RARA-AVIS: Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, by David Madden 1968

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 03 Sep 2006

The hardboiled detective genre suffered a major collapse in the 1960s. The field was inundated by shabby series with no literary merit, with no significant new authors few viable works. It was an ironic time, then, to see David Madden's Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties appear in 1968, the best collection of essays ever produced on the hardboiled genre. In this modest little hard cover book he managed to bring together an eclectic group of writers on a variety of subjects, including specific writers, specific books, and subgenre. Well-known authors Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and John O'Hara are discussed, as well as lesser known authors such as Jim Thompson, William Lindsay Gresham, Horace McCoy, and Richard Hallas. Matthew Broccolli discusses John O'Hara, Thomas Sturak writes on Horace McCoy, Philip Durham on the influence of Black Mask magazine, and Philip Young discusses what he describes as Hemingway's only hardboiled novel, To Have and Have Not.


Matthew Bruccoli has a well-written piece on author John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra. He notes that the hardboiled nature of O'Hara's novel lies more in the unsentimental delivery than in the personality of the characters, and that O'Hara's greatest significance lies in his ability to reproduce life as it was. Appointment in Samarra came out in 1934, the same year as Hammett's last novel, The Thin Man, and James Cain's landmark noir The Postman Always Rings twice, and Bruccoli points out the striking similarities, the "uninvolved viewpoint, economical style, accurate speech, dirty words, frank sex." Bruccoli identifies the influence of Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald on O'Hara's style in the novel. He points to Edmund Wilson's observation in
"Boys in the Back Room" that social snobbery is O'Hara's main theme. Bruccoli concludes: "there are more elegant stylists, more profound thinkers, more sensitive spirits. There is no working writer who matches O'Hara's importance as a social historian."


Sturak provides a reasonable discussion of Horace McCoy's oeuvre, although his best novel, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, is the central focus. He accounts for the various influences on the novel, the bitterness of the Lost Generation, the Communist movement, the hardboiled genre, the Depression, and existentialism. Sturak denies a dominant proletariat theme in McCoy. He mentions that when McCoy converted the short story into the novel, he edited out specific references to the Depression, such as bread lines and underpaid factory workers. He notes that early in his career, McCoy was referred to as a hardboiled writer in the tradition of James Cain, a connection that he despised and refused any reference to on his book covers. Sturak's comments on the two main characters in They Shoot Horses, Gloria and Robert, their relationship, their predicament, and the justaposition of their personas is good.

THE WAY OUT, Kingley Widmer

The image of the hardboiled tough guy that formed in the 1920s and solidified in the 1930s has been described as an urban evolution of the rural cowboy. In "The Way Out" Widmer's suggests the hobo as the true father of the hardboiled persona. He mentions the characteristic narrow-brimmed felt hat, the hobo's defiance of society and rejection of authority, and the air of romantic heroism. Widmer mentions several important works in the hobo genre, such as Jack London's THE ROAD (1907), Davies's AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SUPERTRAMP (1917), Harry Kemp's TRAMPING ON LIFE
(1922), Jim Tully's BEGGARS OF LIFE (1924), and George Orwell's DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON.

The hobo has definitely made his mark on the hardboiled image. Aside from the books that Widmer refers to, Hemingway set some of the Nick Adams stories in the hobo jungles of the Depression. Too late to be an influence but nevertheless a tribute, Charles Willeford's autobiography describes his young hobo days. So the hobo has indeed had an influence on the hardboiled genre, and Widmer labors hard and honestly at the task. The only flaw is that he simply wants too much. Although the hobo image has a strong place in literature and the American psyche, there are more direct routes to the hardboiled character, such as through Pinkerton's detective books of the late 1800s. And the argument pointing to the transition from the rural cowboy to the urban hardboiled detective is a compelling one. A better explanation is that the tough guy paradigm derived from multiple influences, borrowing some characteristics from hobos, cowboys, soldiers, and explorers.


The origin of the hardboiled genre is often traced to Black Mask magazine in 1923. In "The Black Mask School", Phil Durham presents an interesting summary of the early years of the magazine, the editors, and the writers. He discusses the poor writing and high demand for Carroll John Daly and his tough and cartoonish detective Race Williams. He then moves on to a more detailed treatment of the better known writer Dashiell Hammett. Durham credits Hammett with being the better author, but he doesn't hesitate to criticize him for the increasing level of violence and an ominous leaning towards sadism. He discusses Hammett's first four novels, identifying a peak in his skills with The Dain Curse. He finds The Thin Man barely worth commenting on. Durham does not neglect Joe "Cap" Shaw either, an editor for ten years and at least as famous as many of the writers. Durham also mentions other Black Mask authors such as Frederick Nebel, Raoul Whitfield, Norbert Davis, W.T. Ballard, and Paul Cain.


Hemingway is often connected with the hardboiled genre. In Philip Young's "Focus on To Have and Have Not," he claims the subject of the essay to be Hemingway's only hardboiled novel. Part of his justification for this is that none of Hemingway's other protagonists are tough; they are merely hiding their vulnerability and pain. An interesting conclusion. Some people would identify that sort of stoic behavior as tough. Young provides some interesting insight into the history of the novel, noting that much of the discontinuity that draws frequent criticism is caused by Hemingway hurriedly excising large sections to appease the publisher's concern over libel. Gordon was very obviously modeled after John dos Passos. Young quotes both Hemingway and Carlos Baker identifying the theme as the decline of the individual. He is also perceptive in his scepticism of the oft-perceived Marxist theme in the novel: "To Have and Have Not comes in the darkest night of the soul, not the dubious dawn of social pronouncement." Good stuff.


