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New biography sheds light on life and work of Dashiell Hammett

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.

 

You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?

Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.

 

 

What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?

His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.

 

His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.

 

Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.

 

I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.

 

I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.

 

Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!

 

The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.

 

What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.

 

 

How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?

The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.

 

Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.

Q&A: New collection of Dashiell Hammett stories required detective work in Ransom Center’s collection

By Jane Robbins Mize

Julie M. Rivett is the granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett, celebrated twentieth-century novelist and author of The Maltese Falcon. Together with Richard Layman, Rivett published The Hunter and Other Stories, a collection of Hamett’s little-known and previously unpublished works.

 

The book—which includes screenplays, short stories, and unfinished narratives—largely draws from the Ransom Center’s collection of Hammett’s manuscripts, correspondence, and personal notes. In the afterword, Rivett reflects on her research experience at the Ransom Center: “For researchers, editors, biographers, and granddaughters, archival visits are irreplaceable, near-religious experiences, ripe with potential for new discoveries.”

 

The Hunter and Other Stories is a testament to the importance of the archive for the reader as well. Rivett writes, “We believe The Hunter’s stories deserve to be published, read, and included in the greater Hammett canon. We believe that they complement Hammett’s better-known fiction and complicate and extend the legend and life story of their author.”

 

Below, Rivett discusses her investigation of her grandfather’s archive and the clues and information she uncovered therein.

 

How did your study of Hammett’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center deepen your understanding of your grandfather’s character and career?

For any serious researcher, opportunities to spend hands-on time with primary source materials are enlightening and exhilarating beyond compare. For me, as both researcher and granddaughter, the experience is doubly gratifying! Hammett is a fascinating figure. But he’s also family—Grandma’s husband, my mother’s father, and a grandfather I can just barely remember. What I know of him has been learned almost entirely posthumously, beginning with my mother’s recollections, family photos, and the letters he sent to his wife and daughters. For me, the Hammett story unfolds outward from those personal connections—from the private man to a public figure.

 

The Hammett collection at the Ransom Center informs the counterpoint, preserving closely held remains of my grandfather’s professional life. These are the papers that he (and, later, Lillian Hellman) saved and tended for decades. Because I know that my grandfather was not a saver, I know that these surviving drafts, typescripts, and working notes must have been important to him. Some are good starts—stories he believed were worth developing. Others are complete but unpublished—perhaps incompatible with his hardboiled reputation or perhaps pieces he’d hoped to revisit. Many bear his emendations—an education in editing, to be sure. The collection makes it easy for me to envision my grandfather as a serious craftsman, pencil in hand, sorting and reading and revising, nodding at the best and frowning at the thought of what might have been. It’s a window into professional technique, ambition, and frustration—but for me, it’ll always be personal, too.

 

Can you describe your archival research process, particularly while working at the Ransom Center?

When Richard Layman and I decided to co-edit a collection of unpublished and rarely published Hammett fiction, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to include—mostly from the cache at the Ransom Center. Rick went back to the materials he’d collected during prior research trips and for previous proposals. I began to review online finding aids and other potential resources. It was clear that this project would require a fresh, tightly focused visit to the archive. In March of 2011 we met in Austin, where we spent days going over each Hammett work, front and back, page by page. Reviewing the main text was only part of the job—that can be done nearly as well with facsimiles. But we needed to see and feel the paper, to examine typing and handwriting, to cross-reference various iterations, to consider abandoned drafts on typescript versos, and to watch for the faintest of pencil marks or the tidiest of cut-and-paste jobs. We needed to be both scholars and detectives, tapping our overlapping perspectives in a search for clues to inform content, establish chronology, and contextualize within Hammett’s literary history. While we would have months of work ahead of us back home afterwards—organizing, creating commentary, proofreading, and more—that archival research at the Ransom Center remained a highpoint of our editorial process.

 

How does The Hunter and Other Stories enrich Hammett’s literary canon? How do the stories digress from his previously published works? How are they similar?

One look at The Hunter’s table of contents reveals its most surprising aspect—only four in the collection are categorized as “crime stories.” Instead, my grandfather’s fiction hinges on human conflict, difficult decisions, and irresolvable situations. Crime often lingers at edges of the stories—in, for example, “The Cure” or “Monk and Johnny Fox”—but it’s the relationships among the characters and the tensions within them that dominate the telling. The stories, considered in context, also reflect the storyteller’s biography. My grandfather wanted to be more than a crime writer. The Hunter provides evidence of his struggles to that end. Rick and I are enormously pleased to be able to provide general readers with access to these works, in part because they’re well written and insightful and, in part, because they help to break down stereotypical notions of Hammett as a genre author.

 

Differences in content also point to similarities in substance. In truth, even Hammett’s crime fiction is driven primarily by character exposition. “What I try to do,” explained my grandfather in 1929, “is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story.” I would suggest that after reading The Hunter, Hammett fans go back and reread the novels or the Continental Op stories with Hammett’s emphasis on character in mind. Watch Sam Spade as he observes and anticipates Brigid’s or Gutman’s manipulations. Follow Ned Beaumont and Nick Charles as they untangle the blood ties that both bind and kill. Beneath their various schemes and misdeeds, Hammett’s narratives are always more about characters, and the solutions, if they exist, grow out of the detectives’ canny understanding of human nature. As I see it, the most enduring impact of my grandfather’s fiction is the melding of insightful observation, philosophical depth, and rollicking good stories. The Hunter provides back-story on the ambitions and processes that made that possible.

