Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett: Mirrors of an era and a culture-wars breakthrough

June 16, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

In general it is imprudent to write critically about the work of people whom you know well, and Joan Mellen and I have been friends for something like 20 years. I would leave her 13th book to others to judge here, except that the subject fascinates me and - more - there is something happening in and around it that is irresistible.

The work is "Hellman and Hammett, The Legendary Passion of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett" (HarperCollins. 572 pages. $32).

Hellman, of course, was a playwright ("The Little Foxes," "Watch on the Rhine") who later wrote several ostensible memoirs ("An Unfinished Woman," "Pentimento"). Hammett - author of "Red Harvest," "The Maltese Falcon," "The Thin Man" - more deeply influenced detective/mystery fiction than any writer in English save Arthur Conan Doyle, and reached far beyond the genre.

They met in 1930, both then wed to others. Though they never married, their lives were intensely and predominantly intertwined until his death at 67 in 1961 - indeed, till hers, at 79, in 1984.

Mellen's book is important for its new information. She is the first writer to have used the enormous and long-secret H&H archives now in the University of Texas. Beyond that, she exhaustively interviewed large numbers of key participants and witnesses. She knew Hellman.

Poignance, lushly

H&H were miserably unhappy people. Their quests for relief and for ecstasies of their own is a compelling tale because of the elusiveness of joy, of closure, of resolving cadence. That poignance lushly ornaments Mellen's exploration of the creative imperative.

The result is a wrenchingly powerful book, about engaging, powerful people. Many people, but mainly two. A woman of near-great talent who finally is despicable, deeply dishonest, ruthlessly manipulative, unscrupulously exploitative - and captivating. And a man whose near-genius showed in a very short early career and who spent the rest of a relatively long life abusing his talent and himself, living on gin, Scotch whisky and rage, much of it directed toward himself, utterly impervious to artistic or personal maturity.

But more, it is a story of the times. And therein lies the greater significance of the book.

H&H were both intensely political. By 1936, they agreed on the "barbarism of American capitalism" and acceptance of the Communist Party. Both were totally supportive of Stalin and thus violently hostile to Trotsky and all other movements of the Left that offended Stalin's domination or cast doubt on the rationalization of his mass homicidal barbarities.

Mellen writes: "The Party to which Hellman and Hammett were drawn had already purged those who had been committed to testing democratically how a movement for revolutionary change might be built in America. Instead, it had become a crude transmission belt for Stalin's dictates, a carbon copy of his authoritarian rule."

Then: "The Party's task was to enlist America and the Western democracies on Russia's behalf." And "Dashiell Hammett, a man of considerable intelligence, fell prey to uncritical acceptance of all this and more." And so did Hellman, though ultimately with far less courage or conviction than Hammett's.

The saga of the American left of the H&H era is heroic and tragic, moving and pathetic. Moving and heroic because of its general benevolence of intent: a rage against excesses, exploitation, indifference, grossness. Tragic and pathetic for its naivete, its shallowness, its moral laziness in failing to perceive that Marxism inevitably is more exploitative, more brutalitarian, and more hypocritical than the alternatives at their most detestable.

As far as I know every book about Hellman or Hammett that has been written by anybody who has claim to being an intellectual - and there are biographies of Hammett and maybe both that make no such claims - have been written from the Old Left point of view. Mellen's book is not.

Now, Joan Mellen (whose work often appears on these pages) is an important intellectual whose heart and roots are very solidly in the Left.

Icon, hero

Hellman was and to a considerable extent still is a feminist icon. Hammett was and to some nostalgists remains a liberal hero of the McCarthy wars. For a woman of Mellen's intellectual background to have made the journey necessary to see and present them as they truly were is a hell of a trip to make.

An encouraging number of self-defined liberals in America's intellectual precincts are becoming uncomfortable with the fruits the labors of the previous generation. This is not to say they are moving to neoconservatism or anything like it. But the movement is enough to create the makings of the kind of vital intellectual center that has not existed for far too long.

Mellen's book is another - perhaps major - manifestation of intellectual integrity seeking to find a serious place for itself above and in full view of the culture wars.

The existence of an honest and healthy center in the contemporary cultural discourse is essential. If that takes hold, swiftly and surely the obscenities and absurdities of political correctness and anti-intellectual multiculturalism will disappear amidst riotous ridicule.

Books by people who are not writing from the right or from the left and who are honest about this sort of thing thus are hugely important.

These are interesting times. There's nothing interesting about conservatives arraying themselves against the left and its politicization of culture, or vice versa. What's interesting is that there is increasing defection toward a Sane Center - that certifiable intellectuals are being drawn to serious and courageous independence of mind.

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