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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.

New collections of Bernard Malamud’s work released

By Jane Robbins Mize

Novelist Bernard Malamud was one of the most significant Jewish American writers of the twentieth century, and this year, to honor and celebrate his life and work, The Library of America has released two collections of Malamud’s fiction: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s and Novels and Stories of the 1960s. A third collection is forthcoming.

 

The Ransom Center is home to an important archive of Malamud’s work

 

Born in Brooklyn on April 26, 1914, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud earned his Master’s degree from Columbia University and taught writing at Oregon State University and Bennington College. His first novel, The Natural (1952), was adapted into a film starring Robert Redford in 1984. His fourth novel, The Fixer, won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1966. Malamud also published a total of six other novels and 65 short stories throughout his career.

 

Malamud’s archive includes correspondence, articles, essays, notebooks, manuscripts, interviews, and more.

 

Related content:

Additional Bernard Malamud letters, typescripts acquired by Ransom Center

Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

By Jane Robbins Mize

Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”

 

After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.

 

So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.

 

Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.

 

The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.

 

My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.

 

It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.

 

Recent biography sheds light on world-traveler and writer Stephen Graham

By Jane Robbins Mize

Stephen Graham was a British traveler and writer largely responsible for shaping British and American perceptions of Russia in the early twentieth century. He later traveled throughout Europe and North America, writing many novels and biographies that established him as an important author during his lifetime. Graham’s work, however, is little known among readers today.

 

In his recent biography, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham, Michael Hughes re-establishes Graham as a significant literary and cultural figure.

 

While researching, Hughes drew from the Ransom Center’s collection of Graham’s archival materials, which includes manuscripts and letters from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Zona Gale, and Ernest Hemingway. Below, Hughes discusses Graham’s personal life and public contributions.

 

Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham is now available to be ordered or read for free through Open Book Publishers.

 

In your introduction, you write, “The writing of a ‘Life’ is, it goes without saying, an intensely personal process.” What does your biography reveal about Graham beyond the persona presented through his texts?

 

When you read Graham’s books today—particularly his early travel books about Russia—they often seem intensely personal. Graham’s autobiography, which he published when he was 80, also seems to be very candid and open in tone. In reality, though, Graham was careful to manage the way he presented himself to his readers. When writing about Russia he described at length his love of the Russian Orthodox Church—its liturgies and its architecture—but he said little about his interest in Theosophy (which greatly influenced his views when he was a young man). He said nothing about his unusual family background—his father was a well-known journalist who abandoned his wife and children to establish a second family but without ever divorcing his first wife. Nor did Graham acknowledge that for the last 25 years of his first marriage he was living with another woman. In a sense, these are private matters, but they did greatly influence his own view of the world. Graham suffered a kind of emotional crisis in the 1920s when his parents died and his marriage collapsed, which led him to reassess many of his earlier ideas. He increasingly abandoned his belief that the world was a ‘miraculous place’—his phrase—and spent more time writing biographies and novels. It was only towards the end of his life that he once again began to return to the ideas of his youth.

 

Your biography largely draws from Graham’s personal papers and archive, including materials at the Harry Ransom Center. Which materials at the Ransom Center did you find most interesting? What insight did they offer?

 

The biggest “find” I had at the Ransom Center was an unpublished book written by Graham when he was a young man. He called it Ygdrasil—the name of the great ash tree that in Norse mythology connects the different worlds—and it served as a metaphor for Graham’s conviction that the material world was only a kind of emanation of something more profound. When he went to Russia, he convinced himself that the country was a kind of liminal zone, that is a place where the sacred ran through the mundane. Finding Ygdrasil showed me how greatly Graham was influenced by the ideas of nineteenth-century German Romanticism—admittedly filtered through the pen of Thomas Carlyle. The Center’s collection also contains many letters to and from Graham that helped me to piece together the chronology of his life and the various influences on him. The collections at the Ransom Center allowed me to understand better what Graham was actually trying to do in his books.

 

Graham extensively documented and reflected on his travels through Russia, and his written works ultimately influenced the United States’ and Great Britain’s opinions on the country. How did Graham portray Russia through his books and articles? What unique perspective did he offer?

