Just Words


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

Alan Ackerman

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In an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 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.

Alan Ackerman is professor of English, University of Toronto. His books include Seeing Things, from Shakespeare to Pixar and The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage, and he is editor of the journal Modern Drama.

“Ackerman does an admirable job of tying this case to the great issues of the mid-twentieth century.  He uses Hellman and McCarthy as a pretext for fascinating digressions about John Dewey’s commission on Leon Trotsky, the history of Latin instruction in America, and the culture’s attitude toward abortion in the 1930s.”—Franklin Foer, The New Republic

"A worthy exploration of the conflicts created when issues of free speech, publicity, and privacy intersect. The book will make a welcome addition to both general academic and law school libraries."—Donna M. Fisher, Law Library Journal

“A fascinating and highly original contribution that will interest anyone who cares about media, as well as cultural and intellectual history”--Susan Jacoby

"When Mary McCarthy said on the Dick Cavett Show that every word Lillian Hellman wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,’ was she making a literal statement subject to verification? Producing a hyperbolic remark not meant to be taken seriously? Standing up for truth in a world corrupted by political fabrication? Or insisting on a standard of libel the Supreme Court had moved away from? These are just a few of the questions that Alan Ackerman teases out of this fabled incident in a book that demonstrates how an initially narrow focus can flower into a meditation on the deepest things."—Stanley Fish

"Lillian Hellman sued Mary McCarthy for libel over a single sentence. Starting with the facts of this case, Ackerman zooms in to scrutinize the meaning of language, the law of defamation, the nature of privacy, the lives and works of the two writers, and, perhaps most important, the political and cultural quarrels of an age, many of which remain with us."—Stephen Gillers, New York University School of Law

“For all its roots in the deep past, Ackerman shows [that] the libel case . . . points the way forward to America’s present uncivil discourse . . . U.S. public conversation is now a full-contact sport.”—Brian Bethune, Macleans

ISBN: 9780300191967
Publication Date: March 29, 2013
376 pages, 5 1/8 x 8