The Antagonist: On Lillian Hellman | The Nation


The Antagonist: On Lillian Hellman

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

If Hellman’s response to McCarthyism was the high point of her existence as a public figure, Kessler-Harris makes it clear that decades later, toward the end of her life, when Hellman was losing her eyesight and was frail, angry and embittered (not least at the attacks on her for proclaiming her moral superiority at the expense of the truth), her response to what I will call Mary McCarthyism was less than admirable. Kessler-Harris explains that for more than forty years, Hellman and McCarthy “had shared a climate of hostility, their trajectories running along parallel paths, their opinions conflicting and confronting.” McCarthy, seven years younger than Hellman, had been gunning for a fight with her nemesis for years. As a drama critic, she had attacked Hellman’s plays—when she deigned to review them at all—as offering more melodrama than drama; as a film critic, she had viperously denounced Hellman’s film The North Star (1943), a prize-winning feature about the brutal German invasion of a peaceful Ukrainian village, as “political indoctrination” for showing the Soviet Union as “an idyllic hamlet.” (McCarthy was presumably unaware that Hellman herself hated what Hollywood had done to her script, turning the film into what she called “an extended opera bouffe,” though she kept her name on it because it “said some true things about fascism.”)

A Difficult Woman
The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman.
By Alice Kessler-Harris.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Victor Navasky
Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, was the magazine's editor from 1978 to 1995 and publisher and...

Also by the Author

The impact of Cold War anticommunism on our national life has been so profound that we no longer recognize how much we’ve lost.

He was a passionate purist in his prose, his populist politics and his expectations of others and himself.

But underlying their antagonism was the fact that they were on opposite sides of a political and cultural divide. McCarthy was a Trotskyist and thereby inclined to loathe Stalinists. Hellman was vulnerable to the charge of Stalinism because in 1938, shortly after she’d joined the Communist Party in full awareness of the show trials (she’d been in Moscow while they were going on), she had signed a letter—along with 350 other writers, artists and scientists—declaring her belief in the guilt of the defendants and accepting the trials as necessary to preserve progressive democracy in the USSR. Nor did she ever repudiate the act. Kessler-Harris’s judicious observation seems apropos: “In the sharp glare of history, neither the act of signing that letter nor her failure to repudiate the document thereafter is defensible. But by the dim light of the 1930s, both acts are understandable.” Kessler-Harris reports that years later, Hellman confessed to her goddaughter that she simply had not seen or understood the full spectrum of Stalin’s sins.

Nevertheless, given their respective conflicting worldviews, McCarthy and Hellman were on a collision course. McCarthy wrote for Encounter, which was sponsored by the CIA-funded Committee for Cultural Freedom. Its regular contributors included people like Irving Kristol (later to be dubbed the “godfather of neoconservatism”), Sidney Hook (the Marxist who veered further and further to the right) and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (who in those years, as Nation editor Carey McWilliams put it, “spoke the language of McCarthyism with a Harvard accent”). As a group, the contributors to Encounter focused on Soviet espionage and subversion, which Hellman considered a “red herring.” Her worldview on these matters may be gathered from a statement that Hellman wrote but never released, in which she asserts that “In all the organizations in which I have participated over the past 15 years,” she had never “heard one word concerning espionage, sabotage, force, or violence, or the overthrow of our government.” Like The Nation’s editor-publisher Freda Kirchwey (McWilliams’s predecessor), she thought the idea of the angelic United States versus the demonic USSR was simplistic and “too easy an out…for it excuses policies and behavior which bear no true relationship to the danger.” For Hellman, those anticommunists who saw communism as a monolithic worldwide conspiracy thereby fostered unwarranted repression at home and inhibited the capacity of ordinary people to dissent.

Hellman’s belief that our constitutional rights and liberties deserved protection from abuses by the US intelligence agencies was central to her involvement in the Committee for Public Justice. Its board consisted of staunch civil rights and civil liberties activists and supporters like Burke Marshall and Roger Wilkins, who had been assistant attorneys general for civil rights under Robert Kennedy and Ramsey Clark, respectively, as well as Norman Dorsen, later president of the American Civil Liberties Union. It ran a much publicized conference at Princeton University on investigating the FBI (for which I was the co-author of a paper on FBI wiretapping).

So was this difficult woman truly a “Stalinist”? Or, as Kessler-Harris argues, does that term obscure more than it clarifies? I would agree that it does—especially when applied to someone like Hellman, whose brief involvement with the party came at a time when the CPUSA was the most vociferous defender of racial equality, the most consistent supporter of her union, the Screen Writers Guild, and, for better or worse, her lover Dashiell Hammett’s home base. And she subsequently spent much of her life fighting fascism and racism and upholding civil liberties. At best, the term “Stalinist” would appear to ignore her First Amendment enthusiasms (albeit mixed with possible political naïveté), and at worst it constitutes a McCarthyite smear.

For myself, I believe that while Mary McCarthy was right about what was happening inside the USSR, Hellman was right about the invidious role that organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom played in the cold war. McCarthy’s attorney Floyd Abrams was correct that no free-speech absolutist (as Hellman thought herself to be) should pursue the kind of bullying defamation suit she brought against McCarthy—for, had she won, her victory could only have been used by others to repress public discourse. The suit was unwise, and I suspect that had she lived, she would have lost. The otherwise estimable lawyer Ephraim London did her no favors in agreeing to take the case. But for the reasons made clear in this valuable book, when the dust settles, this difficult woman’s reputation will fare better than it did when Kessler-Harris began her Hellman journey.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.