Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, March 05, 2007

To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest

Of the books I read while Mary was out running very long distances, Lillian Hellman's Scoundrel Time proved to be both a great read and an unexpected case study in - with apologies to Sting and Carl Jung - synchronicity.

Ever pick up a book that perfectly and succintly speaks to a time and place in a way you weren't expecting, elegantly placing the capstone on some seemingly unrelated series of events in a manner that makes them meaningful in a new way?

If you have, then you'll understand why When the Levees Broke + The Wire + my increasing addiction to hardboiled fiction + Los Angeles + Mary's marathoning + Dubya/Hillary = this excellent memoir.

Or maybe you won't. Lemme 'splain real quick, and then I'll get right to the good stuff.

In short, the cumulative failure of our social institutions, political leaders, and public imagination to do anything but natter on in increasingly insular enclaves while New Orleans sinks, the icecaps melt, Iraq crumbles, and the filthy rich do any damn thing they want has had me on a bit of a glum streak for some time now. Britney's in rehab, the wolves are at the door, and the water has hit the top step, so smoke 'em if you got 'em friends, cause the bastards have finally won and we're all one dune buggy from Mad Max out here.

This is, you might guess, no way to live.

So imagine my delight when I read Scoundrel Time, which is a valuable document of one of our past national freakouts that is eerily prescient, from the dirty tricks to the failure of the majority of the intelligentsia to do anything but stand around with their soundbites in the wind.

What happened was this: Hellman was called before the House Committe on UnAmerican Activities and kept her head when all about her were naming names. She politely told them she would answer any question about her own activities they cared to ask. She then added, in the classiest way possible, that when it came to discussing any of her friends they could go to hell.

For this, she lost her house, the blacklist ate her career, her phones were tapped and her passport restricted, she was audited and penalized by the IRS, who also looted her bank account, and she was put under surveillance by the CIA while living as an expatriate.

(Hammett was less polite, and they did the same to him, but they threw him in jail too.)

Lillian Hellman was an amazing woman for many reasons. She was a hell of a writer, for one, and she also put up with Dashiell "TB and a gambling problem is no reason to quit drinking" Hammett.* And if this was just a book about "How I stood up to Joe McCarthy" that would be a fine accomplishment in itself. Her letter to the committee is a model of principled dissent that should be required reading in every political science, political sociology, or ethics class. But where this slim little book becomes a masterpiece is in the way she describes life in the crosshairs where, in her memorable phrase, "Truth made you a traitor as it often does in a time of scoundrels."

Nor is this simply a story of the big bad right wing come to blow down the house of the virtuous leftist. As any student of the period knows, most fellow travellers folded like a Vegas cardsharp when push came to shove; Hellman writes of many an ostensible radical whose convictions turned out to be less dear to them than did their swimming pool. She does this for the most part without rancor, forgiving if not forgetting, and she brings the same level of scruitiny to bear on herself and Hammett as well. It is a story that is heartbreaking, chilling, and ultimately inspiring, without being sappy or self-righteous, and it's told by a master essayist whose humility is only exceeded by her insight.

If "speaking truth to power" seems to you to have come to mean "preaching to the pundit choir"...
If you need to be reminded that sometimes basic human decency is more powerful than rhetoric, Senators, and public opinion combined...
And if you think Milan Kundera is brilliant, but sometimes insufferably smug...

...this book is for you.


* In fact, the only thing of hers I had read prior to this was an essay about her life with Hammett, which moved me to tears. I am now committed to rectifying this glaring oversight.


Anonymous said...

Hellman's politics were brutal and dishonest. She supported Stalin and the Soviet Union throughout her life (even after Hungary), lied about her knowledge of the Moscow show trials, in "Pentimento" her story of Julia was proven to be a lie (she had never even met her). There are many other examples that could be given.

The account of her life that she gives in "Scoundral Time" was mendacious and self-glorifying.

As Mary McCarthy said about Hellman, "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."

mary_m said...

Well, Brady, you said you wanted comments.

Brady said...


Anonymous posters who don't cite their sources get no love from me, kiddo.

Though I will say, about the book, that there are plenty of times she comes across as stubborn, childish, conflicted, and backing the wrong horse.

It's just that there are all these other times when she doesn't, and then some.

Anonymous said...

You haven't read much about Hellman if I need to give you citations about her legendary lying.

But you can try:
Carl Rollyson, "Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her legacy"

Joan Mellen, "Hellman and Hammett"

Norman Podhoretz, "Ex-Friends"

A NYT article, "Why Lillian Hellman Remains Fascinating" by William Wright.

A New York Sun article by Carl Rollyson, "The Lives and Lies of Lillian Hellman".

A New York Sun article by Otto Penzler, "Lillian Hellman's 'Million Little Pieces'"

Muriel Gardiner was the real woman who Hellman claimed was her closest friend and who was "Julia". Unfortunately as Gardiner wrote in her own book, "Code Name "Mary": An American Woman in the Austrian Underground", she never met Hellman.

The Mary McCarthy quote is very famous and need no citation but it was originally said on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980.

Those are just a few but finally, Google James Frey and Lillian Hellman and browse through the results