RARA-AVIS: Henry James & Hammett

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 22 Nov 2007

Happy T'day, folks!

To quote Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal, "Thanksgiving is not about children. It remains resolutely an adult holiday about grown-up food and drink and football." Having had my first nap of the day after my first overdose of food & wine, I wish to respond about Henry James & Hammett.

Henry James wrote great dialogue ... structurally. Look at almost any of his pages. Sparing use of speech tags for sharp concise dialogue that moves the plot along. It was in that area that Hammett piggybacked from. Notice the personal direction (how a character looks at his wrist or wags her fanny.) That too is where Hammett picked up from James. On the other hand, those long turgid Jamesian paragraphs, aw, gawd, they are hell for the reader. Dump them, or go around them, and James reads like Elmore Leonard.
(I should tell him that some time. Naw, he got distant when I compared him with Flannery O'Connor. Did youse guys know Leonard & O'Connor were born around the same year, both grew up in the south, Catholic-bred, and both were nuts about outlaws? But I digress.)

The following is from Washington Square (btw.) Notice this passage reads like a script; Hammett did not have Hollywood scripts to study. (I ruminate for hours wondering if had what he could have accomplished!!) Even the Falcon is contemporary with the Talkies. Hammett could have written the following, if we add in Hammett's trademark about "eyes." Pick up the Falcon and notice the body language. Hammett scooted far ahead of James in that aspect.

After dinner Morris Townsend went and stood before Catherine, who was standing before the fire in her red satin gown.
"He doesn't like me--he doesn't like me at all!" said the young man.
"Who doesn't like you?" asked Catherine.
"Your father; extraordinary man!"
"I don't see how you know," said Catherine, blushing.
"I feel; I am very quick to feel."
"Perhaps you are mistaken."
"Ah, well; you ask him, and you will see."
"I would rather not ask him, if there is any danger of his saying what you think." Morris looked at her with an air of mock melancholy.
"It wouldn't give you any pleasure to contradict him?"
"I never contradict him," said Catherine.
"Will you hear me abused without opening your lips in my defence?"
"My father won't abuse you. He doesn't know you enough." Morris Townsend gave a loud laugh, and Catherine began to blush again.
"I shall never mention you," she said, to take refuge from her confusion.
"That is very well; but it is not quite what I should have liked you to say. I should have liked you to say: 'If my father doesn't think well of you, what does it matter?' "
"Ah, but it would matter; I couldn't say that!" the girl exclaimed.


I must leave you. Pumpkin pie is calling. And pinot noir. (One of my favorite noirs.)

Fred Zackel

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