Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)
Contributing Editor: Vivian Patraka
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
What is Hellman's idea of history? Who makes history and how are events in history related? Why does she connect the events of the McCarthy Era to the Vietnam War? What is her conception of the average American's understanding of history? How is this related to the "deep contempt for public intelligence" Hellman ascribes to Nixon? Why does Hellman reserve her strongest sense of betrayal for the intellectuals who did not protest the events of the McCarthy Era? What assumptions about intellectuals did Hellman have to abandon? What qualities does she ascribe to the McCarthyites and their proceedings that should have made them the "hereditary enemies" of intellectuals?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
What kind of credibility does an autobiographical memoir have as compared to a history or a political science book? How convincing is Hellman in establishing her point of view about the McCarthy Era? Is she less convincing because the work identifies itself as someone's opinion? Because she is angry? How does a question like "Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?" or a statement like "Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels" make Hellman's work both persuasive and memorable? Why does Hellman use the word scoundrel and what does she mean by it?
Elsewhere, Hellman has said that in a time of scoundrels, "The pious words come out because you know the pious words are good salesmanship." The idea that the language of morality, of patriotism, and of religion can be manipulated in an entrepreneurial way to capitalize on people's fears applies to more than just the fifties. Are there any examples from contemporary times of this sort of manipulation? Who benefits from it and why? Who is harmed?
Why would Hellman use the phrase "black comedy" to describe activities she considered to be harmful and evil? Why doesn't she call them a tragedy, given that many people's lives were ruined? Elsewhere she says, "One is torn between laughter and tears. It's so truly comic. People were confessing to sins they'd never done; making up lies of meetings they'd been in when they'd been in no such meeting; asking God and the Committee's pardon for nothing but just going into a room and listening to some rather dull talk. . . . And that, to me was the saddest and the most disgusting, as well as most comic. The effect was of a certain section of the country going crazy." What would motivate people to "confess" and "name names" in this manner?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Hellman has spoken of "the right of each man to his own convictions." Where is the line between having a conviction and being subversive or dangerous and who is allowed to interpret that for us? In what direction is that line currently moving? Playwright Arthur Miller, writing about the McCarthy Era, said "With the tiniest Communist Party in the world, the United States was behaving as though on the verge of a bloody revolution." Who would profit from creating this impression? What kinds of acts can be justified once this impression is created?