Introduction: The Complex History of a "Simple Art"

Article excerpt

In July of 1999, when I went to UCLA to look at the letters of Raymond Chandler, the traffic jam around his papers rivaled the ones out on the Los Angeles freeways. There were no fewer than four people that afternoon in the Special Collections Library working with precisely the same box of folders I was--one of them was a visiting scholar from Princeton, I found; another, a journalist from L. A. As any archival sleuth will tell you, encountering this number of people at precisely the site you're interested in is about as rare as a Raymond Chandler novel without similes. Along with many others, this small piece of evidence attests to the wealth of attention the author of The Big Sleep has been receiving these past few years--in both academic and non-academic contexts--and the interest shows no sign of waning any time soon. These essays consider a few of the dimensions of Raymond Chandler's legacy--the wide-ranging impact his work has had on late twentieth-century fiction and film.

In 1998, Michael Sharp and I began this collaborative project out of a desire to bring our shared interest in Chandler to fruition in the form of a co-chaired panel: we wanted to refine our longstanding fascination with Chandler's world and the durability of his influence into a more rigorous examination of the "Chandleresque"--what it had come to be understood as consisting of, what accounted for its lasting cultural power, how it had evolved, and what kind of cultural work it had accomplished over time. We ended up appearing at the 1999 NEMLA with "(Re-) Visions of Chandler: Raymond Chandler and American Culture," a panel whose premise was that Chandler's style--that enigmatic amalgam of cynicism, lyricism, and streetwise intelligence--had profoundly shaped our culture in many ways, some immediately recognizable, others more subtle. We requested papers that addressed the way Chandler's work has been received, revise& and reproduced. Given the promising number of submissions to the NEMLA call. we decided to expand our scope beyond American culture and to assemble a larger group of articles from a variety of contributors that would shed further light on the Chandleresque, working as an ensemble to illuminate the phenomenon more richly. The current collection is the outcome of that effort.

To introduce these articles, I will begin with two mysteries of my own that I went to the archive, if not to solve, at least to explore.

The first mystery is why, more than forty years after his death, Chandler still exerts such a powerful hold on our cultural imagination.

When expressing my interest in Chandler's work, I find myself telling people about the brief shot in Hanif Kureishi's 1987 film, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, in which Sammy, about to separate from his wife Rosie, holds up a weathered copy of Chandler's The Long Goodbye. They bought it together, so in this charged moment, the question becomes who should keep it now. They say nothing definite about the book, but we know that it evokes for both of them something crucial about their relationship. For me that gesture has always epitomized the place that Chandler's books have come to occupy in our cultural lexicon and suggested one of the reasons they stay in our minds: even unquoted, they serve as a shorthand for emotions and attitudes that can't readily be explained, but that are intuitively understood and deeply felt.

For years, writers like W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, and Somerset Maugham have been invoked as the celebrated admirers of Chandler whose devotion testifies to his excellence. More recently, Tom Stoppard has come forward as an avid fan: Margaret Atwood has paid eloquent tribute to him, as has the Uruguayan writer Hiber Conteris. In the England of Chandler's youth, the U. S. of his adulthood, and elsewhere, Chandler still seems to offer what Kenneth Burke called "equipment for living." (1)

When I first began work on Chandler in 1997, scholarship on Chandler had just entered a period of especially intense production: journalist Tom Hiney's new biography of Chandler had just recently appeared, as had the two-volume Library, of America edition of his work--the first Library of America edition ever devoted to the oeuvre of a detective writer. …