 

Graham’s Russia was a fantasy world. Although he was skilled at writing sketches of everyday scenes, the Russia he saw (or thought he saw) was a place spared the ravages of industrialization and urbanization. Graham was realistic enough to know that the country was changing, but he still believed that Russia offered a kind of “seed of hope,” a place where everyday life was free from the banalities of western civilization. He was not alone. In the years before 1914, both in the USA and Britain, there was a huge growth of interest in Russian culture. Translations of the great nineteenth-century novelists were popular, whilst the Ballets Russes attracted large audiences when it toured the capitals of Western Europe. Many people in the West appeared to see in Russia a place of beguiling difference, an exotic country with a culture richer and more vibrant than anything that existed elsewhere. This was something of a fantasy of course—but a fantasy that was widespread. Graham’s books played an important role on both sides of the Atlantic in shaping the image of Russia as a place with a unique “soul.”

 

In your book, you aim to reintroduce Graham as a significant literary figure of the twentieth century. What were the writer’s greatest contributions to British and American culture?

 

Graham originally intended his 1964 autobiography to be less an account of his life and more a memoir of the numerous people he had known from the literary and political worlds. One of the ironies of Graham’s life is that he was often closest to writers who have since rather fallen into obscurity (in many cases rather unjustly). He was a good friend of the poet Vachel Lindsay and knew a number of other people involved in the Chicago literary renaissance of the inter-war period. He served as a kind of mentor to the author Wilfrid Ewart, author of The Way of Revelation, which is in my view of the best novels to come out of the First World War. He also helped the young poet and writer John Gawsworth launch his literary career. (Gawsworth himself became an important figure in British literary life and was a friend of numerous writers, ranging from Lawrence Durrell to M. P. Shiel.) I should say, though, that some people despised Graham’s brand of what Rebecca West called his “mechanical” mysticism. I think Graham’s career reminds us that literary life in both Britain and America was, in the twentieth century, not only about the peaks—the “great writers” whose memory survives today—but instead consisted of a far more complex milieu of writers, critics, and journalists. It’s probably worth adding that, in more recent times, Graham is often best-remembered by environmentalists and scholars interested in landscape. Annie Dillard mentions him in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. The British writer Robert Macfarlane, whose books about walking and mountaineering have been very popular, also writes warmly of Graham. In fact—and despite the fact that I am a Russian specialist by profession—I first came to know Graham through his books about walking. His 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping is still popular with many walkers today.

 

Related Links:

Explore Michael Hughes’s blog about Stephen Graham

Listen to Michael Hughes’s lecture on Stephen Graham through the Anglo-Russian Research Network blog

See Stephen Graham’s signature on the Ransom Center’s Greenwich Village Bookshop door.

Sebastian Barry’s newest novel “The Temporary Gentleman” now available

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sebastian Barry, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has written a new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, the latest of six distinct yet related books based on the characters and events of Barry’s own family.

 

The Irish poet, novelist, and playwright is the author of the critically acclaimed play The Steward of Chirstendom (1995) and the novel A Long Long Way, which was a finalist for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. His first novel, Macker’s Garden, was published in 1982, two years before he attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a Fellow at the International Writing Program.

 

The Temporary Gentleman is written from the perspective of an Irishman living in Accra, Ghana, in 1957 as he urgently reflects on his life and work. The novel explores its narrator’s past serving in World War II, working as an engineer and UN observer, and struggling to maintain his marriage.

 

Barry visited the Harry Ransom Center in 2006 to meet with archivists about his then-recently acquired papers. The collection includes drafts of the writer’s published and unpublished works as well as manuscripts, letters, and more.

 

To celebrate the release of The Temporary Gentleman, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Barry’s previous novel, The Secret Scripture (2008). To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Sebastian Barry” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified tomorrow, May 14. [Update: This giveaway is closed, and the winner has been notified.]

