richard: for example, “There is never so great a hero as the man who fought on a losing side” (372). But his “modernism” does not stop there, unfortunately, for he is totally devoid of morals or standards or even unselfish emotions. He reveals that he is not interested in his son's motives: “As long as they benefit me, he is welcome to them” (369). Having sworn on a Bible that he will allow his wife Lavinia to leave home to set up a school for black children, he refuses to honor that oath, denying that he ever meant it. Devoid of ideals, he is skeptical of their existence in others. He insists that those who supported the Confederacy got what they deserved: “It was a backward world, getting in the way of history. Appalling that you still don't realize it.” Significantly, Marcus, like Faulkner's Popeye in Sanctuary and Flem Snopes, does not like to be touched.

The means whereby Marcus acquired his wealth is another link between him and the Snopes family of Faulkner's trilogy. Ben observes that his father “made too much money out of the war” (343), and Oscar tellingly reveals that “Right after the war Papa bought—or something—this house from old man Reed” (360). (Hellman's use of the world something in this context is strikingly similar to Faulkner's use of it in Absalom, Absalom! where Shreve describes Sutpen as coming out of nowhere, building a plantation, marrying and begetting children, who should have been “his pride”: Only they destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died.” Ironically, however, it is Laurette Sincee, the poor white girl Oscar brings home, who confronts Marcus with the truth about his past and sees through the Hubbards' veneer of culture. When Oscar urges her to act as if she is as good as the other guests, she indignantly replies, “Pretend? Pretend I'm as good as anybody called Hubbard? Why, my Pa died at Vicksburg. He didn't stay home bleeding the whole state of Alabama with money tricks. … I'm not better than anybody, but I'm as good as piney wood crooks” (361-2). Subsequently she reveals that it was by supplying much needed salt during the war to the impoverished inhabitants of the region that Marcus made his fortune. “Right in the middle of the war, men dying for you, and you making their kinfolk give you all their goods and money—and I heard how they suspected you of worse, and you only just got out of a hanging rope” (372). Indeed, his crimes are worse, since his illegal activities contributed to the deaths of twenty-seven Confederate soldiers.

If Marcus has introduced a secular and materialistic attitude into the Hubbard family, his children have certainly taken to it with ease and, indeed, in some cases outdone him at his own amorality. Regina demonstrates repeatedly that she has learned her lesson well; she is crafty, scheming, and is willing to live with John Bagtry, if he will have her, without benefit of marriage. Although she professes to care for John, Ben assures her, “You're not in love; I don't think anybody in this family can love” (399). Aware though she must be of her father's incestuous attraction to her, Regina is perfectly willing to use her feminine charms to persuade him to grant her wishes.

Although both are amoral, there is a marked contrast between the Hubbard sons in the two plays. Ben is intelligent and practical, the typical New South Man who foresees the coming of the industrial future of the region and wants to be a part of it: “big goings on all over the country. Railroads going across, oil, coal. … Things are opening up” (401). It is Oscar, however, who exemplifies some of the worst traits of the Snopes family. He is a “professional Southerner,” who insists that he would have fought in the war had he only been old enough, a man of limited intelligence who belongs to the Ku Klux Klan, unaware of the irony, which Ben points out to him, that their father continues to make his money off the very blacks and Carpetbaggers the night riders attack. In characteristic new-rich fashion, Oscar categorizes his girl friend as a social inferior, “But the lower classes don't matter to me; I always say it's not how people were born but what they are.” In a line typical of Hellman's humor at its best, Marcus responds to this observation from his son that “some people are democrats by choice, and some by necessity. You, by necessity” (357).

Only Lavinia, the “outsider” among the Hubbards, obviously belonging to the tradition of a South for which her husband and children have no understanding or sympathy, recognizes the culpability of Marcus, which she feels has brought a curse upon her family, and wishes to take some responsibility for it. “I got to do a little humble service. I lived in sin these thirty-seven years. … Such sin I couldn't even tell you” (351). Honored by one of the minor characters as “the redeemer of this family” (354), she believes that God wants Marcus to expiate before he dies. The sins of which Marcus stands convicted by Another Part of the Forest include greed, avarice, false pride, false witness, lack of love, and incestuous desire, presumably unfulfilled. His retribution comes, not surprisingly, given Hellman's Puritan attitudes and the framework of the Greek tragedy which she has chosen for pattern, at the hands of his own family.

The saga of the Hubbard family continues in The Little Foxes, which, although first produced 15 February 1939, almost eight years before Another Part of the Forest, concerns events which happened twenty years following those described in the other play. It is the spring of 1900 and the Hubbards are on the rise. “The century's turning, the world is open,” Ben says to Regina. “Open for people like you and me. Ready for us, waiting for us. … We'll get along” (197). Marcus is dead, but his sons and daughter carry on his tradition of ruthless, selfish and totally secular attitudes and actions. The set, the living room of Regina's home, symbolizes their new-rich materialism: “The room is good looking, the furniture expensive; but it reflects no particular taste. Everything is of the best and that is all” (135).

It is a tribute to Hellman's strengths as a dramatist that the various Hubbards are portrayed as being similar and yet different in the two works. Another Part of the Forest was obviously an effort to understand what naturalistic forces had shaped the middle-aged “monsters” portrayed in the earlier drama. In many ways, they are similar, concerned as they both are with materialism, amorality and the New South in two periods of time, but in The Little Foxes another theme is introduced, involving agrarianism and ecology. That theme is sounded in the epigraph of the play from which the title comes, a quotation from the Song of Solomon: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” Thus the Agrarian theme is from the beginning linked in the drama with the motif of the spoilers who would destroy the land for their own gain or gratification. Birdie, who has been for many years Mrs. Oscar Hubbard, complains to her husband, “I don't like to see animals and birds killed just for the killing. You only throw them away” (146). Later she remembers that her brother had once teased their mother by insisting that she invite the Hubbard family to dinner. “He said Mama didn't like them because they kept a store, and he said that was old-fashioned of her.” Angry, the mother replied that was not the reason, that “she was old-fashioned enough not to like people who killed animals they couldn't use, and who made their money charging awful interest to ignorant niggers and cheating them on what they bought” (181-2). In a similar vein, we learn from Alexandra that Leo, the son of Birdie and Oscar, beats the horses unnecessarily.

A significant aspect of the Agrarian theme, of course, concerns the dangers to the ecology, to the economy and especially to human beings, from industrialization. In a 1968 interview Hellman, while denying that the play is intended as a picture of the evils of the industrial revolution in the South, adds, “I do think a kind of Southerner and a kind of Northerner ravaged the land every place in the world” (Bryer 101). In preparation for writing it, she did extensive research on how the economy of the South was affected by the War Between the States (Bryer 114). In the play itself, it is Addie, the black maid, who first complains about the effects the new cotton mills will have on the town; everyone is excited, she says, “All because smoke's going to start out of a building that ain't even up yet” (164). Later, when Birdie comments that it is quiet in the Giddens living room, Addie replies, “Well, it won't be that way long. Little while now, even sitting here, you'll hear the red bricks going into place. The next day smoke'll be pushing out the chimneys and by church time that Sunday every human born of woman will be living on chicken. That's how Mr. Ben's been telling the story” (179). In her simplicity, the black woman perceives a truth the exploiters struggle to hide from those upon whom their greed will feed.

Marshall, the Chicago industrialist, early sounds the contrast between the small-town South and the urban North when he says, “You Southerners occupy a unique position in America. You live better than the rest of us, you eat better, you drink better. I wonder you find time, or want to find time, to do business.” Ben, who, like Thomas Sutpen, has a materialistic dream, a grand design which has motivated him for years to “bring the machine to the cotton, and not the cotton to the machine” (142), responds in words laden with meaning he may not perceive: “A great many Southerners don't” (138). Echoing the words of a northern robber baron, Ben in an ironic juxtaposition of art and commerce predicts that “Southern cotton mills will be the Rembrandts of investment” (142).

Horace Giddens, Regina's husband, a member of the old fallen aristocracy of the region, refuses to participate in what he considers the destructive scheme to bring in northern industry and its concomitant evils. “Why should I give you the money?” he inquires of his wife. “To pound the bones of this town to make dividends for you to spend? You wreck the town, you and your brothers, you wreck the town and live on it.” Suffering from a serious heart condition, Horace asserts that he will die “without making the world any worse. I leave that to you” (176-7). The one aspect of the corruption of the town that most distresses Horace is the exploitation of labor. When he inquires if the Hubbards had promised the Marshall company cheap wages to convince them to move South, Ben replies that in contrast to the standard eight dollars a week earned by workers in Massachusetts, “there ain't a mountain white or a town nigger but wouldn't give his right arm for three silver dollars every week. …” Furthermore, he has assured the northern industrialist that there will be no strikes in the Alabama plant. Horace predicts that whites and blacks will be turned against each other when the mill is in operation and will take even lower pay. “You can save a little money that way, Ben, and make them hate each other just a little more than they do now” (171). Like Faulkner's aristocrats, both Horace and Birdie feel that sense of obligation for the descendants of freed slaves which is incomprehensible to Ben and his type.

The contrast between Old Order and the New South continues in The Little Foxes with added ramifications. The lines are drawn between Regina, Ben, Oscar and Leo on one side, Birdie, Horace, Alexandra and Addie on the other. If anything complimentary can be said of Ben, it involves his willingness to admit the Hubbards' true place in the social order of the South, while at the same time sharply criticizing the upper class. Early in the play, Marshall, misreading the family's standing in society, observes that “It's very remarkable how you Southern aristocrats have kept together. Kept together and kept what belonged to you.” Ben corrects this error, saying “Southern aristocrats have not kept together and have not kept what belonged to them” (139). Among them, only Birdie, he points out, is a plantation aristocrat, and when Marshall remarks that he makes “great distinctions,” Ben responds that “they have been made for us. And maybe they are important distinctions” (140). Some of those distinctions are dramatized by Hellman in actions and dialogue; for example, there is the contrast between Leo's attitudes and Horace's toward material possessions. Insisting that he can “borrow” the bonds from the bankbox since Horace never examines it, Leo states in amazement, “Imagine not looking at all that. You can bet if I had the bonds I'd watch 'em …” (165). At the end of the dinner honoring Marshall, Ben, member of a class for whom traditions are meaningless if not nonexistent, invents a new one: “Down here, sir, we have a strange custom. We drink the last drink for a toast. That's to prove that the Southerner is always still on his feet for the last drink” (142).

By the time of the action of The Little Foxes, the aristocracy of Hellman's world has slipped even further in terms of influence since the period portrayed in Another Part of the Forest, and Ben offers a naturalistic explanation for their decline and the rise of his own type. Describing the Bagtry plantation which now is in the hands of the Hubbards, he explains to Marshall that when the war came, the gentry rode off and left “the cotton, and the women, to rot” (140). After the war, the plantation is almost ruined, “and the sons finish ruining it. And there were thousands like them. Why? Because the Southern aristocrat can adapt himself to nothing. Too high-tone to try.” On the other hand, he continues, “Our grandfather and our father learned the new ways and learned how to make them pay. They were in trade. Hubbard Sons, Merchandise” (140-1). The underlying implication here, as in Sidney Lanier's poem “The Symphony,” that scathing attack on the New South principles, seems to be that trade, the “king of modern days,” is all head, no heart, a destructive occupation that dehumanizes society.

Ben continues with his naturalistic sermon by asserting, “I can't believe that God wants the strong to parade their strength, but I don't mind doing it if it's got to be done,” a paradoxical blend of Christianity and naturalism characteristic of the time's apologists for industrialization (150). It is noteworthy that Ben in the two decades that have elapsed since the action of Another Part of the Forest has acquired considerable polish in his manner of speaking, which is here often highly rhetorical. Filled with optimism for the economic future of the region (and, of course, his own increasing wealth), Ben echoes the New South doctrine as it was stated by numerous advocates of the cause when he remarks that he has “always said that every one of us little Southern businessmen had great things—right beyond our fingertips” (169). Although Oscar lacks the intelligence and cunning of his brother, he has adopted Ben's materialistic views to the best of his ability. “It's every man's duty to think of himself,” he tells Marshall. “My brother always says that it's folks like us who have struggled and fought to bring to our land some of the prosperity of your land” (141).

Such attitudes seem to imply a totally amoral nature in the Hubbards, a characterization that Hellman herself would perhaps deny, given her 1975 comment on what she considered to be the humorous quality of Regina and her brothers. “I think it's much less dangerous if the so-called villain, or liar, or deceiver, knows it. That's what I meant really in The Little Foxes that they were all rather amused by it, the fact that they knew they were, and were thus, in a sense, less dangerous” (Bryer 190-1). She contrasts the Hubbards to Hitler, who thought that he was right, and insists that her characters knew they were behaving viciously.

The question of amorality brings into consideration again the parallels between Hubbards and Snopeses discussed in relation to Another Part of the Forest. Like William Alexander Percy, who bemoans the fact that the world his ancestors built and which he has known and loved is being destroyed by the rise of “Demos,” the secular, materialistic class from which the southern demagogues (Vardaman, Bilbo, the Longs and others) emerged, Hellman seems to view her voracious nouveaux riches family as part of the rising middle class, nourished financially by the industrialization of the South. Distinctive individuals though they surely are, they also represent a large segment of the population moving up in the world at the turn of the century. They are the naturalistic products of their hereditary backgrounds and of the environment in which they prosper and flourish, devoid of tradition, of any code of honor or virtue upon which to build a humane philosophy of life. That Hellman should align herself with the views of such essentially conservative authors as Percy, Faulkner and the Nashville Agrarians strikes one as rather surprising, given the fact of her own political stance in the 1930s and 1940s. The two parts of her uncompleted trilogy, however, certainly speak for themselves. As Ben, the “philosopher” and apologist for the family, evaluates the situation, “There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday” (197). In a similar vein, Regina, endeavoring to prevent Alexandra from leaving her after Horace's death, promises that “I'll make the world for you the way I wanted it to be for me” (198). It is interesting that the third play was, according to Hellman, to be set twenty or twenty-five years after The Little Foxes, when Regina is living in Europe and Alexandra has “become maybe a spinsterish social worker, disappointed, a rather angry woman” who had the courage to leave her mother but lacked the “force or vigor” of the Hubbards (Bryer 56).

Like Flem Snopes, who does not object to his wife's affair with Manfred de Spain since he benefits financially from it, as long as it is kept secret, the Hubbards are more concerned about appearances than about any moral principles. Ben, for example, instructing Leo to terminate his affair with a woman in Mobile, explains, “I haven't got no objections to outside women. That is, I haven't got no objections so long as they don't interfere with serious things” (158). An advocate of expediency. Oscar commends his son for illegally examining the contents of Horace's lockbox at the bank. “Sometimes a young fellow deserves credit for looking round him to see what's going on. … Many great men have made their fortune with their eyes” (160). So willing to take advantage at whatever cost to honor and virtue are the brothers that even Regina recognizes their status as spoilers in this newly emerging world when she tells them, “you couldn't find twelve men in this state you haven't cheated and who hate you for it” (196).

In combination, The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest constitute a unit which is perhaps Lillian Hellman's best contribution to the literature of the American theatre. Much of the power of the two dramas derives from southern elements and themes which underlie and unify them. To a lesser extent, her two later plays set in the South exhibit some of the same concerns, but their virtues are not integrally associated with those themes, and therefore they are not, in the sense applied here, “southern dramas.”

The Autumn Garden, first produced in 1951, Hellman has on several occasions called her favorite play. It is set in a home on the Gulf Coast, a hundred miles from New Orleans, in September 1949. Showing the definite influence of Anton Chekhov, the play concerns itself with a society that has become static, without motivation. As in the Russian author's work, there are the ineffectual artistocrats, shorn of much of their wealth and consequently of their power, and the rising class, possessed of an energy that will enable them to establish themselves in the positions vacated by the others. For most of the characters, the concerns are with what happened in the past, what people will think, what is in their own best interest. Some of the same motifs and themes that are central to the Hubbard plays, involving, for example, the impoverished gentry (what Birdie in Another Part of the Forest termed “the new poor”) and the rise of the nouveaux riches, are examined briefly in this work. There is again much talk of good breeding, of class distinctions. Constance, one of the “new poor,” has sold her home in New Orleans and survived by turning her summer home into a “guest house.” When Nick observes to Constance that she is pleased by Ned's attention when she is not “pretending to be genteel,” she replies, “Genteel? How awful of me. Mama used to say gentility was the opposite of breeding …” (495). Juxtaposed to Constance and members of her class are Rose Griggs and her family. Mrs. Ellis, the haughty and acerbic grande dame who delights in putting people in their place, remarks of a local family that they have become very “liberal” of late, even including Rose in their invitations. “And nobody can be more nouveau riche than your family, can they?” she inquires of Rose. “I mean your brother during the war and all that” (471). The attitudes (and prejudices) of her class are exhibited by Mrs. Ellis when she tells Carrie, “there is no morality to money, … and immoral of people to think so” (503).

Toys in the Attic, first produced in 1960, is Hellman's only play set in New Orleans, which is somewhat surprising, given the large portion of her later autobiographical works which she devoted to the city of her birth. It seems less a play with southern themes and motifs than one in which the author seeks to come to terms with the relationship between her father and his two sisters, who for many years ran a boarding house in New Orleans, and, perhaps by extension, to examine the general enigma of the relationship between women and the men they love. Despite the cogency of the New Orleans sense of place, which asserts itself in some way in every scene, occasional references to southern mores and customs, to class difference and breeding, and some elements of regional dialect, Toys in the Attic is far less a southern play than the two works devoted to the Hubbards. It seems apparent that here as in The Autumn Garden, Hellman had moved to a consideration of more private, intimate concerns, to human emotions other than greed and avarice, to motifs other than materialism and secularism and amorality. The conflicts between old and new that function thematically in the earlier works are not integral to these plays. The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest are, however often and with whatever degree of vehemence their creator may have denied it, political dramas, constructed not only to entertain but also to make a social statement, in the pattern of the Ibsen well-made play. In the decade of the 1950s, the playwright had moved from the influence of Ibsen to that of Chekhov, from political to more private concerns, to produce two interior dramas in which the structure of society, the mobility of classes, and the loss of traditions are of only peripheral importance.

Whatever the final evaluation of Lillian Hellman's place in American literature and the history of theatre may be, it seems certain that she will be accorded some notable position, given the significance of her contribution. If she does not occupy that highest level in the pantheon of modern American dramatists reserved for Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, surely she will always be recognized for the quality of several of her plays. The virtues of her dramas, demonstrated again and again through the many years of her active career in the theatre, include well-developed plots, larger-than-life characters who are nevertheless credible, dialogue as believable as any on the American stage in this century and themes that are integral to life in the modern world. If, as some of her most severe critics have charged, her works are melodramas and “well-made plays,” which in recent decades have become terms of opprobrium in criticism, she is masterful in her handling of those forms. In 1968, she answered the “well-made play” charge by stating that in her most productive period she was “caught between a so-called realistic theater and a so-called new theater coming after the Second World War. …” It is, she continues, “a rather foolish charge against anybody, because what is too well-made? Why should something be badly made?” (Bryer 115). To the charge that her plays are melodramas, she terms it a “meaningless word … usually used to cheapen something, and to deny it always seems to me to defend oneself, and I don't very much like to” (115). Such a label, it might be added, belongs to the absurd tradition of categorizing theatrical works which is satirized by Shakespeare in the exchange between Hamlet and the players.

Surely there is a place in theatre for the melodrama in an age in which the classical tragedy has ceased to be viable. The success of the revival of The Little Foxes a few years ago attests to the fact that the work is not too dated to draw an audience, to be effective, not too well-made to be convincing in an age that has survived the vogue for the “Theater of the Absurd.” It demonstrates that melodramas can still interest, inspire and, most important of all in a theatrical production, entertain. Surely the future will see numerous revivals of Hellman's best works, and her southern dramas seem the most likely candidates to continue to be presented to new generations of theatre-goers.

Works Cited

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1986.

Hellman, Lillian. The Collected Plays. Boston: Little, 1972.

———. Three: An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scoundrel Time. Boston: Little, 1979.

Hellman, Lillian, and Peter Feibelman. Eating Together: Recollections and Recipes. Boston: Little, 1984.

Leibling, A. J. The Earl of Louisiana. London: W. H. Allen, 1962.

Milly S. Barranger (essay date spring 1988)

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SOURCE: Barranger, Milly S. “Lillian Hellman: Standing in the Minefields.” New Orleans Review 15, no. 1 (spring 1988): 62-68.

[In the following essay, Barranger discusses Hellman's influence on later women playwrights.]

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) was a complex individual of great personal and professional courage. Born a Southerner in New Orleans in 1905 on the fringe of the Garden District at 1718 Prytania Street, she migrated between New Orleans and New York for the first sixteen years of her life between the Hellman and Newhouse families.

The environments were diametrical opposites: life in a Prytania Street boardinghouse (at 1718, then 4631 Prytania) run by her father's two unmarried sisters and the “lovely oval rooms” of her maternal grandmother's upper West Side Manhattan apartment in New York City.1 Her itinerant girlhood—described by her biographer, William Wright—finally settled upon the Northeast out of professional and personal interests. Nevertheless, her artistic roots remained for the most part with the Alabama Newhouse merchant/banking families and the colorful Hellman relatives in New Orleans and were realized over thirty years later in her four major plays about the South.

In her adulthood, after her marriage to screenwriter Arthur Kober failed, she resided in New York, Los Angeles, Connecticut, and on Martha's Vineyard, living a liberated lifestyle exceptional for a woman of her generation, and practicing liberal politics that took her as a journalist to Spain in 1937, to the Russian front in 1944, and to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities in 1952, where she enunciated the line about not cutting her conscience to fit this year's fashions, for which she is most quoted today.2

In the closing months of Lillian Hellman's life (she died on June 30, 1984), playwright Marsha Norman—author of the Pulitzer prize-winning 'night, Mother—became the spokesperson for the influences of Hellman upon the new generation of American women writers. While Hellman claimed interest in the women's movement (and viewed the movement as a battle for economic equality), her considerable accomplishments as playwright and author truly cleared a pathway for others to follow.3 In an early interview Hellman, referred to by a journalist as one of the country's leading “female” playwrights, snapped, “I am a playwright. You wouldn't refer to Eugene O'Neill as one of America's foremost male playwrights” (Wright 98). While Hellman did not view the world in feminist terms, she was aware of male condescension in a profession where women, if they did write commercial plays, wrote largely comedies or romances. She, in turn, undertook the tough, serious themes for which she would become most notable.

In writing about the Hellman legacy, Norman said, “Writers like Lillian Hellman, who are willing to share their lives as well as their work, make it possible for those who come after them to survive.”4 In an unrelated interview with critic Mel Gussow in 1983, Norman used a powerful metaphor for the relationship of women playwrights to their art and profession which is applicable to Hellman's life and career. Norman is quoted as saying:

I almost see us as this battalion, marching, valiant soldiers on the front lines, and we must not step on the mines. We are trying as best we can to clear the path, to tell you what's out there.5

This paper explores Lillian Hellman's leadership for three decades in the professional theatre for those women, such as Carson McCullers, Marsha Norman and Beth Henley, who were to follow her in that most difficult career of the professional playwright. Her Southern literary heritage, in particular the New Orleans milieu, as manifested in four of her most important plays is likewise explored here.

In The History of Southern Literature, Jacob H. Adler names Lillian Hellman as one of three important Southern dramatists who have given American drama a special eminence; Paul Green and Tennessee Williams are the other two playwrights cited.6 Hellman's Southern roots are well-documented in her two memoirs—An Unfinished Woman (1969) and Pentimento (1973)—in Conversations with Lillian Hellman (1986), and in the biography by William Wright titled Lillian Hellman: The Woman Who Made the Legend (1986).

Her Southern heritage came first from New Orleans and Alabama Jewish families. Unlike her contemporary Clifford Odets, there is little in her plays directly reflecting this ethnic background. Also, unlike many Southern writers, her career began and ended with the New York literary and theatrical establishment. After desultory attendance at Columbia and New York Universities, Hellman settled into jobs of manuscript reading for the prestigious publishing house Boni and Liveright and playreading for Broadway producer and director Herman Shumlin. She had a brief marriage with Arthur Kober, and, upon meeting novelist Dashiell Hammett, she maintained an off-again, on-again relationship until his death in 1960, thirty-one years later.

Two significant factors must be mentioned. In the 1930s Lillian Hellman entered the chic New York intellectual set where she met her life-long friend Dorothy Parker, and she labored in the male-dominated vineyard of the Broadway theatre to be a produced (and highly successful) playwright. There was no alternative to Broadway for Lillian Hellman as there is today in the non-profit, professional regional theatres. From her first play, written in 1934 to her last play, written in 1963, Lillian Hellman literally stood for twenty-nine years in the “minefields” of a life lived in the explosive landscape of the liberal politics of her day and the conservatism of the commercial theatre where she wanted to make her mark. In this posture she wrote a body of melodramatic plays (eight original plays and four adaptations). Many of her theatrical effects and themes on the evils of money, power, political and sexual repression shocked audiences who, nevertheless, flocked to see The Children's Hour (1934) for 691 performances, The Little Foxes (1939) for 410 performances, Watch on The Rhine (1941) for 378 performances, Another Part of the Forest (1946) for 182 performances, The Autumn Garden (1951) for 101 performances, and Toys in the Attic (1960) for 556 performances.

By the 1960s Hellman had become disillusioned with the Broadway theatre where she had labored for three decades. As she explained her loss of interest, she cited the Broadway Theatre as an increasing question of money: “I didn't want to live in a world where one was a wild success one minute and a wild failure the next and it seldom depended upon the worth of what one was doing” (Conversations 163). While the corpus of her dramatic work is small in comparison to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, of her eight original plays, four are commonly identified as her “Southern” plays. Together with Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers, she pioneered the current renascence in Southern drama most evident today in the works of Marsha Norman and Beth Henley.

Let us consider the distinguishing marks of Southern life and culture transposed into the theatre in these four remarkable plays about the South, only one of which is set in New Orleans: The Little Foxes, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic.7

In answer to the question “What is a Southern writer?” the editors of The Literature of the South assert that genuinely Southern writers usually show an awareness of Southern ties and cannot throw them off if they would. Moreover, while Southern writers may live in later years outside the area, they will continue to draw upon a fund of Southern materials in their writing.8 Hellman confirmed this insight in an interview when she said: “Well, I have no right to, because the New York years now far outweigh the Southern years, but I suppose most Southerners, people who grew up in the South, still consider themselves Southern” (Conversations 186). Further defining the Southern literary tradition, Cleanth Brooks suggests that the Southerner has “… a belief in human imperfection, and a genuine and never wavering disbelief in [human] perfection …” (History of Southern Literature 263). Furthermore, as Brooks indicates, the Southerner has a profound sense of living in a fallen, imperfect world; hence, Southern writers—novelists, poets and playwrights—know that human beings are fallible and are, therefore, more tolerant as observers and recorders of human foibles and imperfections. Consequently, when Southern playwrights depict suicide, murder, cruetly, grotesque characters, and family histories, they are writing in a regional literary tradition one hundred and fifty years old. In terms of the American theatre and conventions of Southern drama, Lillian Hellman stood in the 1930s in the vanguard in giving definition to the drama of the South.

While The Children's Hour—produced on Broadway eleven years before Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie—appears to have no Southern ties, it was remarkable in its day for bringing to Broadway taboo subject matter and for depicting the perverse evil of the public denunciation of two individuals accused of a lesbian relationship. Moreover, the play's ending in suicide and crippling guilt affirms the playwright's concerns for human imperfection and for the destructive power of slander, pervasive themes in novels and plays written about the South by William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, William Styron, and Walker Percy.

The Little Foxes (the first of what was planned as a trilogy but never completed) was Hellman's first explicitly Southern play in which she pioneered aspects of the Southern dramatic tradition. The center of the play's dramatic universe is the Giddens/Hubbard families coupled with a specificity of place (a small Southern town around 1900), concerns for property and inheritance, rapacious and fragile characters, events of theft and murder, exploitation of the underprivileged (white and black), and the intrusion of industrial technology into a traditionally rural society. Moreover, Hellman writes within the strong Southern tradition of Gothic humor, regional dialect, a fascination with the past (both real and imaginary), and the enactment of taboos (social and sexual). In addition, she develops themes characteristic of Southern writing relative to money, power, greed, property, exploitation, disease, death, and dying.

The Little Foxes concerns the South at the turn of the century and centers on the machinations of the favored few. Ben and Oscar Hubbard and their sister Regina Giddens are beginners in the promotion of the industrialized South—the bringing of the “machine to the cotton, and not the cotton to the machine,” as Ben Hubbard says (159). The Hubbard family's rapacity and cruelty lead to oppression, theft, blackmail, and murder. They are contrasted with helpless, aristocratic gentility (Oscar's wife, Birdie), moral rectitude (Regina's husband, Horace), and with ineffectual adolescent rebellion (Horace and Regina's daughter, Alexandra). None of these individuals is strong enough to cope successfully with the rapacious forces surrounding them. In what is a uniquely Southern viewpoint, Hellman pointedly admires the effective strength and machinations of these imperfect human beings. Ben Hubbard, momentarily out-maneuvered by his sister over the theft of the crucial bonds, says,

… But I'm not discouraged. The century's turning, the world is open. Open for people like you and me. Ready for us, waiting for us. After all this is just the beginning. There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country some day. We'll get along.


What we have here is a typical Hellman paradox stated with humor, subtlety and truth: on the one hand, Ben Hubbard's speech is a tribute to Southern optimism regarding human continuity and endurance; on the other, Hellman's liberal politics condemns an American capitalism which exploits the masses (black as well as white) and implants technology upon an agrarian culture, thus transforming a land, a people, and a way of life.

Hellman's Southern roots are laid bare in this play. The North is viewed as a faraway, inaccessible world, the class differences between the two families is pointed (aristocrat versus merchant), the dialogue sounds Southern in its rhythms, humor and colloquialisms. Blacks are treated as an oppressed, serving class and poor whites as an exploitable labor force for the future cotton mills. Hellman's treatment of the black retainers in Regina's household is reminiscent of the portraits of Dilsey in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), of Berenice Sadie Brown in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding (1946), and of her own portrait of Sophronia Mason in An Unfinished Woman (1969). They have moral strength, understanding, and advocate good against evil.

The advent of the European war and Hellman's political liberalism and geographical remoteness from the region of her birth produced a change in her work in the 1940s. She wrote her Washington plays—Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind (1944)—which center on the war in Europe. The only explicit connections to The Little Foxes and her Southern heritage are the family as centerpiece, compassion for the world's oppressed, and a sustained humor and optimism despite gross human imperfection. Hellman's belief that human goodness can overcome the “little foxes that spoil the vines” was part of her Southern heritage and her liberal politics as well. The wealthy family in Watch on the Rhine and their penniless German anti-Nazi son-in-law learn from the evils of the historical moment.

Another Part of the Forest, directed by Hellman on Broadway, is the second of the four Southern plays which returns us to the Hubbard family in 1880, twenty years earlier than the period of The Little Foxes. Hellman, as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, deals with families in more than one generation and in more than one work, a practice indicative of a particular Southern concern for the continuity of the past in the present. In this play the Hubbard patriarch, Marcus, despite his poor origins, has acquired through unsavory, if not criminal means, money, power and “culture.” Hellman's Southern roots are revealed in the following ways: Marcus, oppressive and unscrupulous, is unaccepted by the town's genteel citizens despite his money and “cultural” interests. We are given specifics of postwar history, the “new” Ku Klux Klan, and the absence of legal rights for blacks in the 1880s. Lavinia, Marcus's wife, like Birdie Hubbard in the earlier play, is one of Hellman's consistent portraits of vulnerable, ineffectual women whose frailty is their protection and their misery. There is something of Hellman's mother, Julia Newhouse Hellman—a genteel, docile, often foolish woman—in both of these characters (Wright 16). Lavinia has compassion for blacks who welcome her to their churches and engage her in their desire to educate their children. As the Hubbard siblings struggle among themselves for money and power at the play's end, Lavinia, mentally unstable but steadfastly determined to begin a school for black children, departs the Hubbard menage with her black companion, thereby foreshadowing the blowing winds of social change.

The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic are Hellman's final two Southern plays. In both, there is a specificity of place: a summer resort on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in September 1949 and a middle-class house in need of repair near the river in New Orleans. Both present family and money as centerpieces for action and conflict. Both concern domestic issues, class distinctions, blackmail, lies, fidelity, separation, betrayal, missed opportunities, and loneliness. Hellman spoke of The Autumn Garden as her best and favorite play; she described it as a story about middle age and broken dreams (Conversations 55, 175, 215). In the canon of her work The Autumn Garden introduces the subject of Hellman's characteristic dramaturgy, that is, her affinity for the melodramatic, well-made play tradition popularized by Henrik Ibsen in his plays of social realism. Unlike Tennessee Williams, Hellman did not pioneer in her dramaturgy, though she was an effective craftsman. In the Hubbard plays, her consummate use of the well-made play conventions are found in the symbolic titles, secrets revealed, mysterious bank boxes, hidden envelopes, unresolved endings, plot reversals, clear-cut characters, and highly theatrical moments. The Autumn Garden, however, also reveals the influences of Anton Chekhov on Hellman's dramaturgy, despite Richard Moody's insistence that she had not been reading Chekhov prior to writing The Autumn Garden and the fact that her edition of Chekhov's letters appeared four years later.9 Nevertheless, the play is rich in Chekhovian qualities, and Chekhov is a writer of immense influence on other Southern authors, in particular novelist Walker Percy.

The setting of The Autumn Garden is a summer boardinghouse on the Gulf Coast near Pass Christian, Mississippi. Traces of Chekhov's influence are to be found in the gathering of disparate middle-aged people into a central place where they confront individual truths about their lost opportunities and wasted lives with little formal plotting of confrontations and irreversible crises. The characters wander aimlessly through the boardinghouse, all the while laboring to understand their past mistakes and present unhappiness. Hellman's focus is on the loss and gain within interpersonal relationships: the broken dreams, the small illusions, the painful truths. As in almost all of her plays, money—the presence or the absence of it—becomes the catalyst for resolving the play's action. Moreover, the details of boardinghouse life—the endless meals, the small demands, the required services, the intrusive strangers—mirror the New Orleans setting of Hellman's childhood in the Prytania Street boardinghouse and her memories of a Gulf Coast resort as well. In this play, the three generations of the Ellis family (along with Denery, a familiar New Orleans name) replicates the Southern writer's penchant for tracing family histories. Finally, New Orleans is the scene to which most of the characters return at summer's end—a pattern of summer migration among New Orleanians familiar to the youthful Hellman.

Hellman likewise returns to New Orleans as the scene of her next and penultimate play. (She did not write another play after the failure on Broadway of My Mother, My Father and Me in 1963.) Toys in the Attic has New Orleans as its setting, including specifics of ambience, landscape, weather, food, foliage, manners, voodoo rites, violence, as well as references to Galatoire's restaurant, Audubon Park, the Mississippi River, and the waterfront docks.

The references to characters, ambience and minor incidents share a close affinity to details included in the memoir begun by Hellman almost a decade later. Hellman seems to have rummaged through her own personal attic for characters and themes. The play's setting closely approximates the middle-class boardinghouse lives of her New Orleans aunts described in An Unfinished Woman, even including the detail of her eccentric aunt who ate her meals on the front porch steps for two years. The Berniers' middle-class house is described as “a house lived in by poor, clean, orderly people who don't like where they live” (5). In addition, Hellman's childhood memories of New Orleans, its class distinctions, the importance of money, food and manners among its people comprise the warp and woof of the play's fabric.

As in all of Hellman's work, family and money are the catalysts for dramatic interest and conflict. Dashiell Hammett is reputed to have given her the idea that became the plot for Toys in the Attic: a play about a man whose loved ones think they want him to be rich and successful, but who find that they really do not want his success; when he bungles his opportunities and ends up a worse failure than before, they are satisfied (Wright 279). However, in Hellman's terms, Julian Berniers, the ill-fated success story, is reminiscent of her father who married a doting young woman whose wealthy mother set up her son-in-law in a shoe manufacturing business on Canal Street that went bankrupt under his management. Moreover, Max Hellman's two unmarried sisters doted on their only brother. Hellman interweaves her adolescent memories of the Hellman family history with a revision of Hammett's original plot line and constructs a play centered upon the women surrounding Julian's life, their motivations and their part in his hapless fate.

Toys in the Attic in its final version tells the story of two sisters, Anna and Carrie Berniers, who are forty-two and thirty-eight respectively and are employed as office and sales clerks. They have devoted their lives to rearing their younger brother Julian, now thirty-four. Their psychological makeup demands Julian's financial (and emotional) dependence on them, so that his failures as a businessman give meaning to their habituated, unhappy lives. Reflecting upon Hammett's original story line, Hellman said: “… It became to me a man who had a momentary success, brought up by women who certainly had never wanted him to have that minute of success. That wasn't the way they saw him and they ruined it for him. I don't think that is an uncommon situation” (Conversations 103).

It is provocative that Hellman's memory of the favorite city of her youth and the conditions of the Hellman household during her New Orleans years resulted in her selection of New Orleans as the setting for this matriarchal society dominated by Julian's elder sisters (portraits derived from Hellman's aunts, Jenny and Hannah), and by Albertine Prine, his wife's wealthy, elegant and domineering mother (a character present in all of Hellman's plays reminiscent of her maternal grandmother, Sophie Marx Newhouse). The plot turns on the now familiar Hellman leit-motif—the acquiring of money and power—a symbolic sign of Julian's success or failure, his independence or dependence upon women. The plot reversal casts Julian (who bears kinship to Hellman's father) into financial disaster, destroying his hopes, self-esteem and new-found assertiveness. Hellman has embedded the story of three women in this rather undistinguished melodramatic plot composed of secret real estate deals, fortunes won and lost, mysterious telephone calls and trysts, religious epiphanies with diamond rings exchanged for knives, and the betrayal of a deeply-guarded miscegenatious marriage. In the second act, the play turns from Julian's story into the story of three women: Anna and Carrie Berniers and Albertine Prine. Albertine's public acknowledgement of her black lover and Anna's revelation of her sister's sexual feelings for their brother Julian set these two characters apart. Anna, the older sister, forces Carrie to confront her long-repressed feelings for Julian; she says, “Don't you know what's the matter, don't you know? You want him and always have” (Toys 59). However, Carrie is not freed by this revelation. Instead, she engages in further denial and her emotions turn to hatred and destruction under the guise of sibling love and understanding. Rather, the epiphany belongs to Anna, for Carrie in bitterness and hatred manipulates Julian's neurotic young wife, Lily (Hellman's nickname and the name of her great aunt Lily Marx), into betraying the source of his newly-acquired fortune and independence. Aware of her sister's betrayal and consuming hatred, Anna packs her bags to leave a way of life based on self-delusion, deprivation and dependency. At the play's close, she realizes that they have depended upon their brother's failures to give meaning and solace to their existence. Anna Berniers takes up the literal and figurative baggage of her life and starts to exit the New Orleans home of her youth and middle-age. But Hellman, in a consummate dramaturgical moment, freezes these two women of strength, dignity and self-knowledge—Anna Berniers and Albertine Prine—in a tableau that leaves the play's end a question mark.

The scene is the following: Repeating a life-long habit, Carrie is in the kitchen making soup for the injured Julian. (She says, “You always liked a good soup when you didn't feel well” [Toys 81].) Julian is in bed with his child-bride mending his self-esteem. Anna and Albertine are center stage confronting the profound changes in their lives brought about by acquired truth and by the symbolic loss of two men: Albertine's black “chauffeur” (a euphemism for her long-time lover who will leave her if she ever brings her daughter, Julian's wife, home again) and Anna's “child” (a brother who, for her, has passed into adulthood). Hellman does not resolve the futures of these two women at the play's end. What they will do in the strength and self-awareness that separates them now from their weak and destructive kin the audience does not learn. Lillian Hellman provides no answer to the choices of the stronger as they turn emotionally and physically away from life-lies relegated, like toys, to the attic of their lives.

Having examined Hellman's career as a successful Broadway playwright who used her Southern (and New Orleans) heritage in the making of four major American plays, let us return to the larger perspective. Lillian Hellman stood in the minefields of her profession and society for fifty years, first, as a controversial writer and civil libertarian imbued with a sense of justice which was often overridden by an even greater sense of self-preservation (Wright 417-36). In her Southern plays she applied her sense of the moral and the ethical to social injustice and class distinctions, to the evils of ill-used money and power, to self-deception and conscious lies, and to the tragedy of manipulation and personal waste.

Hellman did not consider herself a feminist, but she wrote some of the great roles for actresses in the American theatre (Conversations 136): Regina Giddens, Mary Tilford, Birdie Hubbard, Fanny Farrelly, Constance Tuckerman, Anna Berniers, Albertine Prine. Her portraits of women have their source in her childhood memories of her favorite Hellman aunts, her docile mother and her formidable maternal grandmother. Hannah and Hellman's favorite aunt, Jenny, one dominant and one weak, ran the New Orleans boardinghouse and pampered her father as the Berniers sisters pamper their brother Julian. Her mother, Julia Marx Hellman, was a dreamy, docile woman of genteel elegance who provided the prototypes for such characters as Birdie and Lavinia Hubbard, while her domineering maternal grandmother—Sophie Marx Newhouse—remote, strong, and wealthy, was the inspiration for Regina Giddens. Hellman's women provide a spectrum of modern womanhood. They are weak and strong, foolish and cunning, vulnerable and iron-willed, genteel and malevolent, sensitive and insensitive, married and unmarried, employed and leisured. In her portraits Hellman did not ignore the variety and dilemmas of modern women, even those in a postwar South that was just beginning to encroach upon modern times. Her plays are peopled with women from all venues: clerks, wives, mothers, spinsters, opportunists, landlords, society ladies, secretaries, cooks, heterosexuals, homosexuals, lovers, and poets. Almost as a reward for her rich female characterizations, the Hellman women have been realized on stage by many of the great actresses of our time: Florence Eldridge, Tallulah Bankhead, Lucile Watson, Patricia Neal, Mildred Dunnock, Maureen Stapleton, and Irene Worth.

Lillian Hellman, as her slightly younger contemporaries in the commercial theatre—Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—casts a large shadow over the history of the modern American theatre. However, the paradox is that, in the words of director Harold Clurman, her spirit was alien to the theatre (Moody xiv). Dashiell Hammett is cited in her memoir as saying about her: “The truth is you don't like the theatre except the times you're in a room by yourself putting the play on paper.”10 Even though a strong individualist and committed author, Lillian Hellman admitted that she had no talent for collaboration—and the theatre is an art of collaboration, most often among strangers. Not only did Hellman succeed in a profession where she was not altogether comfortable and where few women playwrights of her generation were successful, but she had the courage to take rigorous public stands on social and political issues. As we gain perspective on her gigantic presence in the American theatre, learning of her personal commitment to art and to society from memoirs, interviews and biographies, we can better perceive her signal contribution to the American commercial theatre: her presence.

Lillian Hellman cleared a path through the minefields of politics and art in a profession which is fickle at best, inimical to writers in general, and to women playwrights in particular. Her personal courage and professional determination are seen as signal flames for those following in her path.


  1. William Wright, Lillian Hellman: The Woman Who Made the Legend (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986) 20.

  2. Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971) 93.

  3. Conversations with Lillian Hellman, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1986) 204-5.

  4. Marsha Norman, “Lillian Hellman's Gift to a Young Playwright,” The New York Times 26 Aug. 1984: 1, 7.

  5. Mel Gussow, “Women Playwrights: New Voices in the Theatre,” The New York Times Magazine 1 May 1983: 22-38, 41.

  6. Jacob H. Adler, The History of Southern Literature, eds. Louis R. Rubin, Jr. et al. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1985) 436-39.

  7. Textual references for Hellman's plays are to Six Plays by Lillian Hellman (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) and Toys in the Attic (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1960).

  8. Thomas D. Young, Lloyd C. Watkins and Richmond C. Beatty, eds., The Literature of the South (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1968) viii.

  9. Richard Moody, Lillian Hellman: Playwright (New York: Pegasus, 1972) 227. See also Hellman's “Introduction” to The Selected Letters of Anton Chekov (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1955).

  10. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969) 75. The final volume of Hellman's memoirs is Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

Vivian M. Patraka (essay date March 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8746

SOURCE: Patraka, Vivian M. “Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine: Realism, Gender, and Historical Crisis.” Modern Drama 32, no. 1 (March 1989): 128-45.

[In the following essay, Patraka discusses “how gender is thematized” in Watch on the Rhine.]

To historicize a drama means understanding it in its changing socio-historical context and accounting for one's own critical stance toward that context. To historicize a drama also means understanding the role of its contemporary spectator as well as the spectator in our own time. According to Brecht, who first theorized this problem for the theatre, historicized works construct the spectator as an historian who is able to look objectively at the complex material conditions and human contradictions within the play's events and, by extension, within their own history. Brecht, however, had no interest in gender as a specific social phenomenon, so gender was not a historical context for him. In contrast, I assume that there is no ungendered history and seek to investigate not only how gender is thematized in Watch on the Rhine but also how it is inscribed in the conditions of the play's production.1 A gendered reading is not simply one option among many but a necessity if a play is to be fully historicized. In assuming this, I locate myself as part of an ongoing feminist project2 to historicize gendered subjectivity as inscribed in plays and spectators.

Works of realism, in which the playwright's purported aim is to investigate social and material conditions, pose a particular problem to this concept of gendered historicizing because issues of gender are often reduced to emotional conflicts. These are the very plays that must be historicized, because the seamless unity of realism conceals the history of its own making, thereby suggesting that all the events which are depicted occur naturally and inevitably. This makes it difficult for the spectator to historicize and to recognize history as a place of difference, struggle, and choice. I argue for the importance of a gendered historicizing of realistic texts in order to understand how these texts position their spectators seemingly within, but actually outside, history, even when there is a concerted effort to replace “psychology” with “politics.”

Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine (1941)3 serves as a good example of a realist play that omits a gendered analysis in its representation of a historical crisis. In response to the urgent threat of fascism, Hellman sought to infuse anti-fascist polemic into the ahistorical structures of a naturalized and nostalgic version of gender relations. To do this, the “unpatriotic” text of Pentimento's Julia,4 who “prematurely” fights fascism in Europe, is repatriated in Watch on the Rhine's portrayal of the heroic, but depoliticized, European, Kurt. The plot of an imperiled family in America literally familiarizes the play, and naturalizes an asymmetric relation between the sexes within marriage and family. The spectator is offered the seduction of the seeming logic, acceptability, and inescapability of female subservience. The play exemplifies a general trend, deliberate or unconscious, towards gendered inequality in response to any perceived “ungendered” historical crisis, denigrating opposition to patriarchy by rationalizing regressive fictions about gender on the basis of this “larger” crisis. A common patriarchal fiction of ideological neutrality is that, especially in the face of a “large” crisis, gender (as well as race, class and ethnicity) are not determinants of history. By contrast, when gender is historicized as a product of alterable structures in history, the spectator is given a perspective on gender to consider and evaluate against their own gendered history. To quote Elin Diamond, “When spectators ‘see’ gender they are seeing (and reproducing) the cultural signs of gender, and by implication, the gender ideology of a culture.”5

My choice of Hellman's Watch on the Rhine rests in part on its “datedness” as a “relic,” on the melodramatic contrivances which allow the play to be dismissed more easily, less a part of the respected Hellman canon. The very obviousness of the play's message-laden rhetoric and didacticism obscures the sophistication and seductiveness of its use of the structures of realism, a form which gains much of its power from its seeming transparency. Unless one simply assumes that anti-fascist plays were, by definition, appealing to audiences in the forties, the powerful response to this one needs theorizing by the critic in the eighties.

Watch on the Rhine is a call to arms for “nice, liberal” (Pentimento, p. 186) middle-class Americans, an exhortation to fight or help those who fight against fascism. The text's creation of an implicit state of war results in the only justifiable killing in all Hellman's plays and her most deliberate, unambiguous act of creating a hero. Her indictment of American innocence and isolation takes place twenty miles from Washington, D.C. at the Farrelly country home.6 According to Pentimento, Watch on the Rhine was originally set in “a small Ohio town.” Hellman changed her locale to a more politically central one so that American ignorance of the threat of fascism could not be excused on the grounds of provincialism or distance from the center of power and information. Here Fanny Farrelly, widow of an American diplomat, and David Farrelly, her lawyer son, live a life that is “secure and comfortable in the American style.”7 Their house-guests are Teck de Brancovis, shady Rumanian ex-diplomat and refugee from failed European business deals, and his American wife Marthe who dislikes and fears him. In the play, Teck represents “Old Europe” with its cynical, manipulative, effete aspects, which Hellman believed made it easy for the fascists to take power. Teck is also a site onto which American audiences can project all their anti-European prejudices, leaving the hero Kurt, as the New Man of Europe, free for admiration.

Enter, exhausted and shabby, Sara Müller, the daughter Fanny has not seen for twenty years, her German husband Kurt, a professional “Anti-Fascist,” and their three children. Kurt is carrying $23,000 “gathered from the pennies and the nickels of the poor who do not like Fascism” (p. 278). After a ten-day stay, he learns his comrades in the underground resistance have been captured and he must return to Germany with the money to free them. But Teck has discovered that Kurt is on Germany's most-wanted list and blackmails him. In response, Kurt kills him to preserve his funds as well as the secret identity which will allow him to re-cross safely the German border. Fanny and David, finally comprehending the dangers of fascism, now manifest within their own living room and not an ocean away, are disillusioned of their belief that America is a special, immune world isolated from the tangle of European history. Because they delay reporting the crime, they become accessories to Teck's murder, and further implicate and thus commit themselves by giving Kurt money. After a tearful farewell to his family, Kurt leaves on his mission, knowing that this time he will probably never return.

In structuring these events, Hellman made hard use of her women and children: they provide the exposition, the tension, the comedy, the pathos, the audience for the “big speeches,” the secondary plot complications and the mechanism by which the hero is kept off-stage so that his purity remains unsullied by domesticity or the machinery of the plot. While Hellman always structured her plays around her female characters, this time she imbues this structure with a gendered pro-war ideology designed for the specific purpose of getting the American spectator to accede to United States participation in World War II. On the basis of the emergency posed by Nazism and for the sake of expediency, she reverted to a traditional model of gender relations, including female subservience wedded to conjugal bliss and familial devotion. In order to clarify though not justify this regression, it is necessary to look at historical events contemporaneous with the play and so to pinpoint both how the historical crisis is represented and how the spectator in 1941 would have been positioned.

