Where else but the New York Times?
To the Editor:
The reviewer of Alice Kessler-Harris’s book about Lillian Hellman, “A Difficult Woman” (June 10), complains that it doesn’t probe “inside Hellman’s character” but instead looks at how her life, as Kessler-Harris puts it, “illuminates the world she confronted.” But this is a history book, and that is what we historians do. The reviewer complains that Kessler-Harris points out that others besides Hellman were skeptical of Zionism or defensive about the Soviet Union, but these facts are part of the context that helps us see Hellman historically. The reviewer is also still fighting the cold war, using the review to snipe at 1930s radical politics; she accuses the author of romanticizing Communism into harmlessness while she does the same with the McCarthyite purges that Hellman abhorred. The Times should have assigned this book to someone prepared to evaluate a historian’s attempt to interpret Hellman both as a creature and a defier of her world.
LINDA K. KERBER
The writers are professors of history at, respectively, New York University and the University of Iowa.
McCarthyism was one of the worst things that ever happened to this country: 1) it made stupid accusations against many innocent people, 2) the guilty ones it accused were no longer a danger, as the Communist Party of America was a spent force, having committed suicide after World War II, 3) it provided the permanent get-out-of-jail-free card to people whom, in a sensible country, would have been laughed out of public life forever. People like Lillian Hellman.