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Entries in lillian hellman (3)


In Which Dashiell Hammett Follows Closely Behind

Black Mask

Winter's still hanging around like somebody you owe money, thought it gets in most of its dirty work at night and we usually manage to pick up a few days of sunshine - that rarity - sometime almost every day. You understand, this here sunshine is not exactly hot enough to scalp you always, but it's still sunshine, and we are in no position to be finical about it. We take what we can get of it when we can get it and are glad in our groaning, snarling way.

The letters of the American writer Dashiell Hammett are unexpectedly vulnerable, except when he is doing the one thing he felt confident about: discussing how exactly one should go about writing detective stories. In the 1920s he lived in San Francisco and wrote for the fledgling magazine Black Mask. His notes on his stories to the editors of the publication survive long after he himself is gone. They reveal a single-minded individual concerned with the manifold possibilities of what the genre has to offer.

June 15 1923

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I have been out of town for a couple weeks — I have to go up to the hills to see some real snow at least once each winter — which is why I haven't answered your letter before this.

About the story: None of the characters is real in a literal sense, though I doubt that it would be possible to build a character without putting into at least something of someone the writer has known. The plot, however, is closer to earth. In the years during which I tried my hand at "private detecting" I ran across several cases where the "friend" called in to dispose of a blackmailer either went into partnership with him or took over his business after getting him out of the way. And I know of at least one case where a blackmailer was disposed of just as "Inch" disposed of "Bush."

I like Rose's cover on the February 15th issue!


S.D. Hammett

October 15 1923

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

Since writing "Slippery Fingers," I have read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle wherein August Vollmer, chief of police of Berkeley, California, and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is quoted as saying that although it is possible successfully to transfer actual fingerprints from one place to another it is not possible to forge them — "Close inspection of any forged fingerprint will soon cause detection."

It may be that what Farr does in my story would be considered by Mr. Vollmer a transference rather than a forgery. But whichever it is, I think there is no longer reasonable room for doubt that fingerprints can be successfully forged. I have seen forged prints that to me seemed perfect, but not being even an amateur in that line, my opinion isn't worth much. I think, however, that quite a number of those qualified to speak on the subject will agree with me that it can be, and has been, done.

In the second Arbuckle trial, if my memory is correct, the defense introduced an expert from Los Angeles who testified that he had deceived an assembly of his colleagues with forged prints.

The method used in my story was not selected because it was the best, but because it was the simplest with which I was acquainted and the most easily described. Successful experiments were made with it by the experts at Leavenworth federal prison.


S.D. Hammett

January 1 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

Thanks for the check for "The Tenth Clew."

And I want to plead guilty to a bit of cowardice in connection with the story. The original of Creda Dexter didn't resemble a kitten at all. She looked exactly like a bull-pup! Believe it or not, she looked exactly like a young white-faced bull-pup — and she was pretty in the bargain!

Except for her eyes, I never succeeded in determining just what was responsible for the resemblance, but it was a very real one.

When, however, it came to actually putting her down on paper, my nerve failed me. "Nobody will believe you if you write a thing like that," I told myself, "They'll think you're trying to spoof them." So, for the sake of plausibility, I lied about her.


Dashiell Hammett

In a story titled "Zigzags of Treachery", Hammett noted, "There are four rules for shadowing: Keep behind your subject as much as possible; never try to hide from him; act in a natural manner no matter what happens and never meet his eye."

March 1 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I'll have another story riding your way in a day or two: one for the customers that don't like their sleuths to do too much brain-work.

The four rules for shadowing that I gave in "Zigzags" are the first and last words on the subject. There are no other tricks to learn. Follow them, and once you get the hang of it, shadowing is the easiest of detective work, except, perhaps, to an extremely nervous maqn. You simply saunter along somewhere within sight of your subject, and, barring bad breaks, the only thing that can make you lose him is anxiety on your own part.

Even a clever criminal may be shadowed for weeks without suspecting it. I know one operative who shadowed a forger — a wily old hand — for more than three months without arousing his suspicion. I myself trailed one for six weeks, riding trains and making half a dozen small towns with him; and I'm not exactly inconspicuous — standing an inch or so over six feet.

