Hammett: “Vamping Samson”

For me a writer’s life is traditional biography superimposed over strict bibliography. I want to know what was written, when, why, and then follow the writings into print, especially print that occurred in the writer’s own lifetime, when it meant something. If the author met Charlie Chaplin or hopped a freight to Phoenix that same week, cool, but I wouldn’t be interested in this particular life except for the writings. The more you can tell me about the literary work, the better I think a literary biography rates.

Our now seasoned and steady-as-hell Guest Blogger Terry Zobeck returns with a look into Hammett’s early literary life, and a rare statement from the future author of The Maltese Falcon on how he came to create one of his short stories (as Terry said to me on the side, he really wishes Hammett had discussed the creation of one of the first Continental Op tales).

Here’s Terry:

Over the years in collecting Hammett’s original appearances I’ve always been intrigued by the title of the article he wrote for the May 29, 1925 issue of The Editor: The Author Weekly: “Vamping Samson.” I’ve always thought of vamping in the sense of improvising in music, especially jazz. Having finally tracked down the article and learning what it was about, I love the title even more.

The Editor styled itself as “A Journal of Information for Literary Workers: A Weekly Service for Authors.” In a regular featured column The Editor asked authors to discuss “the genesis, conception, development, and writing of fiction, poems, and articles published in current periodicals.”

They tapped Hammett to cover his story “Ber-Bulu,” published just a couple of months earlier in the March 1925 issue of Sunset (and currently collected, pure text intact, in Lost Stories).

It’s somewhat curious that The Editor would reach out to Hammett for an article on his fiction. He’d only been a published author for about two-and-half years. While he had over three dozen stories in print, they appeared mostly in the lowly pulps.

How well-known was he at this point?

The slightly more upscale Forum had published a book review by him (“Mr. Hergesheimer’s Scenario” in the November 1924 issue), but they often published unsolicited reviews from their readers.

Writer’s Digest (June 1924) had published his rebuttal (“In Defense of the Sex Story”) to H. Bedford Jones’ complaint about the increasing use of gratuitous sex in fiction. (The prolific Jones was “the King of the Pulps”; how and why the relatively unknown Hammett was chosen to respond to him remains a mystery.)

The fact remains, however, that The Editor asked.

Hammett opens the article by noting that this version was his second attempt to respond to The Editor regarding “Ber-Bulu”:

I tore up the first one: it was a nice clear account of every step in the story’s construction, and that was what was the matter with it. It explained everything clearly if not truthfully, and was especially logical in dealing with things in the story that were done haphazardly, or, at best, intuitively. I shall try to avoid that sort of deceit now, but it is not likely that I shall be altogether successful; I can see too many things in the story now that I did not see when I was writing it.

Hammett goes on to explain that “Ber-Bulu” grew out of wondering what if Samson was just a “rugged old warrior, nowise extra-human, whose peculiar adventures formed the nucleus of the familiar legend.” In effect, he improvised or vamped on the Samson legend. He threw out all of the bits of the legend and was left with “the mighty hairy giant who lost his strength with his hair, and who was on the whole hardly an admirable figure.”

In writing his story, Hammett renamed Samson Levison. In finding a link between Levison’s hair and his power he shifted the emphasis from his locks to his beard, with the idea that his Samson had an embarrassingly weak chin in need of a disguise. He decided to pluck his story from the Bible-lands and set it down in the Sulu Archipelago shortly after the Spanish-American War, noting:

It had the degree of modernity I needed, it had not been written out of reality, and I liked Moros. Further, the Bible story would be plausibly fresh in the minds of a folk newly acquainted with Christianity, and, with a missionary on hand, I could make that plausibility doubly sure. There need not have been any explicit connection between the older story and mine, but why ignore the value of so solid a stone in my story’s foundation?

Rather than making his Delilah —Dinihari, a Malay girl — the focus of the story, he made Jeffol, a local lad recently converted to Christianity and Levison’s rival for the girl, the hero.

Jeffol brings Dinihari home to his harem. He soon loses all his money gambling, and while depressed, converts to Christianity. The local missionary convinces him, as a Christian, he must divorce all of his wives, except the first. But Jeffol wants Dinihari and so he decides to divorce all of his wives so he can marry her. While he is gone to seek the needed divorces, Levison arrives on the island and takes Dinihari as his girl. Jeffol returns, fights Levison, but loses.