 

Related content:

L.A. theater company resurrects deleted monologue in Sebastian Barry’s “The Steward of Christendom”

Writers Reflect with Sebastian Barry

Listen to Sebastian Barry read from The Secret Scripture

Author Jim Crace awarded literary prize

By Jane Robbins Mize

This year, novelist Jim Crace, whose archive resides in the Ransom Center, has received an award of $150,000 for his fiction writing. Presented by Yale University, the Windham Campbell Prize is awarded to writers of fiction, nonfiction, and drama to financially support their literary endeavors.

 

Upon receiving the award, Crace said, “After a couple of years of creative doubt when I thought I might not write another novel but should turn instead to the theatre, I have rediscovered my passion for fiction. Stories are crowding in, demanding their space on the page. The Windham Campbell Prize at Yale gives me the independence and the confidence to take on those stories, free from everyday pressures. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. My gratitude couldn’t be greater.”

 

Crace’s writing is celebrated for its powerful style, inspired by the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and rich with the natural imagery of imagined worlds. He is the author of 13 award-winning novels, including Continent (1986), Quarantine (1997), and Being Dead (1999). Crace has served as a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. His most recent novel, Harvest, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

 

To celebrate Crace’s achievement, Cultural Compass will be giving away a signed copy of his novel The Pesthouse. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Crace” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified by Monday, May 12. [Update: This giveaway is closed, and the winner has been notified.]

 

Related Content:

Jim Crace discusses creative process

Jim Crace gives writing advice and discusses why T.H. White’s archive at the Ransom Center brought tears to his eyes

Iain Sinclair traces steps of literary heroes of the Beat Generation in new book

By Jane Robbins Mize

Writer, documentarian, and Londoner Iain Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has written a new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. Sinclair visited The University of Texas at Austin in 2010 while preparing for his previous project, Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (2012).

 

American Smoke records Sinclair’s personal pilgrimage from Great Britain to the United States, the home of his literary heroes of the Beat Generation. Travelling from Hackney, London, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the writer hoped to discover and understand the spirit of the poets and novelists who inspired his youth: Charles Olson, Garry Snyder, William Boroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas, to name a few.

 

The story opens with the writer’s identification of time, place, and emotion: “It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. 2011 and London had lost its savour. A good step beyond midway through my dark wood of the world, I came to America, hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth. The largest, the most light-occulting of all the giants, that earlier race, was Charles Olson: poet, scholar, and last rector of Black Mountain College.”

 

The scope of American Smoke extends beyond Charles Olson and Sinclair himself. Not only a memoir of his journey in the United States, the book is also a portrait of a former generation of Americans and an exploration of their legacy today.

 

To celebrate the release of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Sinclair’s book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Iain Sinclair” in the subject line. All Tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified tomorrow, May 2 [Update: The winner has been chosen and notified.]

From the Outside In: Napoleon Sarony’s Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1882

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image, one of a series of pictures of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) taken by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896), depicts the young Irishman in January 1882, shortly after he arrived in New York City to begin his 1882 tour of North America. During this year, the last year prior to his marriage to Constance Lloyd, Wilde strongly influenced the costume and style of the European Aesthetic movement, and his unique style quickly spread to the burgeoning Greenwich Village subculture.

 

Napoleon Sarony, famous for his publicity images of some of the most popular literary and cultural figures of the time, was aware of Wilde’s notoriety, and the photographs from this session helped propel both men in their professions. Wilde was heralded with sudden fame in America, and the Sarony photographs were used to advertise his speaking appearances throughout the country. His tour would take him across the United States and Canada to deliver an estimated 150 lectures. Although his opening lecture in New York City was poorly received, and his style was ridiculed in print by The New York Times and the Boston Evening Transcript, his eye-catching fashion choices, seen here in his velvet suit and knee breeches, were soon adopted by his fans. Among the highlights of his North American tour was a meeting with the aging poet Walt Whitman, brokered by the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, J. M. Stoddart. Later during Wilde’s visit, Stoddart arranged a dinner party, where he convinced Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to submit stories to his magazine. This chance encounter would later result in Stoddart’s publication of Wilde’s controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which ultimately led to Wilde’s public fall from grace in Great Britain.