Another thing: a detective may shadow a man for days and in the end have but the haziest ideas of the man's features. Tricks of carriage, ways of wearing clothes, general outline, individual mannerisms - all as seen from the rear - are much more important to the shadow than faces. They can be recognized at a greater distance, and do not necessitate his getting in front of his subject at any time.

Back — and it's only a couple years back — in the days before I decided there was more fun in writing about manhunting than in that hunting, I wasn't especially fond of shadowing, though I had plenty of it to do. But I worked under one superintendent who needed only the flimsiest of excuses to desert his desk and get out on the street behind some suspect.


Dashiell Hammett

Frederic Forrest as Dashiell in Wim Wender's movie

August 16th 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I don't like that "tragedy in one act" at all; it's too damned true-to-life. The theater, to amuse me, must be a bit artificial.

I don't think I shall send "Women, Politics, and Murder" back to you — not in time for the July issue anyway. The trouble is this sleuth of mine has degenerated into a meal-ticket. I liked him at first and used to enjoy putting him through his tricks; but recently I've fallen into the habit of bringing him out and running him around whenever the landlord, or the butcher, or the grocer shows signs of nervousness.

There are men who can write like that, but I am not one of them. If I stick to the stuff that I want to write — the stuff I enjoy writing — I can make of a go of it, but when I try to grind out a yarn because there is a market for it, I flop.

Whenever, from now on, I get hold of a story that fits my sleuth, I shall put him to work, but I'm through with trying to run him on a schedule.

Possible I could patch up the "The Question's One Answer" and "Women, Politics and Murder" enough to get by with them, but my frank opinion of them is that neither is worth the trouble. I have a liking for honest work, and honest work as I see it is work that is done for the worker's enjoyment as much for the profit it will bring him. And henceforth that's my work.

I want to thank both you and Mr. Cody for jolting me into wakefulness. There's no telling how much good this will do me. And you may be sure that whenever you get a story from me hereafter, — frequently, I hope, — it will be one that I enjoyed writing.

Dashiell Hammett

November 3, 1924

Letter to the Editor of Black Mask

I was born in Maryland, between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, on May 27, 1894, and was raised in Baltimore.

After a fraction of a year in high school — Baltimore Polytechnic Institute — I became the unsatisfactory and unsatisfied employee of various railroads, stock brokers, machine manufacturers, canners and the like. Usually I was fired.

An enigmatic want-ad took me into the employ of the Pinkerton's National Detective Agency, and I stuck at that until early in 1922, when I chucked it to see what I could do with fiction writing.

In between, I spent an uneventful while in the army during the war, becoming a sergeant; and acquired a wife and daughter.

For the rest, I am long and lean and grayheaded, and very lazy. I have absolutely no ambition at all in the usual sense of the word; like to live as nearly as possible in the center of large cities, and have no recreations or hobbies.

Dashiell Hammett

Harry Block was one of Hammett's editors at Knopf.

July 14 1929

Dear Mr. Block,

I'm glad you like The Maltese Falcon. I'm sorry you think the to-bed and the homosexual parts of it should be changed. I should like to leave them as they are, especially since you say they "would be all right perhaps in an ordinary novel." It seems to me that the only thing that can be said against their use in a detective novel is that nobody has tried it yet. I'd like to try it.

Dashiell Hammett

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It was nice of you to phone me, even if you did have to get plastered to do it.

- Hammett in a letter to Lillian Hellman


In Which Mary McCarthy Was A Legend In Her Own Time

You can read the first part of this series here.

