Ben Hecht Essay - Critical Essays

Hecht, Ben (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hecht, Ben 1894–1964

American dramatist, novelist, journalist, and screenwriter, Hecht is probably best known for having written highly popular melodramas for the stage. His most successful play, Front Page, was written in collaboration with Charles MacArthur. From 1933 until his death, Hecht wrote for the films.

It is difficult for a writer to sustain a 654-page autobiography if he thinks [as Hecht purports to in A Child of the Century] that "ideas lie on a perpetual rubbish heap." He is not equipped to give any clear sense of the meaning of his life and time or of the century of which he is a child….

Hecht's iconoclasm about and his contempt for ideas does not mean that he is devoid of them. He isn't. But generally his ideas are banal. They repeat what he has said in the yesterday of his own youth. His autobiography is a concoction, an improvised literary cocktail. Everything in life is an occasion for Hecht to sound off, and he fills too many pages with the wind of his prejudices. (p. 70)

[1001 Afternoons in Chicago] ranks in my opinion as Hecht's best book. It consists of sketches Hecht wrote for the Chicago Daily News and is full of charm, color, and exciting phrases. Hecht's best talent is that of coining metaphors, and he was at his peak when he knocked off 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His subjects are usually grotesque. The grotesque has usually interested him and to it, he brings a sense of the mordant….

1001 Afternoons in Chicago helped me to become more aware of, let us say, the poetry of the street. Its high-voltage figures of speech attracted me. Frequently, the young and aspiring writer sees the use of figures of speech, the coining of phrases, as the sign of literary talent. I did. Ben Hecht could make phrases. Harry Hansen, in Mid-West Portraits, characterized him as a Pagliacci of the fire escapes. 1001 Afternoons in Chicago consists of sketches. They are short and Hecht's talents were fresh; he had an exuberance and flair. His novels Erik Dorn and Humpty Dumpty were frustrating. They exuded a sense of the present, of life going on immediately in one's own time, and there was some excitement in this…. There was a frankness about sex but the cynicism, the iconoclasm, the verbal posturings, the lack of empathy frustrated me. A newspaper man can look at people and happenings; he can cast a cold and jaundiced eye at politicians; he can watch hangings; he can dig into tales of rape and murder; and he can do a good piece of reporting without having to identify deeply with the people who are subjects of his stories. A fair number of journalists tend to develop what sometimes seems to be an occupational trait—they tend to regard what happens as though it occurred so that they could do a story. The world is a show made for them. Hecht often gives the impression that this is an integral feature of the way he looks at life…. Count Bruga was an exception but it is a special kind of book. The chief protagonist is a poet who acts and talks much like a once well-known Chicago poet. The character is bizarre and Hecht has a lively and enthusiastic feeling for the bizarre.

Behind the frustration I found in Hecht's early novels, there was not only a limited power to identify; there was too little sympathy. Sympathy is usually significant because it is the means of making human emotions important. I discovered Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser after Hecht. In them, I found not cleverness or a keenness for a grotesque surface of life or an iconoclasm that helped me feel a false sense of superiority to others; but rather, in them, I encountered a seriousness of feeling about human emotions, human tragedies, about the struggle, often so blundering, which we all make to live out our life span. There are some writers who can produce out of negative emotions, who can arouse and move us…. Ben Hecht doesn't hate; he flings out phrases of contempt. He laughs. He falls into quick scorn; is facilely negative. (pp. 71-3)

A Child of the Century echoes Ben Hecht's other writings, including his plays and movie scenarios. There are remembrances of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, The Front Page, Erik Dorn, A Jew in Love, and of many motion pictures jumbled up with readily given offhand judgments on almost all of the complicated world of today. By being so confidently judgmental, Ben Hecht does damage to his book; he reduces the effect that he might have achieved. Frequently, he asserts a dislike for people. "The greedy little half-dead" of the twenties are redescribed as "the half-alive ones." (p. 73)

[In his autobiography] Ben Hecht writes with warmth and love of his family, his parents, aunts and uncles. He describes touchingly a scene when he went to dine with his parents and to tell them that he had left his first wife and was living with another woman. Here, convention was flouted, and his parents were conventional people. But how differently he handles the flouting of convention in recounting this scene from the way he does when he flings out worn-down banalities of the twenties. He becomes a man of perception; he senses his parents' feelings.

