American Literature Lillian Hellman
by
Kelly Reames
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0155

Introduction

With the success of The Children’s Hour in 1934 and The Little Foxes in 1939, Lillian Hellman (b. 1905–d. 1984) became the first woman in the United States to be considered by critics as a serious playwright. And while her reputation would eventually suffer—arguably due to her politics and her gender, but also because of the waning regard for realistic drama—at the height of her theater career, she was routinely named along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller as one of the canonical writers of the modern American theater. She would write a total of twelve plays, four of them adaptations, before leaving the theater world, in which she would later claim she had never been comfortable. Following two years as a student at New York University, she took a job with Boni & Liveright, a prestigious publishing house whose authors included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Sherwood Anderson. Later, she followed her husband Arthur Kober to Hollywood and found work as a reader for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She also met and began a life-long relationship with Dashiell Hammett, whom she credited with giving her the subject matter for her first play and teaching her about the craft of writing. After a break from writing plays, she achieved new fame as a memoirist with the 1969 publication of An Unfinished Woman, which began by describing a childhood split between time with her father’s family in New Orleans and her mother’s family in New York. Born in 1905, she came of age in the 1920s and took full advantage of the new independence available to women. The rebellious spirit, successful career, and unconventional life she chronicled made the autobiography published at the height of the feminist movement a huge success. It was followed by Pentimento (1973) and Scoundrel Time (1976), Hellman’s account of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) hearings led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, in which she harshly criticized those who failed to oppose government’s infringement on personal liberties as they attempted to expose communists. Hellman’s statement when she was called to appear before the committee in 1952 gained her praise and increased her fame. In a carefully crafted statement, she said she would answer questions about herself but refused to talk about other people, saying, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Initially well-received, this third memoir came to be called self-aggrandizing by those she had criticized, and questions about her veracity began to be raised about her other memoirs as well. In her final and most intimate memoir, Maybe: A Story (1980), Hellman turned her attention away from politics and her public life and wrote about her relationship to her own body, as she continued the exploration of the unreliability of memory she had begun in Pentimento. Questions about Hellman’s veracity were only exacerbated when, against the advice of many friends, she sued Mary McCarthy for libel. In 1980 McCarthy proclaimed on The Dick Cavett Show that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” The suit was dropped by Hellman’s executors after her death in 1984.

General Overviews

Students and scholars looking for an introduction to Hellman’s life and career have many good choices though the earliest volumes are necessarily somewhat dated. Moody 1972 takes a biographical approach and offers the fullest coverage of the plays and films; its biographical chapters are usefully interspersed chronologically with discussions of the texts. Falk 1978 is briefer and addresses the first three of Hellman’s memoirs, but not her film work or adaptations. Lederer 1979 covers similar ground but offers stronger analyses of the plays. Griffin and Thorsten 1999 is the best introduction to the six plays it discusses but says little about the four memoirs.

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

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    Following a short biographical chapter, provides an overview of Hellman’s plays and first three memoirs, focusing on Hellman’s concern with moral questions. Its usefulness has been superseded by subsequent volumes.

  • Griffin, Alice, and Geraldine Thorsten. Understanding Lillian Hellman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

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    Sound introduction to Hellman’s major works; disappointingly analyzes only six of Hellman’s plays (The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes, Watch on the Rhine, Another Part of the Forest, The Autumn Garden, and Toys in the Attic) and covers each of the four memoirs only briefly.

  • Lederer, Katherine. Lillian Hellman. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

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    Covering Hellman’s life and career up to the date of its publication, this book offers strong analyses of the plays.

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

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    Good, though dated, overview of the composition, plot, and reception of the plays, films, and adaptations, usefully situated within biographical chapters that maintain a focus on material relevant to Hellman’s career.

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