Our Mary, Right or Wrong


Meeting the great influx of immigrants from Western Europe during and after the war changed Mary McCarthy's mind about American involvement in the conflict. She found herself in a new circle of intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and had faced the horrors of fascism and communism firsthand. She began teaching at Bard College to support herself when checks from The New Yorker proved insufficient. She fell in with a New Yorker grunt, the twenty-five year old Bowden Broadwater, who was eight years Mary's junior, and he began visiting her at Bard on weekends. They eloped a year later — his first, and her third. As Gore Vidal once snidely put it, "Women like Mary marry for a purpose."

with bowden broadwaterFor the first time in her life, Mary was both stable and happy. But her writing was soon to cause the trouble in her public life that has dissipated from her private one. Her take on the Partisan Review crowd, a novella titled The Oasis, incensed Saul Bellow and fellow Partisan Review contributor Harold Kaplan, who wrote that

Bellow and I spent half the night talking about Mary McCarthy's alleged story. Perhaps there is something an outraged masculine reaction involved (as I believe there was in much of the critical reaction to her first book) but we believe this thing is so vile, so perfect an example of everything that is nasty in New York and everything that is sterile in recent American writing, that we came to the conclusion that something should be done about it.

As usual, the males in her crowd proved to be the truly humorless ones, but that didn't account for the response to McCarthy's short novel completely. It was primarily that she had no problem with putting the people in her life in her writing, and that they were never flattered by her portraits of them. One person, however, called McCarthy's novel a gem. That was Hannah Arendt.

with arendt, dwight macdonald and robert lowell (not pictured)

The two had met earlier, but Arendt had been shocked by what she perceived as sympathy for Hitler's desperate desire to be loved by the French during his occupation of Paris. After the publication of The Oasis, the two began a lifelong friendship. Although Arendt was mostly unknown at this time, the publication of her The Origins of Totalitarianism launched her into prominence in 1951 at the age of 45. A sexual relationship with Martin Heidegger was already in Hannah's past, and McCarthy was drawn to her worldliness and the fact that they seemed to agree on everything.


Mary experimented with more journalistic writing, penning a series about the homosexual underbelly of Greenwich Village that ran in the New York Post. She was paid $800, and it attracted publishers to a collection of her essays, which Robert Giroux would eventually publish. Her college novel The Groves of Academe was published in 1952, a stinging satire of both Joseph McCarthy-era politics and the insulated liberalism that indoctrinated college students. As usual, men found the work incomprehensible, with Dwight MacDonald writing, "Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty, is she god or something?" The problem with writing about how boorish some men are is that they will be writing the reviews of the book where you are saying that.

Upset with the disopprobrium from the Partisan Review crowd, McCarthy planned to start her own magazine. Before the founding of Critic (which never published an issue) she wrote that, "The truth, at its simplest is that people, not just liberal intellectuals but ordinary liberal people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on, are made restless at seeing their own opinions mirrored week after week in the journals that are written for them. What they object to is not lack of agreement with their own political conclusions but the sense of mechanical repetition that drones from these familiar pages." Her criticism of how liberal magazines took on Joseph McCarthy himself was the source of her anxiety. Instead of simply tearing down a conservative icon, she thought they should try to understand his appeal among the populace.

Her failure with Critic paralled her failing marriage. Most people never saw Broadwater and McCarthy as something that would work long term. McCarthy always said exactly what she was thinking, and Broadwater was very much the same. The two were a fearsome sight at parties and events. Her next novel, A Charmed Life, did the work of breaking up the marriage, because after its publication Broadwater suggested it would be impossible to return to their home in Cape Cod after what Mary had written about the people there. (The women of Wellfleet stopped going barefoot to the supermarket because of A Charmed Life.)

During a trip to Europe, Mary stayed behind in Venice to research the book that would become Venice Observed. While Broadwater holed up in a fleabag motel in New York, a succession of friends visited her. Once back in the U.S., she longed to return to Italy, and eventually, accompanied by a black Chevy, went to Naples. In Rome she began sleeping with the English critic John Davenport until her husband arrived on the scene. This time of personal turmoil was also the moment of her finest artistic success, as her collection of memoirs Memories of a Catholic Girlhood received the best notices of her career.

with her brother Kevin

When she met the man who would become her fourth husband James West, she was still married to Broadwater. The forty-six year old West was the public affairs officer for the American Embassy in Warsaw, with a young wife and three young children himself. Getting away from their respective spouses was tricky business, but as usual, McCarthy could talk a man who was captivated by her into most anything. When Broadwater phoned the Paris hotel where she was shacking up with West, the older man answered the phone. Mary came clean and asked for a divorce just minutes later.

