Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Hellman died in 1984 amid allegations that An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time contained serious distortions of the truth, even outright lies. Though Hellman’s veracity had been questioned before, the debacle reached its high point in 1980, when novelist Mary McCarthy claimed on national television that Hellman was an overrated writer and a systematic purveyor of untruths in her memoirs. Always combative, particularly when her reputation was at stake, Hellman responded by suing McCarthy for $2,225,000. While the suit never reached trial—it was on its way to court at the time of Hellman’s death—it triggered a wave of similar, more specific complaints against Hellman’s truthfulness. Such writers as Leo McCracken, assistant to the president of Boston University, and Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, wrote and published detailed articles that cited specific examples of what they saw as blatant lies on Hellman’s part. Earlier, the distinguished writer and critic Diana Trilling had infuriated Hellman by attacking in print Scoundrel Time, Hellman’s memoir of the McCarthy era, calling it one sided and dangerously misleading. Nor was Trilling the only writer to question Hellman’s interpretation of the “Communist witch-hunt” of the 1950’s: Both conservatives and anti-Communist liberals accused Hellman of casting herself in a much more heroic role than she had actually played in her appearance in 1952 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, an event that forms the central episode in Scoundrel Time.


(The entire section is 658 words.)