The stage directions (and program) situate the play in late Spring of 1940. By 1938, Nazi troops had invaded Austria and Hitler had seized the property of Jews in Germany and begun interning adult Jews in concentration camps; Japan had taken Manchuria and was continuing to attack China in a full if undeclared war. During 1939, Franco, supported by the fascists, took control of Spain, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, Mussolini invaded Albania, and France and England declared war on Germany in response to its invasion of Poland. By the early summer of 1940, Hitler and the Nazis had already invaded and taken over Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France. The spectator at a performance of the play in April of 1941 could add to these events (and so have more extensive knowledge of current history than the play's characters) the German invasions of Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece, and parts of North Africa and the Japanese incursions into Indochina and Thailand.

In Pentimento (p. 185) Lillian Hellman notes that Watch on the Rhine was first conceived as early as 1938, a time of growing fascist aggression which Hellman already had identified as an urgent crisis.8 While the events of either 1940 or 1941 could serve, at least theoretically, as sufficient grounds for historical crisis, and despite the claims that Watch on the Rhine had “all the timeliness of first page news”9 and “carried the blazing effect of a front-page headline,”10 the play refers to few specific events—events which after all could be read about in any newspaper. The perception of timeliness results more from the sense of emotional urgency the play projects along with an external context of rapidly shifting events. Moreover, the contemporary spectator of Watch on the Rhine did not assent to our retrospective view of an urgent historical crisis of international proportions: through the Spring of 1941, eighty percent of Americans still opposed a declaration of war by the United States.11 The dangers of fascist aggression may well have been obscured by an aura of optimism created by American business improving from trade with warring nations, by the stability of South and Central America as markets for goods and as sources of natural resources, and by, given the disillusionment after World War I, the satisfaction of Americans that they had so far managed to stay out of what they continued to view as a European embroilment.12 Thus the historical crisis that the text responds to is that the threat of fascism did not constitute enough of a crisis for its spectators either in 1938 or in Spring 1941 to move them to struggle actively against fascism. To convince her audience that a crisis even existed, Hellman relocated it within the structure of American family, basing the play's appeal on an emotional and ideological narrative of possession. Funneling historical events and the emotions connected to them into the fate of a family and a marriage, into the loss of a father and husband, served as a strategy for getting the spectator both to internalize and internationalize what was now recreated as domestic crisis.13 Indeed, when The Village Voice reviewer Julius Novick polled his mother about seeing the play, she replied “It was very consciousness-raising at the time. It really hit you.”14 The question is with what exactly Hellman hit her audience.


In Watch on the Rhine, spectators are positioned through a series of gendered, familiarizing metaphors which serve as the play's text more than its overt thematics, plot or characters. Of course, the creation of distorting equivalences between two things that are not equivalent is implicit in the structure of a metaphor, making it both a powerful and dangerous tool. But in the case of Watch on the Rhine, like so many realistic works, the equations, displacements, and substitutions are seamlessly made, with whatever contradicts or disrupts them rendered invisible, often at women's expense. Watch on the Rhine positions its male and female spectators in a gendered way that offers them (more than simply different identifications) different seductions and rewards. This creates a system of exchange that is flattering, exciting to audiences.

The marriages in Watch on the Rhine are metaphors for contrasting models of political relations between the United States and Europe. Marthe's marriage to Teck stands for the aspects of European culture which must be rejected, while Sara's marriage to Kurt for those which must be repatriated (along with Sara and Marthe) into an internationalized version of liberal American ideology. While the childless DeBrancovis marriage represents the depletion, cynicism, and amorality to which we as Americans resist connecting, the marriage of Kurt and Sara, with its three children, operates as a mediation, a bonding between the best of old and new worlds that is staged as loving and unshakable, and so challenges American isolationism in a tropological way. Marriage functions in a literal sense as a traffic in women as exemplified by Marthe's pretentious and opportunistic mother who married her daughter to Teck for the sake of a title. And since Sara, in defiance, had to escape her mother's trafficking to marry the poor but admirable Kurt, the text marks mothers both as poor personal advisors and, on a metaphoric level, political ones, thereby forcing into the background the play's literal critique of the policies of male diplomats. This prevents the process of historicizing by the spectator.

In its use of trans-Atlantic marriages to outline a desired response to international politics, the text itself traffics in women by creating a system of meanings in which the married female characters function as ideological commodities. The use of marriage as a metaphor creates an appeal to the male spectator residing in the notion that an adoring, faithful wife is the reward for politically and ethically correct action in the public arena. The female spectator is offered the idea that politically correct men are loving and humane and that the marriages that women make equate to politically important activity requiring no additional action in the public arena. For example, Marthe's switch of allegiance from her marriage to Teck to a romantic interest in David Farrelly operates as a sign of her growing political awareness of fascism's dangers and the text's payment for his. For both, it represents their rejection of their mothers and their mothers' power over them, past or present. When this romantic choice is equated with political awareness, it expands the danger of the mother and her independent actions into the international arena. Male authority is legitimated while female authority is displaced. The text then disarms the dangerous mother in Sara's scrupulous devotion to Kurt's ideals in her relations with her children.

The presence of Kurt's worshipful children and admiring wife radiates an aura of nostalgia for an idyllic place outside history, pushing the world back to the uninfringed borders of an intact nuclear family and using its fragmentation as the play's central crisis. As Janice Doane and Devon Hodges point out, the source of nostalgia is nostos, the return home to an idealized past. Nostalgia operates not just as “a sentiment but also a rhetorical practice.”15 Metaphorically, Watch on the Rhine equates the return home with the referent of the nuclear family as authentic origin or stable center where “sexual differences [are] uncompromised by questions about the relation of these differences to ideology and culture.”16 As a consequence, these familializing metaphors operate as an ahistorical structure of familiarity that is the underpinning for all the play's polemics and so extends out to naturalize or dehistoricize all the history the text slips into it.17

Furthermore, in its reinscription of patriarchal structures and heterosexuality clothed in blissful marriage, Watch on the Rhine equates the family configuration to the “good people” that fascism threatens and that must be re-covered by war. That the threat in the household comes from Teck conflates his literal threat as an opportunist and fascist sympathizer with the idea that outsiders to the family are suspect and dangerous. The creation of the Farrellys as a Washington diplomat family blurs the distinction between domestic decisions and national policy. Thus the nuclear family is established as the building block of American liberal democracy, complete with an ideological shift away from isolationism toward the idea that America must lead the world toward democracy, individual rights, private property, and Christianity (Kurt even quotes Martin Luther). Moreover, the configuration of a political network of resisters, who secretly consort to oppose fascism, is reconfigured by the play into the nuclear family with women assigned secondary support roles. Nuclear family structures become so metaphorically integrated with taking political action that characters outside it are assimilated into commitment to the nuclear family and to political awareness at the same time. Thus, David Farrelly, a bachelor, and Fanny Farrelly, a widow, operate as marginals in this system. They are underused commodities in the struggle against fascism and for the family, who will be reassimilated and re-educated, “shaken out of the magnolias” in the course of the play (p. 301). Peculiarly, given the frequent perception of the nuclear family as an isolated, protective, self-interested configuration, isolationism becomes a metaphorical equivalent to isolation from the nuclear family.

These familializing metaphors suggest several gendered appeals to the spectator in the context of impending war. Besides authenticating the traditional place of women, the text offers female spectators in the absence of their husbands matrilineal authority (through their sons), but not the dangerous (as presented) matriarchal authority. Also, the text grants the female spectator approval for staying patriotically at home instead of fighting fascism directly, by ensconcing her in the civilian family that has assumed moral weight by its reconfiguration as a network of resisters. And even if the actual departure of Kurt is presented as a painful, tragic event, the play still promises its male spectators authority over and ownership of a nuclear family while having the freedom to leave it for the moral adventure of war.

The opening of the 1943 film version of Watch on the Rhine refers to “some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew [the] mighty tragedy was on the way … and had fought it from the beginning. This is the story of one of these men.” This text informs the viewer to expect a gendered narrative of male heroism organized around a man who stands for courageous and foresightful men. Neither the play nor the film leaves its historical marking of “the beginning” vague. Kurt's frequent references to the struggle against fascism in Spain, including singing the whole German Brigade song, foregrounds American failure to aid the elected socialist-liberal government against a fascist rebellion aided by Hitler and Mussolini that culminated in Franco's victory in 1939. Thus the play creates a fixed point of origin for the escalation of fascist aggression, with Kurt proclaiming “It would have been a different world if we had [won]” (p. 269). This temporal slide in the text to an earlier time elicits in male viewers an amalgam of guilt about the past and glorification about the future war as a form of expiation.

To facilitate the metaphoric overlapping of 1938 and 1941, of a civil war having international consequences with a domestic invasion, of Brigade and resistance fighter with ordinary American soldier, the text erases the historical context of Kurt's political allegiances, thereby further essentializing the hero. Kurt's nine-year-old son Bodo comically parrots the language of class exploitation and revolt, so Kurt's possibly leftist politics are present but safely contained by a humorous domesticating device. Peculiarly, Teck reading aloud the Nazi's official description of Kurt as having neither “known political connections” or “known trade-union connections” (p. 286) makes the Nazi hatred of the Left serve as an assurance to the spectator that Kurt's politics equate to a loose ethical conglomerate of fundamental human decencies that can be mapped as the province of American democratic ideology. Bodo also serves as a device for articulating the qualities of Kurt as “a great hero.” He asserts that in Spain, “Papa was brave, he was calm, he was expert, he was resourceful …” (p. 247), this passage explicitly equating the (male) hero with the father. As “Papa,” the hero is middle-aged, sensitive, frightened, exhausted, physically ill from torture and bullet wounds, and violence-hating. This heightens the pathos, widens the range of spectators who can identify with him, and operates as more of a reproach by underscoring how far he deviates from the standard image of the young, healthy, strong male hero. Metaphorically, the abused Old World, European Father must be protected and avenged by the New World, American Sons.

Brecht's Mother Courage, remarking on what is required of soldiers, says “Take it from me, whenever you find a lot of virtues, it shows that something's wrong”18 and the completeness of Kurt's virtues19 conveys the text's anxiety about the power of the Nazis even if Kurt's anecdotes testify to how they can be defeated. At the play's end, Kurt's exit from America to rejoin the German underground serves as a paradigm of the male hero as soldier leaving his family to go off to war, just as his killing Teck enacts the deliberate injuring of persons that is war's goal in a more anonymous way. That an individual decision by an anti-fascist equates to what is by now, in 1941, a matter of national policy is a revealing displacement. It enhances the power of the ordinary male spectator by representing the historical process as an aggregate of individual, courageous acts outside specific institutional, cultural, or economic contexts. In this realistic play's system of representation, coherent, unified subjects located within the family either remain, as in Kurt's case, heroically unchanged or they learn (about the threat of Fascism), decide to act, and so recover their identities — identities implicitly linked to the development of an aggregate national identity. Since this identity is American, the European Kurt must be evacuated from the text. The finality of his departure on a mission from which he is unlikely to return combined with his son, Joshua, being too young to follow underscores the metaphoric gap at the center of the play, which the contemporary American hero/ordinary soldier must fill.

Getting male spectators to identify with a hero isn't hard, maybe creating a situation so urgent and a hero so appealing and loving that the female spectator will accede to a subservient role in his support isn't either; but creating a climate in which women will relinquish their male children for the sake of war, the central agenda of Watch on the Rhine, is difficult. The female spectator is given a vision of herself as courageous and mature, a heroine if she does not impede her sons from joining the struggle. Made when we are at war, the 1943 film foregrounds this aspect of the text. Joshua is cast as older and the dialogue between him and Sara where he asserts he will follow Kurt is bracketed off into a new, final scene months later. Symbolically, the two of them are in a bedroom, with Joshua tracing on a large map the route to Germany that will lead him to his missing father—a route that parallels that of many of our soldiers. He insists that he will leave to fight/find his father (the two become equated), that in his absence Sara must prepare Bodo for the same fate and that she is “a brave lady.” Thus becoming “Mother Courage” in this patriarchal economy rests not on protecting one's children, on holding them back but on offering them up however reluctantly to the dangers of war. As E. Ann Kaplan notes about the uses of maternal sacrifice in film, “investment in the pathos of lost Mother-son bondings keeps the maternal melodrama from straying too far from patriarchal mandates.”20

The text constructs its crises around the absences of fathers and sons (suggesting the patrilineal authority of the realist text). No accident, then, that early on a less committed David Farrelly images himself as a “bad monument” to his dead father. And Kurt's patriarchal authority is facilitated by this evacuation of Joshua Farrelly in the text. This gap allows Kurt's European, better informed world view to merge with Joshua's without directly criticising his authority or that of his American liberalism. The portrait of Joshua looming over the living room transports him to the symbolic realm of the Father, exemplifying the entire movement constructed by the play toward the ideology of heroism and war conducted by men. Appropriately Sara says “Papa is going home” to explain Kurt's final departure even while the rest of the Müller family has “come home” to America. Thus the struggle against fascism is configured as the struggle between two patriarchal systems, one evil and the other benign.

If at the moment of excess, of overstatement of its ideas, a realistic play unwittingly reveals gaps in the seamlessness that hides the history of its own making, then Kurt's climactic speech fulfills this: “In every town and every village and every mud hut in the world, there is always a man who loves children and who will fight to make a good world for them” (p. 299). The familiarizing slide from town and village to mud hut promises heroism to each male head of household. It internationalizes the father/hero, firmly assuring the moral correctness of his mission while placing him “beyond politics,” beyond even a specific history of events. While women are to give their children to war as their patriotic commitment, in a curious appropriation of many mothers' concerns, men's commitment to children is erected as their reason for fighting in war.21 Besides erasing both political action by women against injustice and their labor in the production of children, these lines literalize the absence of women in the text's representations of them.

E. Ann Kaplan notes that in the maternal narratives of the thirties, “to be healthy, the daughter must turn away from the Mother and discover identity through marriage—that is, through subordination to the male.”22 Indeed, Sara's rejection of her mother and her mother's values in order to marry Kurt twenty years earlier is the anterior action to the play. The reward for her choice parallels what Maria LaPlace describes as the heterosexual romantic ideal of women's fiction, with its perfect understanding between the lovers: a “maternal” man who is a woman's soul-mate, who is capable of tenderness, nurturing and admiration of his beloved.23 In the portrayal of the relationship between Kurt and Sara, the text even promises the female spectator that the emotional intensity of this romance continues after marriage. As Sara tells Kurt in the final scene: “For twenty years. It is as much for me today—(Takes his arms) Just once, and for all my life. (He pulls her toward him)” (p. 300). However, the equality between men and women that is part of this ideal is not present in this marriage; the text justifies Sara's subordination to Kurt's authority on the basis of the political crisis of fascism as reconfigured in the home. The subject of romantic love in marriage is recreated in a humorous way through Fanny's depiction of her marriage: “(Without turning, she points over her head to Joshua Farrelly's portrait) Thank God, I was in love” (p. 233), and “(shrieks) What! Your father bored with me! Not for a second of our life” (p. 247). There's even a competition between Fanny and Sara over whose marriage is the more loving, which is halted by an amused Kurt's “Ladies, ladies” (p. 248). A humiliating account related by the housekeeper Anise of how Fanny, when pregnant and jealous over her husband's dancing with another woman, faked the sounds of labor and so spitefully screamed for three weeks, ensures that this character has no matriarchal authority in the play but, instead, functions as the comic type of the sharp-tongued matriarch.

The text's use of parallel comic and serious tracks in representing the women, as in the depiction of conjugal love, occurs also in the depiction of the women's relationships to their husband's ideas. Fanny, who “always [finds herself] wondering what Joshua would have felt” (p. 236) states “I am proud to have Papa's convictions” (p. 260). Her parroting of her husband's ideas allows them to be criticised indirectly while, given Bodo's similar parroting of Kurt's ideas, infantilizing her. The case of Sara is more complex. Twice in the play, Kurt cuts off her speaking, once with a “Be still, Sara” (p. 253), and once to control her anger and interject a long narrative of his own. In response to this narrative, Sara says “I wanted it the way Kurt wanted it” (p. 253). Though never comic, Sara is no more a true speaking subject in the play than is Fanny. Her wifely function is to translate Kurt's point of view in his absence, serving metaphorically as both an extension of (more serious and perceptive than Fanny), and mirror for her husband.

If Robert Sherwood's 1940 play about the threat of fascism, There Shall Be No Night, has as its main female character a nearly speechless wife who is rarely without her apron, Hellman's strategy of making seemingly intelligent women self-consciously speak their subordinate positions is certainly more seductive, especially when aligned to the aura of maturity adhering to Sara. But a devolutionary image of girlhood underscores both Fanny's and Sara's representations. Half in amusement and half in anger, Davis tells his mother “Mama, I think we'll fix up the chicken house for you as a playroom. … and you can go into your second childhood in the proper privacy” (p. 235). And, included for the “self-effacing part” (as one reviewer put it)24 of Sara is a gentle remonstrance from Kurt to “not be a baby” about enjoying her former, luxurious home. Moreover, praise for Sara culminates in David's and Kurt's evaluation of her near the end of the play as “a good girl” (p. 290). This larger, gendered narrative of infantilization includes the portrayal of Babette, Sara's daughter, four times described as “a pretty little girl.” Babbie exults in American opportunities to cook, sew, and get new dresses, implying to the audience that, in contrast to war-torn Europe, America is a place where femininity still flourishes. Indeed, with Sara described initially as “very badly dressed” in mismatched clothes, much care is given to the scene where Marthe brings in boxes of fashionable, expensive dresses secretly bought by Fanny for Sara and Babette. The re-absorption of the Müller females into the discourse of consumerism serves as a confirmation of their repatriation into middle-class capitalist America, with no parallel activity for the Müller males. It is as if upclassing were a promise reserved for women, while the effacing of class differences is one reserved for men fighting against fascism.

Watch on the Rhine capitalizes on the nostalgia for sexual inequality just at the edge of the historical moment when so many real women would shift into active industrial participation for the war effort. In one sense, then, the devolutionary women's line slides over the forties, erasing the competent, self-supporting image of Rosie the Riveter to anticipate the more restricted position of women in the fifties. But perhaps American responses to the war and its aftermath contained the seeds of the fifties with its suburban reproductions of “chickenhouse playrooms,” just as the portrayals of women in this play do. That Hellman's 1943 film script The North Star25 included portrayals of gun-wielding, torture-resisting Russian women and girls responding to invasion by the Nazis reinforces by contrast that even when staged within the illusion of invasion of America, there was still no space in the form, content, or ideology of Watch on the Rhine for female resistance. In support of a formal declaration of war and acceptance of the archetypal departure of the soldier, the text sacrifices gender equality, so for the female spectator the play must create a situation so pressing, a mission so holy, that any role in it is glorified.


Describing the writing of Watch on the Rhine, Hellman said it was “the only play I have ever written that came out in one piece, as if I had seen a landscape and never altered the trees” while “all other work for me had been fragmented, hunting in an open field with shot from several guns … unable to see clearly, … hands empty from stumbling and spilling” (Pentimento, p. 193). The “one piece” denotes the ease of reproducing ideology as consistent with itself and actual conditions, of not going against norms she challenged in other plays. The “open field” suggests some of the discontinuities and contradictions to a totalizing world view revealed in the process of much of Hellman's writing, including “Julia.” Instead of the coherent, linear, realist narrative of Watch on the Rhine, “Julia” is a structural and thematic interplay of movement—the movement of women across Europe and the associative movement of Hellman's memory and reflection contextualizing in unpredictable ways. As a text that foregrounds concealment and deception, both as the necessary language of the anti-fascist underground and as an indictment of those who denied the threat of fascism out of apathy and self-interest, “Julia” also oscillates between revealing and concealing Hellman's desire for Julia as a hero and as a beloved person of power and grace. Accordingly, language is never transparent in the text; the writing is self-reflexive, calling attention to its own textual strategies.

I want, now, to establish an intertextual relationship between Watch on the Rhine and the “Julia” section of Pentimento, to exemplify the way a text can historicize another by the same author. I won't give a full-blown reading of “Julia,” but employ the text as a way of exposing the limitations of Watch on the Rhine as realistic text. The events depicted in “Julia” occur through 1938, so “Julia” is a pretext to the play. Indeed, Hellman wrote that Kurt “was, of course, a form of” her vigorously anti-fascist, heroic friend Julia (Pentimento, p. 187). The “of course” denotes Hellman's assumption of the unproblematic transposing of gender which in reality erases gender—not as an essentialized, biological element but one that is constructed through history. Early on in “Julia,” Hellman marks her own awareness of the ideology of gender by noting her uneasiness around a man who made “pretend-good-natured feminine jibes” (Pentimento, p. 102). And later, she marks the suspiciousness and derision of homophobic acquaintances in response to her friendship with Julia, implicating them as well in a narrow, conventional morality and selfishness that gives them a kind of fascist potential. As a work written in the 1970s, “Julia” is also the post-text to Watch on the Rhine; it comments on the play's function as a pro-war text written in the historical moment of the 1940s by revealing in its own text a history of intimacy between women in relationship to political struggle against fascism. Thus “Julia” serves as the supplement to Watch on the Rhine: everything that the “Kurt” version of Julia cannot contain circulates invisibly through the play creating the “one character too many” Hellman thought was in this play but could not identify.

Instead of enfolding resistance to fascism within the confines of the symbolic ideological units of marriage and family, “Julia” presents an anonymous network of women and men “of Catholic, Communist, many beliefs” (Pentimento, p. 106), in which politically committed, ordinary women taking grave risks are foregrounded. The notion that the foundation for anti-fascism is to be found in various, specific systems of belief replaces the individual moral dilemmas of Watch on the Rhine, which suggested that context, even history itself, did not change people's values. And if Watch on the Rhine posits fascism as an evil based on its opposition to the nuclear family, “Julia” repoliticizes the struggle against fascism by reconfiguring those whom fascism most directly threatens, and who must be rescued by the underground as “Jews … And political people. Socialists, Communists, plain old Catholic dissenters” (Pentimento, p. 139). Through the character of Hellman, the text charts the uncertainty and disorientation of American intellectuals in the early thirties over the extent of the dangers of fascism, thereby offering both a sense of the historical forces of that time and a response to them, by which readers can evaluate and contextualize their own awareness of what contemporary events mean. Watch on the Rhine and “Julia” are both teaching texts and texts about teaching, but while the education of a family is crucial in the play, in “Julia” it is a woman, a writer, and political person, whose education and development are central. And this learning begins in a bond between two women in early adolescence. Replacing Babette, the daughter positioned solely by her relationship to her family, is the configuration of close friendship between unrelated girls—an intense one, full of questioning and speculation about the world.

Heroism itself is no longer the province of males, of fathers and sons vested with familial authority, when Hellman relocates acts of courage within a matrix of female friendships. The story marks the way Julia depends on this friendship to seduce Hellman via letters to come to Europe, recognize the gravity of what was happening, and risk carrying money across the border to Germany to secure the release of those interned in concentration camps. Even the props of this resistance work—fur hat and candy box—portray the paraphernalia of femininity as a strategy to defeat fascists instead of as a trivialized comic device. In its focus on female friendship, “Julia” historicizes the role of emotion and personal feeling outside the family and marriage in relation to politics. The text also reconceives women's anger: while Kurt polices Sara if she gets “too angry” in expressing herself, Julia tells Hellman that she's “always liked [Hellman's] anger, trusted it” and “not to let people talk you out of it” (Pentimento, p. 140), and, by implication, the insight and power to act that anger gives. The converse of anger in “Julia” is not the comfortably subordinate Sarah but “that kind of outward early-learned passive quality that in women so often hides anger” (Pentimento, p. 119), that is, a concealed and ineffectual rage conditioned by patriarchal norms.

While Hellman thought the film version of “Julia” did a good job of showing “that two women can be totally devoted to one another, and that each will do for the other what each wants,”26 her own text rarely risks dehistoricizing the two women's political activity by subordinating it to an essentialized narrative of female friendship. When Hellman has accomplished her mission, Julia tells her to “believe that you have been better than a good friend to me, you have done something important” (Pentimento, pp. 138-9), implicitly enlarging the territory of friendship and its obligations while refusing to make it a transgressive political action in itself. Still, “Julia” does reconfigure the site of love and intense feeling outside marriage and into female friendship, and instead of the aggressively heterosexual text of Watch on the Rhine, “Julia” is grounded in a historically specific, sexual, intellectual, and political rapport between two women. Thus the text and its defamiliarizing configurations depict the conditions in which women become social subjects, rather than, given the gender ideology of Watch on the Rhine, subjecting them to a particular position in a social structure. As a text of many overlapping contexts that can't be tracked or sorted out, “Julia” portrays the historical process as both complex and discontinuous—a place of exclusion on the basis of gender, class, sexual preference, and race instead of a continuing, causal, naturalized chain of events.

Legitimate can be defined as “according to law,” as “in accordance with established rules, principles, or standards,” and as “in accordance with the laws of reasoning.” Illegitimate includes unlawful, illegal, irregular, and illogical. So established structures of authority are the context for deciding which term of this legitimate/illegitimate opposition applies. The text of “Julia” contains many “illegitimate” aspects. The only family in the text is her unpleasant, fragmented upper-class one, which she rejects and which repudiates her once she joins with the working class of Vienna. She uses her money in an illegitimate way—not in accordance with upper class standards and outside the discourse of consumerism—to bankroll the resistance. If the Müllers are repatriated into America in Watch on the Rhine, “Julia” is the unpatriotic text in which a woman must leave America to express her politics.27 The depoliticized Kurt is replaced by the socialist Julia, thereby grounding in politics her early-thirties awareness of “the holocaust that was on its way” (Pentimento, p. 121), and her defense of Vienna's Fljoridsdorf district against violent attack by fascist thugs.

Julia has an illegitimate child whom she comfortably describes as “fat and handsome,” quickly dismissing the father as “an ordinary social climber.” For Julia, the term “bastard” is reserved for Nazis, not children, so, by implication, actions and ideology should determine legitimacy, not legal relations within the structure of the family. While the characterization of Sara relies on the traditional psychology of the maternal, in “Julia” there is no conflict between motherhood and active political struggle. Nor is the matriarchal rendered as threatening in this feminocentric world. Hellman's giving her character her own mother's name, and Julia's giving her daughter the name Lilly, after Hellman, reflect the way that the boundaries between female identities such as mother and daughter, as well as the borders between the relationships among women of lover and friend, collapse and blur in this gynocentric text. If, using Kurt's profession as a figuration for the play's structure, Watch on the Rhine is the engineered, fixed, logical text, “Julia” is its disruptive, repressed text. A final definition of legitimate refers to theatre, as in “the normal or regular type of stage plays.” The text of Julia is the illegitimate theatre of Watch on the Rhine, containing what cannot be placed into the historical perspective of a pro-war 1940s play, and further, what won't fit into the borders of the realistic system of representation in general.

If a text contains the seeds of what it does not say, of its opposite, Watch on the Rhine does so in ways that undermine its critique of fascism. Fascism denies history, replaces it with a myth of itself, constructs rigid oppositions and hierarchies of difference that are both menacingly authoritative and flexible. This process is reflected in the text's reinscribing of the patriarchal narrative of the nuclear family. The strategy of structuring the dehistoricized nuclear family as the bulwark of benign patriarchal opposition to fascism erases the historical reality of the fascist family and the organizing of Nazism (at least on the level of propaganda) around a pro-family, pro-natal ideology. Perhaps fascism, with its severe gender asymmetries, is made no longer threatening, is recuperated into dominant ideology via the domestic arena, when Hellman insists on a false opposition between a sugary version of patriarchy and fascism.

In response to her own historical dilemma, Hellman tried to explode the insularity of the family by familiarizing what was outside it, tried to internationalize political concerns and social relations by relocating them all within the United States and American democratic ideology. The result conveyed an aggregate national identity based on individual acts that appropriates history and politics as the province of the normal, the acceptable, the inescapable, and ultimately ahistorical structure of the family. And, as a pro-war play of the forties, Watch on the Rhine doesn't explore the question of what we do, how we live, how we resist fascism if we don't use war. Not tied to a war ideology, the retrospective presentation of Julia's anti-fascism may serve as more of a model for political action, including the fuller gendered historicizing the text accomplishes. If, in Watch on the Rhine, Hellman opposes one set of fixed ideological metaphors to another set implied by fascism, in “Julia” Hellman destabilizes the most traditional tropes of configuration, given her network of female resistance to fascism outside of the family structure. This suggests the instability of sexual identity, of male and female, as products of culture and subject to redefinition. Transgressive structures operate on both the “personal” and “political” level of “Julia” so that class and gender issues are more fully integrated into this work's anti-fascist ideology. An action of the plot of Watch on the Rhine is to conceal the dead body of Teck; the body buried, so to speak, in this realistic American family plot is the body of women as, for example, political resisters, close companions, and transgressors of the injunction to legitimize children through marriage. In its rejection of hierarchizing, of fixed identities enclosed in a thematics, and of naturalizing myths of origin that erase history, the text of “Julia” and not just the character Julia operates as a resistance to fascism, a disruptive expression of female desire not corralled into legitimacy or erased by dominant ideology.


  1. This concept of historicization and gender was worked out in dialogue with Elin Diamond, Rutgers University. For a ground-breaking exploration of the potentiality of Brecht's theory for feminism and a re-radicalization of his theory through feminist theory, see her recent article “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism” in The Drama Review, 32 (1988), 82-94: hereafter cited as Diamond.

  2. See, for example, Sue-Ellen Case's Feminism and Theatre (New York, 1988), Jill Dolan's The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor, 1988), and Janelle Reinelt's “Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama” Theatre Journal, 38 (1986), 154-164.

  3. Watch on the Rhine in Six Plays by Lillian Hellman (New York, 1979), 227-301; page references to this edition are hereafter cited in the text. Herman Shumlin directed the 1943 screen version of Watch on the Rhine with a screenplay by Dashiell Hammett and additional passages by Lillian Hellman.

  4. “Julia” in Pentimento (Boston, 1973), pp. 101-147.

  5. Diamond, 84.

  6. In her discussion of melodrama in America, Christine Gledhill notes how “The country [in contrast to the Europeanized city] was invested with America's founding ideology, egalitarianism, and regeneration was found in its rural past,” and Hellman's use of the country home, including references to the cleanness and openness of the house and the Edenic beauty of its garden, suggests these values. Fighting fascism then becomes a necessary “getting dirty” as in the violent response to the dirty business Teck brings into the house with him. As quoted in Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill (London, 1987), p. 24.

  7. Stark Young, The New Republic, 104 (14 April 1941), 498.

  8. In a 1964 interview, Hellman stated that she had “felt very strongly that people had … gotten us into a war that could have been avoided if Fascism had been recognized early enough,” so the historical crisis is not recognizing the dangers of fascism in time to prevent war. In this sense, foregrounding Kurt's early recognition of and struggle against fascism's dangers gives Watch on the Rhine an anti-war subtext, an emphasis on how things should have been instead of how they ought to be. From John Phillips and Anne Hollander's Paris Review interview with Hellman, “The Art of the Theater I: Lillian Hellman—An Interview,” reprinted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman, edited by Jackson R. Bryer (Jackson, Miss., 1986), p. 66.

  9. Burns Mantle, “‘Watch on the Rhine’ Stirring Drama of a Family of Refugees,” New York Daily News, 2 April 1941.

  10. Richard Moody, Lillian Hellman: Playwright (New York, 1972), p. 120.

  11. Norman A. Graebner, The Age of Global Power: The United States Since 1939 (New York, 1979), p. 14.

  12. In The Twentieth Century, a People's History (New York, 1984), p. 112, Howard Zinn maintains that the crisis perceived by the United States government and which determined our entry into World War II occurred “when Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia” and threatened our supply of raw materials.

  13. In his biography of Hellman, William Wright relates that in response to the 1943 film version of Watch, the Hays office “balked at the unpunished killing at the play's conclusion. They insisted that the script include some sort of ‘punishment’ for the killer, Kurt Müller.” In response, “in a scathing letter to Joseph Breen [Hellman] asked if he was aware that killing Nazis was at the moment the national policy of the United States?” and chastised the Hays Office for the incongruity of its response (Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman [New York, 1986], p. 182). This incident outlines the contrast between the official code of morality for domestic melodrama and the wartime code Hellman imported into the home once she metaphorically relocated the invasion of fascism to the American living room. In her use of the metaphor of invasion, Hellman was creating dramatically what had not happened historically.

  14. Julius Novick, “Pentimentality” The Village Voice, 14 January 1980, p. 84.

  15. Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, Nostalgia and Sexual Difference: the Resistance to Contemporary Feminism (London, 1987), p. 3.

  16. Ibid, p. 7.

  17. What may be repressed but traceable in the text's focus on familial crisis and its choice of a European family to convey it is Hellman's awareness of the historically specific threat to the Jewish family by the Nazis, who pursued the destruction of the Jewish family unit to fulfill their fascist biological determinisms of “racial hygiene.” It is also possible to trace in the metaphor of the international marriage between American and European a desire for a marriage of Christian with Jew that would lead to protest and struggle against the events of the Holocaust.

  18. Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, in Bertolt Brecht, Collected Plays Volume 5, eds. Ralph Manheim and John Willett (New York, 1972), p. 148.

  19. In Pentimento, Hellman relates how the representation of the heroic character Kurt differed from the behavior of the actor who played him. The Hungarian born Paul Lukas had been “a trusted follower of the Hungarian Communist Béla Kun, but the week before Kun fell he had joined Kun's enemies. He saw nothing contradictory in now playing a self-sacrificing anti-Fascist.” More of a Teck than a Kurt in real life, Lukas also cheated at tennis, and “Eric Roberts, who played [Bodo], disliked him so much that some nights he ate garlic before he climbed into Paul's lap and other nights he rubbed his hair with foul-smelling whale oil.” (Pentimento, p. 190). The angry comedy arising from the gap between what Hellman erected on stage and what actually was never permeates the religiosity of the text itself.

  20. E. Ann Kaplan, “Mothering, Feminism and Representation: The Maternal in Melodrama and the Woman's Film 1910-40,” in Gledhill, op. cit., p. 126.

  21. Even in her 1974 interview with Bill Moyers, “Lillian Hellman: The Great Playwright Candidly Reflects on a Long, Rich Life,” she reasserts that “one is almost dying to see a hero rise up in America now. It's a terrible lack too that there are certainly many decent men but … there's no large figure to say anything for any of us anymore” (Bryer, op. cit., p. 141). More curious, in her 1978 interview with Peter Adams, “Unfinished Woman,” when asked if she still shared the optimism conveyed by the mud hut speech, she replied “yes” but “I think I would rather say: ‘In every village, in every mud hut, in every country in the world, there is a man intelligent enough to make a fight for a better world’—to have sense enough to figure it out, that something better has got to happen. ‘A better world for children’ I do not think I would say any more” (Bryer, p. 225). So even after writing “Julia,” she still conceived of the necessary hero as gendered and familialized, but the father's commitment to children which overshadowed that of the mother is replaced by the concept of “knowing,” of seeing clearly.

  22. Gledhill, op. cit., pp. 133-34.

  23. Maria LaPlace, “Producing and Consuming the Woman's Film: Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager,” in Gledhill, op. cit., p. 159.

  24. Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, 13 April 1941, sec 9, p. 1.

  25. Lillian Hellman, The North Star: A Motion Picture About Some Russian People (New York, 1943).

  26. 1978 Peter Adam interview in Bryer, op. cit., p. 228.

  27. Expressing her own politics in the “Julia” story, Hellman herself became the subject of the debate. The struggle around the ownership of the “Julia” story and the accusation of Hellman having appropriated it serve most frequently as a means to discredit Hellman's famous stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, and perhaps more telling, to undermine the credibility of Hellman's stinging analysis in Scoundrel Time of the behaviour of liberals in the McCarthy era. See e.g., Samuel McCracken, “Julia and Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman.” Commentary, 77 (June 1984), 35-43.

The research for an earlier version of this paper, presented at the American Theater in Higher Education Conference in Chicago, August 1987, was made possible by a Summer Faculty Research Grant from Bowling Green State University in 1987. I wish to thank my colleague at Bowling Green, Ellen Berry, for her extensive discussion and editorial help.

Timothy J. Wiles (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Wiles, Timothy J. “Lillian Hellman's American Political Theater: The Thirties and Beyond.” In Critical Essays on Lillian Hellman, edited by Mark W. Estrin, pp. 90-112. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1989.

[In the following essay, Wiles explores Hellman's political plays written from the Depression through the 1940s.]

Along with many American writers from the generation of the 1930s, our “red decade,”1 Lillian Hellman addressed the Great Depression in her plays of the period, and reflected on its aftermath and her own political awakening throughout her career. Her analysis of American society is essentially Marxist, since it is based on the primacy of material and economic conditions to explain social relations, and emphasizes environmental conditioning, conflict among classes, and the hope that a new person, socialist man, would be born of the conflict through the dialectical collision of opposites.

Her view of her involvement with actual politics of the time changed considerably over the years, particularly her affiliation with Stalin, and in her volumes of memoirs she presents a more ambiguous and complex portrait of the artist engaged with her age than she had presented earlier through the spokesmen for socialism in her plays. But she never recanted her belief in the visionary goal to which socialism aspires, and she came to admire Bertolt Brecht as the master dramatist of the century. Although she never speculated about direct influences, a number of resemblances in technique and attitude can be noted between some of her later works and certain Brecht plays. A more significant comparison can be made with Brechtian theory of drama for her best and most explicitly political plays of the late 1930s, works she wrote before Brecht's influence had been felt among American playwrights. The comparison makes Hellman's own dramatic method appear more sophisticated than critics widely assume and may indicate a generic feature of political drama independent of influences.

The themes and forms in Hellman's thirties drama resemble those of noted or notorious playwrights from the decade (and for this discussion I include her plays from the 1940s whose formative influence can be traced to political events that evolved over the two previous decades, particularly the worldwide depression and international fascism). She shared with other thirties writers a belief in collective action and the socialist ideal, the critique of the capitalist personality and condemnation of fascism; as Marxists say, her works' “manifest content” was the same as theirs—strikes, industrial expansion, class warfare, opposition to fascism—and she employed some of their same subgenres, like the strike play, the antifascist play, and the play that indicted the dominant economic class. A simple list of her plays when compared with their thirties counterparts, however, would indicate to readers familiar with this literature how much more complex were her variants of these popular forms.2 For the strike play, her Days to Come (1936) rings far truer as social history than Stevedore, Black Pit, Marching Song, or even Waiting for Lefty. All her plays indict the dominant social structure, but here the Hubbard plays The Little Foxes (1939) and Another Part of the Forest (1946), along with The Autumn Garden (1951), are matched only by Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost for artistic maturity. In the antiwar genre, The Searching Wind (1944) and particularly Watch on the Rhine (1941) present a better history of the face of fascism than do Peace on Earth, Bury the Dead, or Idiot's Delight; she wrote them late enough to correct some leftist myths about the war's genesis, but as shall become apparent, all these plays share one central thirties assumption. Perhaps the greatest difference between Hellman's plays and most of these other works is that Hellman addressed her plays more deliberately to the mainstream audience than did her peers during the red decade: She wrote for Broadway, and often achieved success there, or at least a ready production. Most of the other engaged writers remembered from the period wrote for radical fringe stages or the Group Theater, a company of like-minded artists whose political affiliations extended into that fringe. And alone among all of them, her work and career developed and continued to gather respect throughout her lifetime.

With Hellman's memoirs and her uncomfortable emergence as a feminist late in her life, critical attention returned to her, but no study has described the political assumptions in her best plays in any detail or noted how she embeds them in some unique forms, perhaps because her dramaturgy seems relatively old-fashioned.3 Although her bold female characterizations have been widely admired, the particular nature of these women as political animals still needs to be analyzed. This essay surveys American political themes and forms in a number of Hellman's plays, but it concentrates on her best work. These plays demonstrate that political art is both a product of its age and a force of innovation, one which can lead to wider speculations about the genre (including her kinship with Brecht) and toward a more substantial evaluation of her current reputation as a feminist precursor.

First, however, Hellman's wartime plays must be examined against the backdrop of earlier antiwar drama to isolate a tenet of thirties leftism which indicates how much her social thought was indebted to the period: the role of class conflicts. Since this feature has made much of her drama seem dated, and since it is also a central component of her best play, it is instructive to see how she overcame an ideological blinder to create a memorable heroine who is at war within herself and against some “manifest” dictates from her environment as she simultaneously learns to master the power held by her class and wield it to her own ends. This alludes to Regina, of course, but it really extends to describe Hellman's best heroes, even Alexandra and Birdie, and may most fully describe the role played by Hellman as artist herself.

To maintain the artificial categories “strike play,” “antiwar play,” and “play indicting social conditions” for just a moment longer, one can note that Hellman's reputation as an engaged political artist rested most explicitly on her campaign against fascism during the actual 1930s and war aftermath. In terms of public actions, she provided financial backing for Hemingway's film The Spanish Earth (1937), a documentary made in support of communist-led Loyalists who fought Franco; she refused to support the anti-Soviet Finnish resistance movement by declining to donate proceeds from a Little Foxes performance against her own cast's wishes; in The Searching Wind she attacked the whole cycle of diplomatic-level appeasements of fascists by U.S. and European statesmen. Most of these gestures were not unusual for leftists of the period, and her antimilitarist drama follows a tradition initiated by earlier pacifist plays written by expressionists (Toller's Masse-Mensch, the Green and Weill Johnny Johnson, Shaw's Bury the Dead), as well as far-left or left-central antiwar plays emphasizing the American context such as Peace on Earth or Idiot's Delight. She viewed fascism with too much realism ever to indulge in a stance of universal pacifism embraced by the earlier drama. She scorned diplomatic appeasement both at the state level and in specific engagements, even the domestic scene, to the point of condoning in Watch on the Rhine the act of an underground resistance fighter when he kills a fascist secret agent.

Hellman, however, did support a major tenet of thirties antimilitarism, a core idea that permeated leftist culture and extended even to U.S. government accounts of the causes of war (such as in the Nye Commission Reports in Congress, which reexamined World War I). This widespread belief was based on Marxist critiques of World War I as well as on popular American perceptions; it held that modern wars among industrial powers were caused by the growth of armaments industries, nationalism as it develops in capitalist countries, imperialist expansion, and subsequent retaliation by owner classes to protect their investments. In short, world wars were caused by the upper classes disputing among themselves, with guiltless proletarian soldiers their victims on both sides. This analysis, a partial explanation of World War I, supported the sentiments held by such diverse groups as doctrinaire Marxists (since it depended on class analysis) and average citizens (since it reflected American weariness with international engagements brought on by high wartime casualties and the gathering economic depression which soon followed). Many took the interpretation not simply as a description of the past war, but as a prediction of the next.

Much of the isolationist antiwar literature written by thirties leftists predicted a second world war that would spring from causes identical to those purported for the first. Bury the Dead, an effective expressionist nightmare about “the war that will begin tomorrow” (this in 1936), exhumes not just live corpses but living myths about generals conspiring with businessmen, the advertising sector of the press, and politicians whose eyes are on Wall Street. Idiot's Delight brings onstage the promiscuous arms dealer who sells to all the feuding European powers as war breaks out even over Switzerland. It was a sign of Hellman's mature realism that she never proposed a naive pacifism as a means to oppose the National Socialists. Her war drama stems from the late 1930s and early 1940s period of the United Front when communists and various liberals united against fascism. It avoids a doctrinaire explanation for the Nazis' evil ascendency based simply on economics, and dramatizes social forces like the authoritarian personality and ideas like the banality of evil with skill and flair, against a backdrop of diplomats, spies, agents, and resistance fighters. Fascism represented more to her than just an enemy of the Soviet Union; it was a psychological force that could be unleashed in the mass mind by its proponents' conscious manipulation of racial hatred.

Hellman stayed within the limits of dogmatic communist rationalizing, however, when she came to depict the individuals who were most to be blamed for fascism's unchecked development. They are people who have outlived an epoch and cannot shake loose from passivity to act effectively, either for their own happiness or the national good—and apart from their politics, they most resemble the figures of Hellman's “Chekhovian” plays The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic (1960). Instead of portraying Germans succumbing to blood-and-soil nationalism, she displays American diplomats conducting unrequited triangular love affairs during the twenty-year rise of fascism; conveniently stationed in key European capitals, 1920-40, they rationalize their failure to request diplomatic censure over Mussolini's putsch, anti-Semitic riots, and the annexation of much of central Europe. Such is the tendentious chronicle found in The Searching Wind, which, however, does not fault the Allies for their gullible cooperation with Stalin. The same diplomatic corps, coming from old money and inhabiting the east coast corridor from Boston to Washington, provides the family background for Watch on the Rhine. Here also the inertia and complacency indulged by the neurotic rich are exposed as the chief reasons to explain why fascism was looming and America was unprepared to confront it. Somehow, a democratic society's elite is made to bear most of the brunt for World War II's inception, not a fascist society's moral collapse.

This slant dates Hellman's war drama more than the improbable melodramatics involving the union of a Washington society matron's daughter with a resistance fighter, or the maudlin romance central to The Searching Wind, or even its subplot in which the son of the love-torn diplomat loses a leg in the war his father's weak foreign policy failed to prevent. But the doctrine that underlies this tendentious slant was a vital component of the thirties socialism Hellman espoused and provides the energy to animate her best play, The Little Foxes. Although her communist ethic was inadequate to depict the coming war with any profound fullness, it could inspire her to impart a vision of the creative potential unleashed in people when they define themselves as citizens, one of the chief themes, but the hardest thing to depict, in socialist art. Of course, one reason she succeeded was because she placed the vision in the eyes of characters looking to it in the future (the union organizer Whalen in Days to Come and especially Alexandra in The Little Foxes); meanwhile she filled the present with fallen individuals who resist curbs to their own greed and self-satisfaction.

The machinations of Hellman's villainous characters certainly entertain us with their sardonic humor and extravagant ruthlessness in treating others in a purely instrumental way, and their crimes do expose the need for a socialist counterreaction. At their best Hellman's villains are fascinating, however, because they represent the highest degree of proficiency in and actualization of certain social models that have succeeded one another under differing economic systems. These models might bear stereotypical names, such as the “robber baron” hero and lone-wolf entrepreneur (Marcus in Another Part of the Forest), or the manipulator of corporate capital (Regina). Fortunately, they appear in Hellman's best dramaturgy as sharply defined people, who hunger, behave idiosyncratically, and who resist and eventually triumph over hypocrisy and restrictions imposed by an unself-conscious society. The big foxes in Hellman's plays are self-conscious; their avarice is all the more seductive because it comes tangled with legitimate grudges (like Regina's female subjugation). Her power figures go beyond being through models of the social stance that socialism must oppose; they stand forth as the best men of the age and level of social development they inhabit. This means more than to say that the villains in literature are always more interesting than the virtuous, or that Hellman gives us fascinating villains who are worthy opponents for her socialists to battle. One should credit Hellman's thoroughness as a socialist artist as well as acknowledge the real grounds for the positive appeal held by her dynamic villains. As an honest writer influenced by Marxism (an essentially evolutionist doctrine), Hellman was obliged to admire through heroic portraiture the leaders of a given age who had brought their world to the level of development at which it stood, even as she exposed the cost to others and the need to consciously restructure the world beyond this stage.

Marx and Engels had observed in The Communist Manifesto that social history consisted of successive class-and-economic configurations, like feudalism, the age of the bourgeoisie, and an age to be dominated by egalitarian workers. At their inception, these economic orders provided the progressive and productive force for their times, but eventually they resorted to holding power by physical force after they had lost creativity and the ability to expand the general wealth. Hellman illustrates this pattern vigorously if uncritically in her best political drama, and she is true to it impartially, neither seeking hidden proletarians in the Middle Ages nor dismissing the entrepreneurial expansionist without admiring his productive energy. She avoids such reductivism and makes her art fuller and closer to uncomfortable reality. It is too limiting to observe that her best villains compare favorably with the plutocrats and employers depicted by O'Neill and Miller, in plays like The Great God Brown, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Harder), and Death of a Salesman (Howard). These characters seem flat when compared with Hellman's counterparts because she allowed herself the realist's fascination with such citizens, the epitomes of a dominant class configuration. From this perspective, the socialist playwright with whom to compare Hellman is Bertolt Brecht. For all her use of suspense, representational narrative, and the well-knit plot, she bears several significant resemblances to this anti-naturalist; in terms of influence, the parallel development is accidental, but the two writers shared the same politics, even to the matter of their unhappy protracted loyalty to Stalin, and Hellman came to admire Brecht later in her career.4

Although politics can be found in most of Hellman's plays, only a few have a stage history beyond their moment or deserve one. Hellman drew her dominant characters and milieux from her own biography, and it is as an autobiographer that she achieved her most sustained quality of writing. She, however, sustained the notion far too long that the spiritual anemia of a gentry class really explained this country's economic woes and foreign policy missteps during the thirties and forties. Her strictly personal plays, The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, seem like genteel clichés now, which repeat the superficial forms of Chekhov without his hard-edged irony or his universal reduction of our interaction to absurdity. Hellman captures only a localized dying culture, which can be presumed dead and therefore (unlike Chekhov's), no longer a danger to ourselves. The same must be said about the private lives and family plot of her unsuccessful strike play Days to Come, which deserves notice as an anthology of thirties gestures and as precursor to The Little Foxes, but which otherwise contains only isolated vitality. That the labor organizer Whalen is a rounded and fascinating figure is especially surprising, since this is usually the most insufferable and dogmatically portrayed character in labor drama.

Similarly, Hellman's grudge against her New Orleans and East Coast-urban backgrounds, one that socialist myths from the previous decades abetted, managed to load her wartime plays with the wrong ammunition: The spoiled American rich became the chief villains behind World War II. Her fading southern aristocrats of an earlier century hold little interest as political targets now; they are appropriately submerged in The Little Foxes but they almost scuttle Another Part of the Forest (which is scuttled by other factors), and indeed, the only time we feel the full danger and power of the foxes is when they prey on each other or threaten us. The Children's Hour (1934) suffers somewhat from its being set in a society school milieu, but it addresses problems that expose the tragedy of social existence: a reputation's susceptibility to lies; the power of taboos and the way American culture associates sexual expression with sin and corruption (vide the AIDS crisis); and most intractable because technically tragic (that is, irremediable), the desire to merge social approval and success with free expression of one's identity, including the sexual. In other words, The Children's Hour only works if one grants that Karen and Martha have lesbian longings at least at the unconscious level; these women want to express their affection if they could acknowledge it, but they also desire the world's approval through its social sanctions such as marriage, career success, and permission to nurture and educate children. This play has come into its own lately because of the feminist and gay rights movements' efforts to have these possibilities extended to all citizens. Yet its politics remain mostly the politics of personal expression. A more interesting analysis can be made of Regina in the feminist mode because she is neither a suffering nor guiltless victim, and because in the Hubbard plays Hellman advances beyond a tacit plea that women be extended certain enfranchisements, and through her portrayal of a female villain suggests that a heightened standard of human enfranchisement be set for all. Actually, The Children's Hour emerged to indict public politics (as opposed to the politics of the personal) during the fifties, when it did so to remind Americans of some thirties truths; in its 1952 revival the theme of a lie that blacklists and destroys the socially progressive could be read as a gloss on the McCarthy era, during which Hellman suffered for her principles, and an era that itself was reacting to the excesses and threatening energies of thirties leftism.

