Hell Man

From the June 2000 issue of Chronicles.        

"My views on Hammett expressed [above]. He was tops. Often wonder why he quit writing after The Thin Man. Met him only once, very nice looking tall quiet gray-haired fearful capacity for Scotch, seemed quite unspoiled to me. (Time out for ribbon adjustment.)"

—Raymond Chandler, Letter to Alex Barris

Why should we be surprised to see the Continental Op, that chunky and deglamorized veteran of the pulp pages of Black Mask back in the 1920's (not to mention Sam Spade, Ned Beaumont, and Nick Charles), published upscale like this 70 years later, with everything arranged so nicely on acid-free paper, and with a ribbon to mark our place as though this volume were the Bible or poetry or something? But that's just the point. This book is a bible of an inverted kind, and poetry too—also inverted. But we shouldn't be that surprised, because this same volume (these five novels) was in effect published by Knopf, though not so nicely or so scrupulously edited, as The Complete Dashiell Hammett in 1942. This stuff has been retreaded so many times—and in so many languages—that it is hard to keep score. That's why it is classic, get it? Not because the schoolmarm told you so, but because you bought it cheap when you wanted to, off the rack down at the drug store, in 40's and early 50's paperbacks for 25 cents. Dashiell Hammett was the straight goods with bad girls and booze and guns and everything, and now the schoolmarms are telling you that it is literature when they used to be the ones who liked Silas Marner when you liked Red Hardest a lot better than that, but life is not fair and you had to write your book report on Silas Marner or else stay after school and wash the blackboard and clean the erasers by clapping them, but you spent your own money on Dashiell Hammett when the schoolmarm wasn't trying to bore you to death, because one day you were going to have your own gun and your own booze and your own broad to go with them, and if she crossed you, then you were going to send that broad over like Sam Spade did Brigid, whose name rhymed with "frigid" but everybody knew she wasn't, which was why you were reading it in the first place, so when the schoolmarm started in again on little Eppie and Silas Marner, you knew deep down exactly why they didn't let you have a gun yet either.

So the emotionally laden status of this material must be conceded. And the waves of memory and confusion and nostalgia—yes, and anger and pity as well; I'll get to that in a minute—wash over us in an ineffable and inexorable sequence of splashes (mood music here) compounded of tears, sweat, and Johnny Walker Red Label, one of Dash's favorites. I hasten to admit that I was not one of Dash's intimates, but I always think of him as "Dash" because of that dreadful movie, Julia (1977), with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, and Vanessa Redgrave cast way against type as a communist whatever (Academy Award), and Jason Robards as "Dash," whom he I vaguely resembled, or whom in other words he did not look much like (also Academy Award). I find it hard to get the contamination of that movie out of my mind, which is precisely why it was made and why Hollywood loved it. And that level of confusion is only one of those compounded by other books—bring out the Hellmans and bring out the best. How mandatory it was to establish a connection—a laying on of hands, a communion of the devils—between the Old Left and the New, from Lillian Hellman to Jane Fonda as from John Reed to Warren Beatty, and you get the idea. Wim Wenders' Hammett (1982) was so much better, and who ever heard of an Irving or a James, though there have been movies about Poe and Twain, of course, and one named Chandler as well.

And of course there was Howard Duff on the radio as Sam Spade 50 years ago, and earlier there was Bogart as Sam Spade with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet and Mary Astor and Elisha Cook, Jr., in the third filmed version of The Maltese Falcon (1941), not to mention Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd getting the bejesus knocked out of him by William Bendix in the second version of The Glass Key (1942), not additionally to mention all those Thin Man movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy and Asta and the martinis. But to be a bit less nostalgic, there are all the oblique transmogrifications of Red Harvest, like Akira Kurosawa's samurai movie Yojimbo (1961) with Toshiro Mifune, and then Sergio Leone's spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964) with Clint Eastwood, and Last Man Standing, just a couple of years ago, with Bruce Willis. The Coen brothers' Blood Simple took its title from a phrase from Red Harvest, and their Miller's Crossing is derived largely from The Glass Key, so I guess the point is made.

So yes, this writer did make art as well as money out of entertainment, and he has been rightly called by George Grella the most important American detective story writer since Edgar Allan Poe. That's essentially why we see him in The Library of America alongside Henry James and all the rest of them, but what I want to know is where were all the rest of them when Samuel Dashiell Hammett was being grilled by Senator McCarthy and Roy Cohn and Senator McClellan. I mean, try to imagine Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain or Eudora Welly in the scenario whereby Hammett was called before the Permanent Subcommittee Investigation of the Senate Committee on Government Operations on March 26, 1953, during an investigation of the purchase of books written by communists for the State Department libraries overseas. In sum, the idea was that it was subversive for this country to display the same books that were loved by many Americans and which are now recognized as part of the nation's literary heritage.