Although her soon-to-be ex-husband was aware of his wife's previous dalliances, he found himself shocked into a weird kind of submission — the nasty Harvard man was turned into a meek puppy. Hannah Arendt wrote Mary to say, "He never was so nice before, never." West found obtaining his divorce more problematic, and he convinced McCarthy to sequester herself in Warsaw during a time of upheaval in that city.

It is ironic that under such dramatic circumstances that she began work on The Group, for as worldly as her current love affair was, it is a most domestic novel. Following the lives of a number of Vassar women, the novel reads like a strained picaresque today, more like warped Jane Austen than worldly Emily Gould. Its simple pleasures were perhaps fueled by her love affair with West, with whom she rarely argued as she did with her previous husbands.

To Arendt she wrote, "My love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I've become conscious in myself of a certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember me telling you that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games."

With her private life more in order, The Group appeared in August of 1963. Her most readable, accessible novel, it was a sensation for the general public and was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet. She was invited on The Tonight Show. The upscale, WASP subjects of her satire were as per usual, not as amused, but Mary could care less. (Once, at a party on West End Avenue while she was at Vassar, one particularly snobby gentile had entered into a laughing fit at the idea of socializing with an Irish woman.) If her novelistic writing wasn't overly artistic, the deftness of her satire was. Everyone wanted to know what Vassar girls really did think about, how they experienced the rigeurs of sex and even marriage for the first time — and Mary spared no one.

Yet she was not as tough as she required her friends to be. When Robert Lowell's wife Elizabeth Hardwick penned a savage parody of the book in a piece titled "The Gang" that appeared under the byline Xavier Prynne in The New York Review of Books. Mary sent off an angry letter to Lowell:

I think it's easier to forgive your enemies than to forgive your friends, and that is not just a remark. With your enemies you don't feel a sense of betrayal, and what is at the bottom of a sense of betrayal but bewilderment a loss of your bearings? I would not know how to act with Elizabeth yet; that is, I feel I would start acting falsely....

from the 'How I Grew' typeYou can forgive an enemy because that immediately puts you on a fresh basis with him; the slate is wiped clean. But with a friend, you can't wipe out the past because the past includes your friendship as well as the injury you felt you've been dealt. So you have no basis on which to start again, neither the old one or a brand-new one. The practical way of coping with this is to revise your opinion of the friend, in a downward direction. In this way you have a new friend. But I don't want to do this with Elizabeth.

in north vietnam in 1968Among critics with integrity, some of those writers imagine the public forum as a place where anything can be said and then subsequently forgiven. But for McCarthy, her ideas about other people's writing were from a rigorous place, not from a spirit of open and fun inquiry. She took criticism extremely seriously whether she was dealing it out or taking it in. In the case of The Group, the real judge was the marketplace: the book sold over five million copies around the world.

mary smoked her entire life. Arendt's influence pushed McCarthy towards more political topics. Her forays into the political issues of the day, Vietnam and Watergate, were not as well received. In the first case, her hagiographic portraits of the North Vietnamese didn't age particularly well; in the second, the story was already obvious and no one really needed to read Watergate Portraits. When Arendt died of a heart attack after executing the estate of Karl Jasper in 1975, McCarthy flew to New York to execute her will.

In 1980, during a televised interview with Dick Cavett, she made her infamous statement about Lillian Hellman: "that every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the'." Despite the fact that Hellman was the textbook definition of a pathological liar, she sued McCarthy and CBS for libel. Hellman, a devoted Stalinist and professional fabricator, was more damaged by the resulting lawsuit — most people never took her seriously again, and a litany of non-admirers came out of the woodwork to prove McCarthy right. But it also had, as Hellman perhaps intended, a negative financial effect on the defendant.

Mary never thought of herself as a feminist. Her time in various socialist and political groups had made her jaded about belonging to such an association, and on a personal level, she took equality with men as something of an absolute. As an ultimate outsider who reversed the polarity of her life completely, she proved by her simple existence that it was possible for an outspoken woman to survive, even thrive, in a men's world.

