But Are Stalinist Lillian Hellman's Plays and Writings Any Good?


Over at the Wall Street Journal, former staffer and current Reason contributing editor Michael Moynihan has a sharp review of the new Lillian Hellman bio, A Difficult Woman, by Alice Kessler Harris.

A snippet of the review:

Hellman zealously supported the Moscow line on Trotsky, offering no criticism when he was murdered by Kremlin agents; she defended Stalin's mass executions of party cadres in 1937-38, signing a petition that accused the victims of being "spies and wreckers" of socialism; she supported Stalin's alliance with Nazi Germany, despite her supposed devotion to "anti-fascism," and defended Moscow's indefensible invasion of Finland in 1939-40, claiming that the country supported Nazism and deserved no pity, a scurrilous lie that Ms. Kessler-Harris leaves unchallenged.

Moynihan notes acidly:

Ms. Kessler-Harris marvels that Hellman "dedicated much of her life to the cause of civil liberties; in return, she earned the Stalinist label." This is giving Hellman short shrift: she worked rather hard to earn the Stalinist label.

Whole piece here.

Despite the claims of various defenders over the years, Hellman always comes off as a pretty horrible human being and it always stuns me when people try to minimize the stupidity and wilful blindness of pro-Stalin intellectuals in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Uncle Joe wasn't exactly hiding the ball on what he was up to, after all, and there's simply no convincing way to say that folks who are supposed to be smart and insightful and all that shouldn't have realized the guy was evil with a capital E.

However, the widely discussed Kessler-Harris book, which I haven't read, raises a slightly different question that isn't really addressed in Moynihan's review or in any of the other four or five I've checked out: How well does Hellman's work hold up?

She was a major playwright and a popular screenplay writer back in the day. Her later work was mostly memoir such as Scoundrel Time and Pentimento. That latter volume includes a vignette that became the movie Julia and is based, as Moynihan points out, on a brazen lie. Hellman boosted an acquaintance's story about helping anti-fascists in Nazi-era Germany and rewrote it with herself in a starring role. I read Pentimento about 30 years ago, before Hellman's fraud was common knowledge, and remember it as an exceptionally well-written book filled with annoying politics. I recall fondly the movie Dead End, the 1937 social realist classic with Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart which introduced Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and the Bowery Boys to the movie-going public. It's definitely of its time and place, but is all the better for that. I have no memories of her plays such as The Children's Hour and Watch on the Rhine, but she was a big deal.

My question, I guess, is this: How does an author's almost-invariably-idiotic politics figure into a reader's evaluation? Blogger extraordinaire Alan Vanneman recently hipped me to a dispiriting piece about Gertrude Stein's Vichy and fascist sympathies. It's dispiriting to me because I like Stein as a cultural figure and a writer and I hate fascism; what the hell was a gay, Jewish, experimental writer doing in siding with Nazi allies?

But I can't say the story is surprising. To paraphrase Stein, there's a good chance that the politics of your favorite creative artist are not only more idiotic than you imagine, but more idiotic than you can imagine.

Perhaps the discomfort is nothing more than a variation on the discomfort of Elaine on Seinfeld when she finds out her new boyfriend is anti-abortion. How could someone so good looking disagree with her on something she cares about?

As it happens, I'm rereading the oeuvre of Hellman's longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett. A great stylist and sharp novelist. And a total commie in all the worst ways possible. It's not enough to make me not want to take another look at the underappreciated novel version of The Thin Man, but the disjuncture sets a mind to thinking. Which isn't a bad thing, I suppose. Subtext—and it's subtext all the way down—makes text more interesting.