Mr. Hammett: The first book was Red Harvest. It was published in 1929. I think I wrote it in 1927, either in 1927 or 1928.

Mr. Cohn: At the time you wrote that book, were you a member of the Communist Party?

Mr. Hammett: I decline to answer, on the grounds that an answer might tend to incriminate me. . . .

The Chairman [Senator McCarthy]: Mr. Hammett, let me ask you this. Forgetting about yourself for the time being, is it a safe assumption that any member of the Communist Party, under Communist discipline, would propagandize the Communist cause, normally, regardless of whether he was writing fiction books or books on politics?

Mr. Hammett: I can't answer that, because I honestly don't know.

I wasn't there taking notes in 1953, so I got this dialogue out of Richard Layman's Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (1981). Hammett seems to have answered honestly to Senator McCarthy on the point quoted, but it is less likely today to be conceded that Senator McCarthy asked a pertinent question. Even so, the committee was off base about books. Providing books doesn't mean endorsing them, otherwise libraries would be nearly empty. President Eisenhower himself commented on the propriety of putting Hammett's books in overseas libraries: He thought it was okay. Yes, political supervision of literature can be funny in more wavs than one:

The Chairman: Mr. Hammett, if you were spending, as we are, over a hundred million dollars a year on an information program allegedly for the purpose of fighting communism, and if you were in charge of that program to fight communism, would you purchase the works of some 75 Communist authors and distribute their works throughout the world, placing our official stamp of approval upon these works?

Or would you rather not answer that question?

Mr. Hammett: Well, I think—of course, I don't know—if I were fighting communism, I don't think I would do it by giving people any books at all.

The Chairman: From an author, that sounds unusual.

Hammett had already been sentenced to jail for contempt of court in 1951 in a case involving the bail fund of the Civil Rights Congress, of which he was a trustee. In that case, Hammett was questioned by District Attorney Irving Saypol, who had directed the prosecution of the Rosenbergs. After Hammett got out of jail, his health was broken, his money was gone, and he never wrote again. Indeed, he had not written fiction for publication since 1934. He spent the later 30's and the later 40's pushing left-wing politics. There seems to be at least the suggestion that communism had something to do with the failure of Hammett's imagination, which was the imposing question put to him by Joe McCarthy, of all people.

There was some kind of self-destruction. Alcohol is one kind. Waste is another—Hammett threw away many thousands of dollars and who knows how much talent. Hammett's jail term was not merely a case of victimization—Hammett somehow wanted to go to jail, and said being there was like going home. Hammett's communism has to be seen as another kind of waste, like the fumes of alcohol and satanic smoke that his image exudes. There's something surreal about Hammett's communism—it just doesn't compute. This man who dropped out of school at 13 was always a reader and an autodidact, a man who with reason prided himself on his intelligence and insight. But in March 1945, he was reading—alongside volumes of Wallace Stegner, Georges Simenon, and Heinrich Heine—the incongruous, boring, and grossly distorting volume II of the Selected Works of Lenin, Theoretical Principles of Marxism. This man who prided himself on seeing through the surfaces of things, who portrayed the implications of gangsterism and politics brilliantly in Red Harvest and The Glass Key, goofily but not unknowingly promoted whatever Stalin wanted. On April 8, 1938, he joined Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Lillian Hellman, Malcolm Cowley, and many others in supporting the purges in Moscow. Not long after, in 1941, Hammett joined with other communists, fellow travelers, and Popular Frontniks in opposing both the Lend-Lease policy of aid to Britain and American entry into the war because of the Nazi-Soviet pact—then flipped with Stalin, supporting the war effort after the Nazi attack on Soviet Russia. In other words, Hammett, who gave us the Sam Spade who wouldn't "play the sap" for Brigid O'Shaugnessy, himself played the sap for Comrade Stalin and even, for a time, for Herr Hitler, best-selling author of Mein Kampf. Perhaps Hammett's service in his late 40's during World War II was, deep down, both an admission of guilt and a gesture of solidarity with the country that he had betrayed. But itself in bed with the Soviet Union, that country wasn't picky about details until later, and again Hammett paid the price without complaint. Hammett is not the only communist who is enshrined in the Library of America—W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright are two others. The whole subject of political radicalism is difficult and requires a balanced view, whatever that is. One thing we have to remember is that it was their experience in this country not ideology alone, that made Hammett, Wright, and Du Bois go down some strange paths. In the meanwhile, we may reflect that "subversion" is an aspect of literary distinction in Poe, Melville, and Hawthorne, not just the lockstep left. That's the library of America. As for politics, there is a particular sentence of Layman's that is rather devastating in its ambiguity: "Many of the views Hammett held on domestic issues would seem middle-of-the-road today." Did Layman actually mean to imply (or admit, as it strikes this layman) that the communist agenda has been accomplished? Oops—another cat out of the bag, but never mind.