 

Image: Cover of The Hunter and Other Stories, co-edited by Julie M. Rivett and Richard Layman.

Managing editor at "The Strand" discusses publishing Dashiell Hammett story from Ransom Center's collections

By Elana Estrin

Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
After doing some detective work of his own, Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located a previously unpublished short story by Dashiell Hammett at the Ransom Center. Untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” the short story has been published for the first time in The Strand’s current issue, released today. (Learn more here about how unpublished manuscripts are unearthed at the Ransom Center.) Perhaps best known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, Hammett is considered the father of hardboiled detective fiction. Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center includes 14 other unpublished works, drafts, unfinished works, and personal correspondence. We talked to Gulli about his decision to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Out of the several unpublished Hammett manuscripts you read, how did you choose to publish “So I Shot Him” in The Strand?

All of the manuscripts I found were very, very, very strong works of fiction. “So I Shot Him” was my favorite one. It stood out because I thought it was something Hammett hadn’t tried to write before. It was sort of an experimental Hammett story.

How does “So I Shot Him” compare with Hammett’s other works?

It’s very different in some ways but at the same time has a lot of Hammett trademarks: tension, great characterization, and terse, realistic dialog. The trademark Hammett dialog is superb and seamless. You don’t feel like you’re reading something. It feels like you’re actually listening to what the characters are saying.

What I love about Hammett is the tension. This story has the feel that something sinister is about to happen. There’s such a build-up, and you keep turning page by page to see the conclusion.

This story stood apart because there was a psychological element to it. It’s not like a lot of his other stories that have a clear-cut plot and conclusion. With this story, the ending leaves you asking a lot of questions. I wanted to publish something that we’ll speak about for a long time. If you’re a suspicious person, you’ll think something sinister happens. If you’re not, you may not think so.

Why was it unpublished?

This is the $64,000 question. A lot of times, you’ll understand why writers decided not to publish something if the work was poor. But in this case, the story is very, very, very good. Hammett was a man of many contradictions, so it’s difficult to tell why he didn’t publish it. If I were to guess, I think he worked very hard on it but thought it wouldn’t work in the pulp fiction market. Sometimes writers don’t know what’s in their best interest. If he had published this story, I’m sure it would’ve been very successful. Looking at the story, you have to suspect that he held it dear to him. He was interested in keeping it to himself, especially since he didn’t destroy it. The Hammett estate told me they were aware that these materials have existed for a long time, so perhaps they’d have a better answer!

What do you think Hammett would say if he knew the manuscript were being published today?

I think that writers become less inhibited over time. Writers look at what they wrote when they were younger and can have one of two reactions: either shock that I can’t believe I was this bad. Or, my god, I was writing something very fresh, very new, very uninhibited. A lot of writers look back on old manuscripts and try to drink from that fountain of work that was uninhibited.

The manuscript is undated. When do you think Hammett wrote this story?

I would say the 1920s or 1930s. There’s a bit of a slinging, 1920s feel to it. I could be wrong. But I’m certain it wasn’t his first attempt at fiction.

What can you tell us about some of the other unpublished manuscripts in the Hammett collection at the Ransom Center?

I found 14 other unpublished manuscripts. The Ransom Center was very helpful. I did all of my research remotely with the help of an intern who was just incredible, Nick Homenda. If it weren’t for Nick, I don’t know where I would be.

It was all very time consuming because I would look up a manuscript, then I’d have to cross-reference at other libraries, and write to Hammett experts to check that the manuscripts I found weren’t published before. It took over 100 hours of work, but I managed to determine that these 14 other manuscripts weren’t published either.

In these stories, we see a lot of elements Hammett used later on in his career. We see colorful portraits of criminals in these stories. One story is about a regular, everyday private detective who’s a lot like Continental Op [a recurring character who appears in 36 of Hammett’s short stories]. The story ends like an Anton Chekhov story. There’s an ending, but not a resolution. You want a little more.

What made you decide to look through Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center?

I decided to look at the Ransom Center because someone had found an unpublished Graham Greene novel at the Ransom Center, which we published in The Strand. I did some more research and found that there were a lot of other interesting manuscripts at the Ransom Center.

Did anything surprise you in the Hammett archive?

The fact that I found 14 unpublished Hammett manuscripts was a huge surprise that will last a lifetime. I thought I’d be lucky if I found one. I’m now seeking permission to publish the rest in book form. Now I’m just waiting for the Hammett estate. I’m pretty certain it will be published. Several editors are interested.

It’s incredible what the Ransom Center has done preserving all these great writers’ works. It keeps a lot of these people alive for future generations. At the Ransom Center, you’re custodians of literary treasures.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How are unpublished manuscripts unearthed at the Ransom Center?

By Elana Estrin

The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.

The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28 issue of The Strand.

This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?

Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.

“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.

When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.

“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.

Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.

When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.

“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.

Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.

Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.

“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”

On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Corporal Dashiell Hammett’s "The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History, 1942–1943"

By Molly Schwartzburg

A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.

In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:

And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.

Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.

The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.

Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.