A Difficult Woman

DifficultWomanA Difficult Woman
Alice Kessler-Harris
Kindle Edition  $13.35, Amazon Hardcover Bargain Price $12.00, Amazon Paperback  $14.05
448 pages, Bloomsbury Press (April 30, 2012)

Author Alice Kessler-Harris states at the very beginning of this book that it was not intended as a biography of Lillian Hellman. She acknowledges the existing biographies and refers the reader there if that is what they are seeking. Her undertaking here, she says, is an analysis of Hellman’s life and work from a feminist perspective.

Certainly Hellman, as one of the foremost writers and activists of the twentieth century, is deserving of such an analysis. And a fascinating and multi-faceted individual Hellman was. I believe Kessler-Harris hits the nail on the head when she says, “critics, reviewers, political friends and enemies collectively formulated a life that reshaped Lillian Hellman, turning her into something of a Rorschach test.” What one thinks of Hellman is a reflection of one’s own political and social views.

The book is arranged thematically with chapters on Hellman as a woman, an activist, a playwright, a manager of her own finances, and a perhaps sometime Communist. Generally the chapters cover those themes throughout her life. As such, we read a lot about Hellman’s intense sexual appetite in an early chapter and see almost nothing about it through the rest of the book.

Kessler-Harris, while obviously an admirer of Hellman is by no means an apologist. She acknowledges the numerous fictions in her autobiographical writing (most notably the piece “Julia” in the book Pentimento, in which she claims to have delivered $50,000 to a friend in the Austrian resistance). At the same time Kessler-Harris points to the extensive research and detail Hellman put into her plays.

At 448 pages there is a lot of Hellman here, and in the later chapters I found myself wishing for a little less detail. Nonetheless, I believe this book makes an important contribution in helping us to understand who this important and complex woman was.

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