Reading this scene, we know that the author is a man of talent and perception, as well as one who speaks of serious problems with shallow cynicism. (p. 74)

Seen now and in the past, Ben Hecht appears a man of talent, of easy prejudices, and without values. Unlike in the twenties, he cannot today stimulate youth. He has seen and reported the grotesque and sordid but it now appears on his pages as something too familiar.

He writes: "Except for my relation to God, I have not changed in forty years. I have not become different as an adult."

It seems a shame that man of talent who has had the opportunities in life that Ben Hecht has had would be pleased to keep sitting on what he styles as his "Pedestal of Sameness."

This comes as a strange boast from a man who defends—even rants against—the destruction of individuality in our country. Iconoclasm can be as conventional as conventionality. And this child of the century appears to be a conventional iconoclast. The "half-alive ones," the mob, the people drowned by the "tidal wave of education"—they have not changed. But here is one of the not-half-alive, here is one of the alive ones; and he does not give us a great out-pouring of his aliveness.

Talent could be better used. (pp. 75-6)

James T. Farrell, "The Mind of Ben Hecht" (1955), in Literary Essays, 1954–1974, edited by Jack Alan Robbins (copyright © 1976 by Kennikat Press Corp.; reprinted by permission of Kennikat Press Corp.), Kennikat, 1976, pp. 70-6.

If a man writing a story decides to bring himself in as a character, there is no reason why he shouldn't. If he puts a certain amount of energy into implying that he, the storyteller, is a man of the world, moves in circles unknown to his desk-bound brethren, gets around and meets people generally, that is simply one more ingredient in the flavoring of the story.

Mr. Hecht generally manages to give his stories a top-dressing of this kind, and usually it doesn't come amiss, especially when he is in his O. Henry vein, writing about the teeming and shifting world of Manhattan. O. Henry is the basis here, with flecks of Hemingway in the constant reminders that the writer is a man of action and no mere word-merchant. But neither of these two influences goes at all deep. Mr. Hecht's heart is elsewhere. His eyes, for all their shrewd Manhattan glitter, are in reality fixed far away, on a vision he had once and has never ceased to stare after.

In a word, Mr. Hecht is a romantic. Not just any kind of romantic, but a Wildean romantic, a man of the nineties. If, instead of being a mid-twentieth century New Yorker, he had been a fin de siècle Londoner, he would have been faithfully present, week in and week out, at the Cheshire Cheese. His figure would have been a familiar one in the bars of Fleet Street, where he would have made an attentive listener to the monologues of Lionel Johnson. Possibly Mr. Hecht's would be the hands that raised Johnson's lifeless body after his last fatal fall from a stool in one of these same bars. He would have known Yeats, Beardsley and Richard le Gallienne.

That is Mr. Hecht's misfortune. Owing to an unaccountable kink in the time-corridor, he slipped sixty-five years and landed on the wrong side of the Atlantic into the bargain. (pp. 343-44)

At the center of his imagination lurks the romantic sardonic dandy, like a carp in a pool; and one cannot watch for long without seeing him rise.

Like his fellow aesthetes, Mr. Hecht is a good deal preoccupied with "the artist" as a human type. (p. 345)

John Wain, "The Case of Ben Hecht," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1959 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 28, 1959 (and reprinted as "Ben Hecht," in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 343-50).