Hellman's stage adaptations should be judged separately, of course; they all contain elements of history and politics. Indeed, they are the main works to comprise her politics beyond the thirties (since the war plays really conclude that era and its thematology). Each has elements in common with the social themes found in her original plays, and for reasons of form and the mode of their satire, particularly Candide (1956) and My Mother, My Father and Me (1963) should be included when considering Hellman's American political theater. Although she allowed several friends (Leonard Bernstein, John Latouche, Dorothy Parker, Richard Wilbur) to write the best jokes in Candide, both musical and verbal (through lyrics), she provided a solid sequence of Brechtian episodes (as she did with My Mother, My Father and Me) on which to hang the songs and as a platform to argue for a better world—given the contrast manifested by the existing one. And, in what may be the only poem in her dramatic canon, she wrote lyrics for one song, “Eldorado,” which summarized the socialist ethic as well as poignantly noting its distance from our present reality.

For her interpreters, Lillian Hellman's prominence as a political dramatist presents a conundrum: that reputation is so well established that new generations may wonder whether it is simply a shibboleth. Furthermore, this reputation became attached to her early and in connection with her best play, which immediately became her most popular play, and later, at least in the eyes of some anthologizers and authors of pocket histories of American drama, her only play. It is not the place of this essay to exhume that whole journalistic debate,5 but it is necessary to cut through these received ideas while simultaneously acknowledging that the main thrust of Hellman's reception, especially that by audiences, has been essentially accurate. What is left to be said about a work (and a writer for whose reputation it is central) when the play is already well known, accessible to appropriate understanding, and correctly regarded? The reader of Hellman's whole dramatic canon can place her other dramas in relation to this masterpiece and can read more out of their social arguments by showing how the continuity of argument prevails, but coalesces only when The Little Foxes remains central. She kept returning to coherent themes and drew characters who bear much family resemblance, even tracing the Hubbard roots to the previous generation in Another Part of the Forest and rehearsing in her most overtly political play Days to Come the same family relationship that was to have such dramatic force in The Little Foxes.6

Seen against the canvas of the thirties, virtually all her plays take on more resonance, as direct depiction (Days to Come), as an unearthing of the historical roots beneath the crisis of capitalism manifested by the depression (the Hubbard plays), as an extension of this crisis to the world arena (the war plays), or later in her career, as further refinements of some dramatic techniques associated with thirties political satire (her last adaptations). Indeed, the only comparable noted American playwright, in terms of the length of his career, the coherence of his politics, and his willingness to experiment with form and fable, is Arthur Miller, whose vision was also formed in the thirties.

Unlike Miller, however, Hellman's finest political drama is not set directly within the historical period that it intends to illuminate, and ironically, besides The Little Foxes, the best of her other original plays—The Children's Hour, Toys in the Attic—do not address a period, or politics, very directly.7 She is also unlike her major theatrical contemporary Clifford Odets, whose fame came during the thirties for his direct and essentially optimistic portrayal of families and workers struggling during the depression, but who lost credit with critics and audiences when that decade's issues lost immediacy and the writer himself lost his talent, such that his critics came to denigrate his early achievements unfairly.8

Because of the strength of character that Hellman brought to her public role, and because she maintained her skills and varied her forms throughout her career even while never recapturing the brilliance of her best early play, she gained stature as a writer and as a public artist throughout her career. Although these extrinsic factors are not necessary for a spectator to enjoy The Little Foxes, they provide useful guides for the critical reader who wishes to comprehend its lasting impact and attempts to specify the central political themes that this play conveys. Because it makes these themes palatable by embodying them in a gripping melodrama and through several complex characters—all of them women—who command a divided sympathy, the play succeeds as entertainment and impresses an audience that its themes, though none of them are novel as politics, represent social truth. And because the play is such good theater, one never suspects its author would prefer to harangue the audience with a stump speech or read it a moral tract instead of creating drama.

Indeed, The Little Foxes is such a good play that it seems reduced when its essential politics are isolated, and the politics seem reductivist when they are listed as tenets within Marxist doctrine: the conflict of base and super-structure; the exposure of social Darwinism; the condemnation of capitalist self-interest; the view of an alternative world sought by some of its characters in rebellion against their harsh surroundings. Any bald recital of such social theses needs immediately to be corrected by a thorough account of how Hellman puts those notions into the passing comments and mundane behavior of vivid characters who, the theater audience never forgets, are caught up in their own life drama and who never betray an awareness that they are expounding dogma. This would be expected from a good political play (even though that is a rare species); what is original to Hellman is that she locates these theories in people who were new to their time (1900 or 1939) and still new to our own, particularly in women whose predicament could be labeled a feminist issue but who themselves refuse the special pleading to which some oppressed minority members feel entitled. They particularly refuse our pity, and by their interactions especially within the female sphere, they block our habitual sympathies (and each other's), and demand of each other and of us that we look at their predicament with critical vision.

“Don't love me,” Birdie demands of Alexandra, and we should take her literally, for she gives a key to the subtle technique employed by this political drama, as well as to its original depiction of characters caught in a moment of social transition and crisis. By arguing against our empathy, Hellman intuited a major thrust in Brecht's theories of political art, in a play that, in its surface construction, seems mired in naturalism and enslaved to suspense, to cite two dramatic gambits Brecht railed against. Putting it another way, the elemental Marxist doctrine in Hellman's play would seem to be executed with technical prowess, but little else, if all her characters were men, or were thought of merely as creatures wearing pants more successfully than their brothers and husbands. But because Hellman makes them women and sets them at a time when the struggle between the affective, nurturing role and the rationalizing, self-gratifying one was more clearly divided in our culture along gender lines, she makes us feel the tragedy of the social crisis as it destroys the best representative of a given age, a woman who ironically has won out on the surface and who appears to have succeeded in destroying or thwarting almost all the others in her family. I add, if it is necessary, that Hellman does this not because she is a woman or believes her sex to possess superior virtue, but because she can use the woman issue as it exists in her culture to display a truth about mankind or humankind (and this explains why Hellman always balked when she was labeled “America's leading woman playwright,” or later, a feminist writer).

Hellman's women take the center of the stage of ideas only at the play's conclusion, although their longings and needs drive the work from its inception. The spectator may be impressed by Ben's mordant wit as he manipulates the inferior males early on, and may feel a stock sympathy for the pieties Horace speaks from his conventional podium, the sickbed, but one never feels greatly threatened by the former (partly because Ben desires so little, except cash and the control of provincial clerk-relatives), nor particularly moved by the latter (partly because Horace fought back so little for his principles, lacked passion as a lover, provided paternal support for Alexandra's idealism only through proxies like Addie, and lost his own vital energy and generativity around the time when he locked his broken violin away in the strongbox along with his railroad bonds). It is only after the spectator learns all the complications of these people's interrelationships, and how their business dealings intertwine to set a complex double mousetrap plot into the dramaturgy, that one realizes that certain characters are more rounded, self-aware (because they have more self), and complexly embedded in a tragedy than are the others, and that the groupings follow gender lines. Therefore, although The Little Foxes does not break into two halves in terms of levels of social analysis (received dogma and original variation), this essay considers the play's general politics first in terms of that kind of Marxist social analysis commonly held during the thirties, and, later, through its particular embodiment in the women.

It is the men in The Little Foxes who do business and extol it as the business of America. They speak the lines that ironically serve to offer a Marxist analysis of early capitalist expansion. In fact, Ben and Oscar would not be uncomfortable with the first passages in The Communist Manifesto, which portray the succeeding orders of social and economic organization as civilization evolved from feudal aristocratic dominance to the age of the bourgeois mercantile class. These new Southerners apply that same reading to their usurpation of the plantation gentry's lands and women, and they couch their reading in evolutionary terms as applied to the social sphere. They are filling a new niche with their entrepreneurial innovation of bringing the mills to the cotton, as they had done earlier by loaning money to blacks at lethal rates, two jobs the older gentry had shunned, and they condemn these weaker competitors for failing to change with the age; Ben boasts to Marshall it is because “the Southern aristocrat can adapt himself to nothing.”9

The play's social Darwinism extends to embrace that favorite adverb “naturally,” as if the conscious self-interest of schemers were the same process by which nature selects improved species for survival. “Naturally” is Ben's simple response to Oscar, when his brother wishes to discuss the possible marriage between Leo and Alexandra that would repay Oscar for the investment percentage that Ben coerces him to sacrifice (151); when Oscar later rationalizes Leo's plot to steal Horace's bonds by proposing that “a man can't be shot for wanting to see his son get on in the world,” Leo agrees that this is “natural enough” (160). Regina employs the discourse of nature when her mind turns to business. “It seems only natural,” she says in act 1, that a wife should look after her husband's interests by demanding that the silent partner get a bigger share (149), and at the play's end, when she confronts her brothers about their scheme to rob her, her mock sorrow takes the same language: “It's not a pleasant story. I feel bad, Ben, naturally” (194).

If money selects for survival in the human species, it must be the basis of existence. The Hubbards are thorough materialists in a way that Marx would find at least realistic. One primitive tenet he shared with nineteenth-century capitalists was the fundamental separation between material sources of biological survival, called by Marxists the base, and the superstructure of ideas, beliefs, and artistic expressions that man erects about his base as a rationalization for it. The Hubbards dismiss the immaterial realm accordingly, or employ it as a flag of convenience. Birdie's music is superfluous, just one of her graces that she shares with Alexandra and Horace and a symbol of her wasted gentry education; her husband stops her from fetching Wagner's autograph to show Marshall, who he thinks would not be interested. Marshall lets it go, but stops to comment ironically on Ben's credo that a man isn't in business just for profits, but for his heart's good: “You have a turn for neat phrases, Hubbard. Well, however grand your reasons are, mine are simple: I want to make money and I believe I'll make it on you. Mind you, I have no objections to more high-minded reasons. They are mighty valuable in business. It's fine to have partners who so closely follow the teachings of Christ” (142). His bluff called, Ben toasts him by inverting a Henry Frick platitude about railroads being the Rembrandts of investment to propose that now cotton mills will be those Rembrandts. Their dismissal of superstructural ideation extends beyond art and religion to scoff at contemplative thought itself. When Horace recalls that he had spent many weeks in his hospital bed just thinking things over, as if on holiday from life's daily business, Regina is astounded that he would take “a holiday of thinking” in Baltimore when her business needed him here (167).

Even the most elemental kinship ties are but ideas to the Hubbards, links that can be bartered, used for blackmail, eliminated by murder if this serves one's self-interest. Every family bond has its price, as the play demonstrates materially by quoting the figure. Regina pretended to be willing to consider marrying Alexandra to Leo to placate her brother for reducing his profits, she boasts to her husband (and calls the matter “all this business,” 167). Ben invented that scheme, and also manipulates Leo to steal his uncle's bonds while arranging to extricate himself from any blame in the affair. When Regina causes Horace's death by withholding his medicine, she is retaliating against his single direct action in the Hubbards' scheme, whereby he would rewrite his will to deny her significant inheritance and excuse her brothers for cheating him.

In the war of all against all, man's chief weapon is unwavering self-interest. Economic life is a battle (people like Ben “struggled and fought” to bring northern-style prosperity to the South, which he calls “patriotism” [141]), in which the decisive weapon is innovation: Ben's real toast to Marshall, delivered behind his back, holds that “God forgives those who invent what they need” (144). Hellman renders this as more than a tract; actually, she makes us admire the chief manipulators for their skill and wit, and impresses on us the ironic dictum that for their time and situation, these protocapitalists represented the most highly developed social species whose greed, for them, constituted a life force. We appreciate their recourse to pieties that we have employed ourselves in not-so-dissimilar situations. Even Oscar gains momentary sympathy when he tells his son “it's every man's duty to think of himself,” though this means spying into Horace's strongbox (158). They are merely perpetuating their existence while the weaker men around them uphold the values of a dying class, or seek to die economically or developmentally and drag the vital ones down with them.

Horace has humane reasons for resisting the new cotton development, which he argues to Ben and Regina in act 2 in speeches exposing the social misery their project will yield. He denounces exploitative wages, the ensuing class warfare between poor whites and unlanded blacks, the Hubbards' opposition to unions, and their dividend-derived incomes, all themes that make this play's thirties context explicit. But the Hubbards will not hear his higher values, partly because they float above the economic base of self-interest. To them, Horace's no-growth policy equals death; one must expand or die according to the family's biological progressivism. Regina localizes the attitude by perceiving that his refusal to let her join the mill development constitutes Horace's revenge against her schemes. It is his way of killing her since he must die: “You hate to see anybody live now, don't you. You hate to think that I'm going to be alive and have what I want” (176). As a further irony, while the Hubbards rationalize their own life force by likening it to nature and condemning any values that lack a material base, they treat capital as if it were a fact of nature and intend to live off its self-replicating power. They will “grow rich,” Horace notes with the biological metaphor intended, and they marvel at the way their little $75,000 shares will yield a million (171).

All the while Alexandra watches and listens, for all that social theory has been embedded dramatically in confrontations about thievery, confessions of lost dreams, and calls to resistance at the immediate level. Even Addie's credo about the active ones who eat the earth while the others stand around watching (her biblical association refers us back to the play's title) springs from her desire to protect Alexandra and help her resist her family (182). Not surprisingly for a political drama, Alexandra undergoes a conversion in response to promptings from her mammy, aunt, and father, and particularly because she observes how the Hubbards' plots have extended to designs against her freedom, to mutual aggression, and to murder. But her ultimate decisions come within a context of female awakening, one which she does not directly undergo herself (at least, in her speeches, aside from resisting the marriage scheme). The play lets her proclaim the awakening at the end, and articulate it as a collective and social goal: her intention to oppose the earth's devouring and not “stand around and watch [Regina] do it,” but “be fighting … someplace else” (199). But she is not active otherwise in the drama, nor does she attach feminist intentions to her decision. Hellman's most unconventional gesture with Alexandra is to block the audience's desire to learn her outcome and thus experience closure in terms of the plot. The author never tells us what cause Alexandra might join or how it could prevail. This withheld outcome for Alexandra, along with the denial of any probable opposition to Regina's final triumph, constitutes the major gesture Hellman makes in transferring the solution to this play's problem to the audience.

The feature also constitutes the major deviation from well-made dramaturgy in a play castigated for that, and the major reversal of the expectation that suspense will be solved at the level of ideas as well as plotting, for we never know how the called-for alternative idea to the Hubbards' worldview can prevail. Hellman's refusal to depict the resolution for Alexandra's predicament makes her drama closer to Brecht's dramaturgy than we find in other thirties drama, and Hellman herself called attention to the audience's persistent inability to accept the inconclusive ending for Alexandra.10 As political theater, The Little Foxes preserves by means of its dramaturgy the struggle that Hellman knows is still being waged. But she also remains Marxist in her ideals by implying that this general struggle will yield a progressive outcome, that hope exists, that the world evolves toward greater productivity for more people through a process of dialectical materialism.

Before examining the female awakening that this play depicts more surprisingly through its oppressed woman character Birdie and even through Regina, it is appropriate to survey the earlier and more explicitly political drama Days to Come, in which Hellman tried out the family relationships that she perfected with The Little Foxes. The play is flawed by its excessive emphasis on the capitalist's neurotic family entanglements and by its maudlin treatment of the strikers, but it does contain one vivid character, the strike organizer. In its broad outlines the play sets forth Hellman's full brief against thirties America.

The plot follows the usual strike play structure: strike breakers are brought in to provoke the strikers out of their passive resistance; a well-meaning owner discovers his complicity through his toleration of venal schemers within the company; the pitiable death of the leading worker's child prompts the man to stop sympathizing with the owner; and the strike organizer attempts to rally the workers, raise their consciousness, and turn their anger away from revenge and toward awareness about class conditions. The general issue that Hellman exposes remains valid: small town values and businesses run on paternalist principles and are incompatible with inherent conflicts within corporate capitalism and its resulting structural problems, though of course, she never states it so baldly in her play. Set in the 1930s, Days to Come vividly captures the poignant local version of that breakdown. When a small company that had thrived since the town was settled goes under, its owners and workers stop being peers and for the first time confront their basic antagonism. Union and antiunion tactics infect the town from urban centers, as the national depression touches the small town. Its citizens experience for the first time this country's first systemwide collapse of the industrial boom that had started during the transition from an agriculture-based economy.

In addition to its convincing materialist analysis of conditions at the factory, and in the town and nation, the play posits other materialist assumptions, especially at the level of emotional relations. All the characters are forced to acknowledge how they have fed off each other, and in the denouement the owner-family realizes its emotional parasitism, which took the form of a triangle among owner, wife, and lawyer, abetted by the spinster sister's maintenance of their secret. Hellman enlivens the otherwise uninvolving love crisis by couching each subsequent revelation in terms of “business”: Rodman's business to conceal his motives regarding Julie; Cora's business to know the secret; Ellicott's business to invest in its maintenance by seducing his employer's wife. A more interesting twist comes earlier, when the strike organizer Whalen blocks Julie's romantic overtures by admitting that he would treat her instrumentally whenever their class antagonism surfaced: “People like me always make symbols of people like you.”11 Whalen even affronts both owner and chief worker-artisan by suggesting that their business became unprofitable when they persisted in making quality brushes that cost more to produce than the deflated market could bear.

His vulgar materialism, imported tactics, and detachment from the company's paternalism suggest that Whalen may harbor a foreign ideology, a notion supported by his warning to the worker Firth that, with the arrival of the deputized strike breakers, the strikers no longer constitute a peacekeeping force even as passive resisters: “They're law and order now and you're un-American” (104). The play emphasizes that the strikers' values are a native product, like that American craftsmanship, that their revolt is as justified as earlier rebellions on the same soil, and that their collective ethic represents the true national spirit. Firth keeps protesting that his people “ain't foreigners” although the strike breakers are, and for a long time he persists in cooperating with Rodman, trying to uphold a democratic ideal of common effort untainted by class antagonism (86-87). The play exists to enlighten him on that, but its recurrent theme of Americanism exposes a common impulse in thirties leftist drama. These writers took pains to represent collectivist unionism as a native product (it was in fact a German socialist import) and to conflate Marxist socialism with democratic revolutionary values as learned from the founding fathers.12

Whalen displays his authentic social vision when he explains to Julie his own political conversion, which came neither from reading tracts nor from unworldly love of the squalid souls who peopled his tenement, but from antagonism with his family and frustration at his failure to understand the structures and conditions around him. When he couldn't figure out either the rich or the poor, he took his present job to learn better about both and stop hating either; now he knows that he hates the condition of poverty, even to the extent of hating the meanness and cowardice that come with it, but he loves what the poor could be (107). In addition to debunking a certain folk song populism in this conversion account, Hellman sides with Brecht in his realistic depiction of poor people's squalor and debasement. (Joan of the Stockyards learned there not the evil of the poor but the poverty of the poor, and Setzuan's Good Woman suffered their venality.) She also identifies a tactic promulgated by communists, although not their exclusive invention, that we change our social consciousness by doing and working in the social world, thus realizing the interdependence between praxis and theory.

The most provocative aspect of Days to Come lies in its proto-Brechtian dramaturgy, really Hellman's hallmark, of withholding the resolution at the ending. This takes a maudlin shape when the entangled lovers' denouement is left entangled and they will all remain wed to each other, if not married, for all the days to come (128); the title also predicts social revolt. The workers' movement within the mill town is also left unconcluded. Where this dramaturgical tactic takes on real theatrical edge is in the scenes with Whalen, who consistently cuts off closure even of the kind with which an audience might sympathize. He rejects Julie's honest advances, not wanting to revolutionize the boss's wife. He taunts Firth even after Firth's child has been killed, both about the workers' failure to maintain passive resistance and their inability to seize their own fight when its time came; but when Firth makes the easy conclusion that his former friend Rodman was truly the man who killed his child, Whalen blocks that rationalization, telling Firth that this wrong answer will lead him astray and that the individual Rodmans have little to do with the workers' problems (121). Whalen is not the agent who breaks the bonds that hitherto linked people, however badly, in the town, but he exposes the structures and dysfunctions that have sundered them. Any resolution, or any new order, also lies in the days to come.

Another Part of the Forest can also be considered as anterior to The Little Foxes, because it is set in the Hubbard family a generation prior to that of Hellman's masterwork. Unfortunately, composed as it was seven years later and as a sequel, it reveals relatively little more of significance about this clan. Full of tumultuous vice and social discord surrounding these native carpetbaggers, the play fails to add much to Hellman's political portrait of America, although it vividly repeats popular myths about southern decadence and breakdown after the Civil War. Judged in its own right the play has vitality as a crackling melodrama infused with vicious wit about rubes and vice figures alike of a kind Hellman introduced more moderately in the earlier Hubbard play.

There, for example, Regina and Ben snigger about the results of a near incestuous coupling in their grandparents' generation—“And look at us” (151)—while Another Part of the Forest is larded with such sarcasm, much of it sexual. Marcus dismisses his son's infatuation with a doxy who herself had mused that she always wanted to give up whoring and take up embroidery by exclaiming, “Are you denying the girl makes use of a mattress, do you expect to go through life killing every man who knows she does?” (375). In these terms, with Another Part of the Forest Hellman tries out a Jonsonian comedy of humours and creates a sociohistorical satire, initiating a style that she later developed to the same end in her overt satires, the adaptations of Candide and My Mother, My Father and Me. In fact, the best satire in Another Part of the Forest attaches itself to political comments, although Hellman does not develop the political critique of American capital beyond the terms more subtly established in The Little Foxes. She exposes the origins of the Hubbards' greed and why they are shunned by Southern society, emphasizing Marcus's sharp trading practices during the Civil War, which leeched off the embattled Southerners while Marcus himself disdained their futile cause—a plot parallel to some action in Mother Courage. She creates early visions of his children's future schemes and passions: Ben seeking to control his relatives and hold their assets, although again with no desire to spend or consume the wealth; Regina transfixed by clothes, love affairs, and travel to glamorous Chicago; Oscar consumed with illicit sex and cruelty to black men. Though their Snopesian rape of the local surroundings is more detailed here, its wider ramification is undeveloped.

When contrasted with The Little Foxes, the general effect of Another Part of the Forest is to underline political themes and criticisms Hellman made more subtly before. For example, she makes the social Darwinism more explicit, both in regard to the succession of generations and the Old South's obsolescence. The whole plot within the action hangs on Ben discovering his father's war secret by coincidences, then manipulating his father into handing him the estate (and thus also cheating Regina, which motivates her desire to restore her inheritance in the next play). Ben repeats his self-justification constantly, claiming not only that his father held him back and underpaid him, but that the man has aged and must move aside for the son. (Regina turns this on Ben at the end of The Little Foxes, noting that he is getting old and less adept at his schemes.) Repeatedly, Marcus makes the same social point about the Old South, and in one speech he links this saw to a theory of the zeitgeist: “Well, I disapprove of you. Your people deserved to lose their war and their world. It was a backward world, getting in the way of history. Appalling that you still don't realize it. Really, people should read more books” (368).

This wit characterizes Marcus particularly well, and he develops throughout the first two acts as an unstoppable force, controlling his family and social environment through his greater insight, realism, and enlightened selfishness. He mocks the Southerners' fallen glory, advising a confederate officer to fight in South America on the winning side for a change, noting there is no hero so great as the man who fought on the losing side (367, 372). He calls his own sons' bluffs repeatedly, mocking Oscar's timid sexual rebellions and Ben's ire at being relegated to Bob Cratchit status. Marcus is aware of propriety's value in business. He answers Ben's plea for advancement with a mixed command to “call in some cotton loans or mortgages” and then go to church, but the message is clear that the new cash flow will land in Marcus's pockets, not his sons' (340). In The Little Foxes, Ben has inherited most of his father's traits, talents, and holdings, and he impresses us there particularly with his ruthless glee in manipulating others. That capacity shows how he has made a fetish of wielding power in its own right, ignoring the objects that it might bring him to take primal satisfaction in its execution (he first reveals this during Another Part of the Forest's revenge-plot, act 3). The sadistic pleasure of holding power has become its own end. One can observe a political critique about capital perpetuating itself and providing its own pleasure in this characterization.

Aside from this socio-sexual reading, which is further underscored in Another Part of the Forest by hints of incest and premarital sex attached to young Regina (implications that are not linked to the play's plot, but that contribute to the atmosphere of Southern Gothic, as do the various secondary characters), Another Part of the Forest does not deepen the resonance already contained in the play composed before it. Some flaws in its plotting, both internally and in relation to The Little Foxes, weaken its ultimate effect. Too much depends on coincidence, such as hidden papers that are not mentioned until act 3. More serious is Hellman's failure to present a significant antagonist to Marcus and his authority. Ben is too much his likeness, but ironically an inferior copy of his father, less vivid, just finally lucky to uncover the old man's secret. Even his power obsession is mainly known in the play because Marcus demonstrates it in a more fascinating way. It is Marcus, with his idea of history as a zeitgeist that should not be impeded, who bears the identity of that man of his time who is the best of his kind in terms of fulfilling the social destiny of his economic niche. Marcus, intimately linked with young Regina, constitutes the knowing villain whose charisma frightens us as we admire it. So his comeuppance due to accident at the end strikes us not so much as unfair as unfortunately wrong, a betrayal of the play's originating impulse.

These faults would not warrant elaboration were there not a Little Foxes. They do point to what Hellman succeeds at in that play, where she maintains the charisma and authority for the appropriate character throughout. Thanks to Hellman's skillful construction, Regina's character does not follow a simple line of aggrandizement or downfall (as does Marcus's), but instead describes a complex trajectory. Regina experiences a complex downfall on one front (the loss of Alexandra) while enjoying her inevitable reign (at least, within her circumscribed society). She even registers mixed emotions when she loses her daughter, since the playwright has plotted that scene in terms of a female awakening both women can share.

It is the women who make The Little Foxes a complex classic, and the least complex of these is Alexandra, whose socialist conversion at the end is justified and helps bear Hellman's visionary message. Her aunt and mother serve as female foils to her awakening, but paradoxically put it in partial shadow; ultimately they show that the awakening is not one that only women ought to have, but the goal of the race.

Birdie's contribution is somewhat stereotypical, since the abuse heaped on her repeats conventions about the fate of ineffective women, especially those who depend too much on their weak position, cultural graces, and good breeding when they oppose ruthless aggressors of either sex. What is fresh about this battered woman is her self-awareness and the degree of positive spirit that she has kept alive. She kept it intact by willful alcoholism and can admit that to her family intimates; drinking releases sustaining memories and provides a heightened spirit that the conditions surrounding her stifle when she is sober, vividly demonstrated in act 3 as she deliberately becomes tipsy, freeing herself to deliver Alexandra her most important insight. Here Birdie insists that Alexandra not love her, if the result would be that Alexandra will grow to resemble her, and suffer the same abuse (183). She condemns a pity that renders the sympathizer impotent, a lesson Alexandra applies directly in her final confrontation with Regina, when she rejects her mother's appeals to sympathize with her own stifled desires and refuses to seek or offer solace in Regina's bed.

This Brechtian gesture made before Hellman had heard of Brecht's antiempathic theories is certainly her own hallmark, one that clarifies the uneasy tone maintained in most of her drama. Her best-realized characters have a cold, somewhat cynical, but always intellectual air about them, which may fascinate the spectator, prod him to raise questions, but seldom draws him to them, or if so, it is mainly through intellectual admiration. An audience's complex fascination with Regina may be accounted for this way, as it is with Mother Courage. Her particular story yields little novelty for social analysis: the daughter bypassed in her father's will, saddled with a passive husband whose weak idealism retards her greed and ambition for too long, the immediate objects of her desire little different from any gilded age matron's. She devours her male by withholding her sexuality from him and exploiting it with all the males around her, and her kind would devour the earth. It is not adequate to pity her as a misguided female emancipationist, had she but lived in a better time.13 She does want to shake off the restraints coming from her culture, but she also wants to impose her will on others.

At the same time, she can admire other fighters who possess their own mind, particularly those of her gender and blood, and she must have a certain awareness of the validity behind Alexandra's socialist rebuttal because she offers no refutation. She may even perceive a zeitgeist (as her father had done), and refuse to deny in words the direction the times are taking, even though she will continue to use her actual power and psychological manipulations against the new forces. Her last lines reveal a new fascination with her daughter, as she explicitly refuses to force Alexandra to side or remain with her, perhaps in response to memories of her own manipulation by others in the past. She knows that she is losing something when Alexandra withstands her arguments on two crucial issues—the domestic one of leaving home, and the social one of taking a stand against her kind—and these have become the most important issues for the play.

This scene is political because it shows people at the moment of transition as one age passes to another. They are not just swayed by the times; they fight out and interact through the roles that the warring orders gave them initially, but which they have developed by their own choices. Alexandra chooses a socialist future, and the play leaves her outcome uncertain. Regina chooses to be to the utmost a man of the present stage of socio-economic development, which in part means that she will be a woman who seizes new openings for her gender, reverses males' expectations and prerogatives when they become too self-confident, embraces change while holding on to obsolete facades of feminine behavior when these serve her advantage. Her tragedy lies in the fact that she cannot possess both the future freedom (reserved for women who define themselves and are allowed to be defined as people) and the present reign simultaneously, since the two are in contradiction, and Regina wants it all. The power she seeks as queen contradicts the full freedom she thought she wanted while she was still held down.

Putting it another way, Hellman's oeuvre succeeded in portraying the complex and potentially tragic interaction of “people's lives together,” which was Brecht's ideal for what the theater for a new age would portray, a formula that is essentially political. (The person's life apart, in isolation, and usually destroyed there, is commonly portrayed in other American drama.) Not all her plays have the same quality, but most of them aspire to the same public seriousness. The best of them succeed as entertainment that enlightens because she could use the old tricks of the stage she inherited and shape the ones most crucial to her argumentative ends to new effect. For The Little Foxes, these involve the melodrama form, whose conventions Hellman undermined (while retaining its energy) by reversing some of the spectator's usual expectations regarding plot closure and audience empathy. The knowing wit shared by her strongest characters often makes them seem as if they are standing outside the role and commenting on it.

In her drama, the manifest content of her politics remained that of the thirties, but the vision in that politics was not time bound. Some issues she fought in the thirties and beyond returned to the political scene and theatrical stage during her last decades, and although she had turned to the memoir form by then, two of her late theatrical efforts had some stage life and demonstrated that her wit had not abated, meaning both comic prowess and political intelligence. They are both adaptations, and because they are both so extensively collaborative as creations it would be inaccurate to dwell on them as her exclusive or final theatrical statements. But her career is happier because of their performance.

I refer to her last stage work and final adaptation, My Mother, My Father and Me, based on Burt Blechman's novel How Much?, and her Candide, a more lasting theater spectacle. My Mother, My Father and Me provided little happiness for Hellman personally, because its run was short, she was dissatisfied with the production, and in general the critics emphasized its shortcomings—too many targets for her satire, too little control of the absurdist form that she had embraced at too late an age. Since both those elements stemmed from the original novel, the fault hardly lies with Hellman unless it lies in her choice to take on the venture. The play contains more comedy and surprising effects than are usually credited, and if viewed not as a would-be American dream but as a continuation of the loosely structured social vaudeville stemming from thirties political musicals and living newspaper satires it can be placed and appreciated better—particularly since that form resurfaced with vitality in sixties plays like those of Jean-Claude van Itallie and Megan Terry, and later flowered with Sam Shepard's exuberances. It presaged the subsequent war economy of the Vietnam period (here the joke is that no one knows where the war is being fought or whether it is really happening), and portrayed the odyssey of a naive idealist who is corrupted by his environment along lines that may still cause discomfort for the present generation.

That same theme of the corrupted idealist who does not know how he has been misled and who still struggles to realize his ideal vision underlies Candide. Even more than in her straight play adaptation, in her Candide musical Hellman exploits the many techniques and gestures codified by Brecht: picaresque episodism; direct address to the audience; political satire infused with a cynicism that does not simply want to denigrate this world; and particularly, “epic music,” or the self-conscious song set apart from the action, which breaks the illusionist frame and comments on its contents and audience emotions by suspending empathy and transforming debased or archaic music, in this case, operatic clichés. Of course, Leonard Bernstein created that element, as Weill had done for Brecht, but within the context devised by the play's author. Hellman's link with Brecht the librettist can be traced through Marc Blitzstein, who in the years prior to the 1956 Candide had turned The Little Foxes into his opera Regina, and rescored and adapted The Threepenny Opera for its ground-breaking off-Broadway run, but who in 1936 produced America's greatest political musical The Cradle Will Rock, which he dedicated to Brecht. Moreover, Martin's answer to Candide's question of who he is—“A foreigner. A scholar. A beggar. A street cleaner. A pessimist” (644)—echoes some of Brecht's autobiographical poems (such as “To Poor B. B.”), which share the same definitionary rhythms, the same protean identity, the same intelligent dismay and realism—and a statement of identity that may be Hellman's own.

My ending point in this survey of Hellman's political theater is to recall her most succinct and evocative statement, at least outside the exhortatory scenes within her explicitly political plays, regarding her social vision for the future. She made it in her one lyric written for Candide, the song “Eldorado”.14 Its simple lines, fecund images, and verbal and musical poignancy all project the paradise on earth toward which her socialist heroes aspire, but at which they know they have not yet arrived. The restraint and the withheld directive in “Eldorado” about how to actually get there or what form the socialist future will actually take support Hellman's belief that we will reach Eldorado by creating it ourselves, and then we will know what it looks like. The song resembles Voltaire's conclusion, another withheld resolution that only directs men to start planting their own gardens; in similar fashion, Hellman simultaneously displays and withholds her ending, which is the conclusive arrival at a social utopia.

Hellman's project as a public artist through much of her drama had been to bear witness to the need for our social engagement, considering our present world (“Change the world: it needs it”—Brecht). The goal of that engagement was never far from view, and in one play she articulated it in a perfect song, which shows both her ideal vision and her commitment to mankind now, during this present stage of existence. Hellman's Candide can view and even enter utopia, but he will never be happy until he can find a way to bring his fellow creatures there with him. And it is not just a matter of providing their passage: they must make the march themselves.


  1. Rolf Meyn employed the term to survey social themes in 1930s American fiction, but the label has a long history. See Meyn, Die “Rote Dekade,” Studien zur Literaturkritik und Romanliteratur der dreissinger Jahre in den USA (Hamburg: 1980).

  2. The most influential political plays of the 1930s from the leftist and liberal camps included Stevedore (George Sklar and Paul Peters, 1934), Black Pit (Albert Maltz, 1934), Marching Song (John Howard Lawson, 1937), and Clifford Odets's three plays of 1935, Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost. Antiwar plays included Peace on Earth (Albert Maltz and George Sklar, 1933), Bury the Dead (Irwin Shaw, 1936), and Idiot's Delight (Robert Sherwood, 1936). Prominent musicals that offered a leftist political critique included Johnny Johnson (Paul Green and Kurt Weill, 1936), The Cradle Will Rock (Marc Blitzstein, 1937), and Pins and Needles (Harold Rome, et al., 1937). Although these works owed their innovative formal features to several traditions, including agitprop, political cabaret, and constructivist graphics and cinema, probably German expressionism played the strongest role as an influence, as exemplified in Ernst Toller's Masse-Mensch, 1920, produced by the Theater Guild in 1924.

  3. She plays a rather small role in major surveys of 1930s drama. See Morgan Y. Himelstein, Drama Was a Weapon, the Left-Wing Theatre in New York 1929-1941 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963); Gerald Rabkin, Drama and Commitment, Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964); and Malcolm Goldstein, The Political Stage: American Drama and Theatre of the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).

  4. In an Esquire interview in 1962 she called The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage “the great plays of our time.” See Thomas Meehan, “Q: Miss Hellman, What's Wrong with Broadway? A: It's a Bore,” Esquire 58 (December 1926):140-42, 235-36.

  5. A handy survey of the dispute already exists in the form of Mark W. Estrin's annotated bibliography of the entire Hellman criticism to 1980, Lillian Hellman: Plays, Films, Memoirs (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980).

  6. When Days to Come was revived in 1978, Terry Curtis Fox noted that its family structure resembled the one later developed fully in The Little Foxes. See “Early Work,” Village Voice, 6 November 1978, 127, 129.

  7. Compare the collapse of capitalist optimism that is Miller's central theme in Death of a Salesman, A Memory of Two Mondays, a main segment of After the Fall, The Price, and The American Clock, all related to the depression.

  8. Perhaps we get more distance on thirties issues in The Little Foxes than in Odets's plays because Hellman's work is not set during the immediate era, which makes its anatomy of society seem more universal and not an immediate response to a current crisis (the problem with her war plays). In these terms she is more like Miller, who keeps returning in his dramatized memories to that decade which had already passed before his writing flowered. Her main difference from Odets is her greater toughness of mind, her refusal to tack a conversion scene of unmotivated political enlightenment or activism onto the end of otherwise realistic portrayals of conditions. For a comparison of Hellman and Odets, see Malcolm Goldstein, “The Playwrights of the 1930s,” in The American Theater Today, ed. Alan Downer (New York: Basic Books, 1967), 25-27.

  9. The Collected Plays (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1970), 140. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent quotations from Hellman's plays are from this edition and are cited in the text.

  10. In her Paris Review interview, she claimed that she expected Alexandra would grow to become “maybe a spinsterish social worker, disappointed, a rather angry woman” (John Phillips and Anne Hollander, “The Art of the Theater: Lillian Hellman, an Interview,” Paris Review 33 [Winter-Spring 1965]:64-95; reprinted in this volume). One might liken Hellman's frustration to Brecht's over the persistence with which spectators sympathized with Mother Courage. Mark W. Estrin elaborated the dramaturgical parallel here with Brecht in his introduction to Lillian Hellman: Plays, Films, Memoirs, p. 8, where he also collected a number of contemporaneous reviews of The Little Foxes that intuited the same structure without being aware of Brecht. Finally, one must note with dismay the major deviation from her stageplay, which Hellman permitted in the 1941 screen adaptation. There, a rival suitor for Alexandra appears in the person of a journalist lover from up north who solves the problem of her withheld happiness for us, and undercuts the force by which her problem is made ours by staying problematic.

  11. This line does not appear in the final version of Days to Come found in Hellman's Collected Plays. It appears in earlier versions and in the collection Six Plays (New York: Random House, 1960; New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 119.

  12. Most explicitly, when Whalen exposes their fundamental class antagonism to the owners and strikers, he cries, “Don't let 'em tell you that because your grandfather voted for Jefferson, you're any different from some Polack in Pittsburgh whose grandfather couldn't write his name” (121).

  13. Honor Moore does not really propound this, but the force of her sympathetic analysis in the introduction to an anthology of new women's drama has that end. See The New Women's Theater: Ten Plays by Contemporary American Women, ed. Honor Moore (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), xi-xxxvii.

  14. See The Collected Plays, 658. Following a poetry reading at Rhode Island College, 16 April 1986, Richard Wilbur, Candide's lyricist, confirmed that Hellman was the sole author of “Eldorado,” and that he had supported her wish to keep the song included in the score with her lyrics intact. Apparently Hellman herself questioned the sentimentality of the words, but Wilbur countered that the text suited its author's vision precisely. Unhappily, the version of Candide currently in general production does not employ Hellman's libretto, but a new version authored by Hugh Wheeler.

Ekaterini Georgoudaki (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7444

SOURCE: Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. “Women in Lillian Hellman's Plays, 1930-1950.” In Women and War: The Changing Status of American Women from the 1930s to the 1950s, edited by Maria Diedrich, pp. 69-86. New York: Berg, 1990.

[In the following essay, Georgoudaki discusses Hellman's portrayal of women in her major plays during the 1930s through 1950s.]

During the period from 1930 to 1950 Lillian Hellman wrote six original plays in the realistic mode. Three of these 1930s plays and one drama of the 1940s are set in and reflect the values of small American towns: The Children's Hour (1934) in Lancet, Massachusetts; Days to Come (1936) in Callom, Ohio; The Little Foxes (1939) and Another Part of the Forest (1946) in Bowden, Alabama. Her two wartime plays, Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944), are broader in scope, however, and utilize other types of characters and settings and address different issues. All plays take place during the period from 1880 to 1944, and the events of the characters' lives are set against appropriate historical backgrounds that reflect the socioeconomic changes resulting from the Civil War, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, the two world wars, and the effects of these events on European and American lives and values. Hellman interweaves the individual and the social, skillfully depicting the private and public lives and problems of her characters.1

A large number of female characters of all age groups populate this dramatic world. Beginning with her first play, The Children's Hour, women dominate the action and in her later plays always have important roles as well. In her memoir, Pentimento (1973), Hellman justifies this preference for female protagonists by saying: “I can write about men, but I can't write a play that centers on a man. I've got to tear it up, make it about the women around him, his sisters, his bride, her mother and —.”2 These protagonists come from the middle and upper middle classes; among her minor characters are descendants of the Southern aristocracy, a prostitute, and housemaids, three of the last-mentioned are black. In all of these plays, Hellman's interest in and skillful dramatization of these women's individual psychologies and their relationships to each other and to their families, society, and history are clear. Nevertheless, her female characters are always depicted in traditional social roles, as her critics have correctly pointed out. Hellman does not write from a self-consciously feminist viewpoint, but follows contemporary conventions of public discourse as well as the example of other women dramatists of the 1930s and 1940s.3 Yet in her plays she creates characters and situations that illustrate her critical attitude toward middle-class values and institutions that have restricted women to subordinate roles and to one basic sphere of action, the home.

Hellman's approach to women, her concern with their psychological, financial, and other problems, is the topic of this paper. I will examine that concern as it manifests itself in the various female characters and situations described in her plays of 1930 to 1950, analyzing how she presents her assorted stereotypes and the restrictions that society has imposed on them. I will simultaneously point to examples of Hellman's own difficulties in developing solutions to these characters' problems or viable alternatives to their lives, difficulties which are highly representative of the situation of American women in that period of transition.

In Hellman's society “the structure of authority in the household was frequently determined by who earned the money,” and “role divisions within the home were significantly shaped by economic considerations.”4 Like many women in American society during the 1930s and 1940s who were denied an independent economic role, Hellman's middle-class and upper-middle-class female characters are “relative creatures,” women who acquire their own sense of personal worth, identity, and social status through their relationships with the male characters in the roles of daughters, sisters, fiancées, wives, and widows;5 these female characters share a “middle-class dream of family, security, and upward mobility.”6 Consequently, most of them play the roles of wives, mothers, and under normal circumstances, they do not work outside the home. They just accept the traditional view that home and family are their proper sphere, and there they seek fulfillment. Their only contact with the public, male world of business is through spending, never through earning money. Some of these upper-class women are quite extravagant. Their obsession with money, clothes, and various pleasurable activities, such as traveling to Europe, costs their male relatives a great deal of money, and this constantly increasing need for more money often leads Hellman's protagonists to immoral business deals and activities. By showing the harmful effects of such immoral actions on the women's personalities and on the lives of other people from the same or from lower social classes, Hellman not only expresses her disapproval of the empty, unproductive, and parasitical lives which social convention forces women from the upper classes to lead, but also implicitly identifies the middle-class ideal of marriage as the true source of women's corruption.

This indictment against marriage gains its impetus in her iconoclastic discourse on the connection between money and power in family and social relationships. She portrays patriarchal families with the fathers, oldest sons, and husbands as the breadwinners and decision makers, while her women appear ignorant of business and political matters and are, therefore, unable to survive alone in the world, outside the sheltered domestic realm. Cora Rodman has a share in the family factory, but she remains idle and expects her brother Andrew to invest her money profitably (Days to Come). She neither cares for nor knows how to run their factory. The same applies to Julie, Andrew's wife. Andrew, on the other hand, does not discuss his business deals and difficulties with either woman. In Days to Come the financial problems of the Rodman factory and the local town during the Depression are in the hands of the men, who play the roles of capitalists, workers, union organizers, strike breakers, etc. Hellman is aware of the impact of class on the roles and attitudes of women, as can be seen in the fact that some working-class women characters show awareness of and sensitivity to the issues connected with the strike and lend moral support to their men to survive the crisis, but even they are not among the decision makers. In the two plays about the Hubbard family, the economic and social changes during and after the American Civil War are exclusively effected by men. Similarly, in the Second World War plays, the fates of Europe and America during the rise of Fascism depend on the decisions and actions of male characters.

Only in the cases of Sara Müller and her mother, Fanny Farrelly, in Watch on the Rhine, do we have examples of upper-middle-class women who try to help men solve social problems through the women's own actions or through use of their money. Sara's German husband, Kurt Müller, is involved in anti-Fascist underground activities, and therefore Kurt, Sara, and their three children are obliged to move around Europe and suffer the hardships of the war. Because Kurt is busy with his political activities, Sara becomes the breadwinner in the family, but she regards her work as temporary and is not interested in a career. They later seek refuge in her rich mother's home in the United States. After Fanny is informed of Kurt's political activities and the catastrophic political situation in Europe, she becomes willing to use her money and social position to help Kurt carry out his mission. Nevertheless, the fact that Kurt returns to Europe and Sara is left behind with the children demonstrates that Sara's and Fanny's roles remain auxiliary and that they act according to Kurt's instructions.

According to William Wright, one of Hellman's most recent biographers, Hellman's prototype for Sara was Muriel Gardiner, an upper-middle-class American woman who studied psychiatry in Vienna. There she got involved in the city's anti-Fascist underground movement and married Joe Buttinger, the leader of the Austrian resistance. She and her husband were later decorated by the Austrian government. After her return to the United States, she became a well-known psychiatrist. Hellman heard her story from a mutual friend and drew on material from it. What is surprising is that Hellman did not make Sara the main protagonist of the play but instead assigned a subordinate role to her, while choosing her husband Kurt, modeled after Joe Buttinger, as the central hero of the dramatic action. A possible explanation for Hellman's choice is found in Vivian Patraka's observation that in her early plays Hellman, in order to satisfy her conservative theater audience, often gave her women less power than was actually afforded by historical circumstance.7 That Hellman submitted to what she conceived of as dire necessity can be seen in the changes she made in later years. Feeling that the public was now ready to accept women protagonists who played unconventional roles inducing social changes, she rewrote the Gardiner story in Pentimento (1973): she created a women protagonist with heroic dimensions, the resistance fighter Julia.8

Hellman's dissatisfaction with the status quo is also manifest in her discussion of the question of class in relation to gender ascriptions. Most of Hellman's upper-middle-class women characters in her early works play the conventional roles of wives and mothers, but in contrast to them, her lower-class women, no matter whether they are single or married, hold jobs. Most of them are housemaids, an occupation traditionally considered appropriate for lower-class women in American society. There is no evidence in Hellman's plays that she openly protests against limiting these women to menial jobs. What she criticizes through them, however, are the extravagance and greed of the more privileged classes, the little foxes who “eat the earth and eat all the people on it,”9 as her black woman servant in The Little Foxes complains. In most of her plays Hellman blames the exploitation, poverty, and suffering of the lower classes on these foxlike rich people. The dramatic situations she creates make it clear that her lower-class women characters do not choose work outside the home as an expression of woman's emancipation. Like their counterparts in real life, they must work to support themselves and their families. The middle-class dream of “family, security, and upward mobility” obviously does not apply to them. Yet the effect of this social obligation on their consciousness also suggests a development that points beyond passive reaction to a more active participation: despite their class and financial limitations, Hellman's housemaids, made socially aware by their own precarious situation, show sensitivity to the problems of the people around them and do their best to help them (Hannah in Days to Come, Coralee in Another Part of the Forest, Sophronia in The Searching Wind, etc.). Most of her black housemaids are modeled after her own black nurse Sophronia, whom she mentions in her memoirs An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento as a surrogate mother and a powerful presence in her childhood and early adolescence. Like Sophronia, the maids in her plays are loyal to the families whom they serve, but at the same time they do not hesitate openly and severely to criticize their employers' immoral actions, even to the point of risking their jobs. The way Hellman presents them shows that she admires their inner strength, independence, and basic integrity. They often act as mouthpieces for her social criticism, or as foils to their corrupt masters and their compromised mistresses, thus suggesting alternative life-styles that transcend established conventions of gender, class, and race.

In Hellman's families it is the men who own and handle the money, and they misuse the power they have to control and shape the lives of their dependents, mainly women and children, who are expected to submit to the men's will. Lillian Hellman demonstrates this misuse of money and power in The Little Foxes and in Another Part of the Forest, the two plays about the Hubbard family. The Hubbard men, Marcus and Oscar, are tyrannical and cruel to their wives, Lavinia and Birdie, who are portrayed as typical victimized wives. Moreover, the father Marcus and the oldest son Ben show a possessive attitude and a morbid emotional-sexual attraction to the daughter Regina. Ben finally manages to ruin her plans of marrying a Southern aristocrat, whom she loves. He then forces her to marry the banker Horace Giddens in order to bring more money into the family. He also presses the younger brother Oscar to court and marry Birdie Bagtry, thus bringing her cotton plantation into the Hubbard family. In both cases the women are presented as passive objects that men purchase, sell, and exchange in the marriage market in order to serve their own interests.10

Not all of Hellman's women submit passively to this victimization. Those who fight back, however, tend to imitate blindly the corrupting power play of the male protagonists, thus becoming carbon copies of negative male behavior and personifications of Hellman's inability to visualize a constructive alternative behavior for her upper- and middle-class women. Regina is one of the few women who responds actively to her fate, who knows how to invest money, and who wants the power that accompanies possession of that money. In both Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes, Hellman shows that Regina is in a disadvantageous position because she is a woman: in the post-Civil War Southern society in which she lives, money can only be possessed and invested by men: her father's money is inherited and controlled by her brothers, who have even better access to her husband's money than she does. Although in Another Part of the Forest young Regina uses her feminine charm and sex appeal, the only weapons left to her, to manipulate her cruel father into spending a lot of money on her extravagant clothes while underpaying his two sons, the action of the play reveals that her life is shaped by the men in the family. Since society does not allow her to express her dynamic personality and business talents outside the house and since she is surrounded by ruthless men, Regina is confronted by two alternatives, both of which are demoralizing: she can submit to her fate and become victimized like her mother Lavinia and Aunt Birdie, or she can become competitive, manipulative, devious, and tough like these men.

