Alice Kessler-Harris: Lillian Hellman's Convictions

Roundup: Talking About History

Alice Kessler-Harris is a professor of history at Columbia University and departing president of the Organization of American Historians. Her book A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman is being published this month by Bloomsbury Press.

The distinguished historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to what has come to be known as the short 20th century, from 1914 to 1991, as the history of the relationship of the West with communism. As it took power in the Soviet Union and then spun out to influence all aspects of personal and political life, the idea of communism and the reality of Soviet influence penetrated every corner of the world. The way we write history, particularly in the United States, ranks among the least visible and yet most unfortunate consequences of the conflict. I discovered that as I struggled to write about the American playwright, activist, and, yes, one-time Communist, Lillian Hellman.

It is no secret that Hellman, like many intellectuals and artists of her generation, briefly lent her name and her good offices to American communism. Affiliation with the Communist Party USA and allegiance to the idea of communism constituted meaningful, and perhaps for a short time even central, parts of her life. But for historians of the 20th century, questions of communist affiliation in thought or deed have become much more than a brief encounter. Rather, such questions, and the mirror issue of anticommunism, have become ways of seeing, indispensable lenses.

Particularly in 20th-century American biography, they are often the canvas on which a life plays out, no matter how inconsequential the association. Like hidden incest, or a concealed lie, communism often became the shadow player (the secret sharer) in the story, the scab that had to be scratched. Considerations of affiliation and loyalty (within the CPUSA, to one faction or another, or to none at all) anchored the life. Assessments of timing and contrition measured the worth and value of the human being, inevitably coloring him or her pink or red or an innocent white....

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