As McCarthy and West entered into a comfortable lifestyle, they took up residence at James Merrill's apartment in Stonington, CT, and then began alternating between homes in Maine and Paris. Mary continued to teach at Bard. West's income allowed her to continue her free-spending ways. Her publisher William Jovanovich recalled booking her onto a flight out of Paris, and watching her upgrade herself to first class with cash: "Out of her capacious handbag came fifty-dollar bills, splaying onto the linoleum. She turned to me and said, 'Don't look.'"

from the typescript to 'How I Grew'Her lawsuit with Hellman took its toll. She suffered headaches and sleeplessness, but resisted going to the hospital because of her desire to outlive Hellman. When her enemy finally died in June of 1984, she had an operation to relieve the pressure on her brain from ataxia. As West put it, "I had encouraged her to pay more attention to her health and of course she tried as hard as she could, but she was more interested in ideas than in her health." In 1989, she died of lung cancer, survived by her husband.

When we remember how far American letters has come, it is easy to forget the people who brought it there. Saul Bellow once recalled Mary ticking off a list of names of people she planned to go after in reviews while dressed to the nines at a downtown party. He thought it indecent, but because McCarthy said exactly what she thought, we do not have to suffer from the poverty that public acclamation of sexists and bigots provides us.

You can find the first part of this series here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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In Which We Leave A Little Something For Lillian Hellman In Our Wills

The Liars


At nineteen Lillian Hellman got a job at the publishers Boni and Liveright which, under Horace Liveright, was then the most enterprising firm in New York. She later claimed she had discovered William Faulkner and was responsible for the publication of his satirical novel Mosquitoes, set in New Orleans; but facts prove otherwise. She had an abortion and then, pregnant again, married the theatrical agent Arthur Kober, left publishing and took up reviewing. She had an affair with David Cort, subsequently foreign editor of Life; in the 1970s he proposed to publish her letters, some with erotic drawings in the margins, and she took legal action to prevent him - when he died, destitute, the letters were accidentally destroyed.

from 'The Children's Hour'Married to Kober, Hellman made trips to Paris, Bonn (in 1929), where she considered joining the Nazi Youth, and Hollywood. She worked briefly as a play-reader for Anne Nichols and later claimed she had discovered Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel; but this was not true either. In Hollywood, where Kober had a staff-writing job, she read scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer at $50 a week. Hellman's radicalism began with her involvement in the trade-union side of the motion picture industry, where writers were bitter at their treatment by the big studios. But the crucial event in her political as well as her emotional life occurred in 1930 when she met Dashiell Hammett, the mystery-writer.

As she subsequently romanticized both him and their relationship, it is necessary to be clear about what kind of man he was. He came from an old, genteel-poor Maryland family. He left school at thirteen, did odd jobs, fought in the First World War and was wounded, then gained his inside knowledge of police work as a Pinkerton detective. At the agency he had worked for the lawyers employed by Fatty Arbuckle, who was broken by the court case in which the film comedian was accused of raping Virginia Rappe, who died afterwards. According to what detectives told him, the woman died not of the rape but of venereal disease, and the case seems to have given him a cynical dislike for authority generally (and also a fascination for fat villains, who figure largely in his fiction).

When he met Hellman he had published four novels and was in the process of becoming famous through The Maltese Falcon, his best. Hammett was a very serious case of alcoholism. The success the book enjoyed was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him; it brought him money and credit and meant he had little need to work. He was not a natural writer and seems to have found the creative act extraordinarily daunting.

He did, after many efforts, finish The Thin Man which brought him even more money and fame, but after that he wrote nothing at all. He would hole up in a hotel with a crate of Johnnie Walker Red Label and drink himself into sickness. Alcohol brought about moral collapse in a man who seems to have had, at times, strong principles. He had a wife, Josephine Dolan, and two children, but his payments to them were haphazard and arbitrary; sometimes he was generous, usually he just forgot them.

