Hammett: James, Joyce

Tough one — this post from frequent Guest Blogger Terry Zobeck could be held over till August for LitCrit Month — nothing is more LitCrit than James Joyce and Finnegans Wake, right??? — or just popped online right now during Biography Month to show that Hammett was doing something I also do, on occasion: reading about the lives of Old West Outlaws.

A coin is tossed. . . .

And here’s Terry:

In writing these Guest Posts I frequently consult Richard Layman’s essential 1979 bibliography of Hammett. Over the past thirty years I must have pored over it hundreds of times. But recently I came upon an item I’d overlooked: the final book review Hammett published.

And I was reminded of one other review, one that was never published.

It was apparent I had some work to do to finish documenting Hammett’s career as a book reviewer.

The first thing I did was return to the Library of Congress to find Hammett’s review of Desperate Men: Revelations from the Sealed Pinkerton Files by James D. Horan. What an exciting title.

What would this former Pinkerton’s Op have to say about a book based upon old, sealed files from his former employer?

As Layman documented, the review was published in the November 27, 1949 issue of the New York Herald Tribune, and was titled “Outlaws of the Old West.” As the review’s title suggests, the book is a study of western outlaws, with a focus on the gang ramrodded by Jesse James, and Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch.

Unfortunately, Hammett doesn’t have much to say about the “sealed Pinkerton files” other than to note that Horan:

. . . has used the Pinkerton files and some additional rather cursory research to puncture a few legends, to correct a few dates, to authenticate the presence or absence of this or that robber at or from the scene of some particular crime, to straighten out confusion between the towns of Independence and Liberty, Missouri.

He didn’t think too much of the book — while acknowledging all this detail might be of interest to the specialist, “there’s not much meat in it for the general reader.”

The second piece is Hammett’s long-lost review of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake produced for PM, a leftist New York City daily paper. PM was published by Ralph Ingersoll from June 1940 to June 1948 and was financed by Marshall Field III, Chicago millionaire and department store heir. Hammett was an editorial advisor to the paper as it was being prepared for publication.

Layman’s bibliography lacks any detail on when this review might have been produced; noting only that it was done for a trial issue of the newspaper — at the time of publication for the bibliography, Layman hadn’t located it.

The Library of Congress’ catalog notes that the launch of the paper on June 18, 1940 was preceded by four “introductory” issues: June 13-15 and 17, 1940; the Library’s archive only has the June 14 issue and it does not contain Hammett’s review.

The Library’s catalog also notes that “printer’s specimen” issues exist for April 26 and 29, 1939, more than a year before the paper began regular publication. The Library’s archives do not contain either of these issues.

Having run out of ideas on how to locate this review I contacted Layman and asked whether he had ever located the review. He had! He found a micro-film copy at The New York Public Library. He provided me with a scan of it and it turns out that Hammett’s review appears in the April 26, 1939 printer’s dummy issue.

Unfortunately, the New York Public Library’s micro-film copy cuts off the edge of the right-hand column of the page with Hammett’s review so that the final four or five letters of each line are missing — sometimes this is a whole word, other times the end of a word. In addition, the copy is poor and several words are illegible; however, enough is legible that reasonable guesses can be made as to the majority of the missing or illegible text.

(In the quotes provided here the text in brackets are mine and Don’s best guesses based on the shape of the letters that can be made out and the context of the sentence. Regular text in brackets are words or parts of words that are cut-off at the right-hand edge of the paper; these again are our best guesses at the missing words or letters based on the partial words that are still present and/or the context of the sentence. There are only two words in the first quote below for which we could not make a guess).

Hammett was impressed with Joyce’s difficult final book. He observes that much of it deals with dreams and that in describing these dreams Joyce set them down . . .

in a [shifting] dazzling eelish prof[usion] [of] half hints and distortions, songs, sagas, [illegible] [drink], [brawls], Tristan and Isolde, the [seven] [seas], American comic strips, Shakespeare, [missing] the battle of Waterloo, saints, Oliver Cro[mwell–]set down in English that needs the h[elp of a ] dozen other languages and jargons ranging [from] Sanskrit and Lapp to pidjin [sic] English.

Hammett acknowledged his own difficulty with the book and concluded perceptively that:

To read “Finnegans Wake” is to bog [down] more often than not and seldom to be sur[e] [you] [are] not missing more than you are finding.

But you have another choice — to say to [hell] with the whole thing. Just what you will [miss] [if] you take the third and easiest way [out is–] and will be for sometime — a very deba[table] point. Certainly you will miss much beauty[,] [you] will miss the greatest of all experiments i[n the] refreshening of a language, and you will [miss] several thousands of deathless, hair-raising [and] preposterous puns. I think you will also [miss a] better book than “Ulysses.”

Finnegan’s Wake was published in 1939. It is impressive that Hammett read the book with a critical eye so quickly and produced a perceptive review in such short order.

Hammett’s favorable opinion was not shared among the majority of reviewers of the book upon its initial release. Hammett had little formal education, but his letters reveal him to be a prodigious and wide-ranging reader, one who was perceptive and formed his own opinions rather than relying upon those of others. It’s a shame this review was never published for general release.

This leaves only two of Hammett book reviews unlocated. The first is the topic of a March 6, 1925 letter to the editors of the Forum, in which Hammett requests that they make some changes to the review of Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation that he had sent two days previous.

The Forum often published unsolicited reviews from readers; apparently Hammett’s review was one of these. It was never published. Unless it survives tucked away somewhere among his papers at the University of Texas, it is probably forever lost.

The second, Eyes of Reason by Stefan Heym, is mentioned by Hammett in a March 11, 1951 letter to Maggie Kober. He writes that “I’ve got a stack of work I’m supposed to do tonight, like writing a review of Heym’s Eyes of Reason for the Liberty Book Club.” Assuming he actually did get to work that night (or sometime around then) and this review was produced, it has never been located. Most likely it would have been written for a promotional pamphlet for the Book Club rather than for publication in a periodical.

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