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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) 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) 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) 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.]