Academic journal article American Studies

Politics and the 1920s Writings of Dashiell Hammett

Academic journal article American Studies

Politics and the 1920s Writings of Dashiell Hammett

Article excerpt

At first glance, Dashiell Hammett appears a common figure in American letters. He is celebrated as a left-wing writer sympathetic to the American Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s amid the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. Memories of Hammett are often associated with labor and social struggles in the U.S. and Communist "front groups" in the post-war period. During the period of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communism, Hammett, notably, refused to collaborate with the House Un-American Activities Committee's (HUAC) investigations and was briefly jailed and hounded by the government until his death in 1961.

Histories of the "literary left" in the twentieth century, however, ignore Hammett.1 At first glance this seems strange, given both Hammett's literary fame and his politics. More accurately, this points to the difficulty of turning Hammett into a member of the "literary left" based on his literary work, as opposed to his later political activity. At the same time, some writers have attempted to place Hammett's writing within the context of the 1930s, some even going so far as to posit that his work had underlying left-wing politics. Michael Denning, for example, argues that Hammett's "stories and characters . . . in a large part established the hard-boiled aesthetic of the Popular Front" in the 1930s.2 This perspective highlights the danger of seeing Hammett as a writer in the 1930s, instead of the 1920s. Thus, in his study of Hammett, Beams Falling (1980), Peter Wolfe states that Hammett "was wooed by Marxism in the 1920s or 1930s."3 While technically correct, this imprecision obscures the fact that Hammett's literary activity, in the 1920s, and his subsequent political activity in the post-war period are different. Certainly Hammett's importance as a Communist sympathizer was enhanced by his writings, but the proper context in which to place these writings is in the pre-Communist 1920s and not the 1930s.

While many writers started on the radical leftand moved to the right in the post-war period, Hammett started as a member of the notorious anti-labor Pinkerton Detective Agency and ended a supporter of the Communist Party. Hammett, perhaps, is the only writer whom both the Pinkerton and the Communists each prominently claim as their own on their respective Web sites.4 Unlike many famous left-wing writers, Hammett wrote his major works before he became a radical. Not only did he oppose "proletarian literature," but also his work is largely anti-proletarian: it emphasizes individual action instead of collective effort, and its genre, detective fiction, glorifies a profession among whose jobs is repressing the labor movement.

In examining Hammett's writings against his political evolution in the 1920s, this essay argues against the tendency to read Hammett backwards. This article argues that Hammett's early stories do not lend themselves to a coherent political reading, much less a radical one. They focus on themes central to the Gilded Age, Progressive Era and the Roaring 1920s: themes such as political corruption, social tensions caused by urbanization and industrialization, and the increasing breakdown of bourgeois respectability. As with other writers of the period, distinctly conservative, perhaps even reactionary, elements can be found in Hammett's writings of the 1920s.

LeRoy Lad Panek has complained about viewing Hammett's early writing from the perspective of The Maltese Falcon.5 One right-wing journalist claims Hammett "portrayed a society that was fodder for anti-capitalists."6 One scholar argues that even the early "The Gutting of Couffignal" (December 1925), "shows pronounced Communist themes" and that Hammett's "Communist sympathies began considerably earlier" than often believed.7

His writings from the twenties should not be considered "Marxist." Beyond the inherently problematic concept of "Marxist fiction" in general (which tends to confound literature with political propaganda and assumes that a writer with particular politics will write in a particular way), there are three problems with reading Hammett's writing from his later politics. …

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