Little Foxes illustrates the extremes to which the mature Regina goes in order to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world. When the husband upon whom she has wasted her youth and whom she never loved informs her that he plans to disinherit her in his new will, she refuses to give him his medicine when he has a heart attack during a fight. Horace dies before changing his will. By inheriting his money Regina acquires greater control over her life and her business interests, but she can only achieve this end through means which Hellman depicts as immoral and male. Yet Regina is not the true villain of the play. Hellman's discourse reveals that she is more sinned against than sinning: in Another Part of the Forest Hellman exposes the corrupting influence of young Regina's patriarchal family and social environment on her character, thus shifting the blame from the individual to the lack of moral values in her environment. Moreover, the action of the play shows that Regina's deviousness, manipulation, and domination are not necessarily inherent female characteristics, as society usually believes; they are acquired traits, and they serve as the means of Regina's self-defense and survival in a hostile, patriarchal world which is not only indifferent to her actual needs but prevents her from expressing her talents creatively and constructively.11 The fate she designs for her heroine is illustrative of Hellman's ambivalence: after she has gone to great length in dramatizing this woman's victimization, Hellman groups the mature Regina together with the other evil characters in The Little Foxes, that is, her two brothers, and she expresses her disapproval of the whole Hubbard clan by revealing the harm they cause to the other characters. Regina's punishment is her final rejection by her only daughter. Feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and fear haunt her at the end of the play.

Like Regina, Mrs. Tilford in The Children's Hour and Fanny Farrelly in Watch on the Rhine acquire power through inherited wealth. They accept not only the money but also the conventional moral and sociopolitical values of their husbands, which the women defend vigorously and beyond which they dare not go. Mrs. Tilford gives moral and financial support to the two schoolteachers, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright. When her granddaughter Mary, however, falsely accuses these teachers of having a lesbian relationship, Mrs. Tilford appoints herself as the self-righteous defender of the traditional social code and New England puritan morality which the teachers were expected to convey to their young students. Without investigating Mary's accusations, Mrs. Tilford takes action against the teachers. Through her influence on the local society—students, parents, women's clubs, the judiciary, businessmen, etc.—she manages to destroy the teachers financially and morally, leading Martha Dobie to suicide. The woman who acquires power thus wields power destructively.

Hellman's discussion of the sensitive issue of lesbianism not only testifies to her difficulties in depicting viable alternatives to women's conduct but also provides a transition in the writer's critical attitude toward women. Although Hellman was not the first American playwright to deal with lesbianism, she knew she was dramatizing a taboo subject.12 According to Reynolds, the theme of homosexuality in female schoolteachers was “strong stuff,” even for Broadway theaters in the liberal days of the 1930s.13 Hellman uses this theme not only to reveal taboos and confusions about sexual roles and relationships but also, as Falk states, to challenge deliberately the sexual mores of her time and to express her indignation against society's intolerance toward those individuals who deviate from its conventions.14 Through Mrs. Tilford and her women friends, Hellman shows that women are conditioned to accept socially approved images of themselves and are encouraged to defend them as moral and normal even to the point of persecuting and destroying other women who threaten these images. Moreover, she reveals the unhealthy and perverse moral climate that self-righteous and supposedly normal individuals like Mrs. Tilford and her lady friends create.15 Her portrayals of Mary Tilford and Mrs. Tilford deconstruct both the stereotype of the innocent child and the stereotype of the lady.16

Another example of Hellman's critical attitude toward women is seen in the almost total absence of constructive relationships between women in her plays. Patriarchal culture, her discourse suggests, encourages competition as well as self-hatred among women, perverting even the ideologically charged mother-daughter relationship into the game of domination and subordination that is expressed in the term “momism.” The friendship and cooperation between Martha and Karen in The Children's Hour is the closest relationship between women created by Hellman in her 1930 to 1950 plays. But this friendship breaks under the burden of the psychological problems and confusions connected with female identity that are shared by all the adult, middle-class women in the play. These conflicts surface after Martha and Karen are accused of being lesbians. Most other relations between upper-middle-class women in Hellman's dramas are disharmonious. Ironically, some of these women find greater support and understanding in their house-maids than in female members of either their families or their social class. As Patraka remarks, Hellman's depiction of women in disharmony with each other agrees with the feminist view of “a male-dominated culture which treats women as inferiors, encouraging both fierce competition amongst them and self-hatred on the basis of gender (and by logical extension, others of one's sex).”17 The problems pointed out by Patraka arise even in the mother-daughter relationships in Hellman's play. Her mother figures tend to be bossy and socially ambitious (Fanny and Marthe's mother in Watch on the Rhine, Regina, etc.). They usually try to control their daughters' lives.18 Yet, Hellman again abstrains from branding them as her culprits: their behavior illustrates the social phenomenon of “momism,” which social studies have linked with the conflicts, emptiness, and discontent in many married women's lives.19 Although Hellman is critical of her domineering mothers, at the same time she insists that their social environment and the empty or frustrating lives which they are obliged to lead are partly to blame for their behavior.

The culprit in Hellman's plays is thus social convention and, as a perfect illustration of this social convention, the middle-class concept of marriage. Hellman does not openly condemn marriage, a basic American institution, yet her choice of disastrous marriages as her dramatic subject matter betrays her critical attitude. All her married couples, except for Kurt and Sara Müller, are unhappy. They suffer from loneliness, lack of communication and fulfillment, and frequent sexual disharmony. Some husbands, like the Hubbards, abuse their wives both verbally and physically and thus cause serious psychological disturbances. Hellman's dissatisfied wives try to escape from their unhappiness through memories of an idealized past or through alcohol (Birdie), religion (Lavinia), infidelity (Julie, Marthe), dreams of traveling (Regina), etc. The reasons for their unhappiness are connected with their reasons for marrying. None married out of love. Desire for money and social advancement is portrayed as the main motive for marriage, but also as the main reason for unhappiness in it.20 Hellman skillfully dramatizes marital problems as well as the efforts of some women characters to rid themselves of husbands whom they do not love. We already mentioned that Regina precipitates her husband's death. Marthe decides to ask for a divorce. Lavinia sides with her oldest son Ben, who overthrows his father and helps her escape to a place where she can live in peace and realize her dream of opening a school for black children. Most wives (Julie, Birdie, Emily), however, make compromises and continue living with their husbands. By connecting private with public events, Hellman's portrayals of the domestic realm thus acquire microcosmic quality. The disharmony and problems in her characters' relations reflect broader moral and social crises in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period within which Hellman sets the action of her six early plays.

Hellman's dissatisfaction with the status quo is omnipresent in her dramas, but today's reader is also very conscious of her lack of an alternative vision. The harmonious marriage of Sara and Kurt Müller may be an exception to the rule of disharmonious marriages in Hellman's dramatic world, but it cannot be read as Hellman's attempt at a new start. It is important to see that the only good husband in her plays is not an American. The Sara-Kurt relationship is based on mutual love and respect. Neither of the two is obsessed by money and social advancement. They both devote their lives to the cause of freedom, and they convey their ideals to their children. Sara's early break from her mother's control, her marriage to Kurt, her awareness of contemporary political problems, and her support of the anti-Fascist resistance reflect certain fundamental social changes in middle-class mentality during World War II which resulted in the broadening of women's choices, interests, and experiences. Yet the action of the play does not focus on these changes. In both Watch on the Rhine and The Searching Wind Hellman focuses on the rise of Fascism and the dangers it presents for the freedom of the world community. She is not interested in the liberation of women or any other particular group within this community, and the people she accuses of being responsible for the events leading to the destructive war belong to both sexes.21

Hellman's ambivalence about women's role and women's place, her understanding of the negative effects of patriarchal culture, and her inability to envision the new are especially obvious in her portrayals of single women. In a dramatic world in which women usually play the socially approved roles of wives and mothers, single women are conceived by the writer as social anomalies. Thus, Hellman's Cora Rodman (Days to Come) is a strikingly unsympathetic woman. Too absorbed with her own self to care for her family or the town, she remains indifferent to the broader sociopolitical problems affecting the less-privileged classes during the Great Depression. Hellman presents Cora as a hysterical, neurotic, self-hating and hated spinster leading an idle, empty, and parasitical life at a time when many people around her can hardly survive.

In contrast to Cora, who is confined in the family house, the other three single women appearing in Hellman's 1930 to 1950 plays work outside the home and are thus able to support themselves, but they too fail as representatives of alternative perspectives. Instead, Hellman depicts them as conscious or unconscious defenders of the status quo that is responsible for their victimization: the teaching jobs they have chosen belong to the category of professions traditionally considered female.22 Martha and Karen worked hard for years to save money and open their own school for girls. As the action of The Children's Hour shows, however, the school curriculum (sewing, elocution, music, classics, etc.) and the teaching methods (mainly memorization and recitation) only perpetuate a genteel educational system that encourages reverence for tradition and obedience to authority, and cultivates the girls' “social and domestic graces.”23 This “feminine curriculum” in Martha and Karen's school reflects the prevailing ideology among male educational officials in early twentieth-century America, according to which young women's education should be different from men's. Since women were considered intellectually inferior to men, their education should prepare them for the only suitable career, that is, homemaking and childbearing.24

Hellman's play exposes the inadequacy and the harmful results of such an education, but her women protagonists are unable to transform it, and the effects of their failure are devastating: the girls are expected to be happy with the subjects society has chosen for them to learn, yet they are not. Mary Tilford, the evil girl in The Children's Hour, and the other girls are bored, especially in Mrs. Mortar's class, and consequently, negative responses, like playing tricks and power games, fighting, lying, and fantasizing about sex, become part of their daily routine. Both the educational system and their upbringing at home underestimate their actual needs, intelligence, and creativity, and discourage them from developing critical judgment, self-confidence, independence, and moral strength. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mary's lies meet with no serious opposition: being stronger and fearless, she is able to impose her will on the other girls. Like the girls, their mothers are products of the same institutions. Passive, confused, and uncritical, they accept Mary's slander without making an investigation. They submit to Mrs. Tilford's will and thus destroy the two teachers. The teachers themselves are obliged to contribute to the girls' social conditioning by adopting the conventional curriculum and teaching methods and by providing the students with accepted behavior models. When it is suspected that they do not meet society's expectations, they are ostracized and destroyed.

Hellman's attitude toward her protagonists is highly ambiguous: on the one hand, The Children's Hour shows the vulnerability of single women in a society unwilling to give value to women's educational and professional achievements and suspicious of women who do not play the expected roles of wives and/or mothers. On the other hand, the inner conflicts and confusions of Karen and Martha, after the slander against them spreads, illustrate that neither woman had formed a clear, positive self-image and a feeling of self-worth, nor had they attained emotional fulfillment and self-reliance through their education and hard work. Karen still shares the middle-class dream of self-fulfillment through marriage. Martha's reaction is a combination of materialistic and emotional needs: realizing that alone she may not be able to run the school and that all her previous sacrifices and labor may be wasted, she fears that Karen may give up work after her marriage. Moreover, Martha has had a loveless childhood and a very limited social life as an adult. Thus her attachment to Karen is partly due to her loneliness and her need to be loved. Martha is obviously in a more vulnerable position. Feelings of rejection, failure, shame, self-hatred, and guilt increase her confusion about her sexual-social identity and finally lead her to self-destruction. According to the prevailing criteria of patriarchal culture, Karen is the more successful and natural of the two because a man loves and wants to marry her, and the fact that this man has a profession highly regarded by society (he is a physician) gives an extra advantage to Karen. Mrs. Mortar, Martha's aunt, voices these public standards when she calls Martha's affection for Karen unnatural and advises her niece: “Well, you'd better get a beau of your own now, a woman of your age.”25 Hellman undermines the validity of these standards by presenting Mrs. Mortar as an idle, pretentious, silly, irresponsible, and ungrateful person who constantly lies, yet her unmarried protagonists Karen and Martha accept them and judge themselves accordingly. The conflict remains unresolved; Hellman's discourse defies closure.

Another single woman with confused identity is Cassie Bowman in The Searching Wind. Hellman, similarly, places Cassie in a traditionally female job, teaching, but accords her a more privileged position than the majority of actual women teachers in the 1930s and 1940s; she is a college professor of English and even becomes the chairwoman of the department.26 Compared with Martha and Karen, she enjoys greater sexual freedom, and society tolerates her behavior when she has a sexual affair with Alex Hazen before and after his marriage to her friend Emily. She is also one of the few upper-class women characters who has access to the public sphere. Thus she travels extensively and frankly expresses her liberal views. Her early political disagreement with Alex makes her break off her relationship with him and return to America to reconsider it. Still, Hellman's heroine defies the expectations of today's readers in that she does not live up to the potentials inherent in her position. Instead of doing something to defend the cause of democracy against Fascism, she merely talks with friends. Moreover, all her subsequent visits to various European countries where Alex is stationed are motivated by her desire to see him and not by her concern for the political problem of the time. Her actions throughout the play illustrate her early remark to Alex: “We're an ignorant generation. We see so much and know so little. Maybe because we think about ourselves so much.”27

The selfishness and ignorance Cassie attributes to her generation in the handling of public affairs also apply to her own handling of her private affairs. In a final confrontation scene with Alex and Emily, she frankly admits that she chased Alex around Europe for several years, not because she loved him but because she was always haunted by rich Emily, whom she envied and whom she wanted to punish for taking Alex away from her. As Cassie also admits, “This got in the way of everything: my work, other people,” and she concludes: “I got mixed up and couldn't help myself. … We were frivolous people. All three of us, and all those like us.”28 Cassie's speech reflects the general confusion of values in wartime Europe and the United States. On the personal level, it also shows that Hellman has Cassie measure her success and failure as a woman by the same standards that women of previous generations or less education did, that is, by her ability or failure to attract and marry a man. Her professional achievement has not given Cassie emotional fulfillment, a feeling of self-worth and intellectual independence from the prevailing ideology of her time, which praised marriage and condemned women ambitious for any other career outside the home.29 Although she is more of a public person than the other women characters in Hellman's 1930 to 1950 plays, Cassie, unlike the men characters, is not happy in her public role; nor does she consider her job “the mirror” of her identity as do the middle-class men.30 The American gospel of work, “Work is virtue; work builds character; work builds the nation. … There is nothing else important,”31 obviously does not apply to her, just as it does not apply to any of Hellman's single women protagonists.

Cassie Bowman and Sara Müller, Hellman's heroines in her plays of the 1940s, are ambiguous characters who illustrate equally Hellman's awareness of the greater opportunities American women acquired in the public sphere during World War II and the continued strength of conventional female role ascriptions. Both women stand for a wider range of mobility for women, but Sara always defines her role as an auxiliary one and is ultimately redomesticated, while Cassie, torn by conflicting identities and values, fails to live up to the potentials of her situation. The fate of both women not only reflects the futility and confusion determining contemporary social images about women's nature and the roles American women were expected to play, but is also indicative of a tension between dissatisfaction with the status quo and an internalization of established conventions, between the urge to change and the failure of vision that characterized Hellman's plays from the very start. Hellman depicts her female protagonists—those who submit as well as those who rebel, the married and the unmarried women, upper- and middle- as well as lower-class women—as “relative creatures,” as objects in men's destructive power play. She skillfully dramatizes the utter frustration of these women and their various reactions, and she names a materialistic patriarchal system as the source of evil, but her plays of the period discussed contain no evidence of an affirmative vision that would transform these women from passive objects to active and creative participants in the shaping of human history. From today's perspective, the writer and her protagonists appear suspended in midair—unwilling to remain where they had always been forced to be, yet ignorant of the road before them. The general situation of American women and of the American women's movement in this crucial age of transition, the 1930s and 1940s, could hardly have found a more convincing portrayal.


  1. Historians of American literature and theater include Hellman among the realistic playwrights often concerned with social problems and evils. See C.W.E. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, vol. 1, 1900-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 274-97; Walter Blair et al., American Literature: A Brief History, rev. ed. (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1974), p. 214; Malcolm Goldstein, The Political Stage: American Drama and Theater of the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 148-50, 401-3; Alan Lewis, American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), pp. 99-115; Walter Meserve, An Outline History of American Drama (Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1965), pp. 274, 278-81, 327, 329; Allardyce Nicoll, World Drama: From Aeschylus to Anouilh (London: George Harrap & Co., 1966), pp. 829-30; and W. David Sievers, Freud on Broadway (New York: Hermitage House, 1955), pp. 279-89. Several critics also stress Hellman's tendency to interweave private and public events in her plays. See “Lillian Hellman,” in Contemporary Literary Criticism, ed. Sharon R. Gunton (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Co., 1974), vol. 2, p. 188; Brother Carrol Angermeier, “Moral and Social Protest in the Plays of Lillian Hellman” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1970), p. 68; Katherine Lederer, Lillian Hellman (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979), pp. 34-35, 37, 60, 64; Vivian M. Patraka, “Lillian Hellman, Dramatist of the Second Sex” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1977), pp. 9, 17, 114, 117, 144, 211; and Judith Olauson, The American Woman Playwright: A View of Criticism and Characterization (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1981), p. 53.

  2. Lillian Hellman, Pentimento (London: Quartet Books, 1984), p. 206.

  3. For more details concerning (a) Hellman's contemporary realistic conventions, (b) American women playwrights' subject matter and female characters, and (c) Hellman's attitude toward and actual portrayal of women in her plays, see Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 5-6, 12-13, 148-49, 210-11, 213-17, and Olauson, Criticism and Characterization, pp. 1, 140-42, 145, 149, 150-53, 158, 173, 175-76, 178-79. For Hellman's concepts and portrayals of women, see also Sister Carol B.V.M. Blitgen, “The Overlooked Hellman” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Santa Barbara, 1972); Sharon P. Friedman, “Feminist Concerns in the Works of Four Twentieth-Century American Women Dramatists: Susan Glaspell, Rachel Crothers, Lillian Hellman, and Lorraine Hansberry” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1977); and Cynthia D.M. Larimer, “A Study of Female Characters in the Eight Plays of Lillian Hellman” (Ph.D. diss., Purdue University, 1970).

  4. William Henry Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 222.

  5. Relevant comments are made by Olauson, Criticism and Characterization, pp. 151-52, Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 14-15, 124, and June Sochen, Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists, 1900-1970 (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973), p. 125.

  6. The passage is quoted from Peter G. Filene, Him/Her/Self: Sex Roles in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 148. For information about (a) ideas concerning male and female nature and proper roles, and (b) social changes in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, see pp. 148-76; and Sochen, Movers and Shakers, pp. 130-37, 171-75; Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 62, 64-65, 96-98, 104-6, 173, 202-10, 247-48; Barbara S. Deckard, The Women's Movement: Political, Socioeconomic, and Psychological Issues (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 296-99, 301-7; Tamara K. Hareven, “Continuity and Change in the American Family,” in Making America: The Society and Culture of the United States, ed. Luther S. Luedtke (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Information Agency, 1987), pp. 241-57; Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman, A History of Women in America (New York: Bantam, 1981), pp. 285-340; and Judith Papachristou, Women Together: A History in Documents of the Women's Movement in the United States (New York: Knopf, 1976), pp. 213-15.

  7. Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 115, 137. Patraka also discusses women's secondary social roles in Hellman's early plays on pp. 91, 119, 134-36.

  8. Hellman, Pentimento, pp. 99-147. Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 136-37, and Lederer, Lillian Hellman, p. 54, accept the early critical view that Julia was a real person and a close friend of Hellman. William Wright, Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), however, proves that Julia was a creation of Hellman's imagination and that Julia's prototype was Dr. Gardiner, whom Hellman had never met. For more details about the Julia story and the events and controversies associated with it, see pp. 135, 164-67, 345, 377-81, 390, 395-96, 398, 403-12, 427.

  9. The quotation is from Hellman's “The Little Foxes,” The Collected Plays (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1972), p. 182. See Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 55, 57, Deckard, Women's Movement, pp. 296-97, Filene, Him/Her/Self, p. 151, Hymowitz, Women in America, pp. 305-7, and Papachristou, Women Together, pp. 213-14, for information concerning jobs available to American lower-class women and social attitudes toward working wives of this class.

  10. Patraka analyzes Birdie's character as well as her situation before and after her marriage. Among other things she calls Birdie the typical “maiden/victim,” woman “as object,” as “chattel,” and as a “pawn in business exchanges” (“Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 85-88). She also considers Regina Marcus's and, later, Ben's sex object (p. 103).

  11. Ibid., Patraka also underlines Regina's powerlessness resulting from being female (p. 71), and sees her deviousness as her only alternative to attain power (p. 72). She further discusses Regina's character and needs within the context of cultural myths about women's nature and proper place in society (pp. 73-83). In her memoir Pentimento Hellman writes that Regina and the other Hubbards were largely modeled after her mother's “banking, storekeeping family from Alabama,” and she recalls family dinners which inspired the kind of “angry comedy” elements she tried to recreate in the two Hubbard plays (pp. 180-82).

  12. Wright, The Image, pp. 87, 93, 99-101, 109.

  13. R.C. Reynolds, Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama in the Thirties (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1986), p. 133.

  14. Doris V. Falk, Lillian Hellman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978), pp. 36, 45.

  15. See Angermeier, “Moral and Social Protest,” pp. 48-49, 52, 229, and Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 35-36 for more detailed discussions of Mrs. Tilford's Victorian morality and the unhealthy moral climate the town women create.

  16. Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 21-26, 29-33, provides a more thorough analysis of this subject.

  17. Ibid., p. 34.

  18. Hellman probably modeled Mrs. Tilford, Fanny Farrelly, and the other bossy mothers in her plays after some of her own women relatives, and especially her grandmother Sophie Newhouse. In her memoir An Unfinished Woman (1969; London: Quartet Books, 1983), pp. 7-11, Hellman portrays her grandmother as a formidable matriarch who controlled her family and “crippled her own children.”

  19. For more information see Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 201-7, 212-16, and Hymowitz, Women in America, pp. 331-32.

  20. In An Unfinished Woman Hellman writes that she and her generation were “suspicious of the words of love,” pretended to be “cool,” revolted against the previous generation's “sentimentality” and “pretense,” and married men whom they simply liked or men with money (pp. 32, 37). But, as she admits, they “paid for it later on” (p. 32): “Of the five girls I knew best, three married for money and said so, and we were not to know then that two of them, in their forties, would crack up under deprivation or boredom” (p. 32).

  21. In an interview, Hellman describes the characters in The Searching Wind as “nice, well-born people who, with good intentions, helped to sell out a world.” See Anne Hollander and John Phillips, “Lillian Hellman,” in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. George Plimpton, 3rd series (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 132. Critics divide Hellman's characters into the “despoilers” of the earth and the “bystanders” who watch the former performing their evil deeds without interfering to stop them - the protagonists in The Searching Wind are included among the latter. For details see Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 14 (1980), p. 258, and vol. 18 (1981), p. 222; Falk, Lillian Hellman, pp. 29-30; Lederer, Lillian Hellman, pp. 36-37, 53, 60; Olauson, Criticism and Characterization, p. 53; and Patraka, “Dramatist of Second Sex,” pp. 4, 65, 114.

  22. Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 58, 60, 91, Deckard, Women's Movement, pp. 297, 300-301, Hymowitz, Women in America, pp. 315, 323, and Papachristou, Women Together, pp. 213-215, discuss the sexual division of work in American society and include teaching in the list of jobs traditionally considered female.

  23. The quotation is from Richard Moody, Lillian Hellman, Playwright (New York: Pegasus, 1972), p. 41.

  24. For more details see Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 207-10, and Hymowitz, Women in America, p. 329.

  25. Lillian Hellman, “The Children's Hour,” The Collected Plays, p. 18.

  26. Chafe, The American Woman, pp. 60, 91, Deckard, Women's Movement, p. 300, Hymowitz, Women in America, pp. 315-16, and Sochen, Movers and Shakers, p. 172, discuss discrimination against women in the better-paying, more prestigious and powerful educational positions.

  27. Hellman, “The Searching Wind,” The Collected Plays, p. 289.

  28. Ibid., p. 320.

  29. See Deckard, Women's Movement, pp. 298-301, Filene, Him/Her/Self, p. 169, and Hymowitz, Women in America, pp. 323, 325, 329 for details about social prejudice against career women and the resulting negative stereotypes about them in American society before and after the Second World War.

  30. Filene, Him/Her/Self, p. 169.

  31. Ibid., p. 159.

Select Bibliography

Angermeier, Brother Carrol. “Moral and Social Protest in the Plays of Lillian Hellman.” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1970.

Bills, Steven H. Lillian Hellman: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1979.

Blitgen, Sister Carol B.V.M. “The Overlooked Hellman.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Santa Barbara, 1972.

Braun, Devra. “Lillian Hellman's Continuing Moral Battle.” Massachusetts Studies in English 5, no. 4 (1978), pp. 1-6.

Bryer, Jackson R., ed. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 1986.

Estrin, Mark W. Lillian Hellman, Plays, Films, Memoirs: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980.

Falk, Doris V. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978.

Friedman, Sharon P. “Feminist Concerns in the Works of Four Twentieth-Century American Women Dramatists: Susan Glaspell, Rachel Crothers, Lillian Hellman, and Lorraine Hansberry.” Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1977.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Life and Death of Lillian Hellman.” The New Criterion 3, no. 2 (1984), pp. 1-6.

Larimer, Cynthia D.M. “A Study of Female Characters in the Eight Plays of Lillian Hellman.” Ph.D. diss., Purdue University, 1970.

Lederer, Katherine. “The Foxes Were Waiting for Horace, Not Lefty: The Use of Irony in Lillian Hellman's The Litte Foxes.West Virginia University Philological Papers 26 (August 1980), pp. 93-104.

———. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman, Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972.

Olauson, Judith. The American Woman Playwright: A View of Criticism and Characterization. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Publishing Co., 1981.

Patraka, Vivian Mary. “Lillian Hellman, Dramatist of the Second Sex.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1977.

Riordan, Mary Marguerite. Lillian Hellman: A Bibliography, 1926-1978. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

Underwood, June O. “Experimental Forms and Female Archetypes: Lillian Hellman's Pentimento.Publications of the Missouri Philological Association 5 (1980), pp. 49-53.

Vicinus, Martha. “Julia, the Special Woman,” Jump Cut 18 (1978), pp. 1, 6.

Wagner, L.W. “Lillian Hellman: Autobiography and Truth.” Southern Review 19 (April 1983), pp. 275-88.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Lagretta Tallent Lenker (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Lenker, Lagretta Tallent. “The Foxes in Hellman's Family Forest.” The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 241-53. New York: Insight Books, 1991.

[In the following essay, Lenker argues that the major theme of The Little Foxes and Another Part of the Forest is the crippling effects of family violence.]

American literature's reliance on themes and situations of family life to weave stories that graphically reflect the human condition has become legendary. Lillian Hellman's entry into the ranks of “cultural familiars” such as William Faulkner's Snopeses and John Steinbeck's Joads is the Hubbards (Wright 1986, 143), a family bonded by mutual greed, distrust, and manipulation. Hellman presents this clan in The Little Foxes [hereafter abbreviated as LF] (1939) and Another Part of the Forest (1946), plays that constitute an unfinished trilogy1 set in Bowden, Alabama, beginning in 1880. Hellman emphatically denied that these dramas contain social messages or polemical motives (Wright 1986, 305). Yet time has taught even Hellman's many admirers that this dramatic genius could not be trusted to account accurately for her motives and actions (Wright 1986, 394). We are certain that Hellman conducted extensive research to gain just the right “sense of the period” that she was depicting, especially concerning the financial condition of the postwar South (Carl Rollyson 1988, 123). Against this carefully crafted social and economic backdrop, Hellman presents, deliberately or not, stirring criticisms of social conditions, which in many instances, are recognizable in society today. Most scholars interpret these plays as attacks on personal greed and on the results of the capitalization and industrialization of the Old South (Wright 1986, 21, 144). I propose a more personal reading—that the Hubbard saga chronicles the debilitating effects of family violence, especially spouse abuse, from the interwoven perspectives of husband-wife, brother-sister, and parent-child.

Hellman's fictional family exhibits classic symptoms and behaviors of actual troubled families described in the literature of medicine, social work, counseling, and other socially oriented disciplines. Susan Schechter, a clinical social worker and respected author of works about family violence defines the problem:

Battering is a pattern of coercive control that one person exercises over another. Abusers use physical and sexual violence, threats, emotional insults and economic deprivation as a way to dominate their partners and get their way.

(1987, 4)

Lillian Hellman examines manifestations of learned helplessness, aggression, manipulation, and violence, all significant factors in documented cases of spouse abuse. Hellman even deviates from the most common situation wherein the male partner is the physical or psychological batterer to include both men and women as abuser and abused, violators and victims. Finally, the wealth and power of the Hubbards (however it was obtained) rebuke the stereotype of abuse as being linked with poverty and lower socioeconomic classes. These patterns of pathological behavior and domestic coercion have not been considered previously as a structural element of the plays, and this omission underscores how deeply such behavior is ingrained in our society. A close reading of both plays from the perspective of one concerned with the problem of family violence follows.

Lillian Hellman wrote her portrait of the Hubbard family out of chronological order. This approach is not uncommon. For example, Shakespeare wrote his chronicle history plays of the Yorks, Lancasters, and Tudors in the same fashion. Authors often compose this way in response to the success of a work whose subject warrants further exploration, and The Little Foxes (1939) commanded such strong popular acclaim (although the critical reaction was mixed) that Hellman wrote Another Part of the Forest (1946) to show how the Hubbard clan became the way they appeared in the earlier play (Wright 1986, 203). However, Another Part of the Forest did not enjoy the same enthusiastic reception that was accorded The Little Foxes. Rollyson reports, “This lack of popularity had little to do with the quality of the play but a great deal to do with its savage tone” (1988, 250-251). Rollyson calls Hellman's writing “ruthless” and pronounces the dramatic exchanges between family members “unpleasant to watch.” The savagery of her characters compares with that of Shakespeare's creations, but Hellman's postwar audience was less receptive than Shakespeare's bloodthirsty Elizabethans (Rollyson 1988, 252).2 Therefore, given Hellman's motives for writing Another Part of the Forest and my purposes for this discussion, Another Part of the Forest should be considered as the predecessor to The Little Foxes.

Another Part of the Forest is a drama of family loyalty and allegiances, or the lack thereof. James Parrish summarizes as follows:

All of them, the Hubbards (with the exception of the mother, Lavinia) are egocentric, grasping creatures truly interested in no one but themselves. Marcus made the family fortune but keeps his sons working for him at the wage of twenty dollars per week, barely concealing his contempt for them. His affection for his daughter Regina seems to grow more out of his loneliness than out of any real concern for the girl. Regina, on her part, is motivated toward a single end—running away to Chicago with John Bagtry, a member of a genteel family whose fortunes have deteriorated along with the South. She openly dislikes her brothers and seems to agree with Marcus that her mother is crazy. Although she is always kind and solicitous where her father is concerned—she gets his coffee in the mornings and they go on picnics together—I suspect that she does this simply in order to be on his good side. My suspicions were encouraged by the picnic they go on in Act One, since Regina uses the occasion to talk Marcus into letting her go to Chicago, where she hopes to be met by Captain Bagtry. This plot is foiled by one of her brothers and, with Ben's assistance at the end of the play, Regina deserts Marcus, which would seem to confirm my beliefs about her.

(1950, 2-3)

This family situation reflects, at least initially, the South as a bastion of the patriarchy.3 Lawrence Stone describes a patriarchal society:

Power tends to drift into the hands of the oldest males, and in every family, village, and country … there is a constant struggle to win the approval of, or establish some reciprocal claim upon, some individual—often an old man—who controls the levers of power.

(1977, 90)

Lenore Walker relates this concept to family violence:

Men's dominance over women in a patriarchal society is an important factor in spouse abuse. … [O]ur data … all demonstrate that in homes where the man is more dominant, the woman is more likely to suffer serious battery.

(1984, 37)

The patriarch in Another Part of the Forest is Marcus Hubbard, a ruthless businessman who has made his fortune by operating outside of the law and accepted social behavior. As family scion, he suppresses his sons, needlessly cutting short their trips to attend to insignificant business (1972, 349) and reducing already meager salaries in response to requests for a raise (355). He constantly criticizes Ben and Oscar and then flaunts his own freedom while controlling their lives. He belittles Ben, his eldest, for not being more knowledgeable about music:

I've been too busy, Papa.
At what?
Working my life away for you. Doing a lot of dirty jobs. And then watching you have a wild time throwing the money around. But when I ask you to lend me a little …
You're a free man, Benjamin, a free man. You don't like what I do, you don't stay with me.

(Another Part of the Forest 363)

His relationship with his daughter, although appearing more loving, manifests equally manipulative characteristics. Marcus dotes on Regina, who humors him in hopes of getting her own way. Critics delight in finding Oedipal-Electra undercurrents as father and daughter brush dangerously close to crossing the lines separating family love from sexual attraction and encouragement (Faulk 1978; Wright 1986; Rollyson 1988). Wright gets specific: “In fact, Marcus as the ogre pater familias is a walking anthology of Freudian flaws: son castrator, wife enslaver, daughter covetor” (1986, 206).

As Wright suggests, Marcus's mistreatment of his wife Lavinia parallels his abuse of his sons. Marcus is a prototypical overbearing husband. He thwarts Lavinia's hopes to fulfill a lifelong dream of teaching and helping poor children by continually postponing discussing the matter with her. After years of failing to convince Marcus to accept her plans, Lavinia states pathetically, “You get to be fifty-nine, you don't be happy then, well, you got to find it. I'm going to be a very happy, happy, happy, happy—” (367). The audience, thus, knows of Lavinia's unhappiness and also of her actual fear of her husband: “I've always been afraid of him, because once or twice—” (399). Lavinia's voice trails off, leaving unspoken the anticipation of the physical violence that has almost certainly plagued her marriage. This account and the patriarchal nature of the household, with its implicit code tag Marcus as a recognizable personality type—the violent husband identified by Margaret Elbow:

The controller may manipulate, and if manipulation fails, then demands and force may follow. He must have his way. He must control the situation. He seems to know no limits.

(Davidson 1978, 201)

At the start of the play, Marcus firmly controls the household and everyone in it. Interestingly, the seemingly weak Lavinia becomes the agent of change (Rollyson 1988, 243). The genteel Lavinia represents “good blood” mixed with the Hubbard bad (Faulk 1978, 61). Although she seems to genuinely love her family, Marcus's total disregard for her feelings infiltrates her children's attitude toward their mother. Her modus operandi becomes one of “learned helplessness,” Lenore Walker's apt term for the attempts of women such as Lavinia to cope with their situation:

Women's experiences of the noncontingent nature of their attempts to control the physical and psychological violence would, over time, produce learned helplessness and depression as the repeated batterings, like electrical shocks, diminish the woman's motivation to respond.

(1984, 87)

Yet Lavinia, characterized by her family as “crazy,” does have a recourse that eventually leads to her escape from the damaging bonds of her family. She alone knows of Marcus's true involvement in a suspicious business deal during the Civil War that directly resulted in the deaths of 27 “home town” soldiers whose vengeful families still feel the pain of the episode. Only after a particularly nasty family quarrel does Lavinia gain the courage to reveal what she knows to Ben—information that dramatically shifts the balance of power in the household. This accomplished, Ben convinces the now-fearful Marcus to sell him the family business for one dollar, and Lavinia prepares to leave to “do her work.” Before departing, Lavinia has a poignant scene reminiscent of another downtrodden woman who prepares to go on a “journey.” Shakespeare's Ophelia, shortly before her death, gives appropriate flowers to her loved ones as remembrances of her. Similarly, Lavinia distributes appropriate gifts to her family before leaving home (Faulk 1978, 61). But Lavinia's fate differs from that of Ophelia, who commits suicide, and also from the traditional endings of women who are unsuccessful in marriage or flaunt the traditional feminine role—madness or death (DuPlessis 1985, 16). Lavinia departs to find personal fulfillment and to rid herself of the domestic atmosphere of fear and violence that heretofore has been her lot (421). Although Lavinia anticipates self-actualization at last, she and Marcus leave their unhealthy relationship as a legacy to their children. Walker's conjecture that “The best prediction of future violence is a history of past violent behavior …” (1984, 10-11) proves prophetic. The three Hubbard children are depicted as adults in The Little Foxes. Together they represent the next generation of an abusive-abused family.

In The Little Foxes Ben, Oscar, and Regina Hubbard are described 20 years later, sans mother and father. Each lives a life that may be directly related to their early environment. Ben, the eldest, never marries. His life centers around the family business, and his gods are those of power and money, a continuation of Marcus Hubbard's idolatry. As the primogenital heir to the Hubbard fortune, Ben would be a “good catch” for any southern belle. Instead, he remains single, perhaps a conscious or even unconscious reaction to his parents' version of domestic bliss. Ben's bachelorhood, however, does not keep him from using the marriages of his brother and sister to strengthen the Hubbard financial and social status. He even speculates that his niece (Regina's daughter, Alexandra) and nephew (Oscar's son, Leo) may marry to solidify the family position (155). But these arranged, advantageous marriages often bring trouble—especially for unsuspecting partners lured into the Hubbard web.

In The Little Foxes, Oscar Hubbard has married Birdie Bagtry, the faded, aristocratic symbol of the once-glorious Old South. Although Birdie's marriage has saved her home from passing into the hands of strangers (the plantation Lionnet now belongs to her husband's family), Birdie's life has become a nightmare of physical, psychological, and alcohol abuse. She is a woman completely dominated by her husband and his conniving, condescending family. What little dignity she has left after years with the Hubbards comes from the universal acknowledgment that she is the only aristocrat in the family (144). Her only pleasures are her niece Alexandra, whom she tries to protect from the Hubbards, and music, a passion she must conceal from her husband. Nevertheless, the family's important guest, William Marshall of Chicago, prefers Bridie's talents as a pianist to the Hubbards' business conversation. Yet Birdie's repressed domestic life renders her story a genuine künstlerromane manqué—the depiction of an artist who never develops, in Birdie's case, because of societal and domestic constraints.4

Birdie offers a prototypic example of the female victim of both physical and psychological spouse abuse. After admitting that indulgence in alcohol has been her coping mechanism for years, Birdie tells Alexandra that she has not had a “whole day of happiness” in 22 years (189). This is the pitiful fate of a woman who served as a “commodity”—a patriarchal vehicle for the transfer of property from one family to another, not an uncommon occurrence throughout history (Stone 1977, 89). Furthermore, Birdie's husband Oscar exemplifies the social learning explanation of spouse abuse, since he has learned to mistreat his wife by watching his father abuse his mother. In addition, his propensity for abuse intensifies because Birdie is considered “above him” in education and social position, a syndrome of the abusive situation noted by Terry Davidson (1978, 27).

Lastly, violence as the accepted method of “handling things” is a well-established pattern with Oscar. In Another Part of the Forest, his father must pay “hush money” to keep Oscar out of trouble after he is identified as a participant in the beating of a black man (351). And Oscar, as an adult, loves to shoot for the mere pleasure of killing things (LF 151). This savage temperament, covertly and overtly, poisons Oscar's relationship with his wife. For example, when Mr. Marshall visits the family and pays particular attention to Birdie, Oscar checks her enjoyment of this unexpected attention: “I said get yourself in hand. Stop acting like a fool” (141). This psychological degradation proves minor compared with Oscar's physical battering of his wife. In the only show of force that actually occurs onstage, Oscar slaps Birdie viciously after she attempts to interfere with the family's plans to have Alexandra and Leo marry (160). Birdie reacts in a manner typical of the battered wife—she lies to protect her husband (Davidson 1978, 52), telling Alexandra that she has only twisted her ankle (160). Further conversations with Alexandra reveal that, as often occurs in an abusive situation, this physical violence has happened before (186). The family surely knows of Birdie's suffering (186), yet no one intervenes. As Ben explains to Alexandra, “Married folk frequently raise their voices, unfortunately” (181). So, Birdie's hell is a disturbingly conventional, even accepted, one in a society and family that know better than to interfere.

The family situation of Marcus Hubbard's daughter proves less typical. The central relationship of the play features Regina and her husband Horace Giddens, the handsome, successful banker hand-picked for her by her opportunistic family in Another Part of the Forest (419). Horace is a reformed despoiler (Faulk 1978, 54). He no longer can bear the greed of the Hubbards and regrets ever having profited at others' expense (LF 183). When The Little Foxes opens, Regina and Horace are estranged, presumably because of his heart problems, although other factors soon emerge (274). Mutual mistrust has been a long standing norm in the Giddenses' household. But with Horace's change of heart, Regina is left alone, center stage, as the prime manipulator and aggressor. As her father's psychological heir, Regina proves that the role of the abuser is not the exclusive property of men.5 Although many authorities hold varying opinions on the prevalence of physical or psychological battering of men by women, Regina fits seven of the eight items on Walker's profile of the psychological abuser (1984, 27-28):

  1. Isolation of victim—when Horace arrives home from Johns Hopkins, Regina relegates him to an upstairs bedroom where, because of his heart condition, he exists in virtual isolation (LF 191) in Hellman's perhaps unintentional parody of Charlotte Brontë's “mad woman in the attic” found in Jane Eyre.
  2. Induced debility producing exhaustion—when Horace first returns home, Regina forces him to discuss the financial “deal” she is eager to enter into with her brother. This debate weakens Horace's condition and although he repeatedly asks for postponement, Regina does not relent. (LF 172-178).
  3. Monopolization of perception including obsessiveness—Regina is obsessed with reaching her financial goals and forces this subject on her sick husband (see 2, above).
  4. Threats—Regina implies that if Horace does not cooperate, she will join her brothers' scheme of arranging a marriage between Horace's beloved Alexandra and her first cousin, the insipid Leo (LF 173).
  5. Degradation—Regina's first line of offense when Horace rejects her plans is to hurl charges of womanizing at him (LF 174).
  6. Drug or alcohol administration—as we shall see, Regina does not administer but withholds a lifesaving drug when Horace suffers a massive heart attack after their major confrontation—a very effective form of abuse.
  7. Occasional indulgence that keeps hope alive—Regina's summoning Horace home gives him encouragement: “Alexandra said you wanted me to come home. I was so pleased at that and touched. It made me feel good” (LF 173).

However, as with most abusive partnerships, Horace's hope turns out to be a chimera. The climax of this relationship occurs in a scene of “drawing room brutality” (Wright 1986, 151). As the couple argue, Regina continues her heartless attack, calling the sick man a “small town clerk” and “a soft fool” (LF 194). After taunting Horace with the revelation that she has despised him for ten years, Regina watches intently as her wheelchair-bound husband clutches his throat and reaches for his medication. In his weakened condition and agitated state, Horace drops the medicine that can save him. When the bottle smashes against the table, Horace implores his wife to send upstairs for another bottle. Hellman's stage directions convey Regina's reaction:

Regina does not move now. He stares at her. Then, suddenly as if he understood, he raises his voice. … He makes a sudden, furious spring from the chair to the stairs. … When he reaches the landing, he is on his knees. His knees give way, he falls on the landing, out of view. Regina has not turned during his climb up the stairs.

(LF 195)

Regina's response in this scene is reminiscent of Shakespeare's Regan, who passively effects the torture of Gloucester in King Lear, and one wonders if Hellman deliberately patterned her abusive wife after her Shakespearean namesake. These two manipulative women are remembered as among the cruelest in all of literature for their calculated inactivity as others suffer harm that they could have prevented. Regina's brothers instinctively suspect her involvement in Horace's death (LF 203, 205), and critics concur that Regina hastens, if not actually causes, Horace's demise (Faulk 1978; Rollyson 1988; Wright 1986). Nevertheless, Regina does succeed in gaining the control of the family business venture that she so desperately desires, and the audience senses that the soon-to-be-rich Regina will attain her long-standing goals of moving to Chicago and buying only the best things (LF 205). However, Regina does pay a high price. Her daughter, Alexandra, whom she hopes will share her “good life,” rebels against her mother, hating Regina for her cruelty to Alexandra's father. Alexandra, seen by most critics as the play's only proffered hope for smashing the Hubbard family mold, predicts that Regina's future will not be as happy as she hopes. In response to her mother's offer of companionship and consolation during the time of grief after Horace's death, Alexandra closes the play with the prophetic query, “Are you afraid, Mama?” (207).

Regina's despicable behavior cannot be ameliorated. But just perhaps that familiar villain, the patriarchy, is at work in Regina's life, also. As a woman growing up after the Civil War, certain negative stereotypes affect her relationships, especially those with her own family. We know that she is a capable woman—even Ben, her archrival, acknowledges her abilities (Another Part of the Forest 415). Yet Marcus, her doting father, despite his preference for his daughter, follows tradition and leaves his money to the male heirs (LF 194). Thus, Regina must marry well to secure her own future. As a commodity in the power game, she is expected to strengthen the family position and provide for herself. After this “ideal” marriage, she must be relegated to a supporting role, watching men of lesser ability conduct the business, while she appears only as the gracious hostess. Jean Baker Miller, a noted Boston psychologist, proposes that aggression is often the only avenue open to capable women trapped by society in inferior positions (1976, 14). This aggression, which often manifests itself in women considered “domineering,” leads to Regina's schemes and machinations. Thankfully, most domineering women do not go this far, but Regina sees this type of behavior as her only hope for achieving self-actualization, for gaining the right of choice for her own life. Rollyson interprets both Another Part of the Forest and The Little Foxes as focusing on the right of individual choice, or the lack thereof (1988, 246). The restoration of choice is also the goal of marriage and family counseling as interpreted by Nicholas Mazza (see ch. 3). Ben, Oscar, and Regina Hubbard are trapped in their family roles; as they presently live, choice is an impossible dream for them and their unsuspecting marriage partners, Horace and Birdie.

The chronicle depicted by these two dramas is one of learned family violence. Hellman recognizes that abusive behavior exists in cyclical form6—that the sins of the father are manifested in the sons and even the daughter. No one escapes Marcus Hubbard's legacy, especially those who unsuspectedly marry into the clan. Critics agree that Hellman saw Regina's and Horace's daughter Alexandra as a hope for breaking the cycle. The playwright intended to portray Alexandra's flight from her family and her subsequent achievements in another drama. The play was never written, perhaps because of other commitments or loss of interest on Hellman's part. But possibly this writer who so cogently limned this Hubbard family portrait instinctively knew that the odds were against the third generation of Hubbards breaking the cycle. The saga ends as it begins, in brutality and abuse.

The noted psychologists Russell and Emerson Dobash (1979) stress that in order to combat domestic violence, the study of individual cases must be universalized to scrutinize our society as a whole. Lillian Hellman presents this opportunity through drama. Each time these plays are performed or read, audiences must face the problem; hopefully, some will remember the message.


  1. Hellman intended to write a third play depicting the adult life of a third generation Hubbard, Alexandra Giddens. For a discussion of this play and why it remained unfinished, see William Wright (1986, 203); Richard Moody (1972, 161); and Doris Faulk (1978, 57).

  2. Throughout this chapter, comparisons are made between Hellman's work and that of William Shakespeare. Wright presents evidence that Hellman intentionally imbued her plays with Renaissance dramatic echoes (1986, 208).

  3. This important facet of Southern life is described by social historians such as W. J. Cash (1941, 52); Steven M. Stowe (1987, 154); and I. A. Newby (1978, 42, 320-22).

  4. I am indebted to Professor Sara Deats for this apt phrase. For a full discussion of women as undeveloped artists because of stereotypical constraints, see Rachael Blau DuPlessis (1985, 1-19).

  5. For an excellent discussion of the battered husband controversy, see Maria Roy (1982, 63-71).

  6. For an alternate view, See Blair Justice and Rita Justice (1990) and Cathy Spatz Widom (1989).


Cash, W. J. The Kind of the South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941.

Davidson, Terry, Conjugal Crime. New York: Hawthorne, 1978.

Dobash, R. Emerson, and Russell Dobash. Violence Against Wives: A Case Against the Patriarchy. New York: Free Press, 1979.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Faulk, Doris. Lillian Hellman. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978.

Hellman, Lillian. The Little Foxes. In Lillian Hellman: The Collected Plays, pp. 138-207. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Hellman, Lillian. Another Part of the Forest. In Lillian Hellman: The Collected Plays, pp. 341-421. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Justice, Blair, and Rita Justice. The Abusing Family (rev. ed.). Insight/Plenum, 1990.

Miller, Jean Baker. Toward A New Psychology of Women. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.

Moody, Richard. Lillian Hellman, Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1972.

Newby, I. A. The South: A History. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.

Parrish, James, A. How Real Is Lillian Hellman's Realism? Unpublished essay, circa 1950.

Rollyson, Carl. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Roy, Maria. The Abusive Partner: An Analysis of Domestic Battering. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982.

Schechter, Susan. Guidelines for Mental Health Practitioners in Domestic Violence Cases. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1987.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. In David Beavington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare. London: Scott, Foresman, 1980.

Stone, Lawrence, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Walker, Lenore E. The Battered Woman Syndrome. New York: Springer, 1984.

Widom, Cathy Spatz. The Intergenerational Transmission of Violence, reprinted as Occasional Papers of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, no. 4, 1989.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Mary Titus (essay date fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7724

SOURCE: Titus, Mary. “Murdering the Lesbian: Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 10, no. 2 (fall 1991): 215-32.

[In the following essay, Titus discusses the ways The Children's Hour reflected changing thoughts about women's sexuality in the early to mid-twentieth century.]

American theaters in the late 1920s and early 1930s presented several more or less controversial plays exploring the dangerous attraction of lesbianism, particularly to young women in all-female environments. Between 1926 and 1933, for example, New York saw productions of The Captive (1926), Winter Bound (1928), and Girls in Uniform (1933).1 Certainly the best known of such works is Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934). Hellman's play, like the other explorations of lesbianism, both reflects and participates in the cultural revision of women's sexuality that occurred in the early twentieth century. Read in historical and biographical contexts, The Children's Hour emerges as a crucial document, for it not only provides insight into Lillian Hellman's complex response to contemporary sexual ideology, it also illuminates the struggles of her female contemporaries.

