A spell-binding voice of uncertain truth: Lillian Hellman

December 29, 2014

I’m a big believer in role models.  While we are growing up, we emulate the behavior of those we admire, hoping we’ll be admirable too.  Eventually we sort our our own priorities and personalities but until then, it helps to have someone to follow.  Given all that, I probably could have picked a better person to imitate than Lillian Hellman.  For one thing, Lillian Hellman was a professional dramatist and I don’t like her plays.  As dramatic vehicles they are “theatrical” pieces where characters quiver, thunder or plot but rarely come to any realizations and the plays are aging as well as my old Earth Shoes.  In other words, not.  So Lillian’s plays are out.  Her integrity was attacked often and well, most notably when Mary McCarthy said, “Every word she writes is a lie—including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”  Those who tracked down the details suggest there’s some exaggeration in Miss Mary’s statement but not enough to acquit Miss Lillian.  So she wasn’t a good example there either. Nevertheless, I was looking for a unique voice and shimmering images of words when I found Lillian Hellman’s An Unfinished Woman.  One role model, made to order.

An Unfinished Woman was popular around the time I started looking for complex characters.  Like many adolescents, I believed that  unhappiness and ambiguity suggested a more developed, subtle mind and I wanted to become a complex, challenging woman.  I found my heroine in Miss Hellman, a woman who rarely suffered fools and never took the easy way out of a difficult situation.  I overlooked the extra pain she brought to herself and her friends because of the brave way she sailed into each disaster.

If we stick to verifiable facts, it is clear that Lillian was “a difficult child who grew into a difficult woman.”  Smart, insecure and argumentative, she recognized the virtues and failings of her charming, faithless father, his shy, dominated wife from Alabama and the segregated South she was raised in.  Observant and merciless, Lillian could also be a gigantic pain but there’s something interesting about a person who never chooses the comfortable, easy roads in life and on that scale Lillian Hellman is interesting.  She rejected the triple play of  childhood-to-marriage-to-motherhood that most American women of her generation repeated.  She carved out a place for herself in a notoriously difficult industry.  She also found politics and unerringly sided with whoever antagonized the most people in power.  If the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t trust her judgment, at least two friends did.  Both Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker trusted this woman’s angry judgment enough to make her their literary executor. If she made mistakes discharging those duties, (and there are those who suggest she made many) the errors were made in favor of guarding the privacy of her dead friends not enriching herself.   In those ways she could be seen as  trustworthy.

Eventually I read An Unfinished Woman as a memoir instead of a manifesto or guidebook and I’ve never developed Ms. Hellman’s tension or work ethic.  To tell you the truth, I don’t want to be that angry. I still admire her uncompromising battle with life and I appreciate her illuminating prose.  I just choose which battles I fight.  Which, come to think of it, is exactly what she did.

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