The missionary suggests the Samson story to Jeffol — Hammett acknowledges that “this angle was withheld from the reader until the last, of course, and even then I did not specify the extent to which the missionary had seen through Levison’s mask of hair.” Jeffol’s friends hold Levison down so that Jeffol can shave him, whereupon they all break out in derisive laughter. Levison flees the island in humiliation and Dinihari returns to Jeffol.

Hammett explains with this action invented, all that remained was to clothe “this bald and, as you have discovered, quite hopelessly lifeless plot with words and phrases that would trick the reader, or at least the editor, into some sort of interest.”

An important decision was to tell the story in the first person. Hammett chose to have the gambler, to whom Jeffol lost all his money, be the narrator, thus letting him condense the story, retain its anecdotal tone, and keep dialogue to a minimum.

Hammett writes that the “story went off rather easily: I framed and wrote it in three days, an almost miraculous speed for me, who can seldom do anything in less than three weeks.”

“Ber-Bulu” is among my favorite early Hammett stories. It is one of the few that he set outside of the United States and it is not a crime or detective story.

“Vamping Samson” is a significant piece as it is, along with the introduction to the 1934 Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon, one of the few examples of Hammett discussing his writing process. It has further significance to Hammett collectors, however, in that he concludes the article with some rare biographical and bibliographic detail; he writes:

My earlier work is close enough for memory if hardly far enough away for perspective: it is not yet three years since I installed my first typewriter and picked out my first story, “The Barber and His Wife” (Brief Stories, December, 1922). My first sale and appearance in print was as one of the considerable company who came out in The Smart Set under the editorship of Messrs. Nathan and Mencken, though it is conceivable they don’t boast of the discovery.

Because I spent some years sleuthing around the country in the employ of Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, about half of the fiction I have written has had to do with crime, though, curiously, I was some time getting the hang of the detective story. And while, with the connivance of The Black Mask, that type of story has paid most of my rent and grocery bills during the past two years, I have sold at least one or two specimens of most of the other types to a list of magazines, varied enough if not so extensive, that includes Action Stories, Argosy-All Story, Black Mask, Brief Stories, Experience, Forum, [The New] Pearson’s, Saucy Stories, Smart Set, Sunset, True Detective Mysteries, besides a few book-reviews, articles and short miscellaneous matter here and elsewhere.

There are several interesting tidbits in these two paragraphs.

First, Hammett claims “The Barber and His Wife” as his first story. In an earlier post I discussed Hammett’s short story output. In counting his published stories, I included “The Parthian Shot” (Smart Set October 1922) and “Immortality” (10 Story Book November 1922), presuming them to be his first two stories — as did Vince Emery when he collected them in Lost Stories.

Hammett apparently considered them “short miscellaneous matter.”

Second, he notes that his first appearance in print was in the pages of The Smart Set (presumably the aforementioned “The Parthian Shot”), thus confirming that bit of bibliographic fact.

Third, Hammett acknowledges that, despite his experience as a Pinkerton Op, it took him awhile to get the writing of detective stories right.

And fourth, and perhaps most intriguing, he lists the publications in which he’s published stories. Among them is Experience, in which he had just published “Another Perfect Murder” (February 1925). It may be this reference in The Editor that provided Richard Layman with the date (“prior to May 1925) in which Hammett would have published in Experience (at the time, he indicated Hammett had published two stories in Experience — “The Man Who Loved Ugly Women” is the other, and so far unlocated, story).

In this list of publications, Hammett also includes the Forum. This inclusion is puzzling. According to the standard bibliographies, the only Hammett items that appear in the Forum are three book reviews, only one of which had been published by the time of “Vamping Samson.”

He is specific in listing these publications as ones in which he had published a story; he includes his book review work separately. Is it possible that he published a story in the Forum, one that is unknown to collectors and scholars? Looks like I’ll be going back to the Library of Congress soon.

It also is curious that he claims to have published a “few book-reviews.” As far as we know, as of May 1925, Hammett had published only a single book review; it is, as noted above, “Mr. Hergesheimer’s Scenario” in the November 1924 Forum. Rather than a mistake on Hammett’s part or the possibility of previously undocumented reviews, it is likely that Hammett was thinking of a review he had recently written and submitted to the Forum on Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart. In a letter to the Forum dated March 6, 1925, Hammett asks that they make some changes to the review that he had submitted two days earlier; this review was never published, but, at the time he wrote “Vamping Samson,” Hammett probably presumed it would be.

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