During Hellman's childhood, adolescence, and young womanhood (she was born in 1905), the independent New Woman of the late nineteenth century, who rejected marriage for career and political action and who often rooted her emotional life in such female worlds as the women's college and the settlement house, was gradually discredited. In her place came the flapper, who celebrated her sexual independence and, accompanying her, the ideology of companionate marriage, which sought to accommodate women's new independence and acknowledge their capacity for sexual desire. As Christina Simmons has argued, “Companionate marriage represented the attempt of mainstream marriage ideology to adapt to women's perceived new social and sexual power. … [It] directed female sexual energies toward men and marriage.”2 Acknowledging female sexual desire as equal to that of men, as the sexologists and their popularizers argued must be done, brought with it a new perspective on gender roles. The concept of a separate women's sphere became potentially threatening and divisive, for it directed women's sexual and economic power away from the heterosexual establishment.

As a result of these cultural shifts in the ideology surrounding women's sexuality, Hellman and her contemporaries, particularly other women artists and professionals, experienced powerful social pressure not to make choices that could potentially separate them from the heterosexual path of marriage and childbearing. Frequently this pressure came in the form of accusations of sexual deviance. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “By the 1920s, charges of lesbianism had become a common way to discredit women professionals, reformers, and educators.”3 In other words, the new sexual ideology, which accompanied and probably contributed to the decline of feminism, transformed the New Woman from self-made heroine into old maid and “invert.” The pressure was powerful enough that, as one woman admitted in 1929, “in my city some business women are hesitating to take apartments together for fear of the interpretation that may be put upon it.”4The Children's Hour contains Hellman's own complex public and private responses to these contemporary social pressures. Its text seeks simultaneously to confirm and to condemn public opinion, while the diffusion of desire through the characters and the violence against the one self-admitted lesbian character in the play point to Hellman's contradictory private response to the changing sexual ideology. Her unresolved emotions resurface years later in “Julia,” an autobiographical text that Hellman repeatedly connected to The Children's Hour.

Like other plays from this period that also explore the dangers of lesbian attraction, The Children's Hour is set at a girls' boarding school, this one run by two long-time friends, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright. The two women teachers are assisted by Martha's aunt, Mrs. Lily Mortar, a former actress, who is foolish and impecunious. Karen is engaged to a local doctor, Joseph Cardin, and the engagement appears to threaten Martha, who fears she will lose this important friendship. One of the students, Mary Tilford, addicted to lying and frustrated by discipline, builds on the suggestions of an overheard conversation and accuses Karen and Martha of having a lesbian relationship. Mary also coerces the other students into supporting her accusation. When Mary's grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford, spreads the gossip, parents quickly withdraw their daughters from the school. Martha and Karen bring a libel suit against Mrs. Tilford, but lose, in part because Mrs. Mortar refuses to appear in court. Although Joe Cardin insists on pursuing his engagement with Karen, his physical attentions to her cool, suggesting that he believes there is some truth in the accusation. Finally, Karen breaks off the engagement, and Martha, in despair at the ruin of their lives, confesses that she has loved Karen in “the way they said” and then commits suicide.5

That Hellman's relationship to this play, her first success, was complex and private is suggested by her several contradictory comments on the text's origins. The Children's Hour is based on a nineteenth-century Scottish lawsuit, “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” recounted by William Roughead in his collection Bad Companions. When the play first came out, Hellman was accused of hiding her source, an accusation either echoed or refuted by later readers.6 Her interviews and memoirs offer differing accounts of her decision to adapt the material, sometimes pointing to Dashiell Hammett as an influence, at other times claiming the decision was intuitive.7 Her professed relationship to her characters was particularly contradictory. She claimed that she felt completely indifferent about their plight and publicly stated that the play was not autobiographical—unlike the first work of many young writers. Instead she settled on the play's source because it was “a story that [she] could treat with complete impersonality.”8 Yet, as if they were her own self, the characters aged along with their author, gaining two years as she drafted the play. As Hellman told an interviewer in 1968, “The girls were my age. … It took me two years. I think they started out twenty-six and got to be twenty-eight by the time the play was over” (Conversations, p. 96).

An “impersonal” Scottish lawsuit offered Hellman a safe medium for exploring very personal issues.9 That gender was foremost in her mind becomes clear in her alterations of her source material. She borrowed liberally from the lawsuit's characters and details, but made two extremely significant changes. The more important of these is Martha Dobie's confessed lesbianism and violent end by suicide. In the actual lawsuit neither teacher acknowledged a lesbian relationship; rather, both continued to appeal the lawsuit until poverty drove them to settle out of court. There was no suicide. Hellman also added the young doctor, Joseph Cardin, thus reinforcing the heterosexuality of the surviving teacher, Karen Wright. Both of these changes suggest that she wanted to clarify the sexual orientation of her characters; their desires remain ambiguous in Roughead, in part because he finds lesbianism impossible to imagine. His indignation is directed toward Mary Tilford, the student who speaks what he feels should be nonexistent and thus unspeakable.

Hellman's concern with establishing clear sexual identities coincided with her entrance into the male-dominated theater world. As an independent woman artist, she must have confronted the revision of women's sexuality, which encouraged public perception of independent and ambitious women as unnatural, potentially if not actually lesbian. By eliminating Martha Dobie, Hellman rather violently silenced any doubts about her own heterosexuality, doubts that could have been raised by her career choices and untraditional lifestyle, doubts that perhaps she, too, possessed. The Children's Hour was a very important play for Hellman. It was more than her first great success; it was both a private exploration and a public statement.

The opening scene of The Children's Hour makes clear that authorial gender is on Hellman's mind. The play begins ambitiously with a line from Shakespeare (Portia on mercy), which establishes this new, female playwright as “one of the boys.” By placing Shakespeare at the start of her first text, Hellman affiliates her work with the hitherto predominantly male tradition of dramatic authorship. Over the years, the line has successfully deflected attention from the actual situation in Hellman's text to the more abstract issue of justice. Justice has been the central focus of most readings. Yet it is important to note that Shakespeare is spoken by a young woman in a “singsong, tired voice” (p. 4). His text is mutilated first by this speaker and then by Mrs. Lily Mortar, who omits lines and “recites hammily,” adding later a fragment from Pope, delivered “for no reason” (pp. 6, 9). Hellman is doing more than establishing, with a rather heavy hand, her play's concern with questions of justice; she is also satirizing both the bored young student and the giddy teacher/actress and, by means of her satire, assuming a superior position to the women in her text. While they may degrade the established male canon, their creator (like Pope himself) stands in proper relationship to it, or so we may infer.

Hellman's opening not only expresses her disdain for a “feminine” relationship to art, it also conveys her abhorrence of the feminine “arts.” Mrs. Mortar can be read as an artist figure in the play both because of her profession, acting, and because of her tendency to fictionalize experience. From the opening, Mrs. Mortar's “touched-up hair,” “too fancy” clothes, and dramatic gestures link her art with the feminine (p. 3). Her response to literature is emotional and romantic; she speaks “dreamily” of Portia and advises the girls that “pity makes the actress” (p. 5). Even her career as actress provides her with a sexualized and passive relation to literary texts; she represents more the vehicle than the interpreter of a playwright's vision. Mrs. Mortar advises the girls to practice still other feminine arts. When one student confesses her inability to sew, Mrs. Mortar suggests that she “make some handkerchiefs or something. Be clever about it. Women must learn these tricks” (p. 5). Hellman thus associates the feminine with deception and insignificance, both of which she rejects and condemns. As she once told an interviewer, her first efforts at fiction were unacceptable because they were too feminine: “They were very lady-writer stories. … The kind of stories where the man puts his fork down and the woman knows it's all over” (Conversations, p. 55).

Hellman's concern that she be viewed as a masculine contender in the literary arena led her to confront the contemporary sexual ideology and, concurrently, to explore her own sexuality. Her notes made while writing the play suggest that she undertook this exploration through three characters: Mary Tilford, Mrs. Mortar, and Martha Dobie. Of the three, Hellman publicly connected her childhood self to Mary Tilford. In the introduction to her Six Plays, Hellman recalls how she “reached back into my own childhood” when she created Mary, “and found the day I finished Mlle de Maupin; the day I faked a heart attack; the day I saw an arm get twisted. And I thought again of the world of the half-remembered, the half-observed, the half-understood” (Hellman's emphasis).10 In the play, Mary also resembles her creator. She not only makes up stories, she also stages them, becoming playwright and director as she forces the little girls to speak lines she provides. Hellman's personal notes show that she connected these three female characters with each other. Beneath the surface, Mrs. Mortar, Mary Tilford, and Martha Dobie are similar, she writes; all three are “abnormal.” “Abnormal” appears frequently in the notes, and in the case of all three women the word is connected to qualities of incompleteness, ambiguity, and marginality.11 The “child” (Hellman speculates about names for her: “Cora, Mary, Sonla”) who will accuse the teachers, for example, is described as “abnormal, slightly, unable to adjust,” possessing a “confused purpose” and a “mixed, half grown mind.” Hellman compares her to Iago, adding however that she lacks Iago's knowledge of his own desire for evil. Mary lacks “the meaning, the intention of Iago”; her actions seem to bubble up out of her formlessness, generated in the confusion, disorder, or incompleteness she represents (Hellman Collection, p. 102).

Hellman's repeated use of “abnormal” in her notes for The Children's Hour points to the ways in which her work on the play most evidently interacted with contemporary sexual ideology. The word can be specifically associated with sexuality through her source. In his account of “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” Roughead connects Jane Cummings's (Mary's original) malicious actions and adult awareness of sexual relations to her race. Jane is an illegitimate child, the product of a union between the son of Dame Helen Cummings Gordon (the model for Mary's grandmother, Mrs. Tilford) and a “black” woman in India. “She was patently what is termed a person of colour,” Roughead comments, “‘one unfortunately wanting in the advantages of legitimacy and of a European complexion,’ as the Lord Ordinary later phrased it; and popular prejudice runs in favour of the lawful and white variety.”12 Unlawful and “coloured,” Jane is doubly associated with the unlicensed and mysterious—all that is Other. In Roughead's imagination she is potentially more prone to evil and certainly more sexually developed than her “legitimate” Scottish schoolmates. As he suggests, it is “by reason of her mixed blood” that Jane Cummings “was much the most mature” of the schoolgirls.13

Adapting Roughead, Hellman avoided the issue of race and in the play attributes Mary's knowledge of sexual relations to forbidden reading, specifically a hidden copy of Mademoiselle de Maupin. The language of her notes suggests further that she did not reject the idea of lesbian desire as the source of Mary's actions. The nature of Mary's “abnormality”—her “mixed” and “half grown” identity—becomes clearer when the same terms are applied to Martha Dobie's unacknowledged lesbianism. The teacher, an “unconscious lesbian” as Hellman described her in an early draft, is also “unrealized”: “half one thing, half another” (Hellman Collection, pp. 102-04). (At this point Hellman's words about herself, connecting her to Mary, return to mind: the play is based on the “half-observed,” “half-understood.”) Hellman's adjectives recall the discourse of the sexologists around the turn of the century.14 According to prominent theorists of female sexual deviance, such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing or Havelock Ellis, the “invert” was a mixture of masculine and feminine. Although physically a lesbian appears in no way different from a heterosexual, they argued, she possesses “a more or less distinct trace of masculinity” that is part of an “organic instinct.” She is a “‘mannish’ woman,”15 “half one thing, half another.”

The ambiguity that denoted sexual difference in the 1920s surrounds not only Mary and Martha Dobie, but all the relationships between women in the play. This almost entirely female society is full of jealousy and manipulation; the characters compete for love and find accusations of excessive attachment easy to make and easy to believe. Mary's claim that the teachers have a lesbian relationship names and heightens what is already in the air. Mrs. Mortar, for example (there is no Mr. Mortar, as far as the play is concerned), feels in competition with Karen Wright for the attentions of her niece, Martha. Jealous of the affectionate friendship between the two teachers, Mrs. Mortar accuses her niece of resenting Karen's upcoming marriage with Joe Cardin. It is this accusation, overheard, that provides Mary with the seed of her slanderous attack on Karen and Martha. Although Mrs. Mortar calls Martha's affection for Karen “unnatural, just as unnatural as it can be,” her own past seems somewhat ambiguous (p. 25). Shortly after we learn of Karen and Martha's revised vacation plans—to Martha's disappointment the two women will now be accompanied by the young doctor—Mrs. Mortar recalls her own vacation to England with Delia Lampert, a beloved friend, and the disruption of that friendship by Delia's unhappy marriage. Mrs. Mortar is, in addition, easily seduced by Mary Tilford's wilted bouquets and flattery; her fatuousness is surpassed only by Mrs. Tilford's. Like the aunt, the grandmother seems overly attached to her younger relation. In her conversation with Mrs. Tilford, Mary repeatedly speaks of this affection and uses physical caresses to secure confirmations of love.

MRS. Tilford:
You'll have to go back to school after dinner.
But—[She hesitates, then goes up to Mrs. Tilford and puts her arms around the older woman's neck. Softly.] How much do you love me?
MRS. Tilford [smiling]:
As much as all the words in all the books in all the world.


You don't love me. You don't care whether they kill me or not. … You don't! You don't! You don't care what happens to me.
MRS. Tilford [sternly]:
But I do care that you're talking this way.
MARY [meekly]:
I'm sorry I said that, Grandma. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. [Puts her arms around Mrs. Tilford's neck.] Forgive me?

(pp. 48-50)

Like Mrs. Mortar, Mrs. Tilford finds the idea of Martha and Karen making love easy to believe. Mary's uncertain descriptions of “funny noises” and “funny things,” communicated to her grandmother in “fast, excited” whispers, seem to confirm something perhaps unacknowledged, but already present in the older woman's mind (p. 54). Mrs. Tilford only hesitates a moment before picking up the phone and spreading the news.

Suggestions of lesbian desire are diffused throughout the text, touching every character except Karen Wright. Early in the play, Hellman presents the students simultaneously discussing changes in sleeping arrangements and passing a forbidden copy of Mademoiselle de Maupin from bedroom to bedroom. This is the text whose “one part” all the girls want to read (p. 36). The shifting bedrooms along with the shifting possession of the forbidden text reflect contemporary descriptions of “sex-segregated schools” as veritable hotbeds of homosexuality. Floyd Dell, for example, decried the “homosexualizing influence” of a “sex-segregated adolescence,” warning that “the unwholesome fashionable practice of sex-segregated schools brings young people into a homosexual atmosphere.”16 Yet Hellman's text goes further by suggesting that to know about lesbian desire is to recognize it as part of oneself. This is confirmed by Martha Dobie, who feels that Mary's accusation articulates and thereby actualizes her desire. As Martha confesses to Karen near the play's end, “I have loved you the way they said. … there's something in you, and you don't know it and you don't do anything about it. Suddenly a child gets bored and lies—and there you are, seeing it for the first time” (pp. 104-05). Martha's experience corresponds to that of other women early in this century, if not to Hellman's own experience. As Frances Wilder confessed to Edward Carpenter in 1915, “I have recently read with much interest your book entitled The Intermediate Sex & it has lately dawned on me that I myself belong to that class.”17

Submerged in jealous and half-acknowledged desires, the women in the play—schoolmates, aunts, and grandmothers—together surround the one heterosexual couple: Joe Cardin and Karen Wright. In this context, Karen's last name seems suggestive. She is Karen “Right” surrounded by all the “wrong” who seek to disrupt and finally succeed in destroying her “right” relationship. The slander that builds around her quickly extends beyond the school to the community, where belief and condemnation are again immediate. The play covertly suggests that desire for each other is the common if unacknowledged possession of the majority of women, but it overtly represents lesbianism as so fearful that the teachers are viewed as monsters and shunned in the street, so potentially infectious that even Karen's sensible, stalwart fiance hesitates to kiss and hold her, fearing contamination.

The movement of the play from private desire to public disorder also reflects the contemporary discourse on lesbianism. In the work of the sexologists, the lesbian represents an outcast whose difference threatens all social order, not just that constructed by gender. The terms they employed to describe lesbians—“the intermediate sex,” “sexual inversion,” “a male soul trapped in a female body,” “the Mannish Lesbian”—do not describe literal sexual acts, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has pointed out; rather, “they are spatial and hierarchical images, concerned with issues of order, structure, and difference”:

The term “intermediate sex” does not conjure up images of sexual passion or of physical desire. It refers, rather, to space, to the state of being between categories—that is, outside of order. “Inversion” inverts. It turns “normal,” predictable order and hierarchies upside down.18

Hellman's language in her notes for The Children's Hour resembles the terms of this discourse, for it not only links Mary and Martha's state of being “half one thing, half another” with sexual difference, but also associates the two women with a marginality that threatens the dominant social order. Mary is “unable to adjust” to the school community. More pointedly, Martha feels excluded from “normal” bourgeois life. Hellman describes her in these terms: “A tough childhood a secret yearning for all the comfortable values in the lives around her at college. (An envy of the clean, ordered, unquestioning acceptance of a country home she has visited then).” Mrs. Mortar similarly stands outside the middle class looking in, hating and desiring; she “hates it because she cannot seem to make a place for herself there” (Hellman Collection, pp. 102-03). Connecting sexual difference with social disruption, Hellman's text follows those not only of contemporary sexologists who often linked “‘irregular’ sexuality to challenges to social (and, of course, domestic) order,” as Smith-Rosenberg further explains, but also of male modernist writers.19 Sandra Gilbert has convincingly demonstrated that “for most male modernists the hierarchical order of society is and should be a pattern based upon gender distinctions.”20 In their texts, images of cross-dressing, sexually aggressive or autonomous women, or lesbians function as symbols of social disorder.

In Hellman's notes, the evil in The Children's Hour is overtly the evil of difference, social and sexual: the imaging of the two overlaps. Although she does not follow her source completely—as when she departs from Roughead's attribution of Jane Cummings's evil to racial difference—she does keep his essential paradigm. She retains sexual difference, but shifts the terms from race to class and from excessive to “abnormal” desire. The addition of Doctor Joseph Cardin to the text further emphasizes her efforts to present sexual difference as disruptive of “normal”—her term—society. Karen Wright's engagement to the earnest, hardworking doctor allows Hellman to set Martha Dobie, Mary Tilford, and Mrs. Mortar directly in contrast to an established, clearly defined, heterosexual, middle-class order, what she describes as the “Normals.” Her notes sum up the conflict:

First act the overture, and distinctly the overture, to the end. The ordered hard gotten at life, built by people who see and expect no world but their own. Normals. The abnormal will begin to work [sic] her way, slowly and without knowing it against the normals having as unconscious allies the one teacher, the aunt, too. … All people ruined by having been forced to deal with the abnormals whom they could never understand. The child, the aunt, untouched.

(Hellman Collection, pp. 103-04)

Notes like this one suggest that when Hellman first began to outline The Children's Hour she hoped to give her play the shape of a classical tragedy—yet another effort to affiliate her work with the male tradition. Martha's unacknowledged desire is her fatal flaw; it brings on the tragedy and provides the “cause” and “possible justice” of her death. The teacher's confession alters everything, Hellman wrote in her notes, making “the difference between having been injured unjustly—some comfort in that—and being injured with some possible justice” (Hellman Collection, p. 104). According to this original plan, Martha's suicide must come from the sudden acknowledgement of repressed desire. To be emotionally significant or tragic it must arise inevitably from her “flaw” and be directly attributable to it; for “if it's separate it will be phony melodrama, instead of cause and result” (Hellman Collection, p. 104). In short, The Children's Hour that Lillian Hellman first imagined was not a play of social criticism, one that would foreshadow her later political drama. It was instead a profoundly conservative text, one that she wanted to confirm contemporary sexual ideology overtly.

But aspects both of the final text and of the early draft point in another direction, resisting contemporary discourse. In the published play blame has shifted away from Martha Dobie and toward society, particularly the credulous Mrs. Tilford. Even more revealing, Hellman's actual text, unlike her notes, suggests that those who most oppress, most repress. As we have seen, desire is so diffused in the play that lesbianism is a common denominator among the characters. Hellman's shifting position is especially evident in the play's final scene after Martha's suicide. Here Mrs. Tilford is both most desirous and most punished. To ensure that Mary's dangerous deviance injures no one but herself, she will become her granddaughter's always available victim. As Karen sums up her fate: Mary will be Mrs. Tilford's “very own, to live with the rest of your life. … It's over for me now, but it will never end for you” (p. 113). This punishment may seem ironic if we suspect that Amelia Tilford's excessive, indulgent love for her granddaughter (“as much as all the words in all the books in all the world”) originates in unacknowledged desires. In fact Karen's words, “Your very own,” echo Mrs. Tilford's earlier condemnation of Karen and Martha's relationship: “This—thing is your own” (p. 69). If Karen's time with the “abnormals” is “over,” Mrs. Tilford's clearly is not.

An early draft of The Children's Hour more obviously displays Mrs. Tilford's unacknowledged desires, suggesting that her affections shift at the end from Mary to Karen, the “right” who has perhaps been the object of everyone's desire throughout. In this version, the two women kiss twice during their final conversation, a potentially dangerous act given the slanderous atmosphere of the play. Mrs. Tilford not only offers Karen support, but confesses that she “loves” her:

KAREN [smiles]:
You love me?
MRS. Tilford:
It's odd, Karen; you're all I have left.
It's over for me now, but it will never end for you. … [Sits down beside Tilford and kisses her.] I'm sorry. I'll do whatever I can.
TILFORD [Clings to her, kisses her]:
Then you'll try for yourself.(21)

Hellman's published 1934 text masks this desire. Lacking both kisses and confession, it ends with a muted optimism and only the faintest suggestion of Mrs. Tilford's warming devotion and Karen's unconscious effort to escape (through the window) a new pursuer.

MRS. Tilford:
You'll let me help you? You'll let me try?
Yes, if it will make you feel better.
MRS. Tilford [timidly]:
And you—you'll take the money?
KAREN [tired]:
If you want it that way.
MRS. Tilford [with great feeling]:
Oh yes, oh yes, Karen. [Unconsciously Karen begins to walk toward the window.]
KAREN [suddenly]:
Is it nice out?
MRS. Tilford:
It's been cold. [Karen opens the window slightly, sits on the ledge. Mrs. Tilford with surprise] It seems a little warmer, now.
It feels very good. [They smile at each other.]
MRS. Tilford:
You'll write me some time?
If I ever have anything to say. Good-by, now.
MRS. Tilford:
You will have. I know it. Good-by, my dear.

(pp. 114-15)

The last lines and stage directions, a collection of hopeful images, suggest that Martha's death makes fresh beginnings possible. With one “abnormal” dead, another banished, and a third restricted and under permanent observation, the old, cold days are over: it is time for better weather. Language becomes positive, windows open, and the survivors smile at each other. Rather than a tragic end, what we have here are glimmerings of renewed order.

But Hellman was never happy with the end of The Children's Hour and revised the final lines in every edition of the play up to 1970. In a 1960 preface she complained that the final scene was too “tense and over-burdened” and wondered if the play “should have ended with Martha's suicide.”22 Certainly this ending would have fulfilled her earliest plan for the play—the danger is over when the lesbian is dead. The last scene creates discomfort, emphasizing all that is unresolved. The “normals” have not reachieved order: Mrs. Tilford hovers a little too near, and, perhaps more significantly, Joe Cardin remains absent, his return doubtful.

The same lack of resolution surrounding feelings of guilt and desire reappears in a later, related text: the “Julia” portion of Pentimento. Turning briefly to this complex mix of memoir and fantasy, it is interesting to note its parallels to The Children's Hour. Hellman herself connects the two, dating the journey in “Julia” through references to progress on her first play.23 Both works appropriate a history: in the play, “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” and in “Julia,” experiences from the life of American psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, which Hellman both embellished and attributed to Julia.24 Moreover, both works make one significant alteration to the original material: both murder the lesbian.

In “Julia,” Hellman speculates about her attachment to her friend, having had over the years “plenty of time to think about the love I had for her, too strong and too complicated to be defined as only the sexual yearnings of one girl for another. And yet certainly that was there” (Pentimento, p. 114). Her memories of physical intimacy with Julia return us to another children's hour, the quiet times before sleep when the two young women in the memoir lie together and speak intimately. Yet despite Hellman's avowed desire, “Julia” also contains forceful refutations. There is, for example, the confrontation with a friend's brother, Sammy, who accuses Hellman and Julia of having a lesbian relationship: “he said who the hell was I to talk, everybody knew about Julia and me.” Hellman responds with a violent denial, as if to an insult: “I leaned across the table, slapped Sammy in the face, got up, turned over the table, and went home” (Pentimento, pp. 120-21).

Other portions of this memoir are equally contradictory, puzzling, and suggestive. Hellman added Freud to Gardiner's life, making Julia one of his student-patients, and she imagined Julia losing a leg in the course of her dangerous work for the anti-fascist underground. Not just in the suggestions of castration that accompany the lost leg, but throughout “Julia,” Freud's presence hovers. Hellman's dangerous journey to her friend resembles a dream in a case history. It is full of mysterious people who speak enigmatically, embrace Hellman, and then disappear; it contains innumerable thresholds: doors, windows, and borders; and it recounts a mysterious sequence of objects. Throughout the dream, women exchange and open (or fear to open) a candy box, a hat box, a fur hat full of money—objects that suggest female sexuality. As in The Children's Hour, the exploration of desire is diffused throughout the text, and again, as in The Children's Hour, no clear resolution is reached. Both texts end by violently disposing of the lesbian: Martha Dobie shoots herself, Julia is stabbed and disfigured. Like the schoolteachers in “The Great Drumsheugh Case,” who survived their lawsuit, Muriel Gardiner survived her underground work in Germany. But in Hellman's memoir, Julia's fate repeats Martha Dobie's. Much about the “Julia” memoir remains puzzling, yet its ties to The Children's Hour are clear.

Given her own acknowledged feelings for Julia and thus, one would think, her sympathy for sexual relations between women, why did Lillian Hellman find it necessary to kill the lesbian character in her first play? The violence against Martha Dobie and the diffusion of desire among almost all of the female characters reflect both the energy of Hellman's public denial of sexual deviance and a private struggle to understand her own personal desires. Several critics and biographers have suggested that Hellman's own half-acknowledged sexual attraction to women lies behind Martha's character. Doris Falk, for example, speculates that “Hellman's complicated, half-understood feelings must have given her some insight into Martha Dobie.”25 Perhaps in creating the two schoolteachers, one an “unconscious lesbian” and the other a “right,” Hellman was seeking to divide her professional self from an only half-acknowledged sexual self in order to exorcise the latter. In this context, it is interesting that Karen's surname also suggests “write” or “[play]wright”; surrounded by dangerous accusations, this character may be seen as a counterpart to Hellman, the playwright who seeks to confirm her heterosexuality publicly: to “write” herself as “right.”

Throughout her life, Hellman worked to construct the public myth of her aggressive heterosexuality, a myth that far overshadows the suggestions of bisexuality that occasionally surface in her memoirs.26 Placing her in her historical context one can see clearly the influence of the cultural revision of gender on her own self-creation and self-perception. One can also see that this social reconstruction of female sexuality brought with it other pressures. In An Unfinished Woman, Hellman attempts to place her sexual choices in a historical context:

By the time I grew up the fight for the emancipation of women, their rights under the law, in the office, in bed, was stale stuff. My generation didn't think much about the place or the problems of women, were not conscious that the designs we saw around us had so recently been formed that we were still part of the formation. … The shock of Fitzgerald's flappers was not for us: by the time we were nineteen or twenty we had either slept with a man or pretended that we had. … We were, I suppose, pretend cool, and paid for it later on. …

I was not, therefore, attracted by the lady intellectuals I met at Liveright's. They puzzled me. They talked so much about so little, they were weepy about life and men, and I was too young to be grateful for how much I owed them in the battle of something-or-other in the war for equality.27

Hellman's term “lady intellectuals” suggests that despite any inward hesitation she outwardly participated in the contemporary vilification of the New Woman of an earlier generation. She feels detached from and even contemptuous of their “battle for something-or-other.” Her generation had new versions of female success, and like many of her contemporaries, Hellman viewed the active heterosexuality of unmarried women as an important symbol of female independence. Affairs proved a woman was “cool,” that is, autonomous and tough, free of emotional or sexual domination. Yet at the same time that these affairs signaled independence, they also signaled conformity to social pressure, for they confirmed these ambitious young women's loyalty to a heterosexual norm. This loyalty was important enough that women who were not sexually active “pretended” they were. As Hellman once told Jay Martin, Nathanael West's biographer, “in those days, in the late 20s and 30s, we all thought we should be sexually liberated and acted as if we were, but we had a deep uneasiness about sex too.”28

Although Hellman speaks with her familiar bravado in An Unfinished Woman, in truth her female contemporaries and she were subject to a double bind. The redefinition of women's sexuality that accompanied the ostensible achievement of equality with men brought potentially less rather than more independence. As her comments above make clear, sexual liberation became the sign of independence and equality, and this meant that women found their status still defined by their relation to men. Women who demanded equal status yet rejected active heterosexuality were accused of lesbianism. They belonged, the sexologists argued, to an “intermediate sex,” socially condemned, alienated, and a threat to established social order. Much has been made of the modernist women who appropriated the image of the “mannish lesbian” and used it to celebrate their difference. Their actions take on heroic stature in histories of gender. As Smith-Rosenberg describes these women: “Gender conventions lay at the heart of the confining traditions they, as modernists, fought against. Androgyny was their ideal,” and as a result these intrepid women “turned to dress and body imagery to repudiate gender and to assert a new order.”29 Much less has been made of the women who chose more compromised but perhaps no less difficult paths. The feminine self-display of women like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Katherine Anne Porter masked a “masculine” dedication to their careers and silenced potential critics. Beneath the airs and graces that made Porter a public darling until her death in 1980 was a woman who manipulated the truth to manufacture a public image. Like Hellman she inscribed both her appearance and her past with an image of her own making. The texts represented by her pearls and big hats (like Hellman's Blackglama furs) tell of a wealthy, glamorous woman who invites admiration from men. For contemporary feminist readers, Lillian Hellman's response to the cultural revision of gender in the 1920s and 1930s has seemed especially unappealing, which may explain in part why her work has received less attention than that of her cross-dressing contemporaries.30 An ambitious woman confronted simultaneously with a male literary tradition that equated masculinity with authority and authorship and a society that equated female independence with sexual deviance, Hellman made a contradictory choice: she aligned herself with the masculine against the feminine, while at the same time aggressively asserting her heterosexuality.

Hellman's choice resembles that of a very different female predecessor, Willa Cather. Like Cather, Hellman accepted traditional views of gender despite their hostility to her independence and her profession. Both women denigrated the feminine and celebrated masculine aggression.31 Both expressed condescension toward women's art. Hellman's statements in a 1968 interview are perhaps the most damning: “I don't think many women write with the vigor of men, whether they are novelists or playwrights or poets. … It's just too bad that we all thought that women would be equal and they are not equal. Why and how this is I don't know. Perhaps it's even biological” (Conversations, pp. 85-86). The desire for “aesthetic potency” through identification with the masculine has been aptly described by Gilbert and Gubar as a “masculinity complex.”32 Hellman finds masculinity so desirable that An Unfinished Woman recounts with pride Hemingway's praise: “So you have cojones, after all. I didn't think so upstairs. But you have cojones, after all” (An Unfinished Woman, pp. 102-03). At least fleetingly, testicles seem a fine acquisition, testifying to her ability to compete with men on equal footing. Unlike Willa Cather, Hellman did not locate most of her emotional life in relationships with women, and as her notes for The Children's Hour reveal, early in her career she clearly feared difference, particularly sexual, both in herself and in others.

Lillian Hellman's first play sought to settle all of these contradictions. Its young and ambitious author refused from the start to act the lady. As Hellman proudly recounts in Pentimento, during rehearsals she sat back in the theater with her feet propped on the seatback before her, ignoring the protests of the theater's owner (p. 153). Her unconventional posture asserts her entrance into male space on equal terms: she defies all convention. Yet her play labors to show that despite such unconventionality she remains a loyal heterosexual; it hopes to lay all fears to rest, including those of its author. Although the play appropriates Shakespeare in its opening lines, it does so while mocking feminine readings of his text. If her play itself is intrusive—a woman's work in traditionally male space—it seeks to reconfirm the status quo, presenting imaginative women as dangerous and sexual difference as socially disruptive. At the close of The Children's Hour three “abnormal” women are silenced: one is under permanent observation, the other exiled, and the self-confessed lesbian is dead. Contemporary sexual ideology has been soundly endorsed.

Or has it? As with the end of “Julia,” matters feel unresolved. The “(W)right,” who has survived the death of her lesbian counterpart, half-heartedly promises that she will “write” again, if she ever has “anything to say” (p. 114). Hellman coyly hints that her first play may not be her last. The coyness of this farewell only momentarily brightens the play's rather solemn and accusatory close. Karen speaks her last word—“good-by”—alone on the stage, simultaneously dismissing Mrs. Tilford and the audience. The connection between the two is suggestive: both Mrs. Tilford and the audience are responsible for the corpse in the wings (Martha's body lies just offstage), and both will leave the “wright”—Karen and her creator—alone with it. The society outside the play, as much as the society within, has accused the “wright” of lesbianism. If in the play that society, mustered by Mrs. Tilford, brought on Martha Dobie's suicide, outside the play another society forced the playwright to murder the lesbian in her text, and perhaps in herself. In both worlds the result is the same: isolation and grief, not a renewed, happily heterosexual social order.


  1. Christa Winsloe, Girls in Uniform (or Mädchen in Uniform) (Boston: Little, Brown, 1934); Edouard Bourdet, trans. Arthur Hornblow, The Captive (New York: Brentano's, 1926); Thomas Herbert Dickinson, Winter Bound, typescript in the Manuscript Plays Collection, Library of Congress, 1928. Jonathan Katz outlines the controversy surrounding The Captive in Gay American History: Lesbian and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979), pp. 82-91. The Children's Hour also struggled with the censors; the play was banned in both Boston and London in 1935.

  2. Christina Simmons, “Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat,” Frontiers, 4, No. 3 (1979), 55-56.

  3. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 281. See also Lillian Faderman's chapter, “Keeping Women Down,” in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1981), pp. 332-40. As early as 1910, Havelock Ellis correlated female success with inversion, noting that many of the “distinguished women in all ages and in all fields of activity … have frequently displayed some masculine traits,” in Studies in the Psychology of Sex (New York: Random House, 1936), II, 196.

  4. Quoted in Katharine Bement Davis, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women (New York: Harper and Bros., 1929), pp. 262-63.

  5. Lillian Hellman, The Children's Hour (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), pp. 104-05. All further references to this play are to this first edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text. My reading of The Children's Hour benefited greatly from conversations with my former colleague, Margaret Stetz, and student, Laura Cooney.

  6. See, for example, Katherine Lederer, Lillian Hellman (New York: G. K. Hall, 1979), pp. 24-26.

  7. See, for example, her comments in a Paris Review interview in 1964, or in a 1968 interview with Louis Funke, both reprinted in Conversations with Lillian Hellman, ed. Jackson Bryer (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1986), pp. 57, 96. Further references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  8. Quoted by Harry Gilroy in the preface to The Children's Hour, Acting Edition (New York: Dramatist's Play Service, 1953), p. 4.

  9. This “impersonal” lawsuit continues to produce complex textual responses as evidenced by Lillian Faderman's recent novel Scotch Verdict: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon (New York: William Morrow, 1983).

  10. Hellman, Introduction, Four Plays by Lillian Hellman (New York: Random House, 1942), p. viii.

  11. Hellman's manuscript notes for The Children's Hour are “reproduced verbatim” in The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas, comp. Manfred Triesch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), pp. 102-04. Further references to this published reproduction of her notes will appear parenthetically in the text.

  12. William Roughead, “Closed Doors; or, The Great Drumsheugh Case,” in Bad Companions (New York: Duffield and Green, 1931), p. 116.

  13. Roughead, p. 117. Roughead's understanding of Jane Cummings's sexuality originates in the commonly held late nineteenth-century view of Near Eastern women. Edward Said describes it as “an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex,” in which the Orient seems “to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire,” in Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), p. 188.

  14. According to Esther Newton, studies of both the texts of the sexologists and the responses of female modernists show that the image of “the mannish lesbian … came to dominate discourse about female homosexuality, particularly in England and America,” in “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Women,” Signs, 9, No. 4 (1984), 566.

  15. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (New York: Random House, 1936), II, 222.

  16. Floyd Dell, Love in the Machine Age: A Psychological Study of the Transition from Patriarchal Mores (1930; rpt. New York: Octagon Books, 1973), pp. 309, 238.

  17. Quoted in Ruth F. Claus, “Confronting Homosexuality: A Letter from Frances Wilder,” Signs, 2, No. 4 (1977), 930.

  18. Smith-Rosenberg, p. 286.

  19. Smith-Rosenberg, p. 286.

  20. Sandra Gilbert, “Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature,” Critical Inquiry, 7, No. 2 (1980), 393. See also Gilbert and Susan Gubar's development of this argument in chapter 8, “Cross-Dressing and Re-Dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor,” in Sexchanges, Vol. II of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 324-76.

  21. Quoted in Carl Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York: St. Martins, 1988), p. 68.

  22. Hellman, Four Plays, p. viii.

  23. Hellman, Pentimento: A Book of Portraits (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), pp. 101, 123. Further references will appear in the text. See also Rollyson, p. 61.

  24. For a thorough discussion of the inaccuracies in the “Julia” section of Pentimento, see Samuel McCracken, “Julia' and Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman,” Commentary, 77, No. 6 (1984), 35-43.

  25. Doris Falk, Lillian Hellman (New York: Ungar, 1978), p. 43.

  26. William Wright's biography, for example, is full of anecdotes and apocrypha about Hellman's active interest in men. See Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986).

  27. Hellman, An Unfinished Woman (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), pp. 35-36. Further references will appear in the text.

  28. Quoted in Rollyson, p. 47.

  29. Smith-Rosenberg, p. 288. See also Gilbert, “Costumes of the Mind,” p. 393.

  30. For example, Hellman is expelled from the chapter on “Women's Literature” in the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, ed. Daniel Hoffman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), with the following judgment: “The women writers treated here … will be those who deal with women's experience from within; but clearly not all writing by women, about women, can be called women's literature … I would exclude Lillian Hellman's plays and Mary McCarthy's fiction because these writers base their interpretations of women's needs and desires on standards that are essentially masculine even if they are not conventionally so,” p. 345. Although the defining term, written “from within,” remains somewhat cryptic in the text (as does the idea of the “essentially masculine”), these terms are used to exclude Hellman's works from an important act of canon construction. The Harvard History initiates her punishment for being politically incorrect—a gradual erasure from the pages of literary history.

  31. See Sharon O'Brien's discussion of Cather's early literary criticism in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 147-65.

  32. Gilbert and Gubar, The War of the Words, Vol. I of No Man's Land (1988), pp. 184-85.

Will Brantley (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 23333

SOURCE: Brantley, Will. “Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter: Memoirs from Outside the Shelter.” In Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow, Welty, Hellman, Porter, and Hurston, pp. 133-84. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

[In the following essay, Brantley examines similarities between Hellman's and Porter's attempts in their respective memoirs to portray themselves in the highly politicized atmosphere in which they lived.]

Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter did not produce autobiographies on the order of The Woman Within or One Writer's Beginnings, though, like Lillian Smith, they did attempt to represent themselves within works that combine self-analysis and cultural critique.

… Smith, Hellman, and Porter were each drawn to one important theme—the dangers of a passive collusion with evil—and each has used her self-writing to explore her own motives while venting scorn on those who, through passivity, ignorance, or their own refusal to explore themselves, allow reactionary leaders and masses to perpetrate their own forms of evil. Neither Hellman nor Porter suffered Smith's ostracism for their liberal commitments. Their acceptance by a large number of readers should not suggest, however, that their memoirs, especially Scoundrel Time (1976) and The Never-Ending Wrong (1977), have been read and interpreted in the most meaningful ways. The memoir has suffered a peculiar fate: rarely has it failed to create problems for readers and rarely has it been privileged by intellectual historians in their attempts to chart the course of modern American (or southern) history and culture. Yet an understanding of the memoir as a distinctive genre of self-writing is germane to an understanding of Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong, two remarkably similar works that provide the basis for a new look at how these two enigmatic southern writers chose to understand and represent themselves within a political framework.

Undoubtedly, the liberalism espoused by Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter owes something to their wide travels, though in this respect neither writer is unique. Most women writers of the Southern Renaissance traveled in Europe or other parts of the world. Glasgow said England was her second home; Gordon and McCullers lived for intervals in Paris (Gordon the agrarian regretted that she had to leave the Paris cafes); Lillian Smith traveled widely and taught for three years in China; Welty traveled in Europe and Ireland; and O'Connor, though more homebound than the others, spent a brief period in Lourdes. It is Hellman and Porter who traveled most extensively, however, and who produced works such as Watch on the Rhine (1941) and Ship of Fools (1962) that are decidedly international in focus (an unknowing reader might feel caught off-guard to discover that either work is the product of a writer with strong ties to her native region). It is not surprising that both women left memoirs that define selves within a community that is not circumscribed by regional borders.1

Published within a year of one another, the two memoirs take as their immediate subject the writer's reaction to an event that occurred in the past—an event with both personal and national implications. Scoundrel Time is Hellman's reflection on the McCarthy era and specifically her testimony on 21 May 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC); The Never-Ending Wrong is Porter's account of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution and her limited involvement, under the direction of a Communist support group, as the translator of the two men's letters to friends in the outside world.2 Hellman's memoir was published almost twenty-five years after her appearance before HUAC; she had attempted to produce a similar work on two previous occasions but was not pleased with the results. Porter's memoir was published for the fiftieth anniversary of Sacco's and Vanzetti's execution. She had attempted to produce her memoir for the twenty-fifth anniversary but, like Hellman, found that she needed even more time to synthesize and come to terms with her many reflections.

Both writers define themselves within the context of four predominant and overlapping themes: the betrayal of liberalism by liberals themselves; the role of the state and its power, and the failure of traditional ethics when power is abused and justice miscarried; the value of anger and personal heroism; and, perhaps most southern in emphasis—though with a distinctive twist—the necessity of both personal and national recollection. It is these connections that prompt an intertextual examination of the two works.

While critics have linked Porter's fictional techniques to those of Welty, McCullers, O'Connor, and Gordon, there is not only a greater thematic resemblance but a more pronounced affinity of life experiences between Hellman and Porter, each of whom projected images, written and pictorial, of herself as a grand dame. An extended comparison would have to include the following details. Both were able to use their art to make themselves very wealthy: Hellman's estate at the time of her death in 1984 was estimated at nearly four million dollars, and though Porter lived at times in near poverty, the film rights to Ship of Fools alone brought her close to one million dollars. Both women had many affairs: Hellman's paramours included Dashiell Hammett, theatrical agent Arthur Kober, magazine manager Ralph Ingersoll, and Third Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, John Melby, one of the men whose reputations she tried to protect during the time of her hearing. Porter was married four times—to John Henry Koontz, Ernest Stock, Eugene Pressly, and Albert Erskine. “If all the men I'm supposed to have lived with were crammed into this room,” she once remarked, “we couldn't turn around” (Givner, Conversations 157). As the photographic legacy reveals, both women were attracted to the world of glamour and high fashion: the huge emerald ring that Porter was at last able to purchase in the midsixties is one of the items on display in the Katherine Anne Porter Room in the McKelden Library at the University of Maryland; Hellman of course created a minor sensation when in the midseventies she posed for a Blackglama fur ad under the caption, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” Both women worked for a period of time in Los Angeles (each detested the West Coast and most of the work she did there), both became lecturers and campus celebrities, and both were candid about their experiments with marijuana, though Porter, for her part, was less willing to acknowledge her reputation as a hard drinker.

The careers of the two women overlap in other surprising ways as well. Each was strongly affected by her personal exposure to the Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (he is only thinly disguised as Andreyev in Porter's “Hacienda”); each wrote reviews for the New York Herald-Tribune at the start of her career; and each secured the same publisher, Little, Brown, and Company, a firm noted for its receptiveness to liberals and leftist writers. (Without making too much of the matter, one cannot fail to notice a similarity between even the dust jackets of Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong, a pronounced red motif that functions, at least with Scoundrel Time, as a subliminal cue to any knowing reader's expectations.) The most significant similarity, however, is that these two women from the South could not accept the prevailing gender norms of their culture. Porter said in a 1974 interview that she left Texas because she did not “want to be regarded as a freak. That was how they regarded a woman who tried to write. I had to make a revolt, a rebellion … so you see, I am the great-grandmother of these bombers, and students beating each other up with bicycle chains” (Givner, Conversations 165). Neither Hellman nor Porter could remain detached and uninvolved—prerequisites for the traditional southern lady. Further, each had the knack of placing herself in positions in which she could observe and even participate in events that have marked the century. Hellman's dangerous 1944 flight across Siberia in a one-engine plane to observe, as a cultural emissary, the German attack on the Russian front is analogous to Porter's brief encounter with Hermann Goering in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power or her revolutionary activities in Mexico.3

Politically, however, Hellman and Porter took separate paths. Both were unmistakably liberal, but while Hellman continued to advance political causes—many of which had Communist backing—Porter became disillusioned with and shied away from politics altogether. Neither was ever a hard-nosed ideologue: Hellman regretted that she was not a radical in the truest sense (that is, her love of wealth and comfort did not always complement her political sympathies), and Porter, though she was drawn to the essential tenants of anarchism, could not embrace this philosophy anymore than she could accept the worst excesses of unchecked capitalism, or what she called in her memoir “the never-never-land of the theoretically classless society that could not take root” (24).

In The Never-Ending Wrong, Porter notes that she served for a short time as assistant to the editor of ROSTA (later TASS), the official Russian news agency and propaganda center in America. Her experiences in Mexico finally led her to distrust Communists, and she eventually accused them of the very behavior that Hellman would defend them against: their policy, as Porter saw it, to join in and take over, their eagerness to comply with whatever the party ordered (18-19). Still, though Porter came to disparage the behavior of Communists and their vision of society (see, for example, a letter to The Nation, 11 May 1947, that is included in her Collected Essays), she cannot be numbered among the passive liberal anti-Communists that Hellman attacks in Scoundrel Time. To the contrary, Porter once covered a political debate for a California newspaper—a confrontation between anti-Communists who claimed that Hollywood was a seething bed of Red activity (including the mother of Ginger Rogers and Senator Jack Tenney) and the men who countered their distorted charges (Emmet Lavery, president of the Screen Writers Guild, and Albert Dekker, an actor and former state assemblyman). Porter resented the staging of the event—it reminded her of Hitler's demand for compliance—and she was disturbed that Rogers and Tenney could so cavalierly dismiss the “piece of good American doctrine” that says it is not acceptable to discriminate on the basis of religious or political beliefs. This witty article, “On Communism in Hollywood,” reveals that as early as 1947, even before the trial of the Hollywood Ten, Porter discerned the threat of what became known as McCarthyism. “I still don't know how many Communists there are in Hollywood, nor where they are,” she concludes; “but I will trust Mr. Dekker and Mr. Lavery and that audience to fight them more effectively than any number of Anti-American Activities Committees, whose activities have seemed to me from the beginning the most un-American thing I know” (Collected Essays 205-8).

It is necessary to differentiate Porter from those liberal anti-Communists who did find astounding ways to defend the HUAC hearings and the anti-Communist sentiment (Red-baiting) that scarred this country during the midpoint of the century.4 Any student of American history can see the connection between, say, the Palmer Raids of 1919, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, motivated as it was by both xenophobia and an often irrational fear of radicalism, and the worst abuses of the McCarthy era. In a review of The Never-Ending Wrong, John Deedy correctly notes that “Sacco and Vanzetti were the victims of a political hysteria that was no less real, only less sophisticated, than that of the McCarthy era thirty years later” (572). Not all liberals saw the blatant abuse of political power in Boston as evidence of an innately corrupt capitalist system, but few if any defended what took place there. Indeed, Sacco and Vanzetti initiated more single pieces of protest literature than did any other figures of what was a fundamentally conservative era. By contrast, while McCarthyism became the subtext of many works of the fifties—for example, Lillian Smith's One Hour (1959), Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), and Hellman's own translation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark (1955)—McCarthy did not spark a major protest literature against the abuse of basic civil liberties. The mood of the country had become so divided that even in 1978 Diana Trilling could make this amazing defense: “The actions of the HUAC and of McCarthy were plainly anti-liberal. But this is not to say that everyone who came under their attack was thereby redeemed of responsibility for his own acceptance of the destruction of liberty by Communism: it takes more than victimization by illiberalism to certify one's liberalism. And even in those dark years of violation of civil rights, the only punishment of these ‘dissidents’ was loss of very high-paid jobs or, at worst, which was indeed bad enough, a short jail term; no one was put to death for exercising his right of free speech” (We Must March 50).

As David Cook points out in a standard history of narrative film, many of these dissidents did lose their lives: “Philip Loeb, one of the stars of the popular television series The Goldbergs, committed suicide; the screen actors John Garfield, Canada Lee, J. Edward Bromberg, and Mady Christians died as a result of the stress they were subjected to” (409). Sadly, these are only a few of the names that such a list might include.

It is by no means insignificant that the largest group of people brought before HUAC were connected in one way or another to the highly visible entertainment industry; it was, in fact, a former Hollywood connection, Martin Berkeley, that led to Hellman's subpoena. Most of those summoned had abandoned their leftist ties by the time of their testimony and many had been only marginally connected with the Communist party in the first place. As Victor S. Navasky observes in Naming Names (1980), a work that examines a period in American history in which the traditionally despised informant achieved the dubious status of folk hero, many Hollywood people had joined the Communist party because it seemed to be the most liberal thing going. They were not people with access to atomic secrets, nor could they easily sway the nation's young. Diana Trilling and those who have upheld her argument tend to gloss over the uglier dimensions of the McCarthy era. Since most of the witnesses were not connected to the government, Navasky questions HUAC's role as an overseer: “The purpose of the hearings, although they were not trials, was clearly punitive, yet the procedural safeguards appropriate to tribunals in the business of meting out punishment were absent: there was no cross-examination, no impartial judge and jury, none of the exclusionary rules about hearsay or other evidence” (xiv). Those who acted on behalf of HUAC—not only McCarthy, but others like Senator Pat McCarren, whose power exceeded that of McCarthy himself—had at least one clear goal in mind. “The Committee's action was scandalous,” David Cook writes, “but its meaning was crystal clear: HUAC wished to purge Hollywood and, if possible, the entire country of any and all liberal tendencies by creating and then exploiting anti-Communist hysteria” (408). The result, Cook adds, was a Hollywood that mirrored the “intellectual stagnation and moral paralysis” that came to characterize the nation as a whole (410).5 In short, HUAC was a formidable opponent to a left that had divided itself since the time of Sacco and Vanzetti. It is against this backdrop of American leftism and its divisions that Hellman's and Porter's memoirs might best be read and judged.

