A Difficult Woman by Alice Kessler-Harris

71%

24 Critic Reviews

Written with grace and impeccable scholarship, this is a stirring and enriching performance.
-Star Tribune

Synopsis

Lillian Hellman was a giant of twentieth-century letters and a groundbreaking figure as one of the most successful female playwrights on Broadway. Yet the author of The Little Foxes and Toys in the Attic is today remembered more as a toxic, bitter survivor and literary fabulist, the woman of whom Mary McCarthy said, "Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and' and ‘the.'" In A Difficult Woman, renowned historian Alice Kessler-Harris undertakes a feat few would dare to attempt: a reclamation of a combative, controversial woman who straddled so many political and cultural fault lines of her time.Kessler-Harris renders Hellman's feisty wit and personality in all of its contradictions: as a non-Jewish Jew, a displaced Southerner, a passionate political voice without a party, an artist immersed in commerce, a sexually free woman who scorned much of the women's movement, a loyal friend whose trust was often betrayed, and a writer of memoirs who repeatedly questioned the possibility of achieving truth and doubted her memory.Hellman was a writer whose plays spoke the language of morality yet whose achievements foundered on accusations of mendacity. Above all else, she was a woman who made her way in a man's world. Kessler-Harris has crafted a nuanced life of Hellman, empathetic yet unsparing, that situates her in the varied contexts in which she moved, from New Orleans to Broadway to the hearing room of HUAC. A Difficut Woman is a major work of literary and intellectual history. This will be one of the most reviewed, and most acclaimed, books of 2012.
 

About Alice Kessler-Harris

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Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, in New York City. She is one of America's most renowned scholars, known for her work on labor and gender history. She is the author of the classic history of working women, Out to Work. Her In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America won the Joan Kelly, Philip Taft, Herbert Hoover, and Bancroft Prizes. In 2012 she will become President of the Organization of American Historians.
 
Published April 30, 2012 by Bloomsbury Press. 448 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Arts & Photography, Humor & Entertainment. Non-fiction
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Critic reviews for A Difficult Woman
All: 24 | Positive: 16 | Negative: 8

Kirkus

Excellent
Apr 15 2012

A richly layered portrait of a woman whose literary might and sociopolitical daring continue to demand attention.

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Publishers Weekly

Excellent
Feb 20 2012

Although she perhaps lets Hellman off the hook too much, Kessler-Harris offers a nuanced, fair-minded, and engrossing portrait of a controversial but indelible 20th-century personality.

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NY Times

Above average
Reviewed by Donna Rifkind on Jun 08 2012

The tension between author and subject makes for some interesting reading...

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Wall Street Journal

Below average
Reviewed by Michael Moynihan on May 01 2012

Ms. Kessler-Harris acknowledges Hellman's prevarications only grudgingly, resorting to a tedious postmodern explanation that writers are entitled to their own version of "truth"...

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NPR

Below average
Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan on Apr 26 2012

...a biography that's substantive, measured and a tad flat.

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Star Tribune

Excellent
Reviewed by Carol Rollyson on May 27 2012

Written with grace and impeccable scholarship, this is a stirring and enriching performance.

Read Full Review of A Difficult Woman | See more reviews from Star Tribune

The Washington Post

Excellent
Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley on May 04 2012

Kessler-Harris is right to argue that the life Hellman led “illuminates the world she confronted,” most importantly the worlds of emerging women and of political fear and contention.

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The Economist

Excellent
Apr 14 2012

Ms Kessler-Harris largely defends Hellman against her harshest critics by placing her and her choices... in the context of her times.

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Christian Science Monitor

Below average
Reviewed by Jenny Hendrix on May 02 2012

...the approach could have been made sharper by more aggressive editing.

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The Independent

Below average
Reviewed by Lesley McDowell on Jul 07 2012

Kessler-Harris defends her well, but the structure of her biography, while it works hard to exonerate her subject, makes it difficult for us to get close to, and thus sympathise with, Lillian Hellman herself.

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San Francisco Chronicle

Excellent
Reviewed by Heller McAlpin on May 11 2012

Kessler-Harris has written a biography that balances Hellman's achievements against her shortcomings.

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Washington Independent Review of Books

Below average
Reviewed by John Morogiello

The strength of the historical current diminishes Hellman’s place in it.

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Macleans

Below average
Reviewed by Joanne Latimer on Jun 12 2012

There is no lack of drama covered in this book, yet it reads a little dull.

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Boston.com

Excellent
Reviewed by Floyd Skloot on Apr 22 2012

That this book combines so many elements reflects its breadth and strength as history, biography, and cultural criticism.

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Portland Book Review

Excellent
Reviewed by Katie Richards on Jun 25 2012

The chapters are deeply insightful and dig deeper than most of Hellman’s other biographers.

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Chicago Tribune

Excellent
Reviewed by Liz Smith on Apr 06 2012

Kessler-Harris places all of her qualities, both fine and infuriating, in the context of the century in which she lived...

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Book Forum

Below average
Reviewed by Ruth Franklin on Apr 01 2012

A Difficult Woman avoids the chronological approach... As the reader struggles to match up these divergent strands, Hellman becomes even trickier to grasp

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History News Network

Excellent
Reviewed by Ron Briley on Jun 23 2012

...she displays great courage in producing a sympathetic portrait of Hellman that will likely receive some of the condemnation and righteous indignation once leveled at the playwright.

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Post and Courier

Excellent
Reviewed by Catherine Holmes on Jun 10 2012

Kessler-Harris succeeds in giving us what she promised in her introduction, “a book about a woman, about the idea of a woman, and about the world that formed and shaped her.”

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Capital New York

Excellent
Reviewed by Carlene Bauer on Apr 25 2012

Kessler-Harris succeeds at exonerating her subject.

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Vogue

Excellent
Reviewed by Megan O'Grady on Apr 18 2012

Wisely, Kessler-Harris, a Columbia historian, emphasizes Hellman’s social and political contexts, rather than speculating overly much about her personal motivations...

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Real Clear History

Below average
Reviewed by Ron Capshaw on May 17 2012

"A Difficult Woman" brings nothing new to the table.

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Book Kvetch

Good
Reviewed by Rebecca Aguilar on Feb 10 2012

A Difficult Woman by Alice Kessler-Harris is a highly worthwhile read that might draw readers to seek out copies of this storied playwright’s memoirs.

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Pages of Julia's Blog

Good
May 07 2012

A Difficult Woman gives us an infinitely more complex Hellman than the popular image that has survived her.

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Reader Rating for A Difficult Woman
57%

An aggregated and normalized score based on 19 user ratings from iDreamBooks & iTunes


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