Reviews

Lillian Hellman, True and False

"Female murderers get sheaves of offers of marriage."
—Shaw

In a recent issue of The Nation, John L. Hess complains about the current flow of books demythologizing the venerated martyrs of the American left. So what if new historical research suggests that the Rosenbergs (or at least one of them) were actually guilty? So what if the same is true of Alger Hiss—and even Sacco, of Saceo and Vanzetti? It was all so long ago. It's time to move on now; new issues call—like Irangate and the delicts of the contras. Hess's concern over obsession with the past was provoked by William Wright's new biography of Lillian Hellman. In a way, he has a point. Since Hellman was at best "a good second-rate playwright," it's not immediately clear why a biography of her should rate (as this one did) the lead article in the New York Times Book Review as well as the front page of the Washington Post Book Review.

The answer has to do not with the intrinsic importance of any of these people, but rather with the cultural importance they have gradually achieved as they have been crafted, over time, into symbols of American political life. The Rosenbergs have become at worst merely minor-league atom-spies, but for the past 35 years their unkind fate has been used by the left as an indictment of the corruption,...

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