Selected Letters of Dashiell Hammett Hardcover – May 2001
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Penzler Pick, April 2001: What seems a long overdue volume is finally making its appearance. (After all, The Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler was published 20 years ago.) Here, in more than 600 pages crammed with important as well as intimate letters, is a view into the mind of the most important American mystery writer of the 20th century. While I don't believe Hammett could carry Chandler's pen when it came to literary excellence, it's fair to say that Chandler couldn't have published much had Hammett not made the private eye novel both popular and acceptable in the world of American letters.
While I don't recommend starting at the beginning and reading straight through to the end, you can dip into virtually any letter and find an interesting sentence, a fresh way of looking at something seemingly familiar, or learn something you didn't know about Hammett and the people he knew. Take, for example, this brief note to his publisher, Alfred Knopf, in October 1934. The Thin Man had been published in January of that year and was by far Hammett's most successful book. Knopf wanted to capitalize on that success and attempted to get a sixth novel out of his author. Hammett wrote back: "Dear Alfred--So I'm a bum--so what's done of the book looks terrible--so I'm out here (Beverly Hills) drowning my shame in M-G-M money for 10 weeks."
And isn't this interesting? Hammett was stationed in Alaska during World War II and had an active correspondence with Lillian Hellman but also with Prudence Whitfield, the wife of Raoul Whitfield, a fellow Black Mask writer and one of Hammett's closest friends. So Hammett writes to Hellman on May 6, then again on June 3, saying "I know I'm a lowdown bastard not to have written you in all this time..." Well, he was probably right. In the interim, he'd written to Prudence, signing off with "Good night, darling, and much love..." Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe there may have been a bit of hanky-panky with his best friend's wife while darling Lillie remained sublimely unaware?
There's so much more here I could quote for pages. Nice letters to his daughters, Josephine (who wrote an introduction to this book) and Mary; correspondence with other famous writers, his publisher, the editor of Black Mask, etc. There is also a splendid editing job by Richard Layman, probably the country's leading authority on Hammett. His expertise as Hammett's biographer and bibliographer has made his footnotes useful in putting into context the references that may be obscure to some readers.
Here is a book worthy to stand right next to The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Red Harvest,The Dain Curse, and The Thin Man on your bookshelf. --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
Biographer Layman (Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett) and Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, offer a deeply involving anthology of the voluminous correspondence of Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), culled from more than 1,000 surviving letters. The result (aided immensely by detailed annotation and crisp biographical sketches) narrates Hammett's literary success and the conflicted, enigmatic life he led following publication of The Thin Man (1934), his final novel. The letters illuminate the amazing texture of Hammett's life (from his well-paid Hollywood years to the joyful patriotism of his WWII service to his searing decline due to Red baiting) and writing (from prolific pulp contributor to innovator of popular, violent novels like Red Harvest). They also limn his unusual and intense personal relationships, particularly with the women in his life his estranged wife, longtime lover Lillian Hellman and his daughters and the warmth and chivalry concealed within an oblique persona. While Hammett was not given to detailed meditation on his fictive innovations, his astute reportage of his era's literary gossip, his street-level life and his moral complexities (which, touchingly, he discussed via correspondence with his young daughter Josephine, who writes the introduction) make up for this deficit. Although this collection is richly satisfying, reading it is a bittersweet, saddening experience. One senses that Hammett was knocked about in his lifetime and undervalued, both as a writer and for his dogged pursuit of social justice. Layman and company offer an important touchstone of literary history and a book that will remain a solid backlist title for mystery devotees. Illus. not seen by PW.
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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.
This book was a groundbreaking work of Hammett scholarship, and changed many assumptions that biographers had made about his life and works. It was nominated for an Edgar Award as the Best Biographical Book of the Year. This book is the closest you can get to how Hammett thought and felt about his work, his life, and the people in it.
Layman and Rivett worked with Jo Hammett on the comments and annotations, which are for the most part scrupulously accurate. My extensive use of my copy of this book has left it worn and dog-eared, but I have found only 7 factual errors:
1) p. 21, the school name should be "Munson School for Secretaries."
2) p. 21, Hammett's first piece was published in October 1922, but it was not the first piece he wrote, and it was accepted for publication in June or July 1922; the obvious conclusion is that Hammett started writing in May or June 1922 or even earlier, not in October.
3) p. 28, "[November? 1925, San Francisco]" should be [September? 1925, San Francisco].
4) p. 32, "1509 Hyde" should be 1309 Hyde.
5) p. 34, Shaw became editor of The Black Mask in October 1926, not November.
6) p. 40, "Sunday [June 7, 1927? San Francisco]" is not accurate, because June 7, 1927 was a Tuesday.
7) p. 527, "Sidney Kingsley" should be "Mel Dinelli."
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