Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Chandler dissing Hammett?

From: William Harker (
Date: 21 Jan 2006

At 07:01 PM 1/20/2006 -0800, you wrote:

>"In spite of the many kind words about Hammett in
>Chandler's famous 'Simple Art of Murder' essay, there
>was at least comment that made me think that Chandler
>didn't much care for Hammett's literary abilities."

I've spend a couple of days intermittently thinking about this and looking up a couple of items. First, I think Chandler was a quirky, acerbic personality. One of my favorite Chandler self-descriptions is "All my best friends I have never seen. To know me in the flesh is to pass on to better things." It would not surprise me if somewhere, sometime, Chandler did "diss" Hammett.

But, as to what I have found, here are a couple of statements that, at least, offer a bit of critical thought and, in one case, rumor-spreading, about Hammett's work:

In a letter to Blanche Knopf, October 22, 1942:

"Most of all perhaps, in my rather sensitive mind, I hope the day will come when I won't have to ride around on Hammett and James Cain like an organ grinder's monkey. Hammett is all right. I give him everything. There were a lot of things he could not do, but what he did he did superbly."

In a letter to Charles Morton, October 13, 1945:

"As to talking about Hammett in the past tense, I did myself in that essay [evidently, "Simple Art of Murder"]. I hope he is not to be so spoken of. As far as I know he is alive and well, but he has gone so long without writing -- unless you count a couple of screenplay jobs which, rumor says, La Hellman really did for him...that I wonder. He was one of the many guys who couldn't take Hollywood without trying to push God out of the high seat. [Chandler then goes on to describe a scene involving a drunken Hammett rejecting a proposition.] It was a great pity he stopped writing. I've never known why. I suppose he may have come to the end of his resources in a certain style and have lacked the intellectual depth to compensate for that by trying something else. But I'm not sure. I think the man has been both overrated and underrated...Old Joe Shaw may have put his finger on the trouble when he said Hammett never really cared for any of his characters."

Finally, from MacShane biography (p. 48):

"What also impressed Chandler was Hammett's attention to detail and his ability to transform a physical observation into something that reveals character. He admired Hammett's narrative ability and said that he'd gladly read one of his novels even if the last chapter were torn out. 'It would be interesting enough without the solution,' he wrote. 'It would stand up by itself as a story. That's the acid test.' Yet Hammett lacked Chandler's verbal facility and the vision that illuminated a scene. Here Chandler exceeds him in a fundamental way. Chandler realized that the American language, which belonged to both of them, was capable of saying things that Hammett 'did not know how to say, or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill.'"

Bill Harker

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