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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.

Julia Alvarez to receive National Medal of the Arts

By Alicia Dietrich

Novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez will receive a 2013 National Medal of the Arts today “for her extraordinary storytelling.” The award will be presented by President Obama. The White House notes in the citation, “In poetry and in prose, Ms. Alvarez explores themes of identity, family, and cultural divides. She illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression.”

 

Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and is currently being processed. Alvarez was born in New York City but raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 10. In 1960 her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that her father was involved in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo.

 

Much of Alvarez’s work is considered semi-autobiographical, drawing on her experiences as an immigrant and her bicultural identity. Alvarez’s unique experiences have shaped and infused her writing—from such award-winning novels as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies to her poetry.

 

Alvarez’s extensive archive consists of manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files. The manuscripts span her writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and unpublished works, often in multiple drafts.

 

Related content:

Q&A with Julia Alvarez

 

Image: Julia Alvarez speaks with students during a visit to the Ransom Center in March 2014. Photo by Pete Smith.

 

Meet the Staff: French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth Garver

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Ransom Center. Elizabeth Garver has held several positions at the Ransom Center since 2000, including graduate student intern, manuscript archivist, and in 20052006, she co-curated the Technologies of Writing exhibition. Currently, she works with the Ransom Center’s extensive French and Italian collections, and she is a co-curator of the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. She speaks four languages—English, French, Italian, and Russian—and holds a variety of degrees, including a Master’s in Library and Information Science, a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the University of Paris, a Master of Arts in Nautical Archeology, and a Bachelor of Arts in Archeology. She is also a current Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Why do you enjoy working at the Ransom Center?

Well, this is my 14th year here, and almost every day I see something new that I’ve never seen before. I also like being able to do research, which is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of jobs, and I like helping other people with their research and answering any questions they might have. The job is always changing and always interesting.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about curating the current World War I exhibition?

Jean Cannon and I were officially brought on board for the current exhibition about two years ago. She wrote her dissertation on the war poets, and I have an interest in the topic as a UT PhD student in Modern History, so we both had some expertise. There was a lot of reading on our own, but it was also looking into the collections in depth, and since there isn’t a single World War I collection to draw upon, it was basically like a treasure hunt. Then, when you find the treasures, there is a choice to make because the space is not infinite.

 

Is there a “one that got away” item that was cut from the current exhibition for space that you wish could have been included?

Yes, actually there are a couple, but there’s a really touching letter that holds an interest for me in the Édoard Dujardin collection. He was a French writer, and he had a mistress named Madeleine Boisguillaume who wrote him a letter toward the beginning of the war about the conditions in the West of France. All of the doctors were gone because they were at the front, and there was no one to help women to deliver babies and things like that. There were only old men left, old doctors who couldn’t travel, and no hospital in the town. Because of this, she said women and children were dying in childbirth. It’s really emotional and also gives an interesting perspective. People don’t usually think about the women’s experiences during the war.

 

What has visitor response been like for the exhibition?

I think visitor response has been very positive. It’s a response that I don’t think many exhibitions get, where people have their own stories to tell. Quite a few people have been sharing stories about their families and what their grandparents did in the war, and it’s just been wonderful.

 

I hear you speak French fluently. Do you have any chances to speak French around Austin?

Yes, we have a French lunch once a week where we speak only French, and there’s actually a large French community here at The University of Texas and around Austin. It’s pretty amazing how often I hear French, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak it. There are groups and of course the French department, and there are always French movies. Also, when I communicate with scholars, I’m able to use a lot of French. I think that’s why my Italian and Russian kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pretty devoted to this language.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I do a lot of gardening, and I love baseball. My family and I are pretty hardcore baseball fans—I grew up with it and I watched my brothers play. The season is over now, but I’ve had season tickets to the Longhorns for probably around 10 years. Otherwise, I do a lot of reading (although I feel like lately I’ve only been reading about the war for this exhibition), and I really enjoy cooking, especially French food.

 

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at the Ransom Center?

Obviously the French collections are amazing, but my favorite piece changes every once in awhile. Currently, I think my favorite item in the collections is the manuscript for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his annotations and drawings. We also have some of his artwork, which is all amazing.

Meet the Staff: Jean Cannon, Literary Collections Research Associate

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Jean Cannon has been the literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center since March 2012. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a Master’s degree from Tulane University, and a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Cannon is responsible for helping patrons in the reading room, answering research queries, and curating exhibitions. She spent the last two years working with colleague Elizabeth Garver to co-curate the current exhibition, The World at War: 1914–1918.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working at the Ransom Center?

I love the moment when you see a student or researcher come across an artifact that really just makes their jaw drop, the “wow” moment.

 

Can you tell me more about curating the current World at War exhibition?

We started that process about two years ago. I did my dissertation research using several World War I collections at the Ransom Center, but even having done that, I had no idea just how much was here. I had worked in the literary collections, but we also have photographs and posters and all sorts of things that made it a very exciting treasure hunt throughout the building. It was a long process of researching and amassing material from the collections, and then the painful part was choosing the items and having to cut things out because you only have so much space in the gallery. We did a lot of what I like to call “dreaming and scheming.”

 

What is it like picking and choosing items for the exhibitions?

It’s exciting and can also be kind of chaotic. I think research on that large of a scale is a process of ducking down lots of different rabbit holes every day.  Even if you try to be systematic about it, you will find yourself getting drawn to different items. For example, I went through about a month of being obsessed with carrier pigeons, and Elizabeth went through a month being obsessed with pilots.

 

Did carrier pigeons actually work?

Absolutely. On the western front, telephone lines would get blown up really easily with all the shelling on the western front, so carrier pigeons were actually more reliable. It was a strange meeting of the old world and the new, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century technologies co-existing on the battlefield.

 

If you could pick a favorite item in the Ransom Center’s collections, what would it be?

One item that really means a lot to me is Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother. That’s one of the most affecting of the letters that I’ve read here, and it’s in the gallery now, right in the middle of the show.

 

Can you tell me a little more about your educational background and how you ended up in your current job at the Ransom Center?

It’s a long, twisty tale. I started graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans, and the second year I was there, Hurricane Katrina hit. So I ended up evacuating and coming to UT because the university had a large enough program that they were able to absorb some of the Tulane students, for which I’m ever grateful. The wonderful thing about being here was being able to do the two-year graduate internship at the Ransom Center. I just fell in love with the place, and I continued volunteering and doing freelance research in the reading room. Then, as I was finishing my doctoral degree, the director at the time recruited me to come in and serve as literary collections research associate. So I defended my dissertation, took two weeks off to hike the Grand Canyon and then came back to start working here full time. It was a whirlwind!

 

I hear you are a talented hat maker. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Well, I’ve always loved hats and have always worn a lot of hats, even as a child. Then, when I was working in New York, I saw that there was a night class at Parson’ School of Design, so I just decided to take it! At that point I didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine, and I loved it even though I was really out of my depth. Since then, I’ve sought out classes here and there and found old millinery text books and manuals in the archives. My house is full of 50 or so hats.

 

What is a perfect Saturday for you?

I would probably go for a run on the Greenbelt, maybe go for a swim, read a good book on the porch (for which it has to be sunny, but not 100 degrees), work on a hat, and cook a nice dinner and have people over! Possibly a good film also, especially if it’s hot outside and I can go to the Paramount Summer Classics series.

 

What book would you consider a “must read” this summer?

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It will take you awhile, but it’s really worth it. She’s a big believer that a book can be escapist but also very smart, and I really love that combination.

 

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