Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1654
Scoundrel Time is the third volume of Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, having been preceded by An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento: A Book of Portraits. Both of the previous books were popular and critical successes; however, her aims have shifted here, and the scope of the present book is much narrower than that of the earlier volumes. In some ways, it is also less successful.
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Hellman states her intention in the first paragraph:I have tried twice before to write about what has come to be known as the McCarthy period but I didn’t much like what I wrote. My reasons for not being able to write about my part in this sad, comic, miserable time of our history were simple to me, although some people thought I had avoided it for mysterious reasons. There was no mystery. I had strange hangups and they are always hard to explain. Now I tell myself that if I face them, maybe I can manage.
And later:But I don’t want to write about any historical conclusions—it isn’t my game. 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.
Hellman’s declared aim, then, is to set down her part in the McCarthy investigations—and since she was the first witness to defy the House Un-American Activities Committee, her role was of some importance. In addition, she is at pains to point out the parallels with Watergate. Richard Nixon came to power with Senator McCarthy in the Cold War period of Red-baiting; at the same time the FBI and CIA perfected their techniques for invading the lives of American dissidents. Nixon’s role is pointed up; for example, there are two pictures of him and only one of McCarthy in the book. In other words, Hellman believes that Nixon’s corrupt rule and the horrors of Watergate are a direct and inevitable result of the McCarthy witch-hunting of the 1950’s.
When Hellman received her subpoena on February 21, 1952, she was the most important literary figure to be summoned before the HUAC, the author of half a dozen Broadway successes, including The Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour and The Autumn Garden. Although she had been identified as a Communist by the screenwriter Martin Berkeley (she had never met him), she had never joined the party. However, she had long been associated with Dashiell Hammett, who became a Communist in the late 1930’s. She had attended meetings with him and her name had appeared on various petitions and lists of sponsors. After Hammett went to jail in 1951, it was only a matter of time before the author’s inevitable subpoena.
With her attorney, Joseph Rauh, she worked out a strategy that proved successful. She was reluctant to take the Fifth Amendment and was quite willing to reveal fully her political activities—so long as she was not asked to name others. In her famous letter to Chairman John Wood, she set the limits of what she was willing to discuss:I am prepared to waive the privilege against self-incrimination and to tell you anything you wish to know about my views or actions if your Committee will agree to refrain from asking me to name other people. If the Committee is unwilling to give this assurance, I will be forced to plead the privilege of the Fifth Amendment at the hearing.
When Hellman appeared before the HUAC on May 21, the Committee refused to grant her request and she was forced to take the Fifth. During her argument with Chairman Wood, he made the mistake of ordering her letter put into the record for clarification. At this point, her lawyer distributed mimeographed copies of the letter to the press. Shortly thereafter a voice from the press section rang out: “Thank God somebody finally had the guts to do it.” Lillian Hellman had not won, but at least she had achieved a moral victory. She was praised in the press and the HUAC was embarrassed. She was the first person of importance to defy the Committee, and thereafter others adopted her strategy of what came to be called “the diminished Fifth.”
Things went badly for Hellman for ten years after her appearance before the HUAC. Of course, she was blacklisted in Hollywood and could not get work there. When she did get a low-paying job for Alexander Korda, she had difficulty getting a visa. Once in Italy, she was hounded by the CIA and told falsely that Senator McCarthy planned to summon her before his Committee. In the end all her work and mental torture came to nothing; Korda went bankrupt and the film was shelved.
One of the most poignant sections of Scoundrel Time deals with the sale of her farm in Westchester, where she and Hammett had made a good life for themselves and the people working for them. The IRS had a lien against all of Hammett’s earnings, so he spent the last ten years of his life without any income. Hellman was reduced to secretly working half-time in a dress shop. And, finally, there was the death of Hammett (Hellman has written movingly of this earlier in her memoirs). Since she has set out to tell the truth unsparingly, she records briefly a shabby love affair—if it can be called that. It is interesting enough, but not really significant to the present “history.”
After a decade, Hellman finally had a new success on Broadway, Toys in the Attic, and ultimately was accepted again and poor no more. She concludes:I have written here that I have recovered. I mean it only in a worldly sense because I do not believe in recovery. The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be.
Hellman writes with controlled indignation about Senator McCarthy and his “boys”—though she seems unable to face up to saying much about them. To her the real “villains” of this shoddy era are the American intellectuals and liberals who stood by and let McCarthy come to power and ruin people, like Dashiel Hammett, without a word of protest. It is a dubious thesis, at best, but her assertion is that intellectuals like Lionel Trilling are more to blame than the witnesses who betrayed each other before the HUAC. (See Diana Trilling’s reply to Hellman in We Must March, My Darlings, 1977.)
Although this is her third attempt to tell her story, Hellman still has some difficulty with the material. No doubt it is still painful for her to dredge up and confront such bitter memories. In any case, her organization is quirky, sometimes annoying and confusing. There is too much leaping back and forth in time—though she skillfully builds to the climax of her hour and twenty minutes before the HUAC. In her search for the truth, Hellman has not relied entirely on her memory; she makes use of her diary and scattered notes made at the time. She has also interviewed a few of the people involved—her lawyers, for example—to check her facts. And, of course, she has had access to the records of the Committee, which she found unreliable.
Although Hellman writes coolly and often with an edgy humor, she is still angry about what happened to her and Hammett, and rightly so. Perhaps she can be forgiven if she writes at times with a barely controlled malice; in fact, in a few instances she reminds one of Hemingway paying off old scores in A Moveable Feast. Among those who come in for her scorn are Clare Boothe Luce; Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan, both of whom were friendly witnesses; J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson (“a nasty pair”); and the editors of Partisan Review and Commentary. There is a marvelous anecdote about Henry Wallace, for whom she campaigned in his presidential bid. (He gave her a fifty pound bag of manure as a going away present when she sold her farm.)
Perhaps one should note, too, a few questions that need clearing up. It is unfortunate that the Internal Revenue Service cut off Hammett’s income during his last ten years. But how and why did he shave on his taxes so long—and for how many dollars? There are also similar questions about Hellman’s problems with income taxes. Also, Hellman must have known that many blacklisted screenwriters, such as Dalton Trumbo, continued their careers in Hollywood by making use of pseudonyms. Did she consider this alternative? Finally, why did she wait so long to resume her career as a dramatist after her subpoena? And there are other questions left dangling.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that Garry Wills was chosen to write a lengthy introduction setting Hellman’s memoirs in a historical context. (Was this merely to pad out a slender book?) Wills and Hellman are poles apart politically, and it is difficult to see how he could approve of her political activities. In any case, he disagrees with the author on a number of important points, blaming President Truman for the witch-hunts and not McCarthy. He also contends that McCarthy and Nixon were sincere in their cause, while Hellman writes them off as opportunistic liars. Wills also adds his own names to the list of liberal “enemies,” among them Dwight McDonald and Mary McCarthy.
In the final analysis, Scoundrel Time seems in some ways self-serving and opportunistic. More damaging, it might have been cooked up and padded out to ride the wave of current Watergate and I-hate-Nixon bestsellers. Although it has been widely praised for its precision, restraint, and honesty, what importance it has is as a curious piece of minor history. Its literary value nowhere equals Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman or Pentimento.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 33
Christian Science Monitor. May 17, 1976, p. 23.
New York Review of Books. XXIII, June 10, 1976, p. 22.
New York Times Book Review. April 25, 1976, p. 1.
Newsweek. LXXXVII, April 17, 1976, p. 96.
Saturday Review. III, April 17, 1976, p. 28.
Time. CVII, May 10, 1976, p. 83.