Review: Just words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the failure of public conversation in America
Book by Alan Ackerman
In an episode of Dick Cavett’s PBS talk show broadcast on Jan. 25, 1980, the redoubtable writer, critic and political activist Mary McCarthy, 67, pronounced that everything Lillian Hellman, 74—another redoubtable writer, critic and political activist—ever wrote “was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” Hellman sued for libel and $2.25 million. In one way it was a tempest in a teapot: whatever legal benchmark might have been set, the case died with Hellman in 1984. Yet in another sense, one Ackerman, a University of Toronto English professor, mines to subtle effect, the lawsuit was also about the U.S. failure to establish norms for public argument in a nation that is more constitutionally committed to free speech and more litigious than any other.
The two women were re-fighting battles within the American left that went back to the Spanish Civil War and Stalinist show trials of the 1930s, battles that mostly turned on whether one stuck by Communism whatever its barbarities because the end—defeating fascism—justified the means (Hellman). Or didn’t (McCarthy). But the long-simmering tensions between them were just as important. During one rare personal encounter, a 1949 cocktail party, McCarthy heard Hellman telling a sneering story about novelist John Dos Passos, who had split with former friends Ernest Hemingway and Hellman after they ignored Soviet involvement in the 1937 murder of Dos Passos’s friend, Spanish radical José Robles. McCarthy denounced her on the spot for slander and left Hellman trembling in fury.
For all its roots in the deep past, Ackerman shows the libel case, with its implicit claim that there was only one true account of past reality (all others being “lies”) and its blurring of the line between private and public, points the way forward to America’s present uncivil discourse. From denunciations of James Frey for fraud for having mixed fact and fiction, à la Hellman, in a memoir, to demanding that Barack Obama release personal documents to counter outlandish claims, U.S. public conversation is now a full-contact sport.
Mr. Ackerman thinks that the lawsuit against Mary McCarthy, which dragged on until Hellman's death in 1984 and cost McCarthy enormous sums in legal fees, tells us something about a "crisis in American moral discourse" dating back to the 1930s.
There are at least two problems with Mr. Ackerman's idea. The first is that it's never clear what sort of "crisis"—or "failure of public conversation"—he is talking about. The nearest he comes to describing the "crisis" is this: The Hellman-McCarthy lawsuit "represents a clash between two models of language: one, as McCarthy saw it, that reports transparently on matters of fact, and one"—presumably as Hellman saw it—"that is self-consciously rhetorical and shaped by desire." Unless I'm mistaken, that's a highfalutin way of saying that the question of what constitutes truth in particular utterances is often disputable. I'm not convinced that we need a 300-page monograph to tell us that.
The second problem with Mr. Ackerman's idea is that, although McCarthy intended her remark to be witty rather than strictly true, it wasn't particularly witty and came awfully close to the truth. Hellman was, in fact, a chronic liar. She wrote three memoirs: "An Unfinished Woman" (1969), Pentimento (1973) and "Scoundrel Time" (1976). Reviewer after reviewer during the 1970s and 1980s—including Irving Howe in Dissent, Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, Alfred Kazin in Esquire, Martha Gellhorn in the Paris Review and most devastatingly Samuel McCracken in Commentary—showed beyond any doubt that these books were full of outrageous omissions and flagrant departures from the historical record.
In the worst instance, a story in "Pentimento," Hellman claimed that she had gone to heroic lengths to aid a young American woman named Julia in supporting anti-Nazi conspirators in Germany. In due course it emerged that the real Julia was a woman named Muriel Gardiner and that Hellman, who had heard her story from someone else, had simply stolen it and put herself in the lead role.
I say all this is a problem for Mr. Ackerman's thesis because if there is any "crisis in American political discourse," it is the nonchalance with which eminent commentators and now even politicians make accusations of dishonesty. A "liar" is now someone who simply holds a contrary opinion or who supports a policy with which one strongly disagrees. But Lillian Hellman's lies were actually lies; she based the latter half of her literary career on intentional, egregious untruths about herself and others.