Tag Archives: politics

Thought for the Day from Abe Lincoln: On Know-Nothings and Emigrating to Russia


(image by Sharon Cummings)

From Abraham Lincoln’s 1855 Letter to Joshua Speed

Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.



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Filmmaker Elia Kazan, venting his fury against Lillian Hellman’s memoir Scoundrel Time
in which she skewers him and other liberal artists and intellectuals for their lily-livered performances during the McCarthy Era, raged against “this bitch with balls” who “went after what she wanted the way a man does.” What Kazan once considered a vitriolic attack might now in our post-third-wave-feminist age be perceived rather as a compliment.

Historian Alice Kessler-Harris's intriguing new biography A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman offers a reassessment of Hellman through the lens of “gender as an ideological force.” Hellman’s life is not examined chronologically but by theme, and Kessler-Harris’s spiral structure produces a richly layered approach, despite suffering from repetition.

Hellman’s literary, cultural, and political significance remains disputed, elusive, and of keen interest nearly thirty years after her death. Was she hero or traitor, artist or sell-out, truth-teller or liar? Unrepentant Stalinist, misogynist, and self-hating Jew? Or champion of civil liberties, feminist icon, and advocate of redemptive self-assertion?

Her long, highly successful career as a playwright, screenwriter, and memoirist brought her considerable fame and fortune. She spoke up for her beliefs: individual freedom and active commitment to upholding that right. For Hellman, asserts Kessler-Harris, “silence in the face of evil, the cowardly refusal to act when inaction will promote injustice, is the real sin.”

Hellman is renowned for being demanding, greedy, ambitious, loud, bad tempered, ugly, and a sexual predator. Fiercely protective of her writing, she often refused to alter a word in her plays and rarely allowed her work to be excerpted. She insisted on being well paid for anything she wrote, and scrupulously monitored her royalty receipts, including those for reprints, permissions, performances, and readings. She developed, writes Kessler-Harris, “a range of qualities generally considered in the early and mid-twentieth century to be the province of men. These included a robust vocational commitment, the capacity to identify as a worker who made a living by the pen, and the self-confidence that she had something to say to the larger world.”

For many Hellman’s behavior seemed “a travesty of womanhood.” She was often masculinized, lesbianized, or hyper-sexualized by her critics, supporters, and friends. Leonard Bernstein called her “Uncle Lillian.” Referring to her unconventional, sexually non-exclusive liaison with the writer Dashiell Hammett, the press dubbed her “She Hammett.” A 1941 New Yorker profile described her as a “tough broad… who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth.” Morris Dickstein saw her as “at once a perfect lady and at the same time… obscene.” Jane Fonda, who played Hellman in the film Julia (based on her memoir Pentimento), told an interviewer, “Lillian is a homely woman and yet she moves as if she were Marilyn Monroe. She sits with her legs apart, with her satin underwear partly showing.”

To read the full column at Bookslut click here.

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“Arm Yourself Against My Dawn”: Revisiting Jean Strouse’s groundbreaking biography of Alice James

In a colorful, chatty, and ironically self-aggrandizing letter to her Aunt Kate, Alice James concludes with a quip: “Forgive me all this egotism but I have to be my own Boswell.” Alice James had to wait nearly a century, but she eventually found her Boswell in Jean Strouse. First published in 1980, Strouse’s dazzling, bold, and formidable Alice James: A Biography has recently been reissued as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series and justly so. Strouse’s study, composed in radiant prose, is easily a classic of biography, deftly and elegantly incorporating social history, family history, the history of the science of psychology, and literary criticism. Above all, the book is a paragon of feminist literature in which a marginalized life is brought into focus and examined from multiple perspectives, validating a previously neglected experience and suggesting alternative ways of approaching the past. Like Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson , Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James represents a major advance in the development of the genre, and is as relevant and powerful a piece of writing today as when it was first published.

Alice James was born in 1848, the fifth child and only daughter of Henry and Mary James, and sister of William James, the psychologist and philosopher, and Henry James, the novelist. Her father, who had lost his leg as a young man, was an eccentric writer and philosopher who devoted himself to his children’s moral instruction. He thought travel the best education and much of Alice’s early childhood was spent traipsing around Europe. This impermanency made an already insular family even more codependent. The family eventually settled in Newport and then Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alice’s father doted on her and encouraged her learning but was adamant that she adhere to her true nature and duty as a woman. In an article entitled “Woman and the Woman’s Movement” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1853), he wrote “Woman is… inferior to man… She is his inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect, and his inferior in physical strength… Her aim in life is… simply to love and bless man.”

Alice’s mother did her utmost to comply with this ideal of maternal and wifely devotion. With the help of her unmarried sister Katherine, she ran a smooth household, shielding her husband and sons from any domestic worries while pursing their higher intellectual callings.

Alice exhibited superior intelligence, pungent wit, marked ambition, and competitiveness. At first her precociousness fit in with the peculiarities of the James family universe. But, as is typical of so many girls, when Alice hit puberty, her own desires and expectations clashed dangerously with both the family ethos and that of the world at large. Life’s lesson, she later wrote in her diary, was “to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” Her solution to the problem of her existence took a violent, yet socially acceptable, form. She became chronically ill.

Read the rest of my May column here at Bookslut

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