The central theme of Grebstein's essay "The Tough Hemingway and His Hard-Boiled Children" is to lend support to the commonly heard argument that Hemingway originated the hardboiled movement. The essay is worth reading for his intelligent observations, even if his central theme is dubious. He compares the Hemingway code convincingly with hardboiled ethics, replacing loyalties to ideals with loyalties to people, a commitment to their work, self-discipline, a personal familiarity with violence, and a strict sense of conduct outside the norm. He notes the similarities in views and attitudes towards death between Chandler and Hemingway, and he mentions the influence of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, and Stephen Crane. He compares Hemingway's TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT to Hammett's RED HARVEST and Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP.

Beyond Hemingway, he also notes the influence on the genre of folk heroes Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink, literary characters such as Cooper's Natty Bumppo, London's Wolf Larsen, Melville's Captain Ahab, and real-life characters Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett. His cataloging of their shared traits is worth quoting:

"All are physically hard and emotionally tough. All are supremely adept at their crafts. All espouse objectives which frequently do not square with conventional moral norms but which are admirable nevertheless. All are pragmatists who employ questionable means towards desirable ends. In the Darwinian terminology, they are superbly equipped in the struggle for existence; in the Nietzchean, they practice a Master rather than a Slave morality.
...They are, in short, the splendid ancestors and prototypes of the tough guy hero who emerged in the popular fiction of the Twenties and Thirties and who is still very much with us in more ways than we can possibly discern."
  The standard problem encountered when declaring Hemingway the founder of the hardboiled genre is the timeline. It is common nowadays to point to stories by Hammett and Daly in Black Mask in 1923 as the beginning of hardboiled writing, and this predates anything by Hemingway that could be considered hardboiled. Grebstein avoids this discrepancy by asserting that Hammett's first hardboiled work was the short story "Fly Paper," written towards the end of the 1920s, after Hemingway's Men Without Women book of short stories was published. Grebstein offers no explanation why he doesn't consider any of Hammett's earlier work as hardboiled.


Robert Edenbaum presents an intelligent and balanced analysis in his essay "The Novels of Dashiell Hammett." His primary focus is an examination of the nature of the protagonist in his five novels, and the implications and conclusions that can be drawn from it. He finds the relatively unfeeling and invulnerable Con Op as only barely human in Red Harvest and only slightly convincing, with a slightly better opinion of the more touchy-feely Con Op in The Dain Curse. Sceptical to the end, he even wonders whether the Con Op's feelings expressed for Gabrielle are sincere or simply another manipulative ploy. Edenbaum rates The Maltese Falcon as Hammett's best, for the reason that it concentrates on character relations more than plot. Although Hammett had a special fondness for The Glass Key, Edenbaum was unimpressed with it, an evaluation I share with him. Other than identifying Nick as the Con Op without a cause, he fails to find much of significance in The Thin Man.

According to Edenbaum, the three primary characteristics of Hammett's detectives are freedom from sentiment, courage in the face of danger, and immunity from the temptations of money and sex. These features allow the detective to break free from the doomed fate of the American naturalists. The edge of victory is blunted, though, because "he hedges himself so thoroughly against betrayal that he lives in total isolation and loneliness." Edenbaum compares the detective's condition to Camus's phrase in The Rebel,
"voluntary mutilation." He notes the difference between the characters of Hammett and Hemingway. Hemingway's protagonists open themselves up to the possibility of being hurt, and this makes them human. Hammett's detectives protect themselves from being hurt by rejecting sentiment, and this makes them monsters. For clarification, Edenbaum emphasizes that they are not incapable of feeling emotion, but instead choose to deny it because it does not fit the world they live in. For them, to indulge in sentiment is to indulge in a lie.

LABELS, Benjamin Appel

There are a few weak entries in Madden's collection. It's hard to grasp the intention of Appel's short essay "Labels." At first Appel notes the lack of worth in literary labels. He then proceeds to talk vaguely about the relationship between two such labels, proletariat and hardboiled. Although the two can be considered an odd couple, there is no lack of ground to be covered on the subject. For over two decades, Marxism was the fashionable ideology of choice for authors, and running parallel to the rising popularity of the hardboiled genre, the themes often ran intermingled. It was advertised in the title of Anderson's bank-robbing saga Thieves Like Us. Hemingway's contribution was To Have and Have Not, with Harry Morgan's feverish last words echoing a Marxist slogan. John Dos Passos wrote a trilogy that mixed the two subjects.

Appel mentions Nelson Algren's Somebody In Boots, John O'Hara's Butterfield 8, Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, and his own Brain Guy. There is some discussion of a couple of the novels, but his heart isn't in it. His best commentary is quoted from an article he wrote thirty years earlier. He wanders off subject, stating that novels are bogus unless the author lives the life of the characters. Besides being off-track, the declaration is dubious. If it were true, Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage would not carry the weight it does. His motivation for the comment appears to be a resentment of financially successful authors writing novels of "alienation." Rather than astute literary commentary, Appel's writing comes across as a personal expression of bitterness. Whether the source of this bitterness is his failure to join the Affluent Society, or the failure of the Proletariat movement to defeat it, is not clear. What is clear is that Appel offers little or nothing of significance on the subject.


Like any collection, there are greater and lesser offerings. Kingley Widmer makes a gallant effort to promote the hobo as the real-life model for the tough guy hero, but he doesn't quite pull it off. E.R. Hagemann finds an obscure correlation between a dozen bets placed on a roulette wheel and the events in You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up. Nevertheless, the seventeen essays in this book comprise a book that was pivotal in the history of hardboiled detective fiction. At an all-time ebb, and fueled only by a recent reprinting of Hammett's work, Christopher Metress, editor of The Critical Response to Dashiell Hammett, credits Madden's book as the turning point in critical interest in Hammett and, by extension, the entire genre.


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