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Just Words

Just Words: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and the Failure of Public Conversation in America

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Just Words
    Book Description:

    In an appearance onThe Dick Cavett Showin 1980, the critic Mary McCarthy glibly remarked that every word author Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, "including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman immediately filed a libel suit, charging that McCarthy's comment was not a legitimate conversation on public issues but an attack on her reputation. This intriguing book offers a many-faceted examination of Hellman's infamous suit and explores what it tells us about tensions between privacy and self-expression, freedom and restraint in public language, and what can and cannot be said in public in America.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17180-8
    Subjects: History, Law, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Just Wordsemerges from the libel suit that author Lillian Hellman filed in 1980 against critic Mary McCarthy, who said on theDick Cavett Showthat every word Hellman wrote was a lie, “including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” The lawsuit became a cause célèbre that illuminated the arguments—and the passion for argument—of their generation. As the social critic Irving Howe wrote, “It’s not just two old ladies involved in a catfight. The question involved—of one’s attitude toward communism—is probably the central political-cultural-intellectual problem of the 20th century. I think for many of us those disputes were the...

  6. I Libel and Life-Writing
    (pp. 25-66)

    Libel is woven into our everyday language. It springs from a complicated set of motivations: vanity, envy, and resentment. Although many of us utter actionable slanders every day, libel suits are relatively rare because they require a huge investment of energy, time, and money. In general, you have to be rich to protect your reputation through litigation, and you need to be prepared to expose your private life to public scrutiny. As writers, publishers, broadcasters, and ordinary citizens increasingly discovered in the 1970s and 1980s, it is hard to know when the telling of stories will have legal consequences.


  7. II Language Lessons
    (pp. 67-116)

    When Mary McCarthy said that “every word” Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, “including ‘and’ and ‘the,’” she provoked a fight about language itself. In a basic sense, their differences stem from the ways they learned languages as children. Language lessons in public and parochial schools shaped their worldviews, and this chapter tells the story of their formative years and of how Americans have thought about childhood and language acquisition more broadly. In their work, Hellman and McCarthy often reflected on how to teach languages and on the instruction they received as children. Examining historical attitudes toward education also indicates...

  8. III Words of Love
    (pp. 117-183)

    On a steamy Monday evening in June 1925, after a day of work as a manuscript reader at Horace Live-right’s publishing firm in New York and six months before she married Arthur Kober, the nineteen-year-old Lillian Hellman visited a Coney Island “half-house” and, with the doctor’s mother serving as assistant and no anesthetic, had the first of seven abortions. All month she had expected to be fired for misplacing a manuscript, but the abortion seemed to improve her position; the editors took a new interest in her. On Tuesday, she returned to work at the five-story brownstone, located in the...

  9. IV Choice Words and Political Dramas
    (pp. 184-249)

    The ways Americans tell stories about their moral and political choices shape and delimit those choices. On a Tuesday morning in April 1937, a train pulled into Mexico City bearing the seventy-eight year-old philosopher John Dewey, novelist James T. Farrell, and other commissioners and staff of the Dewey Commission of Inquiry into the Charges against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials. Stalin’s four show trials in Russia had begun a year earlier. In the first, sixteen prominent Bolsheviks confessed to having plotted with Trotsky to kill Stalin. The court found everybody guilty and sentenced the defendants to death, including Trotsky...

  10. V Criticism versus Libel
    (pp. 250-292)

    In the first chapter, I wrote that Justice Harold Baer raised questions in the Hellman-McCarthy case that are central to both law and literary criticism. For instance, what is a critic? “The fact is,” said McCarthy’s friend Dwight Macdonald, “Mary’s a critic with a right to make judgments.”¹ Macdonald thought the case should have been dismissed on those grounds. But, if McCarthy spoke as a critic when she called Hellman dishonest, what was the source of her critical authority? Was it fact or opinion? Baer found that “the language complained of does not clearly pass the test as an opinion,”...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 293-304)

    On January 11, 2006, after a week of bad publicity, James Frey, self-described drug addict, alcoholic, and criminal, and author of a controversial memoir entitledA Million Little Pieces, appeared on CNN’sLarry King Liveto defend his veracity. On January 8, 2006,The Smoking Gunwebsite had published an exposé, “A Million Little Lies: Exposing James Frey’s Fiction Addiction.”¹ It alleged that Frey manipulated details of his life to render himself more compelling as a “tragic victim” and to sweeten the “melodramatic narrative.” Instead of spending months inprison, as he claimed, Frey had spent a few hours in a...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 305-341)
  13. Index
    (pp. 342-361)