Neither Hellman nor Porter produced the kind of autobiography that sets out to examine a life in its totality. The Never-Ending Wrong is, in fact, Porter's longest autobiographical work. At the age of eighty-five, Porter joked, “I'm not going to write my autobiography. Every book I pick up these days has something about me in it, right or wrong. So I don't have to bother” (Givner, Conversations 185). Her biographer, Joan Givner, takes another perspective; she argues that Porter must have known she could not produce a genuinely honest autobiography: “in the accounts given in autobiographical notes, essays, and interviews she resembles her own description of Mexico. She called it ‘this sphinx of countries which for every fragment of authentic history yields two riddles’” (A Life 22). Hellman's biographers, William Wright and Carl E. Rollyson, would agree that the same could be said of her. While Porter shied away from a book-length autobiography, Hellman in her early sixties did not hesitate to write about her past; indeed, she set out to discover a form that would accommodate her particular sense of self.

In an interview with Nora Ephron, Hellman made this comment regarding her first book-length autobiography, An Unfinished Woman (1969): “It was faute de mieux, that book. I decided I didn't want to write for the theatre, so what was I to do? I didn't want to do an autobiography—that would have been too pretentious for me. I had a lot of magazine pieces I'd done that hadn't been reprinted, and I started to rewrite them. But I didn't like them, I thought, maybe now I can do better with the same memories” (134). In An Unfinished Woman, a short chapter sets the stage for a vivid period from Hellman's life which is then developed in the longer chapter that immediately follows. Hellman concludes the book with portraits of Dorothy Parker, her maid Helen, and Dashiell Hammett. It is the portrait—an indirect means of self-presentation—that Hellman perfected as a mode of self-representation in Pentimento (1973) and that critics agree will remain her most significant contribution to twentieth-century autobiographical writing. In an interview with Stephanie de Pue, Hellman accounts for her indirect approach: “I don't ordinarily talk about myself very much. That's why I try to write memoirs without being a central part of them.” She added, “It seems to me that summation of what you feel, not what's happened but of what you feel, is a dangerous game to play. The words become too simple” (Bryer 201).6 Unlike Porter, Hellman was not a writer of great psychological depth, though it may be that—like Porter—she understood her limitations. One cannot imagine Hellman producing an autobiography such as Ellen Glasgow's The Woman Within; in none of Hellman's memoirs does she speak at any length about her creative processes. Yet as Maureen Howard observed, Hellman did formulate an autobiographical style that relates “the emotionally charged moment to a wide cultural reference” (Scoundrel Time 134) and that, as Doris Falk remarked, allows “for unanswered questions, and for a certain mysterious quality that evoked a response from readers who knew that mystery for their own” (157).

Perhaps the chief problem that both Hellman and Porter pose as memorialists is that, as their biographers have made clear, neither writer was apparently capable of complete honesty about her own past; Porter, for instance, perpetrated stories about an aristocratic lineage that did not exist (see Jefferson). As much as they may have insisted upon truth in art (and from others), both writers produced a body of personal commentary that has required their biographers to become detectives who sift through the self-images each writer perpetrated at different times and for different reasons. It is possible to take a sympathetic view of either writer's misrepresentations; one might argue that their diverse accomplishments as artists outweigh their value as truth-bearers. Porter, for example, went so far in questioning the old order—the southern patriarchy with its cavalier myths—that her inability to be completely honest about herself is, as far as her art is concerned, a fairly moot point, but how is one to judge a memoir by a woman like Lillian Hellman whom a significant section of the reading public now identifies as a morally damaging prevaricator?7 This question necessitates an analysis of the memoir as genre. Such an examination will clarify the modes of self-representation that this often misunderstood genre affords; it should also aid in understanding that facticity—as is true of autobiography—must not obscure the deeper level of self-definition the memoir inscribes.

In what may be the most complete assessment of the memoir as genre, Marcus Billson, writing in 1977, stated, “The current academic interest in forms of self-literature, such as autobiographies and diaries, has curiously excluded memoirs from serious critical attention. … Literary critics have faulted memoirs for being incomplete, superficial autobiographies; and, historiographers have criticized them for being inaccurate, overly personal histories” (259). Billson is concerned that so much misunderstanding has resulted from what appears to be an inability on the part of historians and critics to read the memoir on its own terms or to understand what it requires from both writer and reader. Hence Billson's definition, which sets out to valorize the memoir as a form of self-literature, works from a consideration of what the memoir is not.

After noting briefly, “The memoir recounts a story of the author's witnessing a real past which he considers to be of extraordinary interest and importance” and embodies “a moral vision” of that past (261), Billson goes on to insist that the artful memorialist never produces a mere document of reportage or a simple chronicle of fact. Nor can the memorialist be overly disturbed by the modern historian's demand for objectivity: “the memorialist accepts quite freely the subjectivity of his own perception as the sine qua non of his work; without it, his work would have little interest or meaning; it would not be a memoir” (264). It is for this reason that Hellman and Porter stress the subjective nature of their accounts. Porter calls The Never-Ending Wrong “my story” and admits in her Afterward that she refused to read other accounts of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair until she had revised her own notes (58). Hellman concludes the first section of Scoundrel Time with this remark: “I tell myself that this third time out, if I stick to what I know, what happened to me, and a few others, I have a chance to write my own history of the time” (43).8 These remarks help to substantiate Billson's argument, “The memoir is never a presentation of history; it is a representation of history, sometimes an argument, always a personal interpretation” (264).

It would thus appear that as a genre the memoir is not particularly suited for self-scrutiny or self-definition, yet the focus of the memoir's narrative is not exclusively outward as some have argued. As with autobiography, the memoir's narrative can take a sustained inward turn, and at times the two genres appear to merge in a single work. Thus “what distinguishes the memoir from the autobiography is not the focus of the narration, but the interplay of two specific factors in a given work: the length of time of the narration, and the dynamic nature of the author's represented self” (Billson 265). The self a memoir inscribes may be no less whole than that of an autobiography: what is generally missing from the memoir is an attempt to trace the stages in the growth of the memorialist's sense of self. Billson displays an androcentric bias (aside from Gertrude Stein, he cites only works by male writers), but he correctly observes that a “lack of kinesis in the author's concept of himself as an ontological being separates the memoir from the autobiography” (265).

One additional feature of the memoir deserves attention. Because of its more compressed scope, “the Memoir as genre is closely associated with periods of crisis, both historical crises, such as wars and revolutions, and intellectual crises, as Ortega y Gasset defines them, such as periods of intellectual and spiritual transition” (Billson 280). In Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong, Hellman and Porter confront individual crises that are part of what they perceive to be a larger national crisis—a crisis that, as far as the life of a nation is concerned, carries grave consequences. This notion of a self in confrontation with a crisis explains part of the memoir's distinctive appeal. Readers of Hellman and Porter not only get to glimpse two embarrassing eras in our nation's history, but they get to view these periods through the consciousness of two women whose fiction and drama and whose lives have exerted a real influence on the literary life of our time. It is not just a matter of the reader's living “vicariously the quality and essence of the memorialist's being there” (Billson 280); it is additionally a matter of the reader's knowledge that what the author conceals can be as revealing as what she gives. As Pauline Kael remarked of Julia, the 1977 film based on a chapter from Pentimento, Hellman's memoirs are “more exciting as drama than her plays are, since you can feel the tension between what she's giving you and what she's withholding” (308). Readers know that with Scoundrel Time they may not be getting a view of the past that is true in all its particulars, but as Victor Kramer remarked of Tennessee Williams's opposite attempt to be brutally honest in his Memoirs (1975)—to tell all—a “life” is a matter of self-perception and self-deception: it is more than the events that have come to comprise a “public” record (665).

In terms of direct self-presentation, Hellman provides more personal background than does Porter. Like the bulk of her generation of the late twenties and early thirties, Hellman was “a kind of aimless rebel” (43), but she says twice that she cannot define herself as a genuinely committed radical despite her sympathy with a great many radical goals. Hellman speaks of her own family's corruption (her mother's relatives made money by exploiting African-Americans but Hellman does not say how), and she acknowledges her guilt about the money she made in an era of mass poverty and suffering. Hellman does not downplay the importance of Dashiell Hammett's presence in her life, nor does she disavow the tag of “southerner”—in fact, this label figures prominently in her justification of her own value system. Finally, Hellman claims not to be a political person or to belong to any political group, but she undercuts such assertions by expressing a number of political views and by even detailing some of her contributions to various political groups, particularly her involvement with Henry Wallace and his Progressive party of 1948.

Porter also notes an affinity between herself and the generation of the late twenties; Hellman's phrase, “aimless rebel,” applies equally well to Porter, a woman who emphasizes her own “lifelong sympathy” with those who devoted themselves to ameliorating “the anguish that human beings inflict on each other—the never-ending wrong, forever incurable” (62). What neither Hellman nor Porter say directly is that their rebellion became less aimless and their focus more clearly centered on its fundamental causes. Like Hellman, Porter claims to have been politically mistaken, but she knows that it would be pointless to claim that she had no real political leanings: “I was then, as now, a registered voting member of the Democratic Party, a convinced liberal—not then a word of contempt—and a sympathizer with the new (to me) doctrines brought out of Russia from 1919 to 1920 onward by enthusiastic, sentimental, misguided men and women who were looking for a New Religion of Humanity, as one of them expressed it, and were carrying the gospel that the New Jerusalem could be expected to rise any minute in Moscow or thereabouts” (14).

Porter defines her early political thinking as “the lamentable ‘political illiteracy’ of a liberal idealist—we might say, a species of Jeffersonian” (13). Unlike Hellman, what Porter does not provide is any direct reference to her southern upbringing (though certain values she expresses here might best be illuminated by comments she has made elsewhere on her southern past); nor does she allude to the many friends or companions in her life at the time. Porter does not even refer to her vocation as a writer since in 1927 she had been read by only a handful of people; her first collection of stories, Flowring Judas, did not appear until 1930.

Part of what prompts each writer to (re)construct her memories is her sense of victimization. Each depicts herself as having been duped—Hellman by Stalinism, Porter by Communists and the nasty “self-appointed world reformers” (38); but worse, from a later perspective, each feels betrayed—Hellman by the intellectuals she feels stood by and passively watched McCarthy, Nixon, and their cohorts damage the lives of others, Porter by those not concerned with a fair trial or with an honest enactment of justice. Hellman and Porter did not agree on the nature of communism—Porter says she “flew off Lenin's locomotive and his vision of history in a wide arc” just days before Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death (20)—but they were altogether alike in defining selves that, within the community of morally responsible men and women, sense a betrayal of their most deeply felt moral values and who, upon careful examination, see themselves as somehow separate and at least partially heroic.

Their shared anger accounts in part for a similarity of style—a hard-boiled edge that verges at times on cynicism. Here is Hellman describing some of the key participants in her story:

The McCarthy group—a loose term for all the boys, lobbyists, Congressmen, State Department bureaucrats, CIA operators—chose the anti-Red scare with perhaps more cynicism that Hitler picked anti-Semitism. He, history can no longer deny, deeply believed in the impurity of the Jew. But it is impossible to remember the drunken face of McCarthy, merry often with a kind of worldly malice, as if he were mocking those who took him seriously, and believe that he himself could take seriously anything but his boozed-up nightmares. And if all the rumors were true the nightmares could have concerned more than the fear of a Red tank on Pennsylvania Avenue, although it is possible in his case a tank could have turned him on.


Hellman denies that McCarthy, Whittaker Chambers, or Nixon—with his unfortunately justified “contempt for public intelligence” (42)—or any of the others ever bothered her on a serious level; rather, she was deeply grieved by the intellectuals she believed stood passively by “when McCarthy and the boys appeared! Almost all, either by what they did or did not do, contributed to McCarthyism, running after a bandwagon which hadn't bothered to stop to pick them up” (42).

Couched in the same hard-hitting prose is Porter's meditation on an earlier public's reaction to large-scale crime. She opens her memoir by noting that Sacco's and Vanzetti's offense was rather commonplace, the distinctive “feature being that these men were tried, convicted, and put to death”; she continues with a passage that sets the tone for the rest of her piece:

Gangsters in those days, at any rate those who operated boldly enough on a large scale, while not so powerful or so securely entrenched as the Mafia today, enjoyed a curious immunity in society and under the law. We have only to remember the completely public career of Al Capone, who, as chief of the bloodiest gang ever known until that time in this country, lived as if a magic circle had been drawn around him. … When he died, there was a three-day sentimental wallow on the radio, a hysterical orgy of nostalgia for the good old times when a guy could really get away with it. I remember the tone of drooling bathos in which one of them said, “Ah, just the same, in spite of all, he was a great guy. They just don't make 'em like that anymore.” Of course, time has proved since how wrong the announcer was—it is obvious they do make 'em like that nearly every day … like that but even more indescribably monstrous—and the world radio told us day by day that this was not just local stuff, it was pandemic.


The similarity of tone is not accidental. Both writers wish to convey the impression that they have lived through and thought long about the events they will narrate; one can guess that the “wise-guy” attitude—so reminiscent of thirties protest literature—helped them to establish their authority to comment on the course of modern history. There are moments in each work, however, when the writer's tone becomes softer, more sympathetic, and at times even mournful. Porter was praised by several reviewers for the poetic nature of her images (and particularly for her re-creation of the death night), and even Hellman's relentless tone gives way to a lyrical description of the night, not long after her appearance before the committee, when she and Hammett observed the silent movement of a herd of deer across her farm. For the most part, though, the tone of the two works is harsh. Neither writer forgives those who perpetrate against others what Porter calls the never-ending wrong. Both feel isolated even from people who share their own feelings. The tone of the two memoirs underscores what Marcus Billson detects as the key irony of memoir writing: “the participant desires to define himself as in society, and yet paradoxically to see himself also as against it” (277).

Structurally, the two memoirs are also alike. Each progresses within a loose chronology, with each building to the climactic event: Hellman's presence before the committee (covered in roughly 13 of her 124 pages), and Porter's account of the night the execution took place (about 5 pages of her 63-page text). These sections are inherently dramatic, and neither writer downplays their intensity. Billson notes that the memorialist's art derives in part from his or her “exhilarating awareness of actual life as drama” (269). The distinguishing structural feature of the two works is not their dramatic build-up, however. Life may be fused with emotional intensity and a sense of dramatic movement, but rarely is it structured like a well-made play, and history itself is more than a linear pattern of intense moments. As Hellman remarks in a moment of introspection, “It is impossible to write about any part of the McCarthy period in a clear-dated, annotated form; much crossed with much else, nothing obeyed a neat plan” (80), and Porter remarks in a similar vein, “After more than half a long lifetime, I find that any recollection, however vivid and lasting, must unavoidably be mixed with many afterthoughts. It is hard to remember anything perfectly straight, accurate, no matter whether it was painful or pleasant at that time” (31-32). Porter adds a comment that would appear to typify Hellman as well: “I find that I remember best just what I felt and thought about this event in its own time, in its inalterable setting; my impressions of this occasion remain fast, no matter how many reviews or recollections or how many afterthoughts have added themselves with the years” (32). It is these afterthoughts, the many rearview glances and recollections—the evidence of a thinking, reflective self—that tend to structure the memoir and give it its nonlinear, often anecdotal, but not necessarily arbitrary form.

Scoundrel Time contains seventeen sections; The Never-Ending Wrong contains twenty sections and an Afterword. The sections vary greatly in length and are not numbered in either work. Few reviewers failed to note the elliptical quality of the two books. The form of the memoir itself seems to mandate the loose organizational scheme, for the memoir writer is not offering pure history but a confrontation of the self with history (which, in a sense, may be a more authentic way of writing history than the objective accounts that textbook writers set out to provide). Both writers rely heavily on diary notes, and even refer to their diaries in order to validate their memories. Each finds herself jumping ahead in time, and each work includes sections that are almost free-associational. In just one paragraph, Porter moves from the “terrible irony” of Mussolini's asking Governor Fuller of Massachusetts to grant clemency, to her own experience in Mexico with refugees from Mussolini's Italy, to “Voltaire's impassioned defense of an individual's right to say what he believed,” to her conclusion that the Communists were in on the protests for their own benefit (40-41). Section ten of Scoundrel Time has the same free-associational quality. Hellman even transcribes diary notes that cover the week before her testimony, notes that include impressions of her dutiful cab driver in Washington, her desire “to go to bed with an orangutan” (100), and her revulsion at having J. Edgar Hoover pointed out to her during a luncheon. Her loosely joined reflections culminate in her displeasure over her lawyer Joseph Rauh's awareness that she might sink under the pressure once she is in the committee room: “It is impossible to think that a grown man, intelligent, doesn't have some sense of how he will act under pressure. It's all been decided so long ago, when you are very young, all mixed up with your childhood's definition of pride or dignity” (103).

Even in passages where she is not citing notes, Hellman's representation of history is anecdotal, occasionally gossipy, and characterized by sometimes abrupt shifts. After announcing to Rauh that she would not cite the articles in which certain Communists had denounced her and her work—“my use of their attacks on me would amount to my attacking them at a time when they were being persecuted and I would, therefore, be playing the enemy's game” (64)—Hellman turns her attention, with no transition, to Clifford Odets, a dramatist whose work she had admired, but with whom she had never been good friends (Hammett, she discloses, thought very little of Odets or his work). Though her shift of attention to Odets is abrupt, it is not without significance. Apparently Odets wanted to meet with Hellman to find out how she might act if subpoenaed by the committee, claiming that he himself would “show them the face of a radical man and tell them to go fuck themselves” (69). As it turns out, Odets became a friendly witness. This incident leads Hellman into a lengthy consideration of the paranoia that plagued the movie bosses who employed writers like her and Odets and what she saw as the willingness of these men “to act out the drama that the government committees preferred” (75). At this point, some of the previous and seemingly random impressions, trivia, and short anecdotes gel in the stringently stated moral she derives from the cowardly behavior of the men who controlled the studios: “It is well to remember what these very rich movie men were like, since I doubt they have changed. … Hollywood lived the way the Arabs are attempting to live now, and while there is nothing strange about people vying with each other for great landed estates, there is something odd about people vying with each other for better bathrooms. It is doubtful that such luxury has ever been associated with the normal acts of defecating or bathing oneself. It is even possible that feces are not pleased to be received in such grand style and thus prefer to settle in the soul” (73-74).

Hellman then illustrates her moral with an account of how she had to turn down Harry Cohn's offer of a lucrative and very attractive movie contract at Columbia Pictures because she could not agree to the terms of an agreement that, as she tells us in a parenthetical remark, made a “straight demand that nothing you believed, or acted upon, or contributed to, or associated with could be different from what the studio would allow” (77).

Hellman's brief portrait of Cohn, which culminates in an act of pettiness (he denies an employee the luxury of a simple chicken sandwich) is only one of many such essentially negative, even hostile portraits that are scattered throughout both Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong. Hellman provides an especially scathing account of Henry Wallace, whose Progressive party she had supported and had hoped might make a small difference in the life of American liberalism and political reform. Not only does Hellman express her doubts about Wallace's “suspicious innocence” of Communist involvement in his party, but she also describes Wallace's miserliness; he never left adequate tips and had the gall to invite her to a measly dinner of eggs on shredded wheat. Porter's account of Rosa Barron, the woman who headed her outfit at the protest, is equally blistering; not once, but three times Porter repeats Barron's view that—all questions of their innocence aside—Sacco and Vanzetti could do the Communists no good alive. Her portrait of Lincoln Steffens is only slightly less caustic (16-17).

These miniportraits, which seem at times to emerge full-blown from nowhere, serve various purposes. Often they culminate in the author's realization of something about herself and her own motives. Hellman's description of Wallace, for example, leads her to reveal that she was misguided in her own assumption that “the Communist Party is dictated to by a few officials” (129). Similarly, Porter prepares the way for one of her own realizations as she describes a Mrs. Leon Henderson, another champion of the two accused men, a vegetarian who could not bear the thought of “eating blood” but who apparently had no reservations about wearing the skins of animals: “I could not avoid seeing her very handsome leather handbag, her suede shoes and belt, and a light summer fur of some species I was unable to identify lying across her shoulders. My mind would wander from our topic while, bewildered once more by the confusions in human feelings, above all my own, I gazed into the glass eyes of the small, unknown peaked-faced animal” (35). Invariably, these miniportraits, which rely upon the quick brush stroke—the telling detail—present Hellman and Porter as they perceive themselves in contrast to others whose personal characteristics or approaches to life and its problems they do not share. To what extent they intend to represent themselves so obliquely is open to question, but the often hostile portraits do figure in one's assessment of the self each writer deliberately or inadvertently defines. These sometimes intimate observations of other people—themselves a part of the flow of history—are the particulars of each writer's response to an era she is remembering; that they often end by highlighting the pettiness of human nature (a quality neither writer consciously perceives in herself) is itself a reflection of two historical periods that now evoke a loss of balance and a failure of moral responsibility.

Such sections, though they seem to meander, convey a sense of immediacy; readers share not only the author's sense of having been there, but also her impressions—filtered through the years—of what it meant to have been there. These two highly self-conscious women are always aware of their roles as participants or performers on the stage of twentieth-century history. Hellman must have known that she was giving a dramatic but fitting name to a whole era of American history, and though she may have seen herself as a fairly menial participant—a kitchen policeman—Porter nonetheless dramatized her own limited involvement. About halfway through her narrative, she even transcribes into dialogue her notes of the conversations she had with the blond policeman who escorted her to jail on each of the days she was sent out to picket. The dialogue takes on the character of a morality play as these two figures make contact:


(taking my elbow and drawing me out of the line; I go like a lamb): ‘Well, what have you been doing since yesterday?’
‘Mostly copying Sacco's and Vanzetti's letters. I wish you could read them. You'd believe in them if you could read the letters.’
‘Well, I don't have much time for reading.’


Their conversations end after the last picket line forms and it is clear that the governor will not issue a reprieve. Porter gives their parting scene an almost conscious cinematic quality: “We did not speak or look at each other again, but as I followed the matron to a cell I saw him working his way slowly outward through the crowd” (28).

“Well, it was fifty years ago and I am not trying to bring anything upto-date. I am trying to sink back into the past and recreate a certain series of events recorded in scraps at the time which have haunted me painfully for life” (46). This is a clear expression of Porter's self-reflexive goal, and perhaps the word that deserves emphasis is “scraps.” Like Hellman, Porter relies upon her scraps—the contents of diaries and notes—as she structures her narrative. Notes that were taken as a record of previous impressions are reflected upon through the lens of the passing years; consequently, both of the memoirs exhibit a double reflexivity. While each writer attempts to be true to earlier impressions—Porter, for example, insists that her's is the story of what happened, not of what should have been—neither writer can resist the inclination to reconceptualize the past. Hellman, especially, is drawn to remarks about what she should have said or done. She says that what she would like to have told the committee would go something like this: “‘You are a bunch of headline seekers, using other people's lives for your own benefits. You know damn well that the people you've been calling before you never did much of anything, but you've browbeaten and bullied many of them into telling lies about sins they never committed. So go to hell and do what you want with me!’ I didn't say any of that to [Abe] Fortas [the lawyer she first consulted and a subsequent Supreme Court Justice] because I knew I would never be able to say it at all” (57).

Such a comment reveals the complexity of defining one's true or deepest sense of self, for it shows that what never took place can figure as prominently in a sense of personal identity as what actually occurred. One observes the same complexity in Porter's self-representation. While Porter is generally reluctant to acknowledge an irritable streak in her nature (something that Hellman freely acknowledges), she too shows that what she would like to have done is not only part of the record of her impressions but that it weighs heavily in the way she perceives herself. One example in particular stands out. As she and other protestors were on the way to their “trial,” she overheard one man—the stereotype of a “capitalist monster” that “no proletarian novelist of the time would have dared to use”—make the following comment: “It is very pleasant to know we may expect things to settle down properly again” (45). Porter's response is unlike anything else in her nonfiction prose: “To this day, I can feel again my violent desire just to slap his whole slick face all over at once, hard, with the flat of my hand, or better, some kind of washing pot or any useful domestic appliance being applied where it would really make an impression—a butter paddle—something he would feel through the smug layer of too-well-fed fat. … My conscience stirs as if, in my impulse to do violence to my enemy, I had assisted at his crime” (49-50).

As this passage indicates, an overheard remark can be the basis of a genuine self-revelation. Both Porter and Hellman refer often to what they hear in passing, and not infrequently these remarks lead to self-discovery and become central to the self-image each writer wishes to project. Moments before she is to be questioned, Hellman makes this observation: “I hadn't seen the Committee come in, don't think I had realized that they were to sit on a raised platform, the government having learned from the stage, or maybe the other way around. I was glad I hadn't seen them come in—they made a gloomy picture. Through the noise of the gavel I heard one of the ladies in the rear cough very loudly. She was to cough all through the hearing. Later I heard one of her friends say loudly, “Irma, take your good cough drops” (109).

Hellman says nothing else; she allows the overhead remark to speak for itself and to highlight the fact that her predicament is not hers alone, that she is a pawn in a public spectacle complete with a gallery of passive (and callous) bystanders. It is of course another overheard remark that has become almost legendary and that tends to figure prominently in any critical reaction to Hellman's personal history. After Judge John S. Wood agrees to enter a letter from Hellman into the official transcript of her hearing—a letter in which she proclaims her willingness to answer any questions about herself but not about others—Hellman overhears a comment from a member of the press: “Thank God,” the voice exclaimed, “somebody finally had the guts to do it” (114).

Within the arena of the memoir, overheard remarks can assume as much significance as the formal documents—such as letters—that become part of the official historical record. Porter relies heavily on overheard remarks, but she also quotes generously from Sacco's and Vanzetti's letters, telling her policeman that he would believe in them if he could examine their correspondence. Hellman's letter to Judge Wood is so fundamental to her self-understanding that she reprints it in full, giving it a section to itself with only the sketchiest of prefacing remarks. After stating her willingness to answer anything about herself—“I have nothing to hide from your Committee and there is nothing in my life of which I am ashamed” (97)—she expresses her difficulty in understanding the legality that would require her to answer questions about others if she fails to plead the Fifth Amendment. Hellman then gets to the gist—to the punch—of her request:

But there is one principle that I do understand: I am not willing, now or in the future, to bring bad trouble to people who, in my past association with them, were completely innocent of any talk or any action that was disloyal or subversive. I do not like subversion or disloyalty in any form and if I had ever seen any I would have considered it my duty to have reported it to the proper authorities. But to hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.


Hellman makes one additional remark; she proclaims that her values are those that stem from “an old-fashioned American tradition” and that she does not believe Judge Wood would desire her “to violate the good American tradition from which they spring” (98).

On the most basic level, Hellman includes the entire letter because it covers succinctly her reasons for not wishing to plead the Fifth Amendment. Yet the letter is also a clear expression of the liberal values that underlie her deepest sense of self. Carl Rollyson, Hellman's most recent biographer, accurately observes that “the cunning” of her defense “resided in her letter to HUAC,” a document that “made her seem entirely reasonable … a person of conviction and conscience who only wanted to do the right thing … a dissenter who respected authority” (327-28). Rollyson claims that the bulk of the letter is Rauh's but that “the ringing phrases” are indisputably Hellman's (319). Such phrases—especially the unexpected “bad trouble”—are brief indexes to the self Hellman is preserving for history, and built into these ringing phrases are indictments of those who would claim the same liberal and “old-fashioned American tradition” but whose very actions reveal that it is not in fact a tradition they can live up to. The sometimes radical playwright is out to save her own hide but not without a clear stab at the enemy. The historical circumstances require that Hellman define and defend her sense of self.

Significantly, Hellman presents her letter immediately before the long series of notes that dramatize her state of awareness in the days preceding the hearing itself, which is to suggest, once again, that she structures her memoir so that it builds dramatically. This is not to say that there is anything affected or artificial about her account. Marcus Billson explains that the memoir writer views “time as extraordinary” and writes with the “kind of consciousness that vitalizes all experience” (269). Though Hellman has been accused of overworking the dramatic element in her self-presentation, even Carl Rollyson, who takes every opportunity to note those instances in which her account is questionable, concedes that the centerpiece of Scoundrel Time, those few pages in which Hellman recounts her appearance before HUAC, stick close to the events that actually occurred, filtered though they were through the consciousness of a woman who was always attuned to the dramatic possibilities of a given situation. Rollyson quotes Joseph Rauh on the accuracy of Hellman's version of the hearing: “I would say it is Lillian's dramatization of it. I don't want to say anything that throws doubt on her veracity. … It was pretty exciting. Even if I had told the story in a pedestrian way, it would still be pretty exciting. But when she got done with it, it was better than a Babe Ruth home run” (330).

The same is in its own way true of Porter's evocative rendering of Sacco's and Vanzetti's execution night. The drama of the event was actual but, again, filtered through the consciousness of a woman attuned not only to the drama but to the whole nightmarish quality of the occasion—a consciousness that could perceive and render the event in precisely etched images such as the one of a dazed Lola Ridge as she stood beneath one of the mounted policemen. Porter's memoir is in fact structured as though it were a series of slides with each dramatic image carrying its own emotional weight. One reviewer made this observation: “Not always coherent, random and shifting as memory itself, it gains power and reveals some indelible pictures: of Luigia Vanzetti looking with horror into the faces in the crowd raging at a rally for her doomed brother; of the midnight vigil outside Charleston prison, where the men were being put to death; of a ‘party’ afterward, wakelike, desperate, and charged with guilt and anger” (Fludas 32).

In his review of Scoundrel Time for the New York Review of Books, Murray Kempton was more than mildly outraged over Hellman's description of Henry Wallace's parsimony. Even if such accounts are accurate, Kempton did not believe they have a rightful place in Hellman's memoir. On issues that were less impressionistic, that could be judged by a standard of accuracy, reviewers did not hesitate to charge both writers with technical inaccuracies and, in the case of Hellman, willful misrepresentation. When Porter's memoir first appeared as half of the June 1977 issue of The Atlantic, it contained errors that the subsequent issue took note of, but these were not corrected by the time the book appeared in August. The source of these errors—confused places, dates, and titles—is in all likelihood the fifty-year gap between occurrence and recollection; they do not stem from the same kind of biographical misrepresentation that characterizes some of Porter's more informal essays.9

Hellman's veracity is a more complex issue; while no one accused Porter of overplaying her role in the drama that unfolded before her, Hellman, in addition to factual errors, was accused of egoism and of overvaluing her importance as a key figure in the McCarthy era. Here again, her letter to Judge Wood becomes central to the charge. Though in Scoundrel Time, Hellman tends to downplay its significance for others who would testify after her, a remark she made in 1978 to Peter Adam clearly indicates her pride in the stand she and Rauh so carefully articulated: “That letter, as you, Mr. Adam, know, had a very beneficial effect in many ways. It gave other people a place to stand, a legal place to stand, and was the first of its kind. Of that I'm proud” (Bryer 226). Carl Rollyson, for one, refuses to see Hellman in the same light, noting that though she did in fact take a difficult stand, her approach was not as brave as that of Arthur Miller who based his defense on the First rather than the Fifth Amendment (329). Rollyson claims that Rauh's reaction was much the same, that he too refused to “accept the image of [Hellman] as a heroine, a leader of ‘the moral forces’” (329). In order to prove his point, Rollyson questions the authenticity of the incident involving the press member who supposedly applauded Hellman's courage: “There is no question that this is what she wanted to hear,” he notes; nor could Hellman “resist adding that when the press gallery voice was greeted by Chairman Wood's threat to remove the press from the room, the voice answered, ‘You do that, Sir.’ The polite but steely rejoinder sounds just like the way Hellman would write the scene for a play” (327).

If Rollyson does not come right out and say that Hellman invented the voice from the press gallery, he does offer evidence in other places to show that she did not always resist her inclination to alter or reshape certain facts that can be verified. On at least four occasions in Scoundrel Time, Hellman equates selling her Pleasantville farm with the pain she retained from the whole McCarthy experience; she even says at one point that “the sale of the farm was the most painful loss of my life” (120). Rollyson, however, gives this version: “Always one to make a story better, in Scoundrel Time she puts the selling of Hardscrabble Farm in 1952, after her testimony before HUAC. Actually, the farm was gone by the end of 1951. She knew her idyll in Pleasantville was over” (317). Perhaps a more important issue is Hellman's claim in her HUAC letter that she “was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group”—the implication being that she could not have been a real Communist, an assertion she has upheld in subsequent interviews. “In any case, whether I signed a Party card or didn't was of little importance to me,” Hellman writes in Scoundrel Time. “I couldn't have known then what importance would be attached to it a few years later” (47). Rollyson discovered that, in an early draft of her HUAC letter, Hellman had in fact admitted to membership in the party between 1938 and 1940; he adds that Rauh, the leader of the influential Americans for Democratic Action, had himself “forgotten her admission of Communist party membership and was surprised by it when he recently examined his papers, now on deposit with the Library of Congress” (319). Of course it was probably wise in 1952 for Hellman to refrain from so readily admitting to party membership, but in 1975 one could wonder why Hellman persisted in equivocating on her Communist connections, especially when, as Robert P. Newman makes clear in his recent The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby (1989), her membership, if it ever existed, was brief and hardly synonymous with party enthusiasm. Finally, Rollyson argues that “her decision in Scoundrel Time to ‘stick to what I know, what happened to me’ is disabling. … Her account of the Hiss-Chambers case, for instance, is seriously in error and significantly compromises her personal Cold War history” (13).

“If,” as Marcus Billson writes, “the memoir genre projects a personal vision of past life which may not be in all particulars factually true, one is led to ask what the reader looks for when he picks up a memoir” (280). Billson, who devotes a brief section of his essay to reception theory, answers his question by saying that the reader wants more than facts and that “if we are to understand the memoir as literature, we, as readers, must be willing to allow the memorialist his projection of what he hopes will be remembered as ‘the way it was’” (280). Reviews of Hellman's and Porter's memoirs would appear to substantiate these claims, for even the negative reviews often single out these authors' abilities to evoke the mood—the zeitgeist—of a vanished era. Rollyson rejects Hellman as a historian but draws attention to “her extraordinary talent for projecting her personality on the times” (489). Billson's theory of the memoir reader's response is acceptable as far as it goes, but the many negative reviews—some of them charged with anger—reveal that many readers look for more than a sense of authentic experience, and this may be especially true with writers like Lillian Hellman and Katherine Anne Porter who have produced a large body of writing, much of it concerned with the self and its moral responsibilities, prior to the memoirs that appeared rather late in each author's life. Readers familiar with these two women's work would have been dismayed had they produced nothing but a record of their experience. To understand the many negative reviews, particularly those of Scoundrel Time, it is necessary to take another look at the memoir as genre, and here again Billson's seminal essay provides some useful grounding.

Billson sees the form of the memoir as consisting of “three rhetorical stances—the eyewitness, the participant, and the histor—employed by the memoir-writer to evoke the historicity of his past and to argue for the truth of his vision of history” (271). The first of these, the eyewitness, is the central means of asserting “one's authority to recall and to interpret the past” (273). Hence, in The Never-Ending Wrong, Katherine Anne Porter can declare that she knows what she knows because she heard and saw (11). This stance assumes what Billson calls the ideographic strategy: “The substance of life presents itself as scattered until the memorialist organizes it through analysis” (274), an analysis that relies heavily upon metaphor. The eyewitness stance often merges with that of the memorialist as a participant who “concentrates on himself and relates the course of his own role, however major or ancillary, in the story he has to tell” (275). Since the memorialist as participant can examine a role or performance that has ended, he or she can project a sense of closure that is not always characteristic of the autobiographer. Billson uses the term “egotistical” to characterize the strategy of the participant, a figure whose personal desires and social self-interests are always near at hand. These self-interests become a paramount concern of critics evaluating Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong (though less so with Porter since, as she willingly admits, her role was ancillary). With Hellman, the crucial problem is the extent to which her egoism undermines the heroic self her memoir so carefully if at times obliquely defines.

Billson identifies one additional rhetorical stance, that of the memorialist as histor: “Whenever the narrative intention shifts noticeably toward providing information or establishing facts, the histor is raising his head” (279). Since the memoir-writer rarely accommodates “the rigorous standards expected in modern historiography,” Billson warns against confusing the memorialist with the historian. The Romantic movement, with its valorization of subjectivity, may have enabled memoir writers to claim merit for their books on the basis of subjective truth alone, but few memoir writers can resist the need to contextualize, to move beyond the range of their own memories. Thus the “great digressions of the memoir genre—the editorializing and the generalizing—are all done from the histor stance with its concomitant contextualist strategy,” a strategy that aims for integration and synthesis (279).

It is the interplay of these rhetorical stances and strategies—along with “various techniques customarily associated with artful narrative: characterization, dialogue, stream of consciousness, and landscape description” (262)—that make Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong such intriguing works of self-literature. It is, however, the stance of histor that has caused the greatest difficulty for the critics of both works. Before assessing the critical response, it is necessary to look at those passages where the voice of the histor is most apparent. It is through their historical perspectives that Hellman and Porter exhibit what is probably their closest affinity.

Throughout their memoirs, both writers interrupt the narrative of events to make connections, to place a single event or thought within a larger framework. Thus, Porter speaks of her mistaken hopes that were rooted in the values she had been taught in ethics courses: “Based on these teachings, I never believed that this country would alienate China in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; or that we would not help France chase Hitler out of the Ruhr … or that we would aid and abet Franco; or let Czechoslovakia, a republic we had helped to found, fall to Soviet Russia” (The Never-Ending Wrong 13). Porter, of course, is writing fifty years after the fact, and she is aware that, in her attempt to contextualize the Sacco-Vanzetti affair, she must define the big “isms” that are fundamental to an understanding of the era. Though xenophobia and American puritanism were most assuredly at the heart of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial (and Porter does not downplay the fear of things foreign—a fear that led to and indeed was fueled by McCarthyism three decades later), her most provocative explanation of the fear that defined the era centers on something more than human prejudice. In her synthesis, prejudice and ignorance are “in some deeply mysterious way” subsumed by a more fearful term: “Anarchy had been a word of fear in many countries for a long time, nowhere more so than in this one; nothing in that time, not even the word ‘Communism,’ struck such terror, anger, and hatred into the popular mind; and nobody seemed to understand exactly what Anarchy as a political idea meant any more than they understood Communism …” (6). What became evident to Porter is that

the human mind can face better the most oppressive government, the most rigid restrictions, than the awful prospect of a lawless, frontierless world. Freedom is a dangerous intoxicant and very few people can tolerate it in any quantity; it brings out the old raiding, oppressing, murderous instincts; the rage for revenge, for power, the lust for bloodshed. The longing for freedom takes the form of crushing the enemy—there is always the enemy!—into the earth; and where and who is the enemy if there is no visible establishment to attack, to destroy with blood and fire? Remember all that outcry when freedom is threatened again. Freedom, remember, is not the same as liberty.


From Porter's point of view, human beings are deeply flawed; they retain ideals that interfere with their ability to understand themselves or to form workable governments. In a sense it becomes an act of heroism even to acknowledge the deceptions and to admit one's complicity with a social order that could not exist without deception. It is a cynical view but one that is in keeping with a predominant theme in Porter's nonfiction, a theme that she stresses in her self-reflective essay, “Saint Augustine and the Bullfight” (1955). It could be argued that Porter becomes the histor with a vengeance; a writer with a strong polemical sense, she cannot resist the urge to sermonize or to reduce her fifty-year reflections to a series of what she calls “truisms” (The Never-Ending Wrong 46).

It might appear that Gary Wills's Introduction to the American edition of Scoundrel Time provides needed historical background and a necessary revisioning of events that led to McCarthy and his era. Actually, Hellman's revisionary perspective stands on its own; she needed no introductory apparatus and subsequently omitted the piece by Wills when she collected her three memoirs in 1979. Hellman says that after World War II “the time was ripe for a new wave in America” and that McCarthy and his aids and representatives merely seized their chance as political opportunists (40). In a key paragraph that follows, Hellman provides her own historical synthesis; she argues that the new wave was not in fact new:

It began with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The victory of the revolution, and thus its menace, had haunted us through the years that followed, then twisted the tail of history when Russia was our ally in the Second World War, and, just because that had been such an unnatural connection, the fears came back in fuller force after the war when it looked to many people as if Russia would overrun Western Europe. Then the revolution in China caused an enormous convulsion in capitalist societies and somewhere along the line gave us the conviction that we could have prevented it if only. If only was never explained with any sense, but the times had very little need of sense.


Hellman may say that historical conclusions are not her game, but she does not refrain from making them; thus: “It was not the first time in history that the confusions of honest people were picked up in space by cheap baddies who, hearing a few bars of popular notes, made them into an opera of public disorder, staged and sung, as much of the Congressional testimony shows, in the wards of an insane asylum” (40). If Hellman's liberalism is not absolutely clear by this point, she adds, “A theme is always necessary, a plain, simple, unadorned theme to confuse the ignorant. The anti-Red theme was easily chosen from the grab bag, not alone because we were frightened of socialism, but chiefly, I think, to destroy the remains of Roosevelt and his sometimes advanced work” (40-41).

Put briefly, Hellman and Porter leave us with a vision of history that can be defined as follows: people are fickle, confused, and become, as Porter tersely writes, “intoxicated with the vanity of power,” the kind of power that manifested itself in Judge Webster Thayer's boastful remark during a game of golf: “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards?” (5). People cause one another great harm and are willing, even eager, to forget the evils of the past. To prove this point, Hellman notes that if it were true that “when the bell tolls it tolls for thee,” then Americans could not have elected Richard Nixon so soon after the McCarthy debacle (159). Towards the conclusion of Scoundrel Time, she makes this frequently quoted assertion: “We are a people who do not want to keep much of the past in our heads. It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them, psychotic to dwell on them” (159). Porter does not limit this problem to Americans; in “Notes on Writing,” she says, “One of the most disturbing habits of the human mind is its willful and destructive forgetting of whatever in its past does not flatter or confirm its present point of view” (Collected Essays 449). That she and Hellman share the same view on the nature of a nation's collective memory is clear from the brief Foreword that Porter attached to her memoir when it appeared in book form. To a newspaper reporter's response to hearing that Sacco and Vanzetti were the subjects of her new work—“Well, I don't really know anything about them … for me it's just history”—Porter rejoins with, “It is my conviction that when events are forgotten, buried in the cellar of the page—they are no longer even history” (The Never-Ending Wrong vii). In their attempts to establish the historical significance of the events they narrate, both writers come to the same conclusions: for Hellman, McCarthyism was one step on the road to subsequent abuses of individual privacy, a step on the road to the nation's acceptance of Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam; for Porter, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was even more grave; it was a turning point in “the long death of the civilization made by Europeans in the Western world” (31). “The evils prophesied by that crisis,” she adds, “have all come true and are enormous in weight and variety” (32).

Though both writers take note of the historical fact that masses of people often behave as a herd and succumb to fallacies that appear valid if only because they have been repeated often enough (anarchists pose a threat that must be destroyed; Communists are a menace set out to penetrate the pluralistic fabric of American life), they nonetheless believe that certain groups of people can be expected to behave more responsibly than the herd and its leaders. Hence, Hellman feels betrayed by the intellectuals and liberals who stood passively by, or who did not remain passive but who nonetheless allowed their fear of communism to lead them into complicity with what should have been their mortal enemy. She is not naive enough to ignore why many liberals feared radicals and those with radical leanings: “Not alone because the radical's intellectual reasons were suspect, but because his convictions would lead to a world that deprived the rest of us of what we had.” Yet she also says that “radicalism or anti-radicalism should have had nothing to do with the sly, miserable methods of McCarthy, Nixon and colleagues, as they flailed at Communists, near Communists, and nowhere-near-Communists. Lives were being ruined and few hands were raised to help. Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?” (Scoundrel Time 89).10

Porter's sense of betrayal is equally great and, like Hellman's, it too is rooted in the problem of justice. The case of Sacco and Vanzetti led Porter to see that liberalism itself is subject to human frailty; highly conscious of the gulf between her status as an intellectual-cum-artist and that of the proletarians she set out to defend, Porter feels betrayed by the angry bystanders and the power-hungry men who can so cavalierly dismiss the necessity of a fair system of justice. The group she most resents and defines herself as being against, however, are the nasty “self-appointed world re-formers” (38), those like Rosa Barron whom she had expected to behave differently if only because she, again like Hellman, had wanted to believe in the existence of a small coterie of people whose sense of social responsibility did not exist at the expense of others.

Hellman and Porter become histors in order to define the state of affairs that forced them to rely upon their own inner resources and to substitute more personal values for those they believed had been abused. Hellman says that for liberalism she has substituted “something private called, for want of something that should be more accurate, decency” (118). Porter is not alone in insisting that Judeo-Greek-Christian ethics could not adequately prepare one for the mixed motives and outright malice that characterize human behavior. Both writers use the memoir to test beliefs they were brought up with; Porter contrasts her observation of the various factions of policemen—the well-behaved Pink Tea Squad as well as those menacing figures mounted on horses—with her belief, formed in childhood, that the police existed for her protection. Hellman, comparing herself to Hammett, asserts that her own nature and upbringing would not tolerate any notion of easy compliance: “It was not only my right, it was my duty to speak or act against what I thought was wrong or dangerous. It is comically late to admit that I did not even consider the fierce, sweeping, violent nonsense-tragedies that break out in America from time to time, one of which was well on its way after World War II” (51-52). Had Hellman provided an itemized list of such nonsense-tragedies, she would surely have included the deaths of Sacco and Vanzetti.

In addition to the stance of histor, such statements may suggest the presence of a rhetorical stance that Marcus Billson does not identify, that of the memorialist as confessor, or, rather, the memoir writer whose meditations on the self in confrontation with history prompt revelations of a frankly personal nature. Fully conscious observers of their pasts, Hellman and Porter use the memoir to acknowledge and confront the pain that accompanied their self-realization.

If both writers admit to personal failings and to a previous lack of sophistication about the way of the world, both also indicate that they would have had no right to produce these memoirs had they not behaved properly. To be sure, knowing how to act is not easy in a time when wrongs are blatantly perpetrated against others—a scoundrel time. Nonetheless, underlying their shared moral vision is a belief held by both writers that a modest personal heroism can and must exist, even in a time of scoundrels. Porter downplays the threat to her own security, but as others have pointed out, one could not have participated in the demonstrations without courage and a real sense of danger. In Writers on the Left (1961), Daniel Aaron cites Michael Gold's description of a city “‘in the lynching mood.’ It was dangerous for anyone to walk through the police-cordoned streets if he wore a beard, had ‘dark foreign hair or eyes,’ or acted in any way like a man who had not graduated from Harvard” (170). Hellman, by contrast, does not underplay the possible consequences of behaving honorably; nor does she hesitate to identify those features of her personality that qualify as heroic—her refusal, for example, to use articles that Communists had written against her since in her “thin morality book it is plain not cricket to clear yourself by jumping on people who are themselves in trouble” (Scoundrel Time 93-94). Hellman's method of self-representation may be oblique, but it is nonetheless clear where she stands. She may even insist that she does not much like what she did before the committee, but her indirect method of self-representation—her tendency to characterize herself through the remarks of others—leaves little doubt about how she wishes to be perceived. In addition to the voice from the press about someone finally having “the guts to do it,” she quotes the comment of another lawyer to Joseph Rauh—“You and [Abe] Fortas are making a martyr of this woman” (106)—and she paraphrases a remark from Rauh himself to the effect that “everybody had a right to make themselves a little more heroic, maybe I would do it, too” (102). When Ruth Shipley, head of the State Department's Passport Division, issues Hellman a passport in spite of the accusations that had been brought against her, Hellman submits to Hammett's explanation of why she was perhaps the only unfriendly witness to have received one: “one Puritan lady in power recognized another Puritan lady in trouble. Puritan ladies have to believe that other Puritan ladies don't lie” (86-87).11

It is not, however, their status as woman memorialists that has elicited the negative critical commentary; it is when they assume the rhetorical stance of histor that Hellman's and Porter's memoirs appear to antagonize the greatest number of readers. The Never-Ending Wrong, though it did not pass by unnoticed, solicited nothing like the sometimes violent response that was accorded Scoundrel Time and its author. Still, readers were puzzled by a number of Porter's historical conclusions. All of the letters to the editor that appeared in the August 1977 issue of The Atlantic, two months after it published Porter's memoir, were harshly critical of her historical position. One writer noted that she failed “to establish her main thesis; namely, that the deaths of two impoverished immigrants, one a shoemaker, the other a fishmonger, constituted a grave miscarriage of justice which can never be effaced.” Another asked: “What was the ‘wrong’ that brought forth all those words?” Still another was disturbed by Porter's conclusion that authorities must not place the law “above the judgment of the people,” meaning of course “some people” (28-29). It was also noted that since Porter acknowledges in her Afterword the possibility that Sacco may have in fact been guilty, a possible miscarriage of justice becomes even more problematic.

Many of these observations were developed at greater length in the reviews that appeared in the following months. In Commonweal, John Deedy argued that Porter became too entrenched in “the fair-trial issue” and that her “interest in the case turns out to have been, and remains still, more institutional than individual” (571). In the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Symons took note of Porter's “customary brilliant clarity” but claimed that her argument is “distinctly confused.” He pointed specifically to her conclusion that the trial and execution were symptomatic of a frighteningly new public willingness to accept as commonplace the abuse of power—a change so sinister that Porter claims it evades her powers of analysis. Symons took exception to this assertion and to Porter's suggestion that more recent protest movements have not been characterized by the same “selfless innocence” that typified her motives and those of the men and women who joined her in Boston. Symons's response is that people have not changed. “The mistake made by unreconstructed liberals like Miss Porter,” he argues, “is not to understand that the motives of practical politicians are never pure, as are those with a single fixed end like banning nuclear weapons, or preserving the countryside, or reducing aeroplane noise” (198).