Mr. Winkelberg is a jeweler, a repairer of watches; Jonathan Winkelberg is a poet, a searcher for a beautiful memory. These two characters with the same last name appear in two different works by Ben Hecht, and the radical difference in their attitudes and life styles suggests not only Hecht's tendency to draw polarized figures but also the consistent location of the poles. One represents what is dead through constant exposure to and participation in dullness, stupidity, and ignorance; the other shows what is killed for trying to live despite the overabundance of the negative forces in the world.

In Humpty Dumpty (1924) Mr. Winkelberg stands for almost everything that is oppressive and deadening in society. What is worse, this Winkelberg is unaware of his condition, having been submerged in it for so long. In the entire novel no hint is given of any elevating spiritual or mental qualities left in him: "Mr. Winkelberg was no more than this—a paunchy, bald-headed, undersized man scratching his nose in front of his darkened store as if he were thinking of something…. Of what was he thinking? Of nothing. Another day had been." (p. 103)

Hecht never allows the reader to forget that Mr. Winkelberg is pathetic and incomplete, one of the many dead people who walk the streets:

He had confronted life with a character. And this character had put an end to all such dangers. This motley of ideas, prejudices, routines and emotions which was Winkelberg answered back to the mysterious urgings and fumblings in his head somewhat as follows … "enough. I am complete. No use trying to make me think my way into empty places. This is the end of the line. All out. Far as we go."…

The distance is very short, indeed, for the "complete" unfinished Winkelberg is soon contrasted to Kent Savaron, a young writer sickened by the lifelessness of the world, a condition with which he quickly associates the jeweler, eventually equating the two. When introduced, Savaron is only nineteen, aware of "almost nothing beyond the fact that there was a noise inside of him"…. The difference is obvious and striking. Savaron is the opposite side of Winkelberg, the expression of life that has not been suppressed and forgotten. The "noise" inside the watch repairman can only carry on a monologue with itself:

"Poor Winkelberg, walking alone in the street," said life, "you and I no longer know each other. And I must sit like this, meaningless and futile, inside your head and mourn for something that has not yet existed."…

Savaron, however, hears the "noise inside him," the life that cannot make Winkelberg hear but only make him inexplainably sad. "Poor Winkelberg walking alone in the street, you no longer know who you are or what has happened. Something warm and important slipped away, something strange and shining vanished"…. Hecht's repetitions even become monotonous as he constantly describes Winkelberg and Savaron as opposites, for he seems to want to insure that the reader cannot fail to miss that Savaron represents the natural self that Mr. Winkelberg has forgotten, the self that still retains warmth and original thought.

In order to understand fully the consistency of such polarization in Hecht, one should turn next to a later play entitled, appropriately enough, Winkelberg (1958). In the play Jonathan Winkelberg is a poet, consistently opposed to everything that Mr. Winkelberg supports. He is, in fact, another Savaron who listens to the life inside him, keeping his individuality, though eventually discovering that the price is enormous. Hecht apparently resurrected the character name from the Twenties and gave it to a figure most unlike the mediocre jeweler in all his fiction. Jonathan Winkelberg is as close to an exact opposite of Mr. Winkelberg as possible.

Having been killed before the action of the play begins, Jonathan is sent in search of a beautiful memory in order to create his own heaven, for afterlife is simply a continuation of dominant attitudes…. The structure of the play is Winkelberg's reliving a series of scenes of treachery, cruelty, greed, drunkenness, lust, and stupidity—each episode adding another reason for his eventual cynical posture…. (pp. 104-05)

Jonathan's adversaries are more brutal than the Winkelberg people whom Savaron must deal with, but their self-complacency is the same. Tony Riggs, a literary critic, dismisses the poetry he cannot understand with an easy one-line rationalization: "I have no memory for hogwash"…. Abramovitch demonstrates even more obviously how Hecht tends to place people at one extreme or the other, for although he supposedly shares artistic inclination with Jonathan, he can dismiss him in as off-hand a fashion as Riggs: "I can't eat my soup! For God's sake, I don't want to hear about a dead bum named Winkelberg"….

