"Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett" includes 950 letters that Dashiell Hammett wrote between 1921 and 1960, spanning most of his adult life, from before his marriage to Josephine Dolan to just months before his death in 1961 -though the meaty correspondence stops a few years before that. Daughter Josephine Hammett Marshall started the project, and she nicely summarizes what these letters say about her father in the book's foreword. Editor (and Hammett biographer) Richard Layman discusses the sources in the preface. The letters were addressed to at least 17 different people plus some miscellaneous correspondence, but the most frequent recipients, in descending order, are: Hammett's friend and companion, the playwright Lillian Hellman; daughter Mary Hammett; daughter Josephine Hammett; wife Josephine Dolan Hammett; girlfriend Pru Whitfield; and Hellman's secretary Nancy Bragdon. End notes identify people and other references in each letter where needed.
The letters are organized chronologically into 5 sections, each introduced by an explanation of the circumstances of Hammett's life during the relevant time period. Part 1 (1921-1930), entitled "Writer", spans Hammett's married life, often strained by his tuberculosis and efforts to make ends meet, and the bulk of his literary achievement, beginning with early Black Mask magazine correspondence and ending with editing frustrations at Knopf. Part 2 (1931-1942), entitled "Celebrity", introduces paramour Lillian Hellman, to whom Hammett wrote longer, more formal letters than he did to his wife, discussing literature, career, and mutual friends. Teenaged daughter Mary engaged her father by asking him about the Spanish Civil War and emerging Nazi power, subjects for which he held passionate opinions, so Hammett's letters to Mary reveal his politics and values.
Part 3 (1942-1945), entitled "Soldier", is the longest section but spans the shortest period of time. Dashiell Hammett enlisted in the Army at the age of 48, eager to serve his country in its fight against fascism. He was stationed in the Aleutian islands, where he edited "The Adakian", a camp newspaper with distribution of 3,000-5,000. Perhaps due to Army discipline or the scarcity of alcohol, Hammett was a prolific correspondent during this time. He writes mostly of daily camp life and most frequently to Lillian Hellman, whose secretary provided Hammett with material for his newspaper. Part 4 (1945-1951), entitled "Activist", finds Hammett with a new sense of purpose after the War. He taught mystery writing at the Jefferson School for Social Science in Manhattan, campaigned for civil rights, and became active in communist organizations. Daughter Josephine Marshall was married by this time and a frequent correspondent -also during the 5 months Hammett spent in jail for contempt of court in connection with the Civil Rights Congress bail fund.
Part 5 (1952-1960), entitled "Survivor", is a miscellany of letters that reveal a man with diminishing vigor. He seems to have little strength left for discussions or details but always a warm, supportive word for his family. In the back of the book, there is a list of the books to which Hammett refers and an index (mostly people and titles). I have read 2 Dashiell Hammett biographies. These letters don't change my impression of Hammett, but reinforce it. They flesh out his personality a good deal. He was a talented writer, a loving but absent father, a man of strong convictions (some naive), who never complained through his share of hardships. Constant financial difficulties and frequent talk of writing projects that never materialize may seem pitiful. But they are reminders of Hammett's nagging faults, the sort that every life has.