I was digging around my library's online catalog looking for something more to read about Dashiell Hammett--maybe not a full length biography or anything too long (am already dug in too deep with other books at the moment), when I came across a couple of interesting-looking books that had essays about the author that I could easily dip into. The first is a book I wouldn't mind exploring more, Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron. There are just over a dozen creative couples that are covered in the book--from Sonia & Robert Delaunay, Vanessa Bell & Duncan Grant to Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville-West and Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera. I'm especially curious since in the pairings each of the two are famous in their own right and what role does gender play in their relationships (since both are artists are the relationships still typical?).
Of course I've started with Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. I know even less about Hellman than Hammett, and have only a cursory knowledge of her more famous books. I know she was a playwright and know of her feud with Mary McCarthy (with those very scathing words uttered by McCarthy on the Dick Cavett show). She was also a memoirist. She and Dash met in a Hollywood restaurant in 1930. Both were married, and while each left their respective spouses, they never did marry but they also never married anyone else. They had a longstanding love affair/partnership, however, that lasted for the next thirty years. Both were unfaithful--in Hammett's case the infidelities were casual whereas her lovers were men who whom she loved and admired and often returned to former lovers. The physical relationship ended in 1942 she she declined his drunken advances. He was determined never again to pursue the physical aspect of their relationship thereafter.
Whatever the physical aspect of their relationship was, they still shared a close and affectionate relationship with each other bolstered by their literary interactions. By the time they met, his best working years were all but behind him. He never managed to achieve the same literary heights as he did with works like The Maltese Falcon (perhaps his most famous and best work), though he continued to write and was a voracious reader. He supported Hellman, however, in her work which was just beginning to develop. The editors allude to this sponsorship filling the need for him to embark on a new writing career.
"Theirs was a co-existence determined by their insistence on their distinct individualities, with agreed-upon dependencies and a delicate balance of shared concerns. Their mutual values were first set by their affluent lifestyle, their network of intellectual friends, and their literary work, but would become solidified in the late 1930's by their strong political convictions."
Both writers were brought before investigative committees due to their leftwing leanings. Hellman managed to talk her way out unscathed without actually giving anything away, but Hammett absolutely refused to cooperate (though he was not actually guilty of anything) and was jailed for his beliefs. Subsequently the FBI continued to harass him and the IRS hounded him for back taxes, so the comfort and security that he had built up completely drained him of his wealth and it was Hellman who later supported him.
I found an interesting set of reviews in Margaret Atwood's Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose: 1983-2005 about two books about him as well as a collection of his work (published posthumously). All three are reviewed favorably (one I've already ordered and the other two I'll try and get from the library eventually); The Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett, 1921-1960 edited by Richard Layman with Julie M. Rivett, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers by Jo Hammett (which is the book I couldn't pass up) and Dashiell Hammett: Crime Stories & Other Writings selected and edited by Steven Marcus.
Atwood begins by noting that Hammett was a writer she discovered as a preadolescent. She read him, didn't necessarily understand him (she found the world he wrote about "very, very sophisticated), but unlike Erle Stanley Gardner or Ellery Queen, she returned to his work.
"What was it about these books that intrigued me as an avid but ignorant child reader? Their world was fast-paced, sharp edged, and filled with zippy dialogue and words I'd never heard pronounced--slang words such as 'gunsel', fancy words such as 'punctilious'. This was not the Agatha Christie sort of story-there were fewer clues, and these were more likely to be lies told then cuff buttons they'd left strewn around. There were more corpses with less importance bestowed on each: a new character would appear, only to be gunned down by a fire-spitting revolver. In a 'clues' novel, everything depended on who was where; in a Hammett one it was more likely to be who was who, given to disguises and false names as these folks were. The action was dispersed, not sealed up as in a nobody-leaves-this-house puzzle: dark, means streets were prowled, cars were driven at speed, people blew in from elsewhere and hid out and skipped town."
As silly as it sounds, it gives me little goosebumps to read Atwood's response to his work, since I know just what she means and that's why I am drawn to it, too. Interspersed with her reviews of the books Atwood weaves in bits about Hammett's life, both on his own and with Hellman as well as says some other interesting things about his work. As I plan on reading more about Hammett, I'll save that all for later. I do want to share a couple of other things, however, she says about his writing.
The book of letters, Atwood writes, have lots of interesting things to say about the period (especially intellectual and politics life in the Thirties and Forties), as well the letters to his first daughter illuminating on the questions she asks about the current affairs of the time, and of course the letters to Hellman show the thoughtful and deep relationship the two had for each other. And then there are the letters to his publishers, particularly his editor at Black Mask magazine which published so many of his short stories. He tends to often be self-deprecating.
"But such gentle ridicule of the genre alternates with earnestness: in a 1928 letter to his book publisher, he says he wants to try adapting the 'stream-of-consciousness method' to the detective story. 'I'm one of the few--if there are any more--people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously,' he says. 'I don't mean that I necessarily take my own or anybody else's seriously--but the detective story as a form. Someday somebody's going to make 'literature' out of it . . . and I'm selfish enough to have my hopes."
How prescient. And his own books went a long way to turning the genre into literature I think. Atwood offers a bit of advice about reading his short stories, too, which I will keep in mind.
"They're best read one at a time, with pauses in between, since too much at once dulls the edge. They are very much of their period and genre-'hardboiled' was the term used of this kind of side-of-the-mouth crime fiction. (Hard-boiled eggs were what blue-collar workers had in their lunch boxes). But despite their adherence to formulas, it's easy to see from the stories why Hammett rose so rapidly."
I'm so glad to know Margaret Atwood approves, but then I knew all along I was in the presence of something really good. I want to read all of Hammett's work, the letters eventually, and am looking forward to reading his daughter's biography, too. I will be searching for an essay that Raymond Chandler wrote about Hammett and that Atwood mentioned (more about that later if I can track it down), and then I'll have to get another perspective by reading something by Hellman, too. As a matter of fact I've got her National Book Award winning, An Unfinished Woman: A Memoir winging its way to me. Oh, and I'm going to give the fictionalized Lillian and Dash by Sam Toperoff a whirl, too. Once again, one book leads to another.