So we can go around and around about politics, and we come out by the same swinging doors through which we entered. And we can also look at a life and try to judge it: an action which is not only problematical but leads to judging books by the life of their author, a mug's game. And so we come back to the books after all, and we can see why they have survived their time and context for three generations. The most explicitly political. Red Harvest, is a vision of "Poisonville," a corrupt Western mining town based on Butte and Anaconda. The political bosses are indistinguishable from the gangsters they fight, and the operative from the Continental detective agency, based on Hammett's own days with the Pinkertons, makes sure that the gangs slaughter each other. The novel's Marxist angle is that no authority is legitimate and all property is theft, but the feel of the book is related less to ideology than to the hard-bitten tone of modernism, and to a surreal black humor as well. Hammett's sensibility in Red Harvest is aligned to that of Hemingway, of the Faulkner of Sanctuary, and of Nathanael West. He was indebted to none of them, though he knew all three. The knowledge of crime and of violence that Hammett had come by through grim experience, and the bitterness he felt as a result of strikebreaking by the Pinkertons, came together in this vision, the exaggeration of which only masks the uncomfortable truths that the country has swept under the rug.

A lesser work, The Dain Curse is a mess, but an interesting one. Its Gothic elements seem retrograde until we realize that Hammett is going after "the opium of the people" in the form of a phony religions cult. But having written two novels narrated by the Continental Op, Hammett never did so again, turning to a severely limited third person and three new protagonists.

Though famous as a melodrama, The Maltese Falcon has not yet completely received its due as a composition, as a poem made out of words. Sam Spade calls the falcon a "dingus," and in a famous example of misdirection, he calls the punk, Wilmer, a "gunsel." In both cases, he was more right than his readers knew. Such cunning wordplay may suggest that there is more to be found in that remarkable novel, the greatest single example of its kind. The clash of dictions, as between Gutman and Spade, generates a Shakespearean tension and even eloquence, which is then exploded by Spade's nihilism and laid-back violence. Hammett told James Thurber that the book was pure Henry James, with names from The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady and some plot from The Wings of the Dove. George Grella has analyzed that proposition, which is another reason why Hammett should be classified with James, as, in this publication, he is. A complete analysis of the language of that novel, and of the uncanny ambiguity about the dismissal of the Crusaders in the context of Spade's satanism, has yet to be seen. In a story that cites the Hospitallers and the Templars, "San Francisco" nominates a saint as well as a setting, and "Saint Louis" may have as much to do with Joinville as it does with the Mississippi.

Hammett said that The Glass Key was his favorite of his own books, but there is a serious problem with it. Hammett pushed the limited third person so hard in that novel that he wound up constructing a bafflement, whereby we never know about Ned Beaumont's motives, even though his unstated code seems to be the burden of the book. Disregarding die urban violence and political corruption (this time set in the East, probably Baltimore), we can see here that Hammett was beginning to run up against insoluble (if self-defined) difficulties. The stylized descriptions of clenched teeth and hard eves and other such melodramatic gestures do not wear well. But the picture of a corrupt and treacherous world which must be seen through for what it is remains one of the most striking representations of urban America ever drawn. If it is "melodramatic" or "exaggerated," then a cross-check with the daily newspaper may be in order.

Ned Beaumont was in part a self-portrait of Hammett himself. Nick Charles of The Thin Man was based on Hammett as well, but by now the mode had shifted toward the comic, and Hollywood had no trouble in exploiting that. So Hammett's last work has always seemed to be a letdown, but it is not without its serious side. We think we "know" it, remembering all those late shows, but many do not remember who "the thin man" actually was. And only those with a clear picture of the text in mind can recall a remarkable digression about cannibalism. That set piece concerning a taboo may suggest something about the viciousness of human nature as we have known it in Hammett's world, and therefore a reason why Hammett's Marxism and not his fiction became his commitment. Books could not redeem humanity—only Uncle Joe Stalin could do that.

Today, we have to look at the volume that wraps these five novels with an acknowledgment that Hammett deserves his place in the national pantheon, but beyond the words on the page lie memories as troubled as his vision of America. Mouldering in his grave at Arlington (where he was buried at his own request), Dashiell Hammett is still a discomfiting presence—a self-destructive personality whose life is painful to consider, a reproachful ghost at the capitalist/consumerist feast who reminds us of what is so convenient to forget, and a troubling example as well of the ambiguity of polities, the whirligig of wisdom and folly.


[Dashiell Hammett: Complete Novels, Edited by Steven Marcus (New York: The Library of America) 975 pp., $35.00]

James O. Tate

James O. Tate has been writing for Chronicles for 30 years and counting.

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