More obvious, though perhaps more expected from his upper middle-class position as publisher, is the opposite pole figure of Horace Williger. His alliance with the compromisers, the jeweler Winkelbergs, is discernible as he seeks to appease the critic who influences sales, not the artist working with life. "By God, Johnny—your apologizing to Tony Riggs revives my faith in you—as a human being—as well as a poet"…. When Jonathan eventually refuses to apologize, Williger naturally dismisses him, for he is so submerged in compromise that he cannot understand the point of view of someone who is "alive."

The result of such polarization is predictable. Mr. Winkelberg muddles through Humpty Dumpty, plodding unchanged to the end. Kent Savaron dies young and disillusioned, confused by the contradictions of peoples' lives without "life." Jonathan is killed senselessly in a petty argument by an unthinking brute; the world goes on without caring about his absence or even being concerned about his futile exit.

The realization that Hecht employs such polarities is important: many of his works emphasize extreme opposites toward similar conclusions, especially his most important novel, Erik Dorn (1921), in which the title character is introduced as the finished product of exposure to the emptiness of a Winkelbergian world…. Cool, calculated, Dorn is a Savaron and Jonathan Winkelberg who lives long enough to resign himself to the nothingness: "At thirty he had explained to himself, 'I am complete. This business of being empty is all there is to life. Intelligence is a faculty which enables man to peer through the muddle of ideas and arrive at a nowhere.'"

As would be expected, Dorn is contrasted to an opposite. George Hazlitt, who maintains a fanatic naive belief in Mr. Winkelberg's assorted mediocre virtues. Hecht's description of Hazlitt is again strikingly similar to the portrait of Mr. Winkelberg given earlier:

For the paradox of Hazlitt was not that he was a thinker, but a dreamer. His puritanism had put an end to his brain. Like his fellows for whose respect and admiration he worked, he had bartered his intelligence for a thing he proudly called Americanism, and thought for him had become a placid agitation of platitudes….

Dorn kills the Mr. Winkelberg figure instead of being killed; the act is the triumph not of awareness over lifelessness but merely of instinctive self-preservation, having little effect on the attitudes of Dorn.

In Hecht's short stories more figures are Jonathan Winkelberg/Kent Savaron/Erik Dorn cynic-philosophers. For instance, in "The Philosopher's Benefit" Lefkowitz's son, the philosopher, is described in a now familiar manner: "Everybody is to him a commercial maniac. And everybody else is to him a low brow and a fool…. Speeches insulting people, that's his philosophy writing." Although the reader never meets Lefkowitz's son, the philosopher is described consistently as an "alive" character who is set against the suppressed masses of watch repairers. (pp. 106-08)

Hecht's opinion of books, given in 1958 on his television show, points out, along with the play Winkelberg of the same year, that his polarized view of life did not diminish after the Twenties. Commenting on the value of Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth, he said, "An Englishman who wrote the best account of a non-conformist at bay before a conformity-demanding world." (p. 108)

Hecht was still putting figures on widely different sides, even in other writers' books, and the poles are the same as they are in Hecht's works. Winkelberg against Winkelberg, cynical artist against mediocre business man, free life fighting to release suppressed life. Just as consistent are the conclusions: disillusionment or death, or both. Perhaps an oversimplification on Hecht's part, but the consistency of his polarized vision should be understood when reading his serious writing. (p. 109)

Gary Fincke, "Polarity in Ben Hecht's Winkelbergs," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1973), Vol. XV, No. 2, 1973, pp. 103-09.

