Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The title of playwright Lillian Hellman’s second book of memoirs is a painterly one, which Hellman defines in a brief prologue: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.

This elegant definition, along with the book’s subtitle—A Book of Portraits—goes far toward explaining Hellman’s method, style, and focus in Pentimento. The book is indeed a series of portraits, most of them devoted to people and places important only to the narrator. One might extend the painterly metaphor to describe the seven essays in the book as finely wrought miniatures, each of them more reliant on detail than on scope. In Pentimento, the United States’ most important twentieth century woman dramatist casts herself as the repenting painter defined above, and it is her voice, her special vision, that unifies the many disparate parts of the book. In its emphases on memory, on time, and on taking responsibility for one’s own actions, Pentimento is as much as anything else a self-portrait.

Far from being the sort of name-dropping celebrity memoir that one might expect of someone who had, by the time of the book’s publication, lived in the public eye for some forty years, Pentimento is intensely private;...

(The entire section is 684 words.)