June 21, 2011


Don't Blame Mary McCarthy: Oh, for the days of Lillian 'Pants on Fire' Hellman. Now accusations of lying often just mean: I disagree with you. (BARTON SWAIM , 6/21/11, WSJ)

There are at least two problems with Mr. Ackerman's idea. The first is that it's never clear what sort of "crisis"—or "failure of public conversation"—he is talking about. The nearest he comes to describing the "crisis" is this: The Hellman-McCarthy lawsuit "represents a clash between two models of language: one, as McCarthy saw it, that reports transparently on matters of fact, and one"—presumably as Hellman saw it—"that is self-consciously rhetorical and shaped by desire." Unless I'm mistaken, that's a highfalutin way of saying that the question of what constitutes truth in particular utterances is often disputable. I'm not convinced that we need a 300-page monograph to tell us that.

The second problem with Mr. Ackerman's idea is that, although McCarthy intended her remark to be witty rather than strictly true, it wasn't particularly witty and came awfully close to the truth. Hellman was, in fact, a chronic liar. She wrote three memoirs: "An Unfinished Woman" (1969), Pentimento (1973) and "Scoundrel Time" (1976). Reviewer after reviewer during the 1970s and 1980s—including Irving Howe in Dissent, Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, Alfred Kazin in Esquire, Martha Gellhorn in the Paris Review and most devastatingly Samuel McCracken in Commentary—showed beyond any doubt that these books were full of outrageous omissions and flagrant departures from the historical record.

In the worst instance, a story in "Pentimento," Hellman claimed that she had gone to heroic lengths to aid a young American woman named Julia in supporting anti-Nazi conspirators in Germany. In due course it emerged that the real Julia was a woman named Muriel Gardiner and that Hellman, who had heard her story from someone else, had simply stolen it and put herself in the lead role.

I say all this is a problem for Mr. Ackerman's thesis because if there is any "crisis in American political discourse," it is the nonchalance with which eminent commentators and now even politicians make accusations of dishonesty.

Posted by at June 21, 2011 5:42 AM

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