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  • Vouching for Evidence:The New Life of Old Writing in Lillian Hellman’s Memoirs
  • Erin Bartels Buller (bio)

In the wake of Mary McCarthy’s famous attack on Lillian Hellman, made on the The Dick Cavett Show in 1980 (that every word she wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the”), and of Hellman’s response—indignation and a libel suit—other Hellman detractors proceeded to accuse her of inaccurate research, faulty memory, and outright lying in her memoirs. Martha Gellhorn, calling Hellman an “apocryphiar,” suggested for instance that rather than having experienced an air raid in Spain in 1937, as she describes in her first memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Hellman most likely had heard accounts of the raid a week before she arrived in Valencia, and “her imagination then took over, placing her a bit off key at the center of the apocryphal action” (294). American psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, who had worked in the antifascist underground in Vienna during the 1930s, as had the title character of Hellman’s portrait “Julia,” published her autobiography in 1983 and said in the introduction that her friends had insisted since the publication of the portrait in Pentimento in 1973 that she must be Julia (xv). Gardiner explained that she had consulted the director of the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance, and neither he nor the former resistance workers he was in contact with had heard of another American woman deeply involved in the resistance (xv–xvi).1 In 1984 Samuel McCracken built on Gardiner’s comments and catalogued the contradictions within the “Julia” portrait itself, using train and boat schedules from the late 1930s to uncover discrepancies in geography and timelines. [End Page 109]

Hellman was not merely caught up in accusations about lies. She herself focused insistently on truth and lying—in her plays, in her memoirs, in her life. She rose to fame in 1934 with the premiere of The Children’s Hour, a play about a lie and a libel suit. She died fifty years later in the thick of a legal battle in which she had accused another woman of defaming her by calling her a liar. In her “memoir books” (Hellman used that term in 1980 to describe her autobiographical and semiautobiographical writing), she displayed a fascination not only with truth and lying, but also with a cluster of related ideas—memory, evidence, and access to the past—that destabilize those two terms. The memoirs struggle with but also seem to revel in discordances between Hellman’s remembered versions of her life and friendships, on the one hand, and the documents and traces that remain from those events and relationships, on the other. She draws frequently on old letters and her own writing as sources and yet undermines their authority as sources by commenting, for instance, that the notes in her diaries “make no pattern” when she reads them now (Hellman, Pentimento 16).

Hellman’s inclusion of both memory-driven retrospective narrative and documentary evidence (such as old diaries and letters) in her memoir books enables her readers to reconsider the relationship between these two forms, which serve as the primary means of access to the past not only in memoir writing but also historical research and even law. My study of Hellman’s use of documents relies largely on her drafts of the memoirs; they show the extent to which she revised the material that she claims comes from diaries, and exactly how she put that older material in conversation with her memory of the events decades later. I was also able to examine some of the documents she draws from, most notably a diary from her 1944–45 trip to Russia that figures prominently in An Unfinished Woman.2

Like any memoirist who references sources, Hellman couches them in her own testimony. She situates them and vouches for them. Wherever truth claims are made—including history writing, biography, and literary nonfiction—material evidence and testimony form a sometimes uncomfortable partnership in order to substantiate the claims made in the narrative. Hellman’s memoirs mirror biography’s convention of documenting events by way of sources, but in her writing that strategy becomes instead a way...


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pp. 109-134
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