Since Porter's memoir did not generate the kind of response that would prompt reviewers and critics to challenge one another's observations, no one has yet addressed these criticisms of her historical conclusions, and though her memoir can surely stand on its own, it seems necessary to counter some of the objections that have been brought forth. Unlike Dos Passos, Porter never renounced her liberalism, and her work, especially her nonfiction, retained its polemical edge. She did, however, become distrustful of all political groups and much less prone to play the part of activist. The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti came at a point in Porter's life when she was beginning to realize her creative potential; her goals became more clearly focused, and she subsequently devoted most of her energy to her writing, interrupted though it always was. The Sacco-Vanzetti affair appears to have functioned as a catalyst to her self-understanding. In what may be the most self-reflexive passage in her memoir, Porter writes:

I was not an inexperienced girl, I was thirty-seven years old; I knew a good deal about the evils and abuses and cruelties of the world; I had known victims of injustice, of crime. I was not ignorant of history, nor of literature; I had witnessed a revolution in Mexico, had in a way taken part in it, had seen it follow the classic trials of all revolutions. Besides all the moral force and irreproachable motives of so many, I knew the deviousness and wickedness of both sides, on all sides, and the mixed motives—plain love of making mischief, love of irresponsible power, unscrupulous ambition of many men who never stopped short of murder, if murder would advance their careers an inch. But this was something very different, unfamiliar.


What Porter saw at first hand was something that another southern writer, Walker Percy, would later articulate as the most distinguishing characteristic of evil in our century: its sheer banality (156). It is not insignificant that Porter finally defines the event as a “tragic farce,” for gathered in Boston were the finest writers of a generation, all come to protest not merely the thinly veiled assault on American leftism but the glaring abuse of human rights guaranteed by our constitution. It was an event that did in fact foreshadow the public's acceptance of larger abuses of power, of even more banal wrongs to come. Though it may have received less attention than any of her other works, The Never-Ending Wrong is one of the essential fragments of the larger plan that Porter mentioned in her famous 1940 Preface to Flowering Judas and Other Stories. It is, in effect, the culminating expression of a moral vision that was brought into focus by Porter's minimal participation in an event that occurred half a century earlier.

Porter's work is not the “plain, full record” she claims it to be in her Foreword, but she does not fail to prove her thesis. Nor is it really logical to argue that her speculation regarding the innocence or possible guilt of the two accused men undermines her claim that justice was miscarried. As Roger Starr remarked in his Commentary review, the mystery of Sacco's and Vanzetti's innocence has dogged liberals from the late twenties on: “The questions multiply even if they never erase the implacable fact that the two men were put to death on findings of guilt which satisfied almost no educated American under fifty” (95). Starr shows that Porter's memoir has a historical value that lies beyond its specific historical conclusions, for in one brief work, Porter managed to emphasize the mystery of the affair; she highlighted the socioeconomic threats that emigrants posed for the country's upper and lower classes; she drew attention to the presence and importance of American Communists; and through her own presence in Boston, she signaled a “periodic emergence in America of a social protest led by members of the ruling class, or what would elsewhere be called the ruling class” (96).12 It is not incidental that the last three of these concerns also play a major role in the critical reaction to Hellman's historical synthesis.

It is safe to say that Hellman's attempt to define herself and her role within the course of twentieth-century political history set off a reaction that has had few parallels in the last several decades. Anyone who had a stake in defining himself or herself as a liberal anti-Communist felt compelled to respond to Scoundrel Time, a book that received an initial set of highly favorable reactions before the more negative and, some would say, more text-centered appraisals began to appear. Almost without fail, critics centered their responses on one or more of four issues: Hellman's charge that magazines that were in the position to denounce McCarthy and his tactics failed to do so; her theory about the children of immigrants and their cultural assimilation; her contention that liberal anti-Communists played into the hands of the men who led the nation to Vietnam, Watergate, and beyond; and what was frequently taken to be her ignorance about the real nature of communism. It goes without saying that Hellman's decision to point a finger at people who were still living—at Diana Trilling, for instance—assured the notoriety of her self-presentation, for it is largely by means of contrast to Trilling and others that Hellman characterizes herself.

Partisan Review, although through the years it has published many, many pieces protesting the punishment of dissidents in Eastern Europe, made no protest when people in this country were jailed or ruined. … Commentary didn't do anything. No editor or contributor ever protested against McCarthy” (90). William Phillips, editor of Partisan Review, responded to this charge by noting that Richard Rovere, Arthur Schlesinger, Dwight McDonald, and Philip Rahv, among others, made several anti-McCarthy statements; he added, “I suppose if we were the ideal, selfless human beings we sometimes pretended to be, we would have … come to the defense of people we thought to be the instruments, whether conscious or not, of a new barbarism” (338-39). Irving Howe takes note of his own violently anti-McCarthy article for Partisan Review, a piece that Hellman herself singled out for praise even though it appeared at the rather late date of 1954, only shortly before the Army-McCarthy hearings would begin to silence McCarthy and help curb the nation's hysteria. Though Hellman did not single out The Nation, editor Carey McWilliams felt the need (in the same issue that included a highly favorable review of Scoundrel Time) to clear the magazine of any guilt by association; he pointed specifically to a 28 June 1952 special issue, “How Free Is Free?” These pieces aside, it seems clear that Hellman has not distorted the historical picture on this point. Thus it is not surprising that her opponents would sidetrack the issue and fall victim to a common fallacy of argument. Sidney Hook (whose invective is rivalled only by that of William Buckley) maintains that Hellman had no right to charge others with negligence when she herself never protested the abuses of human rights under Stalin, and Howe protested what he saw as the timidness and rather late date of Hellman's own realization of Stalin's “sins.” Nathan Glazer takes perhaps a more subtle tack when he says that Hellman, a respected and talented writer with many readers, was in the position to offer a better understanding of communism but failed in her own intellectual responsibilities: “Perhaps Communism in the world was a threat but Communists at home were not? Very well, let us hear about it” (38). Glazer has a point, but he seems to have forgotten the Red-baiting and generally hostile atmosphere of the postwar era.

Since they rest on generalities that cannot be substantiated by something as neat as a date of publication, the other charges brought against Hellman's historical conclusions are less easy to prove or disprove. Hellman contends that “thoughtful and distinguished men and women” who failed to speak out against McCarthy have not yet found it “a part of conscience to admit that their cold-war anti-Communism was perverted, possibly against their wishes, into the Vietnam War and then into the reign of Nixon, their unwanted but inevitable leader” (Scoundrel Time 90-91). This is a broad generalization, as Howe observed in what is the most spirited attack on this feature of Hellman's argument (378-79), but it is not so broad that it loses all credence. In effect, Hellman is saying that silence itself gave tacit approval to greater and even more dangerous government abuses and intrusions. Her account of the CIA agent who trailed her in Europe during the months after her hearing pales by comparison to the revelations about CIA and FBI surveillance of private citizens which emerged during Watergate and its aftermath. Hellman aligns herself with the revisionist view that the hysterical fear (and silence) that characterized the fifties played into the hands of an emerging military-industrial complex that, even now, continues to find ways to sanction its intrusions and imperialistic missions (Hellman did not live to see the appalling Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s). Yet while she makes the connection between then and now, Hellman does not offer enough evidence to convince the skeptical; as Doris Falk rightly notes, such facts “were plentifully available in the publications of her own Committee for Public Justice, and might have strengthened her position” (152).

Nothing about Hellman's historical stance seems to have ignited more ire than this assertion: “Many [American intellectuals] found in the sins of Stalin Communism—and there were plenty that for a long time I mistakenly denied—the excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies. Perhaps that, in part, was the penalty of a nineteenth-century immigration. The children of timid immigrants are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hardworking; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost” (Scoundrel Time 43).

Hellman may have thought she was referring primarily to the many immigrants who had made their fortunes in Hollywood, but her critics still charged that this statement undermined her liberalism through its implication that she herself was in some way fully American and not subject to the same fear or weaknesses (see Kazin, “Legend of Lillian Hellman” 34; Marcus 97; Glazer 38; Kempton 22; Hook 85-86). Here the generality of Hellman's historical conclusion is less offensive than its glaring arrogance. Only Victor Navasky was willing to look past Hellman's condescension in order to concede her point. In what is arguably the most provocative examination of Cold-War Hollywood, Navasky implies that Hellman may not have taken her historical observation far enough: “For some, the very act of denouncing was a form of assimilation, of status elevation … the truth was that by denouncing fellow immigrants (or children of immigrants) before HUAC, one consolidated one's identification with the dominant society. The practice came with the prestige of the state conferred upon it; it legitimated betrayal” (322).

The fourth charge—that Hellman was naive about Communists and their real intentions—rests upon her belief that there was never a Communist menace in this country. It is a charge that holds up as badly as the other three. While Nathan Glazer believes that Hellman failed in her obligation to explain why she saw no Communist threat, in Hollywood or the country at large, Irving Howe focuses on what he sees as an even greater failure: “Those who supported Stalinism and its political enterprises, either here or abroad, helped befoul the cultural atmosphere … helped destroy whatever possibilities there might have been for a resurgence of serious radicalism in America” (382). Howe and Sidney Hook are not alone in calling Hellman a hardnosed Communist; Paul Johnson makes the same conclusion in his book on the moral credentials of intellectuals to position themselves as advisers to others. All of these claims have been successfully countered by Robert P. Newman in The Cold War Romance of Lillian Hellman and John Melby (1989), the most sustained examination of Hellman's leftist involvements to date. Anyone interested in an undistorted picture of Hellman's politics can do no better than to begin with Newman's carefully researched biography.

Taking an unbiased approach to his topic, Newman concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that Hellman was ever anything other than a fellow traveler. Any careful reader of her plays will admit that she was more interested in character and personality than in political theory; in Scoundrel Time, Hellman remarks that one of her central complaints against Communists is their obsession with theory. Newman shows that it is absurd to suggest that Hellman ever kowtowed to the Communist position on anything. Watch on the Rhine, the antifascist play that figures prominently in her FBI file, was actually an outcry against the Soviet Union's decision to form a pact with Hitler; it was denounced by both the Daily Worker and the New Masses. When Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia, it was the party line that followed Hellman. Still, Newman argues, “To the extent that Communist Russia was for most of the Hitler period the chief force opposed to fascism, her support of Russia was understandable” (299). Hellman may have overestimated the Communist commitment to peace, especially during the postwar years, but at the heart of her many leftist involvements was an intense desire for world peace. Hellman had, after all, observed from close range the devastation of World War II; it was this first-hand experience that prompted her to make this remark at the 1949 Waldorf Conference: “It no longer matters whose fault it was. It matters that the game be stopped. Only four years ago millions upon millions of people died, yet today men talk of death and war as they talk of going to dinner” (quoted in Newman 300).

After returning from Russia in 1945, Hellman held a New York press conference in which she noted, “I wouldn't want to see Communism here. We're never going to have it. It is no problem with us. I see no signs of it here.” As Newman discovered, the FBI deleted these remarks from the file it “later passed out to right-wing columnists, congressional committees, and the Passport Office” (54). Such deception does not surprise Newman, who claims that the FBI's methods are amateurish and unquestionably biased against radicals and others identified with liberal-left causes. Hellman had friends that “ranged across the ideological spectrum” (298), yet the FBI interviewed only sources that were hostile to her, who would confirm their suspicions or who would remain quiet about the investigation. Newman discredits most of the accusations in Hellman's file (including those of key informant Louis Francis Budenz), but perhaps his most valuable service has been to show how meaningless it is to continue calling Hellman a Stalinist: “As to the Stalinist label, since she was pro-Communist but not a Trotskyite during the 1930's, it might have been appropriate then. In the 1980's it is ludicrous. What could it mean now? She has fully repudiated the purges and Stalin, their instigator, as well as Vishinsky, their prosecutor. There is no possible meaning of the term that could now be applied to her. In this era, Stalinism is simply a swear word applied by fanatical anti-Communists to people whom they dislike” (304).

Hellman's critics have faulted her for, one, not seeing quickly enough and, two, for understanding the “sins” of Stalin only when they became publicly apparent. What these critics want from her is something akin to the degradation ceremonies carried out by the committee: a simple acknowledgement of human frailty is not enough. Yet Hellman was too cagey, too scrappy, to concede anything more; she was too knowing to play into the hands of Cold-War sentiment and give reactionaries or even anti-Communist liberals any further reasons to rail against the blindness of American radicals. Newman concludes his appendix—“Was Lillian Hellman a Communist?”—with this defense: “In the final judgment, one is forced to conclude that Ruth Shipley, hard-nosed anti-Communist that she was, using the FBI files as she did, solicitous as she was of the good name of the United States to the nth degree, was right: Lillian Hellman was not a Communist in any significant sense, certainly not in the 1950's. It is simple nonsense to call her this; sheer polemics to call her a Stalinist; and plain insanity to believe, as J. Edgar Hoover did at one time, that she was in any way disloyal to the United States of America” (329).

When the various objections to the historical conclusions of both writers have been countered or at least acknowledged, there still remains a puzzling, at times even ambivalent, edge to the selves they define within the given historical context. At the heart of both memoirs is a tension that neither writer seems to acknowledge: a desire, on the one hand, to demonstrate that she is a responsible, thinking, political human being and a reticence, on the other hand, to provoke the charge that her politics have in any way diminished her value as an artist. Richard King has recently analyzed a reluctance on the part of southern writers, both male and female, to explore “the essential arrangements of the political order, including of course power-relationships” and “what it means to lead a political life,” this despite the fact that, as King puts it, “being political and acting politically are as clearly part of our experience as falling in love, making money, having a religious experience, finding satisfaction in the life of the mind, or in ‘mere’ everydayness” (“Politics and Literature” 190-91). King points specifically to Eudora Welty's contention that fiction, at least, must keep a “private address” and that the artist must reject any intrusion, political or otherwise, into her inward space. Part of the reluctance King observes can be traced to the bias of the southern New Critics against works that were blatantly political—their tendency, as King remarks, “to locate the field of significant action in artistic expression itself” (197). Another part of this reluctance may be traced to the southern writer's often-noted fear of abstraction. In an essay on E. M. Forster, Porter declared that human relationships must be formed “not in the mass, not between nations, nonsense!—but between one person and another” (Collected Essays 74). In this context it is necessary to remember that, because they ardently rejected any system of thought that placed man as a political being at its center, some of the men who contributed essays to I'll Take My Stand (1930) had wanted to call their Agrarian manifesto Tracts against Communism. King's analysis focuses almost exclusively on fiction, but it bears upon the fact that Hellman and Porter, two southern writers, have produced memoirs that engage the political sphere but that define selves with only the broadest of political terms. The piecemeal nature of their political definition has forced others to clarify what they themselves might have made more explicit.

There is a surprising coyness of tone in Scoundrel Time whenever Hellman alludes to her political thinking and involvements, and her pronouncements do not always coincide with the facts her biographers have uncovered. Hellman claims not to fit into any party and even tells Judge Wood in her letter that she is not a political person, yet she admits to having had easy access to high-ranking Communist party members, to having had very specific plans for the Progressive party (she hoped to secure a modest future for the new organization by avoiding Wallace's plan to mount a major presidential campaign), and she boldly decries what she perceived to be a political vacuum in “the American creative world” (119). Moreover, towards the conclusion of her memoir, she asserts, “In every civilized country people have always come forward to defend those in political trouble” (161), which is itself a political act. One can accept Hellman's claim in An Unfinished Woman that “rebels seldom make good revolutionaries, perhaps because organized action, even union with other people, is not possible for them” (118), but it is disconcerting to turn from this work in which Hellman details her extensive reading of the great political theorists of our time, to her apology in Scoundrel Time for making her political history “too simple” (49). A reader might justifiably ask why Lillian Hellman, a woman who helped to form the Committee for Public Justice, who was one of four to initiate a law suit that pressured Richard Nixon to release the Watergate tapes—why she of all people would find it necessary or desirable to simplify her political history, as indeed one might wonder why upon two occasions in Scoundrel Time alone she would understate her radicalism, perhaps the one inherently political term that encompasses the woman and her worldview as it emerges from the pages of Scoundrel Time.13

In 1979 Hellman collected her three memoirs and supplied new commentaries on each work. While she acknowledged the charges that were brought against Scoundrel Time, she did not take this opportunity to address any of the issues that had been raised. Instead, her remarks indicate that precise political self-definition was never her goal in the first place. Again, she focuses on those early anti-Communists whose “view from one window, grown dusty with time, has blurred the world and who do not intend ever to move to another window.” The curious thing about this commentary is that Hellman seems unaware that most of her angry critics had faulted her for the very thing she says she tried to get around in Scoundrel Time—for moralizing rather than clarifying herself. She writes: “I tried to avoid, when I wrote this book, what is called a moral stand. I'd like to take that stand now. I never want to live again to watch people turn into liars and cowards and others into frightened, silent collaborators. And to hell with the fancy reasons they give for what they did” (Three 722-26). Hellman's commentary does little more than reify her earlier stand.

Katherine Anne Porter was as reluctant as Lillian Hellman to describe her political beliefs and commitments. It was in her Introduction to Eudora Welty's A Curtain of Green (1941) that Porter gave a mini-sermon on the artist and her necessary disengagement from the world of politics. Porter says that Welty escaped “a militant socialist consciousness” and “has not expressed, except implicitly, any attitude at all on the state of politics or the condition of society.” For Porter, Welty's work is grounded rather in “an ancient system of ethics,” in “an unanswerable, indispensable moral law.” The absence of politics in Welty's writing does not disturb Porter, who believes that when the artist abandons such laws “in favor of a set of political, which is to say, inhuman rules, he cuts himself away from his proper society—living men” (Collected Essays 287).14 Porter wrote this piece in 1941; the international political means at that time helps to account for a tone that becomes even more indignant as she continues: “There exist. documents of political and social theory which belong, if not to poetry, certainly to the department of humane letters. They are reassuring statements of the great hopes and dearest faiths of mankind and they are acts of high imagination. But all working, practical political systems, even those professing to originate in moral grandeur, are based upon and operate by contempt of human life and individual fate; in accepting any one of them and shaping his mind and work to that mold, the artist dehumanizes himself, unfits himself for the practice of any art” (287).

As unyielding as these comments may seem, they provide the necessary focus for a complete understanding of Porter's enduring attachment to the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. It is reductive to argue that her long-evolving interest in the two men resulted primarily from her nagging belief that they had not been given a fair trial or that she wrote The Never-Ending Wrong to express her fifty-year outrage over having been a pawn for a Communist organization. Though Porter does not make the connection for her readers (and perhaps she did not fully see the connection herself), the two men and their trial grew to embody her suspicion that government and politics, unlike art or religion, could never serve as a genuinely effective means of ordering lives. Her Introduction to Welty's stories strongly indicates that Porter accepted anarchism as a philosophy or vision of society that, though it has taken many forms, hinges on one necessary but seemingly impossible goal: the liquidation of all state authority. Porter quotes Nietzsche—“The State is the coldest of all cold monsters”—and then adds her own belief that “the revolutions which destroy or weaken at least one monster bring to birth and growth another” (61).

At the conclusion of her memoir, Porter recounts a conversation with one of the best-known anarchists of the age:

In 1935 in Paris, living in that thin upper surface of comfort and joy and freedom in a limited way, I met this most touching and interesting person, Emma Goldman, sitting at a table reserved for her at the Select, where she could receive her friends and carry on her conversations and sociabilities over an occasional refreshing drink. … She finally came to admit sadly that the human race in its weakness demanded government and all government was evil because human nature was basically weak and weakness is evil. She was a wise, sweet old thing, grandmotherly, or like a great-aunt. I said to her, “It's a pity you had to spend your whole life in such unhappiness when you could have had such a nice life in a good government, with a home and children.”

She turned on me and said severely: “What have I just said? There is no such thing as a good government. There never was. There can't be.”

I closed my eyes and watched Nietzsche's skull nodding.


Porter does not call herself an anarchist, but this passage makes it unquestionably clear that she was drawn to the anarchistic critique of society. As a social force, anarchism may have failed for reasons Irving L. Horowitz explains in his still useful introduction to the major anarchists and their writings. Though theoretically sound, anarchism tended to focus on “the world of what ought to be” (60); further, it never got beyond primary group associations and “never admitted of a strategy and theory for the maintenance of power” (61). Yet as the conversation with Emma Goldman reveals, anarchists, and intellectuals like Porter who were drawn to their critique, saw that they could survive on what Horowitz calls “the unmasking tradition” (61)—on what Porter has identified elsewhere as her own position: “the great tradition of dissent.”15

In short, Hellman and Porter may shy away from political definition, but their disclaimers do not hold up under careful scrutiny. Though Porter remained a liberal idealist, she came to believe that no government or political philosophy could protect the human rights of those without power or property. The first object of the United States Constitution is, according to James Madison, the protection of an unequal distribution of both property and power. Porter and Hellman would accept what Irving Horowitz calls the anarchist's only true morality: the belief that there must be no distinction between what is done for self and what is done for others. Yet after her experiences in Mexico, Porter could not accept the “never-never-land” of a “theoretically classless society” (24). It does not appear that Hellman, on the other hand, ever lost faith in the power of the state to eradicate inequality; she thus became, if somewhat unwittingly, an apologist for the Soviet Union: “I thought that in the end Russia, having achieved a state socialism, would stop its infringements on personal liberty. I was wrong” (Scoundrel Time 49). The difference between the two women is in some respects the difference between an anarchistic and a socialistic critique of society, the difference between two competing visions that are for the most part submerged but surface intermittently in the two memoirs.

The ambivalence each writer expresses regarding her political identity extends to the way she does (and does not) confront her southern past. Hellman draws upon her southern upbringing to account for, even to justify her independent and rebellious nature: “Whatever is wrong with white Southerners—redneck or better—we were all brought up to believe we had a right to think as we pleased, go our own, possibly strange ways” (47). The paradox is that these “strange ways” resulted in the degradation and subordination of a whole race of people. Hellman does not take note of the irony when she recalls that it was a black woman—her nurse Sophronia—who instructed her in the value of anger. For her part, Porter never mentions her southern background in The Never-Ending Wrong except to say that after the executions she felt far from home. There may be a reason for this omission other than the fact that most readers would have been familiar with her status as an important southern author. In those pieces in which Porter does confront her southern past—“Noon Wine: The Sources” and “Portrait: Old South”—she falsifies the record in order to identify with a class of aristocratic southerners she did not in fact belong to. Whatever prompted her need to have descended from the wealthy slave-owning plantation owners, it remains that such an identification, real or imaginary, would have been at odds with her assertion in The Never-Ending Wrong that she had lived the span of nearly a century in sympathy with those who had devoted their lives to ameliorating “the anguish that human beings inflict on one another” (62). “The Never-Ending Wrong” is in fact a title Porter had originally intended for another work: an unpublished story about a southern lynching.

Though in interviews both writers have adopted a somewhat less somber tone regarding the same events and experiences they narrate in their memoirs,16 the worldview that unites Scoundrel Time and The Never-Ending Wrong—the titles are almost interchangeable—is pessimistic, even at times grim. “There are not many places or periods or scenes,” Hellman writes, “that you can think back upon with no rip in the pleasure” (132); Porter goes one step further and denounces “the whole evil trend toward reducing everything human to the mud of the lowest common denominator” (12). Both attack the gullibility of Americans—their willingness to believe almost any assertion that is repeated often enough, as well as their willingness to forget sections of the historical past that do not please or flatter. Both have been guilty of the same forgetfulness, but memorialists see themselves as separate from others even while they acknowledge their own frailty and their own mixed motives. This isolationist posture cannot fail to raise problems (and pleasures) for the reader who must accept or reject the subjectivity that undergirds the memoir as a genre that blends history with self-reflexivity.

Even in the earliest published work of each writer, one can see the threads that would be more pronounced in the subsequent memoirs. Hellman's first play, The Children's Hour (1934), is a searing depiction of scandalmongering; it concludes with the ruin of two school teachers' lives as the result of unchecked hysteria (the charge brought against the two teachers: lesbianism). Hellman's antifascist plays, Watch on the Rhine (1941) and The Searching Wind (1944), are forceful denunciations of people who remain passive in the face of social and political threats. In what is probably her most popular play, The Little Foxes (1939), the family servant, Addie, makes an observation that solidifies one of Hellman's central themes: “Well, there are the people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the Locusts. Then there are the people who stand around and watch them eat it. Sometimes I think it ain't right to stand and watch them do it” (Collected Plays 182). Hellman has acknowledged her attraction to innately evil characters; in an interview with Stephanie de Pue, she admitted, “I've long been fascinated by villains who very well know they were villains, who didn't give a damn” (Bryer 190). Her most pressing concern, however, is the danger of a passive collusion with such villains, a theme that obsessed Porter as well. Doris Falk has highlighted a pattern of evil or villainy that emerges from Hellman's sustained glance at her own past and from her observation of the world at large. This pattern, which characterizes so much of her drama, finds one of its most stringent embodiments in Hellman's memoir: “The ‘scoundrels’ of the title resembled the characters of Hellman's plays: they included not only the active villains, the “despoilers,” like Senator McCarthy himself, but those whom Hellman accused of being his fellow-travellers—the ‘bystanders’ who supported the “witch-hunt” by failing to attack McCarthy or to defend or rescue those like herself whose reputations and fortunes had been damaged. In fact, Hellman is harder on these than she is on the senator and the various committees” (147-48).

Fortunately, Hellman's moral vision does not stop with a duality of active and passive doers of evil; in her adaptations she has been drawn especially to characters who discover a measure of personal dignity—even a degree of heroism—by finding and remaining true to moral commitments, who become radicals in the best sense of the word. In Montserrat (1949), taken from a French play by Emmanuel Robles, the central character refuses to say where a South American liberator is hiding during the Spanish occupation of Venezuela in 1812; because he remains faithful to his own values and refuses to speak, he is forced to watch six innocent men and women put to death and then suffers the same fate himself. It could have been no surprise to viewers of her work, and to those familiar with her public life, that Hellman was drawn to the historical figure of Joan of Arc. Three years after her hearing, Hellman adapted Jean Anouilh's The Lark (1955) with a Joan that freely sacrifices her life for a political ideal. In 1956 Hellman collaborated with Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur on a musical adaptation of Voltaire's Candide. Hellman translates Candide's final remark to Cunegonde as “We will not live in beautiful harmony, because there is no such thing in this world, nor should there be. We promise only to do our best and live our lives” (Collected Plays 678). A reader familiar with Hellman's adaptations can see that Montserrat, Joan, and even Candide merge in the pivotal character of Scoundrel Time: Lillian Hellman herself.

Katherine Anne Porter's fascination with villainy and the inquisitorial spirit was germane to her uncompleted biography of Cotton Mather and dates as far back as her first newspaper reviews for the Rocky Mountain News. Joan Givner has discovered that these early pieces contain an embryonic expression of a moral vision that lies at the heart of Porter's subsequent fiction and that is fundamental to her long-standing interest in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Givner quotes a 1919 review in which, like Hellman, Porter admits her “longstanding fascination with the psychology of villainy,” adding that “it takes imagination and real nerve to become a first class sinner” (quoted in Givner, A Life 134). Givner also points out that after she recognized the “positive qualities” of the villain, Porter turned her pen to “the virtuous, passive heroine, and it was on this figure that she eventually focused all her scorn and contempt” (134-35). The figures that most incensed Porter are those who through their complacency or passivity allow evil to occur.

Givner sees this philosophy at work in an early story, “Magic,” in the more famous “Flowering Judas” with its triangular cast of characters—Braggioni, a pure unmitigated villain; Eugenio, the victim; and Laura, the indifferent heroine—and in Ship of Fools where it is given one of its fullest and perhaps most explicit expressions. Here Dr. Schumann, in agreement with the ship's captain, claims that “it takes a strong character to be really evil. Most of us are too slack, half-hearted or cowardly—luckily, I suppose. Our collusion with evil is only negative, consent by default you might say” (quoted in Givner, A Life 136). Incidentally, when Porter singles out various twentieth-century villains she does not exclude the key figure in America's Red-baiting: “the collusion in evil that allows creatures like Mussolini, or Hitler, or Huey Long, or McCarthy—you can make your own list, petty and great—to gain hold of things, who permits it? Oh, we're convinced we're not evil. We don't believe in that sort of thing, do we? And the strange thing is that if these agents of evil are all clowns, why do we put up with them? God knows, such men are evil, without sense—forces of pure ambition and will—but they enjoy our tacit consent” (quoted in Givner, A Life 316).

With The Never-Ending Wrong, the victims are clearly identifiable as those who suffer at the hands of callous, complacent, and power-hungry men like Governor Fuller, Judge Thayer, and the judges who sentence the protestors to their small and demeaning fines. The victims are the two men who did not receive a fair trail, their families, and the many well-wishers from the community of artists and intellectuals who demonstrated on their behalf. The bystanders in this work are not entirely passive, however; their collusion with the villains becomes blatant to Porter if not to themselves; hence her repetitive emphasis on Rosa Barron's terse remark that the two foreign men could do “us” nothing good as long as they were alive.

Eudora Welty was the first reviewer who knew Porter's writing well enough to make the connection between The Never-Ending Wrong and the thematic concerns of Porter's fiction. In her piece for the New York Times Book Review, Welty writes: “Elements of guilt, the abandonment of responsibilities in human relationships, the betrayal of good faith and the taking away of trust and love are what her tragic stories are made of. Betrayal of justice is not very different from the betrayal of love” (29).

It seems somehow right that Welty would produce one of the most perceptive pieces on Porter's last book; it was, after all, Porter who had helped to launch Welty's career by writing an enthusiastic and discerning introduction to A Curtain of Green, Welty's first collection of stories. There is, however, one connection between The Never-Ending Wrong and Porter's fiction that neither Givner, Welty, nor any other reviewer took note of. Like Hellman, Porter was adept at creating believable male characters. Elizabeth Hardwick, in her Introduction to Virago's edition of Porter's Collected Stories, notes, “A hard knowledge of the world in extreme, masculine dilemmas was part of the knowledge [Porter] brought to fiction. So it was her good luck after all not to be quite as she would have wished—a Southern lady” (xi). Taken as a whole, however, most of Porter's heroes are not men but women like Granny Weatherall whose life has been blighted by her rage and sense of powerlessness at having been jilted; or Sophia Jane Rhea whose sense of herself as a commanding matriarch does not deflect the reader's awareness of her subordinate status in the southern patriarchal order; or most important because she was Porter's fictional stand-in, Miranda Gay, who embarks on a quest for self-authenticity in “Old Mortality” but who, in “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” sinks into a listless depression as she looks squarely into the war-ravaged world of men. Porter may have disclaimed the feminist label, but what she presents is in essence a feminist critique of a world in which women, even when they refuse to cooperate with their oppressors, are still often stupefied by their lack of power. She may acknowledge her own propensity for evil, but in The Never-Ending Wrong, she is neither villain nor passive bystander; the memoir is rather a record of her defiance. Yet it is also a record of her own sense of victimization and powerlessness in the face of an event that had become a “tragic farce” (54). She explains her feelings after the execution: “In my whole life I have never felt such a weight of pure bitterness, helpless anger in utter defeat, outraged love and hope” (48). In the briefest section of her memoir—and consequently emphatic in its brevity and position near the end—Porter attempts to crystallize the most intense images she has retained since that date: “Now, through all this distance of time, I remember most vividly Mrs. Harriman's horsehair lace and flower garden party hats; Lola Ridge standing in the half darkness before Charleston Prison under the rearing horse's hoofs; the gentle young girl striding and drinking gin from the bottle and singing her wake-dirges; Luigia Vanzetti's face as she stared in horror down into the crowd howling like beasts; and Rosa Barron's little pinpoints of eyes glittering through her spectacles at me and her shrill, accusing voice: ‘Saved? Who wants them saved? What earthly good would they do us alive?’” (56-57).

It is neither accidental nor insignificant that Porter's memories focus entirely on the women participants, two of whom are dazed or bewildered, all of whom, even Rosa Barron, were like Porter herself—ultimately powerless to effect change.

What is implicit regarding gender and its restrictions in Porter's memoir is neither explicit nor implicit in Scoundrel Time. Hellman clearly sees herself as a woman who can compete and stand on her own in a man's world, and indeed, her account has led a great many readers to believe that hold her own she did. When asked to explain the nature of her victory, Hellman quotes her lawyer Joseph Rhau: “‘[The committee] had sense enough to see that they were in a bad spot. We beat them, that's all” (117). This explanation may be valid; and by reducing it to a note, Hellman is again underplaying her own heroism. Valid or not, it is important to see this explanation in light of one that appeared in Time a week after Hellman's hearing. In a patronizing tone that seemed built into all Luce publications of the time, a nameless reporter says, “Playwright Hellman, who once described herself as ‘the greatest meeting-goer in the country,’ went last week to meet the House Un-American Activities Committee.” After insinuating strongly that Hellman, “an expert at smooth dialogue,” used her dramatic skills on her own behalf—that she performed rather than cooperated—the Time reporter clinches his piece: “After she had been excused, Chairman Wood said gallantly: ‘Why cite her for contempt? After all, she's a woman’” (74).

Hellman and Porter were each drawn to classical women heroes, a further connection between the two women that seems appropriate in concluding this examination. Like Hellman, Porter was particularly intrigued by the historical figure of Joan of Arc—by her sense of divine mission and her prominence as a victim of the capriciousness of human nature. In 1955, the same year that Hellman's translation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark opened to perceptive and appreciative notices (it ran for 229 performances), Regine Pernoud published The Retrial of Joan of Arc with a Foreword by Katherine Anne Porter. Pernoud's book is a selection of the proceedings of the rehabilitation trials that took place at the request of Charles VII twenty years after Joan's death. Fifteen hundred witnesses gathered throughout France to clear Joan of heretical charges; she was declared innocent at Rouen in 1456, six years after the rehabilitation began. The witnesses highlighted the deceptive nature of Joan's trial, her humiliating prison experiences, her essential goodness and chastity. The trial of Joan of Arc had merged for Porter with that of Sacco and Vanzetti, and even with that of Christ, all of them trials in which the accused were assumed guilty from the outset. Porter's Foreword was well received, and her interest in Joan as a victim of a predetermined verdict was not lost on the book's reviewers, one of whom summarized the sham of Joan's original trial: “Testimony was suppressed or altered before it got into the record. Witnesses were bribed or frightened; the questioning was organized so as to confuse rather than elicit fact, legal counsel was denied. … All of which—and more—has a terrifyingly familiar ring today and makes Miss Pernoud's book doubly fascinating” (Chubb 50).

Likewise, Hellman's translation of Anouilh's The Lark, which appeared three years after her hearing, is as much about the mood of the McCarthy era as it is about a medieval French peasant hero. Though Hellman is working with Anouilh's material, the play is undeniably self-referential; Joan's inquisitors merge with the “Inquisitor priests” Hellman denounces in Scoundrel Time (83). The play opens with the Earl of Warwick's question: “Everybody here? Good. Let the trial begin at once. The quicker the judgment and the burning, the better for all of us” (Collected Plays 551). Joan's inquisitors are petty, small-minded men, intolerant even of one another's differences. They embody the fear of genuine liberalism in Hellman's own era. Warwick says, for example, that “as a man of politics, I cannot afford the doctrine of man's individual magnificence. I might meet another man who felt the same way. And he might express his individual magnificence by cutting off my head” (567). It is Cauchon who claims that “the time will come when our names will be known only for what we did to her; when men, forgiving their own sins, but angry with ours, will speak our names in a curse” (568). It is a remark that seems less pointed at McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Wood, and the other “cheap baddies” than at those who yielded to them, who for whatever reason chose to play their game and “name names.”

Beyond her value as victim, Hellman and Porter were even more intrigued by Joan's importance as a female hero with a fiercely independent nature. Joan makes it clear that, regardless of the consequences, intelligent and morally responsible behavior is not only sexless but inseparable from self-realization. To Cauchon's question, “Are you in a State of Grace?” she replies: “When I lost my faith, when I recanted, or when, at the very last minute, I gave myself back to myself? When—” (556). In Hellman's translation, Beaudricourt tells Joan, “A horse costs more than a woman. You're a country girl. You ought to know that” (561); but Warwick, ironically, understands and articulates Joan's true value: “The girl was a lark in the skies of France, high over the heads of her soldiers, singing a wild, crazy song of courage” (580). Do Hellman and Porter see themselves as Joan's descendants? The answer would seem to be a guarded yes. When Jane Fonda played Hellman in Julia, the 1977 film taken from Pentimento, she told an interviewer that the story centers on “a woman who is a real heroine. It is very important to make movies about women who grow and become ideological human beings and totally committed people. We have to begin to put that image into the mass culture” (Weintraub 17). One can see Hellman and Porter nodding in agreement.


  1. Though four of her plays feature southern settings and themes, critics will probably continue to debate the extent to which Hellman is in fact a “southern writer.” While she refuses to overplay her southern connections, Hellman has acknowledged their importance. When asked in a 1975 interview if she in fact considered herself a southerner, Hellman responded: “Well, I have no right to, because the New York years now far outweigh the Southern years, but I suppose most Southerners, people who grew up in the south, still consider themselves Souther.” Like other writers from the South, Hellman drew attention to her ancestry: “It wasn't simply a question that I was brought up and down from the South. I came from a family, on both sides, who had been Southerners for a great many generations” (Bryer 186). See Holditch for an illuminating discussion of Hellman as a southern writer.

  2. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants, were put to death on 23 August 1927 for the robbery and murder of a paymaster and a guard outside a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. The two men were anarchists and apostates, and as such they aroused great fear among New Englanders who were already alarmed by the Red scare of the early twenties and who, in any event, had no desire to alter the existing power structure. Their trial became the cause célèbre of the late twenties; the many artists and intellectuals who protested on their behalf (including those in Europe like John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, and Thomas Mann) agreed that it was the political beliefs of the two men, rather than any hard and fast evidence of robbery and murder, that sent them to the electric chair. A generally reliable history of the Sacco-Vanzetti affair is Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht's Justice Crucified: The Story of Sacco and Vanzetti (1977), published the same year as Porter's memoir; of interest also is Paul Avrich's Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991). For a brief but pertinent analysis of the cultural significance of Sacco and Vanzetti, see Hoffman 400-408.

  3. Darlene Harbòur Unrue provides one of the most satisfying accounts of how Porter's activities in Mexico helped to shape her subsequent development as an artist. See Truth and Vision in Katherine Anne Porter's Fiction (1985), especially the first three chapters.

  4. I make this assertion even while acknowledging Porter's betrayal of fellow writer Josephine Herbst to the FBI in 1942. On the surface, such an act would appear to be politically motivated or, considering that Porter and Herbst were once good friends, a deed of pure malice. The latter is the view taken by Herbst's biographer, Elinor Langer, who discovered and made public Porter's brief role as a highly inaccurate informant (245-60). In the revised edition of her biography of Porter, Joan Givner argues for a more sympathetic interpretation of events. Givner believes that Herbst's radicalism in the 1930s had much less to do with Porter's betrayal than did the problematic nature of the two writers' friendship. Possibly frightened by a side of herself that she saw in Herbst, Porter may have been “even more repelled and frightened when she discovered that Josie was under investigation, that her rebelliousness and recklessness threatened to make her an outcast and drag Porter down with her.” Givner speculates, “Once again, from the distant past the specter of pariahdom came into Porter's consciousness, a legacy of the long battle she had fought against poverty, disease, and suffocating relationships” (8). The event is a dark point in Porter's career, but it is also, Givner asserts, “a powerful illustration of the difficulty of female friendship and loyalty under patriarchy” (10).

  5. In addition to Cook and Navasky, see Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960 (1980). For more general assessments of McCarthyism see Reeves, Fried, and Kutler.

  6. Hellman's last book, Maybe (1980), is a sustained meditation on the nature of memory, its processes and deceptions. Shortly after the book appeared, she made this candid remark in an interview: “There's only x amount you remember clearly—or you think you remember clearly. By the time you're 50, let us say, you've seen and known so many places there is a great deal you do not clearly remember. I think most people are not willing to see that or admit it if they do see it” (Bryer 277).

  7. See Gellhorn, Jackson, and Spender, “Guerre de Plume”; McCracken, “‘Julia’ and Other Fictions by Lillian Hellman”; and Johnson, Intellectuals, a chapter of which he titles, “Lies, Damned Lies and Lillian Hellman” (288-305). These three studies set out to prove that Hellman was indeed no book-keeper of her own life, but neither offers what is needed most, a psychoanalytical critique that attempts to explain why Hellman might have needed her “fictions.” “Guerre de Plume” focuses on Hellman's apocryphal account of experiences she and Gellhorn shared in Spain in 1937; McCracken and Johnson write with a seemingly less personal purpose, wishing to expose Hellman as untrustworthy and therefore unfit to comment on the moral life of her time. For other perspectives see Wagner-Martin, “Lillian Hellman: Autobiography and Truth,” Grossman, and Adams, 121-66.

  8. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Scoundrel Time are to the edition that appeared in 1976.

  9. John Deedy draws attention to one of Porter's mistakes. He notes that Porter's belief in Vanzetti's innocence is based in part on her conclusion that he had a firm alibi: friends and family testified that he had been selling eels throughout the day of Christmas Eve, 1919. “But, of course,” Deedy writes, “Miss Porter has confused the attempted Bridgewater robbery of December 24, 1919, with the South Braintree robbery of April 15, 1920. … The murders were committed at South Braintree, and although Vanzetti had an alibi for what he was doing that April day of 1920, it wasn't that he was selling Christmas eels” (572).

  10. To Nora Ephron, Hellman said that many intellectuals, liberals, and “pretend-radicals”—the people on her side—now regard themselves as having been anti-McCarthy when in fact they were not: “If they say they were anti-McCarthy, what they mean is that they were anti-Joe McCarthy, not what he represented. I don't remember one large figure coming to anybody's aid. … Most radicals of the time were comic but the liberals were frightening” (Bryer 134). Actually, Hellman was never really comfortable with liberalism as a term of self-definition, but by the time Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in 1981, she said to another interviewer that she was saddened that “liberalism seems to have passed away from this country … though perhaps it's really there somewhere, quietly” (Bryer 284).

  11. The response to Hellman's status as a cultural hero will most likely remain mixed, though clearly divided across the ideological boundaries that were drawn in the late forties and early fifties. The reactions so far have ranged from William Buckley's predictable refusal in the National Review to concede anything remotely heroic about Hellman's performance before HUAC, to Robert Sherrill's insistence in The Nation that Hellman “performed the necessary legal maneuvers to stay out of jail; which is to say, she was smart enough not to be physically sacrificed for an era that would not have appreciated the gesture in the slightest” (757). Sherrill gives the subject of Hellman's heroism an intriguing twist: “But in another way she was quite heroic. As all children of Adam Smith know, accepting jail for principle is not nearly so great a sacrifice as rejecting money for principle. Hellman did the latter, in spades” (757). On a similar note, Robert Coles said in the Washington Post Book World that Hellman was and perhaps still is “a lonely figure—brave precisely because she was afraid, and knew the power and cunning of her accusers.” Coles believes that Kierkegaard would “have loved Scoundrel Time for its fine, sardonic humor, its unsparing social observation and, not least, the skill of its narration. … He longed for companions who would summon personal memory, among other modes of expression, to the task of making concrete and specific ethical analyses—as opposed to cleverly worded abstractions that conceal as much as they tell” (5). Murray Kempton's piece in the New York Review of Books is less enthusiastic, but Kempton looks past his reservations and applauds Hellman for her unwillingness to hurt innocent people: “It was enough for Miss Hellman to have done the single great thing of having once and for all defined the issue” (24).

  12. Roger Starr notes Porter's reference to what she and other protestors had been told was a law specifying that anyone arrested more than four times could receive a sentence of life imprisonment. Starr clarifies that the statute in question, Baumes Law, applied only in New York and pertained solely to convicted felons whose habitual offenses could in fact lead to life sentences: “The law had nothing to do with Boston in 1927. But it was essential to Miss Porter to believe this nonsense because it helped her, and presumably others, to narrow the gap between themselves and the two victims of a social disaster for which they held their parents or their own class responsible” (96).

  13. Gary Wills's Introduction to Scoundrel Times came under severe attack, but on the nature of Hellman's radicalism, Wills's remarks are right on target: “One of the unfortunate results of our generally muddled political terminology is a tendency to think of those on what is called the left as points on a continuum moving out from the center. The difference between, say, liberals, socialists, radicals, and Communists is a matter of degree within a continuum.” Wills argues, however, that we should not let our political terminology obscure crucial distinctions. “Cold War liberals were ideologues,” Wills asserts, “and ideologues meet each other on the same ground, if only to do battle there. Radicals of the Hellman and Hammett sort cannot even find that meeting place” (32). Wills correctly observes that while radicals are concerned with people as individuals, ideologues focus on orthodoxy. Hellman, he writes, has “spent her life creating vivid and individual people on stage; the thought of a McCarthy intent on destroying whole classes and types of people is almost too horrible for her to contemplate” (34).

  14. Joan Givner traces Porter's antipathy to politics to her botched effort in 1922 to set up galleries in the United States for a Mexican folk art exhibition that was organized by, among others, Adolpho Best-Maugard and Miguel Covarrubias. Porter did extensive research for her catalog-essay, Outline of Mexican Popular Arts and Crafts (1922), a historical survey that set forth the goals of the exhibition—a work that, regrettably, has not been reprinted since its initial appearance. As Givner points out, “The United States government, which did not recognize Obregon's regime, labeled the show ‘political propaganda’ and refused to let it into the country. It remained on a railroad siding for two months, until it was finally declared a commercial enterprise, duty was paid, and it was sold to a private dealer in Los Angeles. All those who had worked on it were bitter and disillusioned.” Givner cites Porter's remark to Enrique Hank Lopez that she was “as bitter as gall that politicians could have been allowed to do so much destruction, so much damage; that international politics, and oil and finance could ruin art” (A Life 167). Porter nonetheless aligned herself with various political causes over the years. For example, in response to a 1938 circular letter on Franco and fascism from the League of American Writers, she loudly denounced “the whole principle and practice of dictatorship in any form, by any class and for whatever reason,” and she voiced her long-standing opposition “to any nation attempting to impose its own form of government, no matter what it may be, upon any other nation, either by propaganda or by acts of war” (League, Writers Take Sides 47). See Bevevino for an interesting analysis of Porter's evolving political views as revealed in selected letters, essays, and fictional works.

  15. The phrase appears in Porter's “On a Criticism of Thomas Hardy” (Collected Essays 6). See Edward G. Schwartz, “The Way of Dissent: Katherine Anne Porter's Critical Position.”

  16. See, for example, Rex Reed's 1975 interview with Hellman (Bryer 179-83), and Enrique Hank Lopez, “Six Days in a Boston Jail,” in his Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter (99-123). Porter's “conversation” with Lopez differs from her memoir in a few particulars. In the interview, she gives more attention, for example, to the clothes she chose for the occasion, and she tells Lopez that she herself took part in the bawdy behavior of the “wake” that followed the executions. In the revised edition of his book on Porter, George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick claim to favor the version that Porter gave to Lopez; of the two personas, the Hendricks prefer Porter the “charmingly loquacious storyteller” to Porter the “jaded and world-weary author” (134).

Anne Fleche (essay date spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7457

SOURCE: Fleche, Anne. “The Lesbian Rule: Lillian Hellman and the Measures of Realism.” Modern Drama 39, no. 1 (spring 1996): 16-30.

[In the following essay, Fleche explores the representation of lesbianism in language in The Children's Hour.]

Lesbian rule: a mason's rule made of lead, which could be bent to fit the curves of a moulding; hence fig., A principle of judgement that is pliant and accommodating. (Very common in 17thc., but app. not always correctly understood.)


Politics is deployed as the final measuring stick for assessing the present utility, and thus the final relevance, of theories of gay identity.1

The invisible lesbian has posed difficulties for writers of queer history and criticism, in part just because she's a woman. We have seen, for example, how historian John Boswell accounted for the relative absence of women in his classic study Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Women, he explained, mostly didn't write the history he was talking about, so they were necessarily underrepresented in his book as well.2 Meanwhile, in literary criticism, texts in which the lesbian is ignored or ambiguously or negatively represented have called for drastic measures, requiring either a political approach, as Diana Fuss has suggested—a measuring stick of “utility”—or a kind of aesthetics of lesbianism which has seemed specious to the utility-minded. Recently, this apparent opposition between essentialism and constructionism in queer politics seems to be breaking down3, and this is a good thing for the lesbian, whose existence often has to be posited, because she's not always available in referential terms. The challenge in lesbian representation is also the challenge of feminist theory, namely, to discuss the woman as an effect of the very discourse that names her, to affirm a woman who is in some sense not there. Lesbian theory adds to feminism's challenge the question: what difference does sexuality make in the structure of a gendered discourse? To examine this question, which supposes the lesbian as a kind of double negative that somehow, at the same time, is not a positive, a referential term, I will revisit one of the more notoriously negative texts in the history of lesbian theater in the U.S., Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour (1934). In this play about a girls' school, one of the children has only to whisper something hastily to her grandma, and—voilà!—two female teachers are stripped of their social and professional lives, and one of them, after a tearful “confession” of her illicit “love,” runs offstage and shoots herself. Hellman's play thus poses the historical problem of lesbian negativity. In its time the play was banned in some cities for its supposed lesbian content, while in more recent years it has been criticized for the lack of any—or at least for the lack of a language that doesn't concern “sickness,” “dirtiness,” “unnaturalness,” or disease.4 In the first case, the play's negative value is a rejection of its supposed content; in the second, its negative charge comes from a supposed absence of content. Indeed, The Children's Hour seems to suffer from a chronic crisis of negative value, which no amount of moral or political outrage has quite explored. To do this would require giving the play's negativity some thought, and I would say also giving the play back some of its charge of unnaturalness, its historically relative potential to provoke.

In order to write The Children's Hour, Hellman had after all to confront the rules of gender representation in a radical way. Hellman's construction of the play around the charge of lesbianism required her to investigate the very structuring principles of gender identity and, not coincidentally, of the “realistic” or referential theater of the Thirties. For, as some lesbian critics have pointed out, there are, in a way, no lesbians in this play, no lesbians for sure—but then, one can never be sure. The relation of sign to referent is tantalizing, a temptation, Artaud might say, but never, especially here, decisive. Contemporary lesbian critics of the play might well decry the fact that Hellman doesn't question whether one can be “guilty” of lesbianism, with all the negative valuation that implies. But on the other hand, Hellman does posit a much more complicated and contemporary problem, namely, how that guilty identity could be produced, presented, represented on the stage.5 Indeed, one could say that what The Children's Hour dramatizes is in fact the problem of lesbianism in search of a referent: if there is a lesbian in this play, which one is she and how would we know? For, in a language marked by gender difference, the lesbian is already assumed by and into the rules of gender, in which the lesbian figures (only) as the negative of the hetero, the exclusion that marks inclusion, the unmarked side of the binary hetero/homo.6 In fact, one of the functions of the term “lesbian,” as the “lesbian rule,” quoted above, reminds us, has been to designate both a measurement and a judgement, in a correlation of structural and moral language that predates not only our present debates about gender and subjectivity, but also Hellman, her play, and the historical court case on which it was based. Hellman's technical problem, then, is roughly this: how to produce, in the more or less “realistic” style of drama favored in the Thirties, a lesbianism whose value is measured in and through absence and negation, in and through the exclusionary discourse of a heterosexist world, such as the world of The Children's Hour.

