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A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman

Author: Alice Kessler-Harris
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Lillian Hellman was a giant of twentieth-century letters and a groundbreaking figure as one of the most successful female playwrights on Broadway. Yet the author of The Little Foxes and Toys in the Attic is today remembered more as a toxic, bitter survivor and literary fabulist, the woman of whom Mary McCarthy said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" In A Difficult Woman, renowned historian Alice Kessler-Harris undertakes a feat few would dare to attempt: a reclamation of a combative, controversial woman who straddled so many political and cultural fault lines of her time. Kessler-Harris renders Hellman's feisty wit and personality in all of its contradictions: as a non-Jewish Jew, a displaced Southerner, a passionate political voice without a party, an artist immersed in commerce, a sexually free woman who scorned much of the women's movement, a loyal friend whose trust was often betrayed, and a writer of memoirs who repeatedly questioned the possibility of achieving truth and doubted her memory. Hellman was a writer whose plays spoke the language of morality yet whose achievements foundered on accusations of mendacity. Above all else, she was a woman who made her way in a man's world. Kessler-Harris has crafted a nuanced life of Hellman, empathetic yet unsparing, that situates her in the varied contexts in which she moved, from New Orleans to Broadway to the hearing room of HUAC. A Difficut Woman is a major work of literary and intellectual history. This will be one of the most reviewed, and most acclaimed, books of 2012.

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A revelatory and provocative biography of one of the most controversial women of the twentieth century, by one of America's most renowned historians.


Hellman's life provides Kessler-Harris with a fascinating, idiosyncratic viewpoint from which to dissect the intellectual currents of the 20th century. Kessler-Harris's previous books have been broad studies of women in the industrial age, and here she demonstrates the historian's skill with scope, but also compellingly threads in the minutiae of one woman's attempts to negotiate the 'sharp turns' of U.S. culture and politics. The Daily Beast Substantive ... here's one good reason why young women especially should care about the lessons offered by Hellman's life: Hellman, Kessler-Harris emphasizes, continued to be a bold creature of the 1920s long after Betty Boop became domesticated into June Cleaver. She paid dearly for that 'disorderly conduct.' Kessler-Harris does a superb job of showing how gendered - even misogynist- the criticisms of Hellman's art and politics were. Maureen Corrigan on NPR's Fresh Air A Difficult Woman(...) would be worth reading just for its portrait of the mid-20th century politico-cultural cauldron. It would be worth reading for its presentation of Hellman, 'a juicy character' and 'a difficult woman, impassioned, tempestuous, transgressive with regard to gender roles." It would be worth reading, too, for the historical light it sheds on the divisive ferocity of today's political discussion. That this book combines so many elements reflects its breadth and strength as history, biography, and cultural criticism Boston Globe I don't know that I have ever read this good a rescue job. Columbia historian Alice Kessler-Harris's biography of dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman made me feel like a stupid cliche: just another American who knows little of Hellman's life, and even less of her work, but feels totally comfortably judging her as an unrepentant Stalinist and a compulsive liar... Kessler-Harris has persuaded me that Hellman, for all her lies, was brilliant, courageous and, above all, interesting...a biographer's job is to understand, not bury, her subject. Alice Kessler-Harris has succeeded. The Forward

Author description

Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, in New York City. She is one of America's most renowned scholars, known for her work on labor and gender history. She is the author of the classic history of working women, Out to Work. Her In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America won the Joan Kelly, Philip Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Bancroft Prizes. In 2012 she served as President of the Organization of American Historians.

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General Fields

  • : 9781608193950
  • : Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
  • : Bloomsbury Press
  • : August 2012
  • : 210mm X 140mm
  • : United States
  • : September 2013
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Paperback
  • : Alice Kessler-Harris
  • : 812.52
  • : Black and white
  • : 448