Re: RARA-AVIS: Hammett and... Henry James

From: Patrick King (
Date: 21 Nov 2007

--- wrote:

> I did my Master's thesis in English on Henry James
> and his brother William
> James, the "Father of Modern Psychology," and I have
> to say that under Henry's
> "labored, labyrinthine style" is an intricate and
> insightful illumination of
> human nature that could not be accomplished in a
> simple manner. His style
> suits his meaning. Henry James is the master! I
> hope no one is thinking that
> Hammett is a better writer. More popular, more fun,
> okay.
> Vicki
******************************************************* While James is undoubtedly "the master," his writing style, unlike Mark Twain's for instance, is not timeless. I doubt a writer working today could be popularly successful using James' style of sentence structure. His style of story telling is another matter. James really was a master of plot peopled by rich character studies. I suspect it was this that Hammett alluded to as inspirational. Certainly Hammett's sentence structure is specific and direct. Hemingway, another "master," named Hammett as his inspiration for the terse, descriptive sentences for which Hemingway is, himself, remembered.

While nowhere as prolific as Henry James, I do think Hammett is coming into his own. In his modest way, he may have been America's strongest 20th Century influence on world literature. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Lewis, not to mention Robbe-Grillet, all were among his readership. Several of them cited him as an artistic influence.

James M. Cain, on the other hand, declared that he had read no more than a paragraph of Hammett in his life. The Hammett influence was constantly being thrown at Cain by critics.

When you say you hope no one thinks Hammett a better writer than James, how is anyone to realistically judge except by academic standards which, by their nature, are in flux? I can clearly remember when the Beatles were derided by every critic. Today, they're taught in every music school alongside Gershwin & Porter.

I think the time may be now that James is seldom read outside of the ivy covered walls. This list is proof positive that Hammett is read by all walks of life, yet it is by no means difficult to find a college course devoted to his work and the work of those he inspired.

Who's "better" and what makes them "better" may not be a very valuable discussion.

Patrick King

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