The play's historical moment seems to have been surprisingly propitious. In an interview, Hellman remarked that she came to playwriting at a time of transition, when realism was beginning to lose its grip on U.S. theater:

I was caught. By caught I mean in a time of life, not caught in any disagreeable sense, caught between a so-called realistic theater and a so-called new theater coming after the Second World War, the theater of the absurd, the theater of the imagination, whatever words one has for it.7

The theatrical moment of the Thirties was distinctly, looking back, one in which Hellman thought she was looking forward, learning to bend the rule, to show the strain of writing straight, the problems with what she wanted to write. This strain in her plays has been interpreted variously, by Hellman and others, as a throwback to the nineteenth-century “well-made play,” or just the opposite, a lapse in technique:

The charge of too well-made I suppose means too neat, too well put together. It's basically I think a rather foolish charge against anybody, because what is too well-made? Why should something be badly made? I think what people do mean by it is that perhaps sometimes the sewing shows, and there I think sometimes it does in my plays. I don't think too often. I hope not, but I think sometimes it does.8

But a close look at The Children's Hour suggests that here the strain on representation is posed by the idea of lesbian sexuality in its relations to language and knowledge. As Hellman's remarks suggest, the play demonstrates her early interest in the post-war theater of language, and the way this “theater of the imagination,” as she calls it, developed out of her efforts to mine the tradition of theatrical realism. When the question of realistic disclosure becomes conflated with the question of lesbian identity, Hellman's play begins unraveling the discourse of gender and exposing more and more of its stitches, its seaming straightness.

The Children's Hour opens, as it happens, in the middle of a sewing class. The girls at the Wright-Dobie School are supposed to be sewing, at any rate, but only some of them actually are, “with no great amount of industry on pieces of white material.9 Of the other students, one is trying to cut another's hair, two are studying for a Latin exam, and Peggy is “sitting in a higher chair than the others. She is reading aloud from a book. She is bored and she reads in a singsong, tired voice.” Peggy's text is Portia's “quality of mercy” speech, which is interrupted and misquoted during the opening minutes of the play and then abandoned altogether. The words clearly mean nothing to Peggy, but after all, the reading, it turns out, is a lesson in elocution, not literature. Their teacher is an actress, Mrs. Mortar (her name suggests a vessel in which something is pulverized, or the glue of a structure that hardens with time). When Mortar tries to show Peggy how to read with more feeling (“You are pleading for the life of a man”), Peggy points out that Mortar has skipped three lines. the part of the speech we hear in Hellman's play is about kings, scepters, God, and earthly power, lines that seem especially irrelevant to these girls, who are being “educated” to quite a different purpose and station. (Their sewing is like a feminine equivalent of writing.) The part of Portia's speech Mortar skips, and which consequently is not in the play, reads as follows:

                                                                                                    Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
                              Should see salvation.(10)

Omitted in Hellman's text are both Portia's tone to Shylock (“Therefore, Jew”) and the startling idea that “justice” is not causally related to “salvation.” The Golden Rule—“do unto others”—the Christian rule—Portia divides from the rule of (Jewish, Old Testament) law, of “justice”—“an eye for an eye”—in the act of creating a new moral hierarchy of “mercy” over “justice.” So goes one possible reading of this speech. The implications of this, for the plot of Hellman's play, may seem simple enough: the community is hardly merciful, and when “justice” is done, and the women are believed, in Act Three, it is too late to save Martha. Yet the omitted section of Portia's speech, by making the relation of justice to salvation arbitrary, throws the question of resolution into doubt: what is justice—or salvation—if there is no right or justice that necessarily saves? What is it that the Golden Rule can measure? When Karen Wright appears in Act One, she sympathizes with the bored student:

(smiling) Peggy doesn't like Portia?
MRS. Mortar:
I don't think she quite appreciates it, but—
(patting Peggy on the head) Well, I didn't either. I don't think I do yet.


Karen's lines are not necessarily an endorsement of the Golden Rule, as some critics have supposed. Nor does it seem, as Mary Titus has argued, that Hellman is invoking Shakespeare to show her literary credentials in the male canon.11 Mortar's reverence for Shakespeare is mock reverence, as Titus points out, but Karen's response underscores her own lack of “feeling” for Portia, or rather her understanding of Peggy's lack of feeling. This lack has been cited by more than one critic as evidence of Karen's culpability: she teaches her students not to value Shakespeare; Hellman is showing she is intellectually superior to her characters, these half-educated women, etc.12 But giving this lack a meaning doesn't account for the lack so much as fill it in, at the same time as Karen is explained as “a character,” a kind of flawed consciousness that can also be filled in by a judgement about her lack of “character.”

But looking at the gap in Portia's speech suggests something more—and less: the arbitrariness of measurement, the vagueness of virtue, when all laws are subject to an unknowable ideal. And this theme is repeated often in the play. In Act One especially, the language of value and measurement is striking. One of the girls tries to help another with her sewing, but the girl “can't get the hem thtraight” [sic]. “So much has been cut off,” Hellman's direction says, “that it is now hardly large enough for a child of five.” Mrs. Mortar's response suggests what little girls are taught to do when the cloth is not cut to fit:

MRS. Mortar
(vaguely) Well, try to do something with it. Make some handkerchiefs or something. Be clever about it. Women must learn these tricks. (To Peggy) Continue. “Mightiest in the mightiest.”


The assumption of an ideal law that supersedes all others really proposes an arbitrary rule, that through a “trick” can be recut to fit any measure, no matter how inadequate. The irony of Mortar's lines, “Women must learn these tricks. … ‘Mightiest in the mightiest’” gets its humor from the contrast, the incommensurability, like the tiny dress held up by the twelve- or fourteen-year-old girl. Neither measures up. Indeed, this opening scene is patterned by images of the incommensurate and the foreshortened. The interruption of Portia's speech is another example. The first interruption comes from Mrs. Mortar herself, who has just noticed that Evelyn is trying to cut Rosalie's hair: “[Evelyn] has Rosalie's head bent back at an awkward angle and is enjoying herself,” while Rosalie “sits, nervously, in front of her.” The implication in this opening tableau is that Evelyn (of the unstraight and abbreviated hemline) looks as if she could cut things a little too close for Rosalie's comfort. Later, Peggy is interrupted a second time by Lois, whom Catherine is helping to memorize Latin conjugations. It isn't going well:

(from the back of the room chants softly and monotonously through the previous speech) Ferebam, ferebas, ferebat, ferebamus, ferebatis, fere, fere—Catherine (two seats away, the book propped in front of her) Ferebant


Here the process of interruption is linked specifically to the girl's alienation from language. Lois tries twice to conjugate “ferebam,” both times getting it wrong, and Mortar gradually becomes aware of the hum: “How many people in this room are talking?” The Latin lesson plays continuo to the elocution lesson, a babel of classical language and classic literature, in which the meaning of the words is lost in the structure of the scene, in its performance, and in the emphasis on each student's role as a performer. Peggy is learning elocution, or perhaps “feeling,” while Lois is trying to memorize conjugations (for the verb “to bear” or “to carry,” in the continuing past—i.e., a “past” that is ongoing), in a language that has no practical use at all. Hellman's stage directions show how the language is to be performed: “in a singsong, tired voice,” “almost singing it.” The musical, even operatic quality of the language as sound, as theatrical gesture, creates through theatrical means a connection between the irrelevance of these educational values (dead writer, dead language) and the absence of a structural hierarchy. No single exchange seems significant in itself, despite Peggy's high chair. All the education here seems to be rote, recitation, and performance. When Mortar shows Peggy how to “feel” Portia's “pity,” “She recites hammily,” while the girls look on “with blank, bored faces.” What is Portia to them?

The Children's Hour repeatedly suggests the absence of an adequate or commensurate language, language that measures up, that defines reality, and the need of, perhaps, new language. In a way it's an Eden story, like all stories about little girls, about the realization that language is already stacked against you, tainted, used. Mary, the little girl who tells the “lie” about her teachers, is introduced in Act One as an hysteric, an actress, and a pathological liar. In Act two, she is repeatedly called a liar and ordered to tell the truth, as though this were a simple thing to do. But Mary has been taught the same language her grandmother learned as a girl, the old language, and she knows that language can be bent to a purpose, that its values are arbitrary:

But—(She hesitates, then goes up to Mrs. Tilford and puts her arms around the older woman's neck. Softly) How much do you love me?
MRS. Tilford:
(Smiling) As much as all the words in all the books in all the world.
Remember when I was little and you used to tell me that right before I went to sleep? And it was a rule nobody could say another single word after you finished? You used to say: “Wor-rr-ld,” and then I had to shut my eyes tight.
MRS. Tilford:
And sometimes you were naughty and didn't shut them.
I miss you an awful lot, Grandma.
MRS. Tilford
And I miss you, but I'm afraid my Latin is too rusty—you'll learn it better in school.


In Mrs. Tilford's bedtime visits, when she exchanged words of “love” with Mary, the value of “love” was measured quantitatively, and measured in words. The rule of the game was that Mary be silenced, that she shut her eyes, and go to sleep. It seems surprisingly apt that this same exchange should refer to the school and to Mrs. Tilford's rusty Latin: Mary has been learning all her life to value the language that is never spoken, and to see words as arbitrary signs of power. When she tells Mrs. Tilford her story about the two teachers, she realizes she is “on the right track” when her grandmother tries to control her use of words (“Stop using that silly word”; “You have picked up some very fine words”), and she gets another girl, Rosalie, to substantiate her story by making her swear an oath. What Mary knows, as an hysteric and a liar, is that language is performative, it catches her in its net, unless, of course, she rejects language's effects, refusing and, indeed, perverting its meanings. Mary thus manages to pre-empt the adults' efforts to control her speech, in part by perverting speech, and in part by obscuring the origins of her story about the teachers, the source of her knowledge of sexuality. And this brings on a crisis of knowledge and of language that Hellman can't, and I would say doesn't, resolve.

Of course, the most damaging accusations Mary makes are never spoken aloud. The turning-point in her efforts to convince her grandmother that something “unnatural” is going on between Martha and Karen is her excited “whispering.” What we hear at this point is not the words, but their sound effects. “At first the whisper is slow and hesitant but it gradually works itself up to fast, excited talking. In the middle of it Mrs. Tilford stops her” (39). Again, Mary is silenced by her grandmother, who is “trembling,” visibly excited. The homoeroticism in Mary's relationship with her grandmother has been touched on elsewhere,13 but this scene also, like the discussion of the bedtime ritual, suggests the power-struggle between the two in which sexuality plays its part, and has strong verbal associations. Moreover, like the simultaneous dialogue in Act One, this scene represents language as sound, rhythm and intensity, rather than as a strictly referential system. Part of the play's tension, in fact, is that it contains so few references, that it relies so heavily on the effects of words rather than the words themselves. Mary's accusations refer very little to the language the teachers use with one another. She speaks mainly of “noises” and “sounds.” The actual sightings of lesbian behavior Mary attributes to Rosalie: “She said she had read about it in a book and she knew” (55). But Mary is the owner of the book in question, not Rosalie, and presumably what she whispers to her grandmother is more or less plagiarized. Hellman represents Mary's sexual knowledge as somehow obscured, inauthentic. It has to be there but it's also, in a way, not there, as if Mary simply intuits the power of her words. Yet, as we've seen, Mary's perversion of language shows that she is, in fact, a very apt pupil. Mary may not play by the rules at school, but she has learned her languages well, as Martha says: she can revalue others' words, “making them have meanings that—[…] Where did you learn so much in so little time?” (53).14

But Martha's question sounds disingenuous, given her own role in Mary's ongoing education. Her discovery that Mary's misbehavior actually constitutes a sustained performance with very sophisticated implications is a reminder that realism relies on such belated discoveries, and that these surprises are made possible by realistic characters' inability to see themselves. But it also shows the strain in the play's “realistic” structure. The teachers' roles in producing Mary's rebellion against their codes is never investigated, despite Mary's constant accusations. It is only the implicit content of her latest charge that gives her a hearing. Interestingly, once Mary's antisocial behavior is “heard,” she disappears from the play, and in the final act Hellman leaves it to the two teachers to confront the power of a language no longer understood as referential but as constitutive, performative, constraining. This fact underscores the peculiar structure of The Children's Hour, for Hellman: it's one of the few plays in which she does not use a unit set, and in which all characters are not neatly accounted for in the final scene. In various revisions and productions, she wrestled with the objections of the play's earliest critics, who found Act Three anti-climactic and puzzling: why did Hellman drop Mary, who was central to the plot until this point; and why leave Mary's retraction offstage, letting the grandmother report it at the last minute? By the time she was through making changes, Hellman was saying that Act Three was the play.15 And indeed this is the act that seems most topical at the moment, since it is the only act in which the possibility of the sexual love of one woman for another is seriously discussed. If in Act Three the strain in Hellman's structure shows through most clearly, this is certainly not because the play is carelessly written. The Children's Hour shares the careful plotting and preparation of Hellman's other early work. And as in other “realistic” or “well-made” plays, the structure is created by the sense that something real is being suppressed, some truth waiting to be told. Yet because the truth at the center of the plot is ostensibly the negation of a lie, and because this lie has to do with sexual identity, Hellman has to work out the conclusion through the discussion of language itself, questioning the way identities are produced and sustained in and by language.

Realism's pressure to tell, to expose, to fill in the blanks, is subject to another pressure not to tell, a pressure to leave gaps, to be less than explicit, not only to avoid moral censure, but also because sexuality isn't objectively knowable and provable; it can even elude self-knowledge. When Martha says “I have loved you the way they said [ital. sic],” her language already appeals to the community's charge as the original of her knowledge about herself:

It's funny; it's all mixed up. There's something in you, and you don't know it and you don't do anything about it. Suddenly a child gets bored and lies—and there you are, seeing it for the first time. (Closes her eyes) I don't know. It all seems to come back to me.


Martha's language mirrors Mary's accusation—what we get to hear of it—about “funny noises,” “funny things.” And the ambivalence in the speech is striking—“I don't know,” “it's all mixed up.” By closing her eyes, as Mary was told to do, Martha seems to be internalizing the sight produced by the public charge against her. She says she didn't “know” and didn't “do anything about it,” which seems an unnecessary point: if she didn't know, how could she have, consciously, done anything about it; and, moreover, if she didn't know, and she had done something about it unconsciously, presumably now there would be some external corroboration for the images on her mind. Martha's confession brings out the conflict between realism and lesbian sexuality in the play: it has no way to become realized (in either sense), and so it can never be resolved. It can't support a structure of closure and coherence. Hellman's early notes call Martha an “unconscious lesbian,”16 suggesting that the character would be arriving at self-knowledge in the last act, but it seems clear that by the time she finally wrote the scene she knew there was nothing conclusive about it. It would be far truer to say that Martha produces an imaginary lesbian at the end of the play, to give her a way out (so to speak), and that Hellman shows how it is constructed out of the very need to produce the abject lesbian so clearly demanded by the homophobic community.

What of the unspeakable word in the play, “lesbian,” then? What would it mean to bring the lesbian into the terms of representation, were that possible? This very desire is a desire for origins, for knowledge (of the origin), as Martha's rationale shows: all her character traits turn into clues of her difference, in the end, which she equates with her “guilt.” Her sexuality is necessarily an afterthought, a product of the story, not a subversion of it at all. Act Three specifically foregrounds, for the first time in the play, the question of self-knowledge, that is, the radical uncertainty of confession, disclosure, representation, and truth-telling. In Act Three the play's concern with gender and language has thus become even more explicit. The problem of lesbian representation, forced out into the open like this, forces Hellman to consider the way the negativity of the lesbian (as what's not there) is both constituted and constitutive. Once there is no question of a referent, the language of the play turns to—language: the reference as its own object. And it's here, I think, that the impossibility of the lesbian is squarely faced, and not dodged, in Hellman's play, despite Martha's suicide. Representation of the lesbian requires that the negative be revealed in its constitutive function. It is not that the lesbian equals the negative in this play—nearly the opposite: she equals something like negation. Yet it does not follow that this negation is therefore unspeakable.

How can this be? Perhaps part of the difficulty of discussing the lesbianism in Hellman's play is that, as the “lesbian rule” suggests, the literal and the figural are linked in a way that is imperfectly understood, perhaps just because this link is so common. Language often seems to confirm rather than to constitute, as in this analysis of the lesbianism in Hellman's play:

Hellman's text [suggests] that to know about lesbian desire is to recognize it as a part of oneself. This is confirmed by Martha Dobie, who feels that Mary's accusation articulates and thereby actualizes her desire.17

But to know about lesbianism and to be accused of it are not the same thing; and the relation between the articulated and the actual is, as I have tried to argue here, very much the question of the play, and not its assumption. Attempts to trace the historic origins of homosexuality run into just this problem, of whether a homosexual is verified by social discourse or by self-definition or by some practice now identified as “homosexual.” As Diana Fuss has pointed out, there is not much room in theories of origin for the unconscious, or, presumably, for repression or negation.18 In Freud's theory of negation, reality is tested by the ability of the reality-ego to re-find an external image of an internal one which was lost.19 And the function of “judgement” is to separate the subjective from the objective, the merely internal from what is present externally as well. The relationship between the conscious and the unconscious is indicated by negation, which signals a lack of acceptance of the repressed content, in the very act of intellectually accepting it. That is, negation is a way of bringing the repressed content into consciousness, without removing the repression itself. For example, Martha's confession of her sexual feelings for Karen can still be interpreted as a guilty mis-reading, a need to find something in herself to punish. Thus the lesbian can be repressed in the act of being intellectually accepted. In the act of denial and repression, the lesbian enters the drama as something objective, external, after all. Hellman includes an awkward scene in this last act in which a delivery boy comes in to stare at the two women—that is, as if they were lesbians. Presumably, what the delivery boy sees isn't there; yet we still see him seeing it. Consequently the question of whether one can affirm or accept lesbianism is as much a problem in Hellman's play as the problem of negating it, the two notions collapsing into one another at crucial moments of truth. In another example, earlier in the play, Martha and Karen discuss the possibility of a lesbianism that is defined by a choice of action, rather than an external judgement:20

(Shivers, listlessly gets up, starts making a fire in the fireplace) But this isn't a new sin they tell us we've done. Other people aren't destroyed by it.
They are the people who believe in it, who want it, who've chosen it. …


Just as Karen instinctively begins to light a fire when she shivers, so the possibility of lesbianism's objective existence is immediately counteracted in the play by the reminder that Karen and Martha haven't consciously chosen it, and so are not, in some way, real lesbians. The instinctual behavior here produces a reassuring chill. In this case, as we see, if the lesbian can be repressed in the act of being intellectually accepted, she may also be accepted in the act of being repressed.21 In effect, the charge of lesbianism in The Children's Hour produces a “lie” which endlessly produces and reproduces the lesbian, bringing her into the consciousness of the play as something that is affirmed so that it can be denied. At this point the productive power of the discourse of sexuality drives the play far wide of any question of “a” lie, which is what Hellman said it was about; lesbianism becomes the lie, sexuality the question, and the possibility of finding lesbianism's referent, and so of judging reality, impossibly remote. It's been suggested that The Children's Hour is canonical because it plays into homophobic rules: the lesbian is nowhere to be found; as soon as Hellman raises the possibility of same-sex desire onstage, the lesbian cancels herself out, disqualifies her desire.22 Another way to respond to the play's negativity, however, would be to say that it abstracts the lesbian—cuts her out, abbreviates her, conceives her as a problem of representation. The Children's Hour implicates the lesbian in questions of truth, of ultimate terms of knowing—thereby raising the stakes of Hellman's “realism,” putting lesbianism in the domain of large questions of meaning and identity. But what kind of “realism” is this? And how is it possible to speak of a lesbian where there is no referent?

“The lesbian rule” provides both a metaphor and a strategy with which to pursue the question of lesbian representation. What is the significance of a rule that is made to bend, a rule that measures only when bent? The lesbian rule places the emphasis on the problem of measurement when the object to be measured is not straight like a ruler. Pliant enough to measure what is not straight, the lesbian rule suggests the possibility of rethinking representations of lesbian subjectivity without fixing its meaning or value in advance. Once the term lesbian has ceased to be referential, external to the text, it can be seen in its activity of fixing a rule of measurement, and of assigning a value. It's no longer a matter of the lesbian, but of the lesbian rule. At the same time, then, the lesbian rule does not nullify or cancel the rigid rule by which the lesbian is subsumed into heterosexist language. On the contrary, although it significantly suspends any assumption about the shape of the thing measured—in fact, it assumes that what is measured will have an unpredictable shape—the lesbian rule will nevertheless rigidify eventually, so that the object can be described in terms of inches or centimeters, thereby entering a straight language, a language that presumes straightness. The difference is that not only can the object be measured more carefully, more attentively, but also, and crucially, straightness will arrive with the measurement, as an assumption of its discourse, rather than the rule. In writing her play, Hellman had to apply the lesbian rule herself, examining the constitutive effects of the lesbian in order (not) to represent her. That such measures then become rigid representations in and of the lesbian's absence is in fact the pathos of the play. For in The Children's Hour there is such a thing as a lesbian, people can be accused of being lesbian, everybody knows what it means. And yet the accusation can be made—is made—independent of any referential “evidence.”

Perhaps there is no need to bring Mary back in Act Three, the point about (female) children, language, and learning having been made so well. If Hellman is revealing the “sewing” in the play by leaving her out, she is by the same device pointing to her silence in this act, the structural absence of the liar, the manipulator of language. The play turns, then, to the question of language itself. Certainly the lines focus more consciously on language here than in the earlier acts, as Martha and Karen try to imagine a “world” that would be made possible by new “words.” “[E]very word will have a new meaning,” Karen tells Joe, “no words that we can use in safety any more.” “[W]e would have had to invent a new language,” Martha tells Karen, “as children do …” (72). And Karen realizes, as she says to Mrs. Tilford, that the older woman's terms of reparation are inadequate: “a public apology and money paid” are not, as Mrs. Tilford seems to suppose, the equivalent of “justice” done, or “goodness” reasserted. (“You want to be ‘just,’ don't you, … You want to be a ‘good’ woman again, don't you?”) The play ends, surely, on a very odd exchange, in which Mrs. Tilford asks Karen to “write me some time.” Karen's reply, “If I ever have anything to say,” suggests that Karen Wright-Right-Write is left with a crisis of language and meaning that may or may not be resolvable. Karen has been associating this crisis with “tragedy” in Act Three (“no solid world”; “love and pity”; “sick, high-tragic people”), and Hellman's play is full of “tragic” structural implications, both Greek and Shakespearean. Martha's suicide is part of her and Hellman's desperate need for closure. But we've seen too the classical references in Act One, the Shakespeare and Latin lessons, all imperfectly learned, a babel of languages without referents. The new beginnings promised by tragic endings—including, in Shakespeare especially, the need to begin language again—are implied at the end of The Children's Hour, where language's incommensurability is so pointedly recognized.

Hellman's play, then, demonstrates language's performativeness, its power to produce what it names, which is nowhere more striking than in Martha's confession of lesbianism, a confession of a truth that can never be proven by reference to anything outside itself. The instability of language, and of identity, renders the “real”—that external which is found to correspond to the internal image—as the performative effect, the “realistic.” The play certainly does seem, as Hellman puts it, “caught” by language, exposed, searching for some “new theater,” “whatever words one has for it.” The Children's Hour begins with a lesson in dead language and ends with a suspension of writing. As Hellman realized later, her play was part of an historical movement toward a theater less trusting of the bond between language and referent, a “bond” which Shylock attempts to redeem with that pound of flesh. Indeed Hellman's citation of Shakespeare cites an historical parallel to the problem of representing the absent lesbian, since there were, famously, no Jews in Shakespeare's England. (No “out” Jews, at least.) Shylock's presence is, in a way, the representation of an absence: he's a copy whose model is denied in advance. By the end of Hellman's play the search for the impossible referent has taken on its own poignancy; Mrs. Tilford's discovery of Mary's lie is almost too easy, and as Karen says, it's hardly the point any more. The problem seems to be where Karen goes from here, the “lesbian” who never existed. And how can the playwright—or the contemporary critic—write about her, how can they both take sufficient measures not to arrive at a rule? I think Hellman saw, in writing The Children's Hour, that the lesbian rule might measure how far the authority of language could be bent.


  1. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York, 1989), 106.

  2. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, 1980), 17.

  3. In a recent issue of glq, for example, an issue devoted to the subject of “Premodern Sexualities in Europe,” the editors, Louise O. Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, write that one of the strengths of queer theory has been its persistent investigations of desire and identification, and that this investigation has benefited queer historiography: “What has been crucial to a queering of historiography is not the rejection of truth for pleasure—which would only repeat the myth of their opposition—but rather the recognition of their intimacy. Thus, transhistoricist perspectives cannot be found wanting simply because they seek, in the past, the allure of the mirror image. Moreover, it has to be asked whether the observation of similarities or even continuities between past and present inevitably produces a transhistoricist or universalizing effect.” (glq, 1:4, [1995], 377). The fact that one of the Editors of glq is David Halperin, a constructionist who considers “sexuality” a modern phenomenon, is perhaps another indication that the divisions between “essentialism” and “constructionism” are becoming less pronounced—or at least less divisive.

  4. The title of a recent analysis of the play, an analysis which I have found very useful, may give some indication of the distaste the play provokes. See Mary Titus, “Murdering the Lesbian: Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour,Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 10:2 (Fall 1991), 215-32. Titus sees the play as “a crucial document” which reveals the social pressures on Hellman “to murder the lesbian in her text, and perhaps in herself” (229). I want to suggest that these social pressures were being met, at the time, by changes in dramatic form and function.

  5. Lynda Hart has summarized the discussion surrounding lesbian representation in performance in “Identity and Seduction: Lesbians in the Mainstream, in Acting Out: Feminist Performances (Ann Arbor, 1993, 119-137). As Hart points out, the instability of “sexual identities” as objects of representation requires, in effect, the wedding of something like”essentialist” and “constructionist” notions, a wedding she demonstrates in her analysis of Split Britches' Anniversary Waltz. In Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw's butch-femme performance, the “real” lesbian is produced as an(other) fantasy, just as “real,” in other words, as the heterosexual and the economy of visibility that heterosexuality purports to support.

  6. For a deconstruction of this binary, see Diana Fuss, “Inside/Out,” in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York, 1991), 1-10. It's also remarkable that the heterosexualization of the plot of The Children's Hour for the 1936 film We Three required, as far as I can see, only relatively minor changes.

  7. Jackson R. Bryer, ed. Conversations with Lillian Hellman (Jackson, 1986), 115.

  8. Bryer, 115.

  9. Lillian Hellman, The Children's Hour, in Six Plays by Lillian Hellman (New York, 1979), 5. (Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.) It is important to note that my analysis in this article refers to the first (1934) edition of the play, and not to the “acting edition” of 1953. The acting edition contains a number of changes significant for my argument, particularly in Act One. Titus, whose careful analysis of the play I will be citing, also follows the 1934 version.

  10. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, IV, i: 197-200

  11. Titus, 218.

  12. See Philip M. Armato, “‘Good and Evil’ in Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour,Education Theatre Journal, 25 (December 1973, 443-47; and Titus, 218.

  13. See Titus, 220-21.

  14. Martha's question is a reminder of Freud's problems with “Dora,” in another case which conflates the question of woman's representation with the negation of lesbian sexuality. Jacqueline Rose sees “Dora” as posing, precisely, “this question of woman as representation,” “of woman as query, posed by Dora herself, of her relationship to a knowledge designated as present and not present—the sexual knowledge that is the secret behind her relation with Frau K: ‘Her knowing all about such things and, at the same time, her pretending not to know where her knowledge came from was really too remarkable. I ought to have attacked this riddle and looked for the motive of such a remarkable piece of repression’ (SE 7:120, n. 1, p. 162; c 142, n. 2; italics mine). Thus nothing in Dora's position can be assimilated to an unproblematic concept of the feminine or to any simple notion of the body.” (“Dora: Fragment of an Analysis,” in Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane, eds., In Dora's Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism [New York, 1985], 138). The problem of where a child could have gotten such knowledge was in fact not at issue in the case on which Hellman based her play, since there the child was presumed to have picked up her information on lesbian sex during her childhood in India. The specifically racial content of this question of sexual knowledge is erased in The Children's Hour, then, though not the subsequent fear and loathing of the child rather then the women she accuses. See Lillian Faderman, Scotch Verdict: Miss Pirie and Miss Woods v. Dame Cumming Gordon (New York, 1983), 239 and passim. And see also Titus, 219. Perhaps the racial content of its source is suggested by the language of eugenics in the play. There are a number of otherwise—to me—inexplicable references in Act One to inbreeding, including the suggestion that Mary could be the product of incest.

  15. Carl Rollyson, Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (New York, 1988), 336.

  16. The Lillian Hellman Collection at the University of Texas, comp. Manfred Triesch (Austin, 1968), 102-104. Cited in Titus, 220.

  17. Titus, 221.

  18. Fuss, 105. The “essentialist-vs-constructionist” dialogue between the historians John Boswell and David Halperin provides an example of Fuss's point. The Boswell-Halperin dispute seems, as I have suggested, to rely upon the supposed referentiality of language. For Boswell, descriptions of certain sexual acts and object-choices in the medieval or ancient world indicate that homosexuality existed, whereas for Halperin homosexuality names a specific social construction of types of individuals apparently unknown before the late nineteenth century. So, it seems, whether terminology describes acts, object choices, or types of individuals, the relation of the sign to its referent remains pretty stable. And this despite the philological analyses of Boswell, or Halperin's corrections to the OED. Without a theory of language that links it to the formation of subjectivity itself, a theory that then makes room for negation, lack, repression and différance, historians will continue to make assumptions about the existence of homosexuality based solely on a positive theory of language's power to name. See Boswell, “Categories, Revolutions and Universals,” and Halperin, “Sex Before Sexuality,” in Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncey, Jr. (New York, 1989); John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love (New York, 1990).

  19. Freud, “Negation,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, 19, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson (London, 1961), 233-39. Freud's “Negation” thus paves the way for the notion Lacan develops as desire: the constitution of the subject in the externalization of an image of loss.

  20. It's interesting that this is where Boswell finally marks his difference from the constructionist position, revising his definition of “gay” in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, where “gay persons” were defined as “those ‘conscious of erotic inclinations toward their own gender as a distinguishing characteristic.’ … I would now define ‘gay persons’ more simply as those whose erotic interest is predominantly directed toward their own gender (ie., regardless of how conscious they are of this as a distinguishing characteristic). This is the sense in which, I believe, it is used by most American speakers” (Boswell, “Categories, Revolutions and Universals,” “Postscript,” 35.

  21. And it's worth noting as a further inconsistency that Freud's negation doesn't work in reverse: Martha's confession doesn't necessarily mean she's not a lesbian.

  22. “The canonization of The Children's Hour reveals an unquestionable complicity between heterosexism and the concept of canonization.” (Lynda Hart, “Canonizing Lesbians?” in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, ed. June Schlueter [London, 1990], 278).

Ritchie D. Watson Jr. (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Watson, Ritchie D. Jr. “Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and the New South Creed: An Ironic View of Southern History.” Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 59-68.

[In the following essay, Watson argues against the prevailing contemporary judgement of The Little Foxes as oversentimentalizing the postbellum American South, noting instead that the play is an astute critique of the New South's ultimate sterility of spirit.]

If one looks for a copy of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes in a chain or suburban mall bookstore he is not likely to find it. More often than not, however, the clerk will produce one of the author's memoirs, such as Pentimento or An Unfinished Woman. The ready availability in bookstores of what critic John Lahr describes as Hellman's “quasi autobiography” testifies to the success with which, beginning in the late 1960s, she transformed herself from a playwright into a prose writer, thus gaining in the final stage of her career “both a new public and new fame” (Lahr 93). By contrast, the relative scarcity of her plays reflects the decline of her reputation in this genre during the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years there has been a modest resurgence of interest in Hellman's plays. For example, during its 1993-94 season, the Royal National Theater in England mounted a very successful production of The Children's Hour. Still Lillian Hellman's reputation as a playwright in the 1990s remains markedly lower than it was in the late sixties, when she abandoned Broadway and its increasingly dismissive critics and launched into her thoroughly successful autobiographical venture.

Robert Heilman, in his analysis of Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage, represented a substantial body of scholarly opinion in 1973 when he observed that The Little Foxes, Hellman's most acclaimed and most frequently revived play, “teeter[ed] between the slick and the substantial” (301), with the slick ultimately predominating. Elizabeth Hardwick, however, mounted the most provocative and stimulating, as well as the most damaging, critique of Hellman's plays. In a brief but powerful essay for the New York Review of Books, Hardwick used the occasion of the 1967 Lincoln Center revival of The Little Foxes for nothing less than a complete reassessment of its author's place in the hierarchy of modern American drama.

In her essay Hardwick observed that Hellman's plays exhibited “an unusual mixture of the conventions of fashionable, light, drawing room comedy and quite another convention of realism and protest” (5). She judged this combination of conventional dramatic technique and equally modish 1930s radicalism to be awkward and unfortunate. Turning to a more specific examination of The Little Foxes, Hardwick argued that over the years the play had metamorphosed from a melodrama attacking the rapaciousness of capitalism into a melodrama concerned with “a besieged Agrarianism, a lost Southern agricultural life, in which virtue and sweetness had a place, and more strikingly, where social responsibility and justice could, on a personal level at least, be practiced” (4). In Hardwick's view, a play that in the 1930s had seemed to strike a stylishly leftist pose now evoked in the 1960s a more fundamental, if subtle, nostalgia for an idealized Southern past, a past rooted ultimately in the antebellum plantation system.

Although Hardwick's observations on the conventional nature of Hellman's dramatic approach are apt and penetrating, there is good reason to question her contention that the interpretation of the South's past conveyed in The Little Foxes is essentially sentimental, pervaded by nostalgia for a plantation golden age. Indeed, as her research notes for the play clearly indicate, Hellman was concerned almost to the point of obsession with the factual accuracy of her dramatic portrayal of the turn-of-the-century South. She compiled over 100 pages of amazingly detailed material covering every conceivable aspect of both American and Southern economic and social history between 1880 and 1900, with particular emphasis on the South's agricultural and economic development during these decades.

In compiling her notes Hellman drew from period descriptions and commentaries on the South, such as Julian Ralph's Dixie, or Southern Scenes and Sketches (1896), Philip Alexander Bruce's The Rise of the New South (1905), and Clifton Johnson's Highways and Byways of the South (1913). She also culled information from more contemporary and more leftist works, such as Howard Odom's An American Epoch (1930), T. S. Stribling's The Store (1932), and Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons (1934). From these sources she compiled information of a general social nature, including the observation that in the South when travelling away from home the mother “must accompany her young lady everywhere.” Though this brief social observation may seem inconsequential, Hellman would put it to good dramatic use in delineating Regina Hubbard's materialistic and decidedly unsouthern-lady-like character when, at the end of Act I, she sends her daughter Alexandra unchaperoned to Baltimore to retrieve her ailing husband, despite the obvious disapproval of the black servant Addie. She also collected in her research notes remarkably precise economic data, such as the price for a dozen eggs in the South in the 1890s (10 cents); and she even found a few direct quotes in her sources, most notable Henry Frick's observation that “railroads are the Rembrandts of investments,” which were apposite enough to be incorporated into the text of The Little Foxes1.

If Lillian Hellman was, as Elizabeth Hardwick contends, partially motivated by a compulsion to romanticize the Old South in The Little Foxes, the playwright provides absolutely no evidence for this thesis in her research notes. What these pages of detailed observations and facts reveal is a passion for historical accuracy in her depiction of her characters and setting that suggests the saturation realism technique of fellow American writers Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis.

Turning from Hellman's research notes to the text of The Little Foxes, a reader finds plentiful evidence of the uncompromising realism and the sharp irony in which the author took justifiable pride. Moreover, the play's historical sensibility, viewed from the perspective of the 1990s, seems anything but antiquated, sentimental, or nostalgic. A careful reading of the opening act reveals a subtle, unsentimental, and complex understanding of the South's postbellum history well removed from the naively romantic historical vision that Hardwick claimed to have encountered in the play. Far from using The Little Foxes to purvey an anachronistic agrarianism, the drama's introductory act reveals a sharp understanding of the paradoxical role that the myth of the plantation South played in establishing a new commercial-industrial order below the Mason-Dixon line.

The Little Foxes opens at the Giddens's house, where Regina Giddens and her brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, are entertaining Chicago plutocrat William Marshall, hoping to attract his Northern capital to establish a textile mill in their Alabama town. Oscar's wife, Birdie, excited by Marshall's interest in music, is sending a servant to bring back her album, a record of her parents' musical trips to Europe which includes a program signed by the great Wagner. Birdie is checked, however, by her husband, who scolds his wife for chattering to Marshall “like a magpie” and who observes that he can't imagine that the industrialist “came South to be bored with you.” Birdie's hurt and bewildered protest that she talked to Marshall simply because “some people like music and like to talk about it” (137) is confirmed soon after when Marshall asks again to see the Wagner autograph and insists that Birdie play the piano.

It is evident that Hellman is setting up, with considerable dramatic economy, what at first glance may seem a too-obvious contrast between her grasping Hubbards and the genteel Birdie. The Hubbards—Regina, Ben, and Oscar—are the foxes of the play's title. Rapacious and unscrupulous, they easily crush the fragile Birdie, the delicately nurtured flower of antebellum plantation society. Like Faulkner's Snopes family, they give their allegiance to no creed and serve no interest but their own. As Another Part of the Forest later reveals, they not only have not served, but have actively collaborated against their native region's sacred cause during the Civil War. Birdie, in contrast, reflects the breeding and cultivation that has been popularly ascribed to the Southern plantation aristocracy, a cultivation that the wealthy and sophisticated Marshall recognizes and admires.

Given this vivid contrast between Birdie, originally of Lionnet Plantation, and her pile-driving Hubbard in-laws, one may well be surprised when Marshall opines that the Hubbards represent the remarkable capacity of “Southern aristocrats” for having “kept together and kept what belonged to you.” It is perhaps the remarkable social opacity which Marshall seems to betray in his observation that prompts Ben Hubbard to reply: “You misunderstand, sir. Southern aristocrats have not kept together and have not kept what belonged to them” (139). Ben proceeds to explain in some detail the distinction between the Hubbards and the planter-aristocracy that dominated Alabama before the Civil War. Ben observes that Birdie's family, bound as it was to the land, lacked the capacity for adapting to the profound changes brought about by the Civil War. To Marshall's observation that it is difficult to learn new ways, Ben responds in a distinctly hard-bitten manner:

You're right, Mr. Marshall. It is difficult to learn new ways. But maybe that's why it's profitable. Our grandfather and our father learned the new ways and learned how to make them pay. (Smiles) They were in trade. Hubbard Sons, Merchandise. Others, Birdie's family, for example, looked down on them. To make a long story short, Lionnet now belongs to us. Twenty years ago we took over their land, their cotton, and their daughter.


Interest in this scene falls especially on William Marshall. Not only is he willing to accord the Hubbards the status of aristocrats, he seems neither pleased nor overly interested in hearing Ben's cataloguing of the reasons his family fails to measure up to the standards of this exalted class. He ironically observes—“a little sharply” in Hellman's stage direction2—that, in emphasizing the difference between Birdie and the Hubbards, Ben makes “great distinctions” (114). Apparently the social differences Ben describes between the old landed aristocracy and the new commercial plutocracy are picayune and irrelevant to Marshall. Though he clearly sympathizes with Birdie, who is the agonized victim of Ben's gloating, his sensitivity to her humiliation does not lead to any doubts about the wisdom of his business association with the Hubbard clan.

A careful analysis of this scene suggests that Marshall is neither so socially opaque nor so naive as his original remark about the Hubbards being “Southern aristocrats” might have suggested. He is astute, sophisticated, and cultivated enough to recognize the difference between the delicately bred Birdie and the rather crass Hubbards; but he is obviously a man who, like his new business partners, allows himself few illusions. Responding in amusement to Ben's piously hypocritical assertion that “a man ain't only in business for what he can get out it,” Marshall confesses that “however grand [Ben's] reasons are, mine are simple: I want to make money and I believe I'll make it on you” (141-42). This brief speech expresses a sentiment worthy of the foxiest Hubbard.

William Marshall associates his new business partners with the old Southern aristocracy, not because he erroneously assumes that they are the real things, but because it suits his economic purpose to label them aristocrats. His impatience with Ben's detailed explanation of the rise of the postbellum Southern nouveau riche comes in part from the fact that Ben is explaining social nuances that Marshall undoubtedly has detected but that, to suit his business aims, he would rather not have articulated. As he tells the Hubbards, they need not labor to justify themselves to him: “Now you don't have to convince me that you are the right people for the deal. I wouldn't be here if you hadn't convinced me six months ago” (141-42).

If Hellman's opening scene reveals anything, it reveals the irony that the trappings of the aristocratic plantation myth can be manipulated to further the most antithetical of designs. This irony acquires added depth when one realizes that it is the Northern industrialist who invests his partners with the mantle of Southern aristocrat. Yet Hellman demonstrates that the Hubbards are also quite capable of utilizing the Old South myth to advance their ambitions. Regina's Southern belle exterior gracefully masks a savage heart. Marshall's prediction that in Chicago the ladies will “bow to your manners and the gentlemen to your looks” (143) is probably not mere flattery.

It is Ben's farewell toast to Marshall, however, which most effectively illustrates the ability of the Hubbards to use and manipulate Southern traditions with which they have essentially no temperamental identification. Ben explains to Marshall that in the South “we have a strange custom. We drink the last drink for a toast. That's to prove that the Southerner is always on his feet for the last drink.” Ben's toast is to Southern cotton mills, which “will be the Rembrandts of investment,” and to “the firm of Hubbard Sons and Marshall, Cotton Mills …” (142). Only later does he confess to his brother that the Southern custom he evoked is non-existent. “I already had his signature. But we've all done business with men whose word over a glass is better than a bond. Anyway it don't hurt to have both” (144). One imagines that the only gentlemen in this play whose word over a glass would constitute their bond are Birdie's ancestors, the vanished sires of Lionnet Plantation.

Examining the earliest manuscript version of The Little Foxes in which the cast of characters and the plot of the play are definitively established, one is impressed by the numerous minor revisions Hellman made in later versions of her work to heighten its suggestiveness and sharpen its focus. In the early version, for example, Ben responds to Marshall's impatient assertion that Hubbard makes “great distinctions” by countering: “Why not? They are important distinctions” (MS A3d). Ben's reply in Hellman's final version is both more subtle and more suggestive: “Oh, they have been made for us. And maybe they are important distinctions” (140).

A similar thickening of dramatic texture and sharpening of focus is achieved a few lines later when Birdie rises to the defense of her family against Ben's implied charge of reckless extravagance. In the early version she responds to Ben's observation that Birdie's family had “niggers to lift their fingers” by sharply interjecting: “We were good to our Negroes. Everybody knew that” (MS A3d). In the final version she adds an additional comment: “We were good to our people. Everybody knew that. We were better to them than. …” At this point Regina quickly interrupts her sister-in-law by observing, “Why, Birdie. You aren't playing” (140). The audience should have little trouble imagining to whom Birdie was about to compare her family's benevolent treatment of their “people.” Hellman's slightly revised exchange works more elliptically and more skillfully to suggest the cruelty and the intelligence of the Hubbard clan as well as Birdie's impotence in the face of their common malice.

If a reader is impressed by the thoroughness and the subtlety of Hellman's revisions of her opening act, he will be equally impressed by the firmness with which Hellman had obviously grasped her Hubbard characters from the earliest version of The Little Foxes, by the completeness with which she understood from the very beginning the irony of their role in linking the South's plantation past with its industrial future. In both early and final drafts Marshall has no illusions about his Southern business partners, but he is convinced that the Hubbards are the right people for his purposes. In neither early nor final draft is he interested in fine Southern social distinctions. In both versions his purpose is boldly stated: “I want to make money and I believe I'll make it on you” (142).

In both early and final drafts, Birdie offers her plaintive wish that Lionnet be restored. In both versions Ben indulgently labels her dream a “pretty picture” (145). In both, Birdie goes on to dream of a lost Eden where nobody loses his temper or is “nasty-spoken or mean” (146). In both, the futility of her first wish is matched by the pathetic quality of her second—that her husband Oscar stop shooting “animals and hinds” (146). And in both, Oscar brings an abrupt halt to her distracting chatter. In the early manuscript he impatiently and somewhat querulously observes: “Very well. We've all heard you. Now don't excite yourself further. You will have one of your headaches again” (MS A3d). In the final version his sentence is shorter and more brutal. “Very well. We've all heard you. That's enough now.” (147). Birdie's fragile dreams of an idealized Old South have been casually smashed by the Hubbards, New South apostles who brush the concerns of this pathetic relic of Southern ladyhood aside so that they can snarl and squabble over the spoils of their prospective partnership with Yankee capital.

From her earliest to her final draft of The Little Foxes Lillian Hellman maintained a fine and subtle understanding of the profoundly ironic way that the Edenic myth of the plantation South had come to serve in the promulgation of a new and fundamentally antithetical Southern economic order. Indeed, her play can fairly claim to be prescient in its historical understanding, anticipating by more than three decades the ideas of historian Paul Gaston in The New South Creed: A Study of Southern Mythmaking. In his book Gaston investigates the way Southern advocates of a New South sought to tie the articles of their creed (reconciliation between sections, racial peace, and a new economic and social order founded on industry, scientific research, and modern farming methods) with the values of the old plantation South. His book makes clear that during the postbellum Southern economic revival both the mythic Old South creed and the New South creed flourished side by side and that a Northern industrialist and a native New South spokesman alike not only tolerated the romantic view of antebellum Dixie but embraced and promoted it, along with their visions of a new economic order. The explanation of this strange exercise in double-think is not as recondite as one might assume. In the words of Gaston, “the romance of the past was used to underwrite the materialism of the present” (184).

Gaston's book examines in impressive detail the Southern paradox that C. Vann Woodward had wittily and succinctly expressed in 1951: “One of the most significant inventions of the New South was the ‘Old South’” (154-55). But even earlier, as the text of The Little Foxes makes abundantly clear, this Old South/New South paradox had been intellectually apprehended and dramatically examined by Lillian Hellman. She understood as a playwright what historians Woodward and Gaston would also come to understand, that the vision of an orderly postbellum South dominated by a strong and enduring antebellum aristocracy provided the sort of picture of traditional social stability that appealed to the conservative temperaments of Northern businessmen like William Marshall and that encouraged the southward flow of Yankee capital to sharp and often unscrupulous Southern entrepreneurs like the Hubbards.

Hellman was probably able to look with clear and undistorted vision at the South and its cherished myths because she was neither fully Northern nor fully Southern in her temperament. As biographer William Wright has explained, her ancestors represented “a fascinating yet little known aspect of American history: the quick rise during the nineteenth century in the deep South of a number of Jewish families from immigrant poverty to mercantile power” (17). Hellman's Marx and Newhouse relations were wealthy Southerners, but they were Southern Jews who had established their fortunes not as slave-owning planters but as merchants. As transplanted Alabamians living in New York, they combined Southern inflected manners and tastes with a ruthlessly pragmatic personal style. Hellman eventually intuited the deep discrepancy between their polished exteriors and the baldly materialistic content of their Sunday dinner conversations, “full of open ill will about who had the most money, or who spent it too lavishly, who would inherit what, which had bought what rug that would last forever, who what jewel she would best have been without” (Unfinished Woman 4). She would eventually employ this understanding of her relatives in creating the Hubbard clan, characters who achieve both a universally human dimension and a specific social identification as representatives of a new post-bellum Southern class of ambitious and opportunistic nouveau riche.

But even though Hellman had no illusions about her grasping apostles of a modern industrial South, she refused to buy into the counter myth of an idyllic plantation past. Katherine Lederer is correct when she argues that there is a marked degree of ironic detachment in Hellman's characterizations which critics such as Elizabeth Hardwick have been unwilling to recognize. Rather than seeing Birdie as a nostalgic symbol of “besieged Agrarianism” Lederer describes her more accurately as “a silly, lost, pathetic woman, representative of a class that learned nothing from the Civil War, that felt that being ‘good to their people’ made them superior to William Faulkner's Snopeses and the Hubbards” (46-47). Hellman's unique position as a not-quite-Southern offspring of a Deep South Jewish mercantile family made it possible for her as a dramatist to look with equal irony and dispassion on both the South's rage for progress and its infatuation with a hopelessly romanticized aristocratic past.

Lillian Hellman is guilty, as Elizabeth Hardwick persuasively argues, of her share of melodramatic contrivances of plot and hackneyed leftist postures in The Little Foxes. The tone with which she develops characters such as Alexandra and Horace Giddens seems uncertain and unresolved. But Hellman's play also demonstrates considerable dramatic strength and toughness of spirit. There is no reason for burdening it with the charge of historical sentimentality. Far from being intellectually naive, The Little Foxes conveys, among other insights, an astute understanding of the way the moonlight-and-magnolia vision of a dead Southern past was used in postbellum Dixie to validate a fundamentally restructured but equally sterile Southern present.


  1. Hellman drew her Henry Frick quotation from Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists. 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934): 343.

  2. These stage directions, omitted in the 1972 edition, are found in Six Plays by Lillian Hellman (New York: Modern Library, 1960): 173.

Works Cited

Gaston, Paul M. The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking. New York: Knopf, 1970.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. “The Little Foxes Revived,” New York Review of Books 21 Dec. 1967: 5

Heilman Robert B. The Iceman, The Arsonist, and the Troubled Heart: Tragedy and Melodrama on the Modern Stage. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1973.

Hellman, Lillian. The Collected Plays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

———. “The Little Foxes.” Ms A3d. Lillian Hellman Collection. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, TX.

———. “Research Notes for The Little Foxes.” Ms. A3a. Lillian Hellman Collection. Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, TX.

———. Six Plays by Lillian Hellman. New York: Modern Library, 1960.

———. An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.

Lahr John. “Hell on a Short Fuse.” The New Yorker 21 June 1993: 93

Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South. 1877-1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1951. A History of the South. Ed. Stephenson and Coulter. Vol. IX.

Wright, William. Lillian Hellman: The Image, the Woman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

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Lillian Hellman Drama Analysis


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