Sunday, March 23, 2014

Life after Slush: On Dashiell Hammett's Posthumous Stories

The recently published collection of previously unpublished or uncollected Dashiell Hammett stories, The Hunter and Other Stories, is a must-read for anyone who cares about the form and history of the short story. Whether or not it is a must-buy depends on whether or not one is a Hammett completist. Anyone who is not can likely benefit from it through the library of their choice.

Several of the stories included would be refreshing if they found their way into any of a number of contemporary anthologies. Unfortunately, my favorite of the lot, "Faith," does not qualify for the next edition of Best American Mystery Stories, for though it did not appear in Hammett's lifetime, it had already been published in an Otto Penzler anthology in 2007. Very well: At the very least, I hope "An Inch and a Half of Glory," an insightful dissection of a life ruined by its high point, is under consideration for some collection or another, where it can get the attention of a reader who otherwise might have dismissed Hammett as a pulp-and-film writer.

As the commentaries by editors Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett make clear, many of these stories were the result of the author's failed attempts to crack into the "slicks," the higher-class, higher-paying magazines printed on glossy paper and aimed at a middle-class audience with aspirations to higher things. Whether Hammett's pre-existing reputation as a writer for the pulps, or the elements of deprivation and depravity in the stories themselves, doomed them to the slush-piles is hard to say. The near-total demise of the slicks since then, along with the reputations of the often second-rate writers they turned to as mainstays, may be cause for schadenfreude, but for a short story writer seeking an outlet, schadenfreude never paid the bills.

The collection itself shows why there will never be another writer like Hammett. Not because he was some one-in-a-trillion genius--his flashes of insight and felicitous sentences never rise to quite that level--but because his career exemplifies a transformation in the commercial apparatus of writing in the United States. The later a story was written, and thus the further into his Hollywood career he wrote it, the less the characters sound like real human beings speaking in a keenly observed idiolect, and more like actors delivering dialogue in a movie adaptation of Hammett's own stories. The difference between Hammett and later generations of writers (e.g. Ray Bradbury) who got involved with Hollywood is that one can see the difference between the early templates and the later stereotypes. Hammett helped to create the clich├ęs which future generations would either adapt to, or struggle to free themselves from.

Consider "Faith": Written in 1926, it would not have sat well with the Popular Front milieu with which Hammett engaged in later life. The authorial voice is certainly in sympathy with the milieu of "migratory workingmen" which it describes, but it refers to them, from the beginning, as "simple men." One of the two protagonists, Wobbly organizer Morphy, is described as "a big-bodied dark man who said 'the proletariat' as one would say 'the seraphim'". In the midst of the set-up, there's a lengthier passage which distances the narrator from the proletariat even as it defends the proletarian:

"If you are a migratory workingman you may pick your teeth wherever and with whatever tool you like, but you may not either by word or act publicly express satisfaction with your present employment; nor may you disagree with any who denounce the conditions of that employment. Like most conventions, this is not altogether without foundation in reason."

Throughout the story, there is an implicit parallelism between Morphy and his religiously unhinged antagonist, Feach, a parallelism that is uncomfortable but comprehensible to any reader like myself inclined first of all to identify with the radical. Neither Morphy nor Feach speak in the clipped certainties of the "hard-boiled" detectives who became Hammett's bread and butter. For each of them, their speech is loaded with song and vision, even as they each regard themselves as messengers of an underlying reality hidden from the perception of their fellows.

The collection is organized by a combination of thematic, formal and chronological criteria. That is, "Screen Stories" (treatments written for motion pictures, some produced and some not) have a section of their own. Conventionally written short fiction is grouped into three thematic sections, "Crime," "Men," and "Men and Women". And within each section, the pieces are arranged chronologically according to when they were likely written, as much as the editors could determine from the typescripts. For me, the commentaries prefacing each section are interesting largely for the information provided about the physical condition of the typescripts and the historical information about Hammett's interactions with the publishing and movie-making enterprises of the day.

In terms of the sections themselves, I was most consistently impressed with the stories included in "Men". "Crime" is relatively short, mostly good, but a bit more uneven. That the low points among the short stories were concentrated in "Men and Women" suggests something about Hammett's ability to conceive women protagonists whose behavior makes sense eight or nine decades later. As for the screen stories, they were clearly not written to be read except by a limited audience of Hollywood producers, directors and screenwriters. While they might be fascinating to Hammett biographers or film scholars, they are not intended as literature nor do they work as such. The book would have been better without them.

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