 

Sarony, a celebrated figure in New York photography, would soon file an 1883 copyright infringement suit against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, spurred by their use of one of the prints from his sessions, Oscar Wilde No. 18, in an advertisement. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, who, in 1884, established that Sarony was the author of “an original work of art” protected by copyright; in their unanimous decision, the Court extended copyright to photography, in line with the established protection for “all forms of writing, printing, engravings, etchings, etc., by which the ideas in the mind of the author are given visible expression.” Sarony later photographed the Supreme Court Justices who decided the case, as well as other Washington, D.C., political figures.

 

The Ransom Center holds extensive materials related to Wilde’s life and work, including drafts of many of his most important works, correspondence, and writings concerning Wilde by his friends. The Center also holds papers from Wilde’s companion, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), which include correspondence and versions of several works about Wilde. The collection of Frank Harris (1856–1931), Wilde’s friend and biographer, contains significant correspondence from Robbie Ross, one of Wilde’s most loyal friends, and Vyvyan Holland, Wilde’s youngest son, as well as notes and fragments from Harris’s biography of Wilde. Among materials that the Center holds by Canadian-born Napoleon Sarony are photographic images of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and Wilkie Collins.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Jessica Smith wrote this post.

Diane Johnson’s new memoir explores her life and work

By Jane Robbins Mize

Diane Johnson’s dynamic career has encompassed a wide variety of genres, settings, and subjects. As a biographer, she has explored the lives of Mary Ellen Peacock and Dashiell Hammett. As a novelist, she has been named a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. She also co-authored the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. This year, Johnson has released her first memoir, Flyover Lives.

 

Johnson’s books are celebrated for their exploration of time and space and her characters for their curiosity and wit. Similarly, in Flyover Lives, Johnson discusses her roots in the American Midwest and her eventual escape to New York, California, and ultimately, Europe. The memoir provides her readers a deeper understanding of her own life and work through the exploration of her ancestry, her childhood, and herself as both mother and writer.

 

Johnson’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and contains drafts and production materials of her novels in addition to book reviews, essays, correspondence, and a variety of personal papers.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

 

Image: Cover of Diane Johnson’s memoir Flyover Lives.

From the Outside In: Film still from “West Side Story,” 1961

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image from West Side Story, contrasting dancers caught en point against a realistic New York street, was taken by photographer Jack Harris, who was brought in to capture the dance sequences during the making of the film. This 1961 film is an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which was itself based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The film is set in New York City in the mid-1950s, where two street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, are fighting because of their different ethnic backgrounds. One night at a neighborhood dance, Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, the sister of the Shark leader, dance together and promptly fall in love. As a result, a deeper rift develops between the street gangs, and Maria and Tony must ultimately choose between their cultural connections and their love for one another.

 

Robert Wise was named director and producer of the film, but because he had no experience directing a musical, Jerome Robbins, who had directed the original Broadway production, was also brought in to provide assistance for the music and dance numbers. Wise and Robbins quickly became at odds with one another, and after the first day of filming, they were no longer on speaking terms. Robbins was soon fired, and the remaining musical numbers were directed by his assistants, but Robbins was still featured in the credits as a co-director of the film.

 

The film stars Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, who were cast as Tony and Maria. Richard Beymer secured the role of Tony over contenders such as Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty, and Burt Reynolds. Natalie Wood was not originally considered for the role of Maria, but she was romantically involved with Beatty when he performed his screen test for the role of Tony. Wood read opposite Beatty during the screen test, and the producers instantly became enamored with her as Maria.

 

West Side Story was released on October 18, 1961 and became the second highest grossing film of the year. Garnering significant praise from critics, the film went on to win awards in 10 of the 11 Academy Award categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, and Best Cinematography. To this day, West Side Story has won more Academy Awards than any other musical.

 

The Ransom Center holds the photographs of Jack Harris, who had a thriving career as a photographer of theater, dance, and music. Besides Harris’s stills for this film, the Center also holds photographs, programs, and published materials related to Harris’s work documenting dance performances, predominantly for the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The Center also holds the papers of West Side Story screenwriter Ernest Lehman.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Amy Elms wrote this post.