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Scoundrel Time

by Lillian Hellman
Little, Brown, 155 pp., $7.95

This is the third of the meditations of Miss Hellman’s memory. Its single theme is her summons by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, her decision to refuse to yield up the names of Communists she had known, the worse trouble with the Hollywood blacklist that followed that trouble, and the dignity and the shrewdness that carried her through both.

Miss Hellman has developed a style for these discourses very close to the ideal style for letters, say, from an aunt who is envied for her experience of the world and enjoyed for her candor and her comic sense whenever they are directed at persons other than oneself—always a comfortable majority of the cases—amusing, affecting, persuasive, entirely charming, if you don’t too much mind being hectored now and then.

Her nieces seem somehow luckier than her nephews. Nieces, I suspect, read her letters for that feminine wisdom condemned to be misunderstood as womanly folly: the sensibility that armors itself with a Balmain dress for the ordeal by the Committee on Un-American Activities, the taste that notices the habit awkward social occasions have of being accompanied by bad food, the gaiety that conquers dread with shopping sprees. It is hard for nephews to find that much unforced pleasure in Miss Hellman; they have to be wary of possible disapproval.

I have never quite understood upon what altar Miss Hellman’s moral authority was consecrated; but that authority is there, was there even before the apotheosis of her risky yet grand appearance before the Committee on Un-American Activities. To measure how far and for how long a time her writ has run we need only to consider the case of Elia Kazan, who had decided that it was necessary for him, as they used to say in those days, to “come clean” with the Committee on Un-American Activities. Kazan is one of those persons who would have especially profited from the injunction, “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” As it was, in his ignorance, he spread apologies for his small sins and explanations of his vast redemption all over the advertising pages of The New York Times, and lifted them like prayers to heaven to Spyros Skouras, president of Twentieth Century Fox.

That was an acceptance of humiliation for the sake of survival in a confiscatory tax bracket, an impulse for which, if we cannot often find enough excuse, we can at least locate an identifiable source. But then, in the midst of his flagellations, Kazan sought out Miss Hellman, who had not yet appeared before the committee, to explain himself to her. It was an overture to humiliation for humiliation’s own sake that does not now lend itself to reasonable understanding. The scene can only be guessed at among the clouds that surround Miss Hellman’s reincarnation in the memoir, but we can glimpse in it the Confederate lady who uplifted the soldier in the heat of his youth and waited in the twilight to receive but in no measure to entertain the veteran’s apology for having joined the board of directors of the carpetbagger’s railroad.

Miss Hellman’s strength of character is great, but of a kind that is hard to comprehend apart from its candid snobbishness. When she searches for the core of the self that enabled her to resist and left Clifford Odets naked to surrender to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, she can return with no discovery more useful than:

It is impossible to think that a grown man, intelligent, doesn’t have some sense of how he will act under pressure. It’s all been decided so long ago, when you are very young, all mixed up with your childhood’s definition of pride or dignity.

Or elsewhere:

Many [American intellectuals] found in the sins of Stalin Communism—and there were plenty of sins and plenty that for a long time I mistakenly denied—the excuse to join those who should have been their hereditary enemies. Perhaps that, in part, was the penalty of nineteenth-century immigration. The children of timid immigrants are often remarkable people: energetic, intelligent, hardworking; and often they make it so good that they are determined to keep it at any cost.

Observations of that tenor somehow suggest that for strong spirits like Miss Hellman’s, the Sunday family dinner is material for rebellion in childhood, comedy in middle age, and attitudes in final maturity. What is here intimated is some doctrine of predestination by growing up with servants in the kitchen, but it is not easy to think such a notion prepossessing and impossible to find it serviceable as a measurement for moral development. We are left to wonder why Senator Harry Flood Byrd, whose mother was in every way a Virginia lady, should have arrived at his fullest spiritual bloom ringing changes on the word “nigger” on public platforms, or why John Foster Dulles, grandson of an American secretary of state, should have managed a career whose most striking achievement was the avoidance of any suspicion that the impulse of a gentleman might ever intrude upon his conduct. Let us settle for saying that Commentary‘s tone was lamentable in the early Fifties, when its editor was Eliot Cohen; for what worse epithet must we thereupon reach to describe Time, the Weekly Newsmagazine, in the days when its managing editor was Thomas S. Matthews, son of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of New Jersey?

We move, I think, closer to the truth about those years when Miss Hellman swam against the current and Odets sank beneath it if we think of the Fifties as a time not much different from this one and a majority of others—when most people acted badly, and public faces passed by as a succession of gray embarrassments infrequently illuminated by displays of dignity like Miss Hellman’s. Banality is the only sort of chic that always has its fashion; and we need not be surprised that Miss Hellman, thanks to her superb hour of resistance to banal chic, should now be punished with the comfortable indignity of being enshrined by it.