Pathetic letters to his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, survive:

Tor the past seven months Mr Hammett has sent me only one hundred dollars and has failed to write and explain his troubles - right now I am desperate - the children need clothing and are not getting the right food - and I am unable to find work - living with my parents who are growing old and can't offer us any more help.

Hammett, with a script contract, was to be found in Bel Air, drinking. The studio secretary assigned to him, Mildred Lewis, had nothing to do as he would not write but lay in bed; she described how she heard prostitutes, summoned by phone from Madame Lee Francis' - they were usually black or oriental women - creeping up and down the stairs; she would turn her back so she could not see them. He probably made over two million dollars from his books but often contrived to be penniless and in debt, and would sneak out of hotels in which he had run up large bills (the Pierre in New York, for instance, where he owed $1000) wearing his clothes in layers.

Alcohol also made Hammett abusive and violent, not least to women. In 1932 he was sued for assault by the actress Elise de Viane. She claimed he got drunk at his hotel and when she resisted his attempts to make love to her, beat her up. Hammett made no effort to contest the suit and $2500 damages were awarded against him. Shortly after he met Hellman, he hit her on the jaw at a party and knocked her down. Their relationship can never have been easy. In 1931 and again in 1936 he contracted gonorrhea from prostitutes, and the second time had great difficulty in getting cured.

There were constant rows over his women. Indeed it is not clear whether, and if so for how long, they ever actually lived together, though both eventually divorced their respective spouses. Years later, when her lying about many other things had been thoroughly exposed, Gore Vidal asked cynically: 'Did anybody ever see them together?' Clearly Hellman exaggerated their relationship for her own purposes of self-publicity. Yet there was substance to it. In 1938, by which time she had moved to New York, where she had a town house and a farm at Pleasantville, Hammett was reported to be lying hopelessly drunk in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he had run up a bill of $8000. Hellman had him brought by air to New York; he was met by an ambulance and taken to hospital. Later he lived for some time at her house.

But he made a habit of visiting Harlem brothels, which were much to his taste. So there were more rows. In 1941, while drunk, he demanded sex with her and she refused; after that he never made or attempted to make love with her again. But their relationship continued, if in tenuous form, and for the last three years of his life (he died in 1958) he led a zombie-like existence in her New York home. This was an unselfish act on her part for it meant sacrificing the work-room she adored. She would say to guests: "Please keep it down. There's a dying man upstairs." What is clear about their friendship is that Hellman, as a writer, owed a great deal to Hammett. In fact there is a curious, and some would say suspicious, asymmetry about their writing careers. Not long after he met Hellman, Hammett's writing dwindled to a trickle, then dried up altogether. She, by contrast, began to write with great fluency and success. It was as though the creative spirit moved from one into the other, remaining in her until his death; once he had gone, she never wrote another successful play.

She had always been avaricious, and the propensity increased with age. Most of her lawsuits had had a financial object. After Hammett died, she formed a liaison with a rich Philadelphian, Arthur Cowan. He advised her on investments. He also put her up to a dodge to acquire Hammett's copyrights, held by the US government in lieu of his tax debts. As very little was coming in royalties, Cowan persuaded the government to put the rights up to auction, setting a minimum bid of $5000. Hellman persuaded Hammett's daughters to agree to the sale, telling them, falsely, that otherwise they would themselves be liable for Hammett's debts. Cowan and Hellman were the only bidders, at $2500 each, and got the rights. Hellman then began to work this literary property vigorously and it was soon bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars - $250,000 for one television adaptation of a Hammett story alone.

When Cowan died in turn, he left no will, according to Hellman's account in Pentimento. Sam McCracken established that he did leave a will, and Hellman got nothing, suggesting they had a quarrel before he died. But Hellman evidently persuaded Cowan's sister that it had been his intention she should get his share of the Hammett rights, as the sister wrote a letter relinquishing them to her. Thus Hellman enjoyed the increasingly valuable Hammett copyrights in toto until her death, and it was only then that she left something, in her will, to the impoverished Hammett daughters.

Paul Johnson is the world's greatest living historian. He is the author of Intellectuals, from which this selection has been excerpted. You can buy it here.

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