…An intense, moving moral,” Time says of her story now. “She was brave because her private code would not allow her to be anything else. She dabbled in radical politics and befriended Communists because she thought it was her right as an American to associate with whomever she damn well pleased….Scoundrel Time is a memorable portrait of…a polished stylist and an invaluable American.”

The tone of Time‘s original report on Miss Hellman’s encounter with the House Committee on Un-American Activities had, of course, been faithfully cast into the cadences of what Edmund Wilson once called its “peculiar kind of jeering rancor.”

Her sympathies [had] led her to attend countless Red-inspired rallies and lend her name to various Communist-front crusades,…as the record shows, a skilled playwright and a great meeting goer.

Caption on Miss Hellman’s photograph, Time, May 10, 1976:

AUTHOR HELLMAN: “I cannot cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

Caption on Miss Hellman’s photograph, Time, June 2, 1952:

PLAYWRIGHT HELLMAN: “An expert at smooth dialogue.”

But after all, as Burke said, “We are very uncorrupt and tolerably enlightened judges of the transactions of past ages…. Few are the partisans of departed tyrannies.”

So, when Mr. Nixon was in his terminal throes, we were treated to the spectacle of White House Counsel Dean Burch, who had come first to our notice as manager of Senator Goldwater’s presidential campaign, complaining to the journalists about the “McCarthyite tactics” of the House Judiciary Committee. A year or so ago, New York Magazine published an interview with Ted Ashley, the talent agent. Its most inspiring passages recited Ashley’s brave, lonely, and, so far as his own memory seemed to suggest, successful struggle to defend Philip Loeb, the actor, against the blacklist. It seems to have been of no consequence to the glory of this Iliad that, if not by Ashley’s will certainly with his ultimate compliance, Loeb had been so effectively blacklisted that throughout the year before his suicide he had been able to find no employment above the $87.50 a week Off-Broadway scale. Those who can forget their own history are rewarded by having it forgotten by pretty much everyone else.

When we consider the general practice of using memory so earnestly as an instrument for mendacity, it is a sufficient miracle for Miss Hellman to be so honest a witness; and our admiration for her integrity cannot grow smaller for a final impression that Scoundrel Time is not quite true. Honesty and truth are not just the same thing, since the first has to do with character and the second with self-understanding of a cruder kind than hers.

Miss Hellman cannot be blamed for Time‘s having spoken of her political history as a business of having “dabbled in radical politics.” But, even so, the very light brush she brings to her treatment of what must have been a commitment of high self-discipline could well contribute to such a misapprehension. She was, by every evidence, what she most puzzlingly denies she was—one of “those serious, dedicated people”—and she would not have needed to rely so entirely upon herself in her troubles if she hadn’t been. It is therefore rather unsettling to come upon musings like:

the mishmash of those years, beginning before my congressional debut and for years after, took a heavy penalty. My belief in liberalism was mostly gone…. There was nothing strange about my problem, it is native to our time; but it is painful for a nature that can no longer accept liberalism not to be able to accept radicalism.

Now except for the lonely period when she could have used their good will most, the run of liberals have shown great respect and no little affection for Miss Hellman, and for more substantial reasons than the reverence liberals render to success and the odd pleasure so many of them draw from being scolded. But all the same it would be surprising if Miss Hellman could have been left with many illusions about liberals by the time, long before McCarthyism, when she had completed her apprenticeship with Horace Liveright. By the late Forties, the most prominent liberals were busy antagonists of her two most heartfelt causes, Henry Wallace’s campaign for president as a Progressive in 1948, and the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1949.

The Waldorf conference was beset with more obloquy than it deserved; but I cannot think that Garry Wills has come quite up to the lofty mark for historical objectivity that he has maintained almost everywhere else when he speaks, in his introduction, of Miss Hellman’s having, in her wartime trips to the Soviet Union, “formed friendships there not subject to any government line, so she helped arrange for artists and scholars to meet and discuss what would later (when a new line came in) be called ‘detente.”’ What had been arranged might less enthusiastically be described as a discussion between Americans who spoke critically of their government and Russians who could hardly have offered theirs any such treatment and safely gone home. It is doubtful that the Waldorf conference provided any historical lesson more significant than that Lillian Hellman got in trouble because she attended it and Dmitri Shostakovich risked worse trouble if he hadn’t. But, all the same, there is, I suppose, a case to be made for encounters of this sort, and it seems a loss that Miss Hellman takes note of the affair in terms so cursory as to afford us no reflections upon it at all.1

  1. 1

    Cedric Belfrage’s American Inquisition, 1945-1960 (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973), the best perhaps because it is the most radical account that I know of those days, contains a tidy summary of the Waldorf conference, and makes it sound much more interesting than most of us permitted ourselves to imagine. The remarks of Harlow Shapley, Norman Mailer, and I.F. Stone sound especially notable for critical independence; for the flavor of the Russians we can be satisfied with this: “Shostakovich described Russia’s mushroom growth of music activity, especially in Soviet Asia, which had neither an orchestra, a chorus nor an opera house 30 years ago.”

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