Like [Tom Sawyer], Hecht and his major heroes, Erik Dorn (1921) and Kent Savaron, the central character of Humpty Dumpty, have excessively literary imaginations. But whereas Tom gets most of his ideas from Sir Walter Scott, Hecht and his characters, as he explains endlessly, both in his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954), and in his novels, are readers of the later romantics, of Dumas and Maupassant, of Gogol, Gorki and Dostoevski (especially, The Idiot) and of Richard Harding Davis, Bret Harte and Stephen Crane. (p. 908)

Stuart Sherman, as early as 1926, in a study called Critical Woodcuts, revealed the essential sentimentality which characterized Hecht's attitude toward his reading. "He does not find in literature any sobering body of classical experience or any human conclusions," wrote Sherman…. "He seeks only secrets of stylistic expressiveness, stimulus for his fantasy and assistance in getting his mind beyond good and evil." Hecht, himself, summed it up succinctly, but with all the superficiality of his feeling for literature exposed, when he wrote in his autobiography …: "I worked in Chicago, but I lived, a little madly, between book covers," or when he has Erik Dorn … refer to reading as "the last debauchery." One is certainly reminded of Tom's fantastic plans to rescue nigger Jim (in Huckleberry Finn) and of his equally elaborate dream of "a crusade to recover the Holy Land from the paynim" (in Tom Sawyer Abroad). The chief difference of course is that Tom had a companion of rare distinction, Huck Finn, whose living voice raised their adventures to the level of that sublime original, Don Quixote, whereas Erik Dorn and Kent Savaron had no such associate. They had only the feeble pen of Ben Hecht, "a word slinger rather than a stylist, master of invective rather than wit, poetaster rather than poet, crackpot philosopher and calculating crackpot, romantic cynic and cruel sentimentalist, third-rate Mencken and fifth-rate Rochefoucauld" (the description is by Louis Berg in his October, 1954 Commentary review of A Child of the Century).

And if these words seem too harsh, let us remember that Hecht was a contemporary during those wonderful years in Chicago of Dreiser, of Sandburg and of Sherwood Anderson, yet he never seems to have truly recognized the qualities of these writers, nor indeed of many other contemporaries; he reminds one of teachers of literature who seem to feel that the art ceased to be practiced with the coming of prohibition. (p. 909)

Mark Twain not only endowed Tom Sawyer with a boy's outlook on literature (and a tendency toward fantasy and action, and a lack of understanding of the significant meaning of the literary work), but he also made him a paradigm of eternal youth: Tom never grew up. Twain knew what he was doing. In the Conclusion to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, he indicates that since his story is "strictly the history of a boy," it must stop while Tom is still a youth; but he leaves open the option: "Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be." Mark never really took up that challenge.

Ben Hecht did. One result is that his characters, Erik Dorn and Kent Savaron, remain boyish; for all their adventures and romances, they seem immature. The reason may lie deep in the American character (and it may have also been a difficulty for Hemingway); it may somehow be related to a fear of women or to that phenomenon called "momism" (Twain cleverly allows neither Tom nor Huck a mother) or to something in the American experience which on the frontier led men to trust and love one another while regarding women merely as objects for sexual pleasures or as agents of the confining forces of civilization. (pp. 909-10)

[What] continued to attract [Hecht's] attention, in Chicago, in New York, in Germany and in Hollywood, were the Tom Sawyer-like antics of the human race, a series of catastrophes which he witnessed and then described in a section [of his autobiography] with the revealing title, "Boy about Town" …; many of these paragraphs were later expanded into the nine episodes which make up Gaily, Gaily (1963). A distinction here must be made, however: what for Twain were the essentially joyful and humorous recollections of childhood and youth in nineteenth-century rural America became for Hecht the joyless absurdities of twentieth-century urban U.S. The loss was almost unendurable. But … Twain was a giant reflecting an end-of-the-century malaise with which one would have to couple Melville's Billy Budd. Hecht could sense these troubles, but he couldn't find the plots or the characters to embody them. As he confesses in his autobiography …: "I have written much fiction. The characters I made up are still alive, but they inhabit no world—only a closet. A foot beyond is limbo. They do not walk or caper in people's minds. They continue to utter their many fine sentences, to weep, joke and make love—but in the closet always." And there it is: he undoubtedly means the closet image to be taken in the theatrical sense of a lifeless drama, but it could as well refer to the child, punished and alone, languishing in the dark. Such seems to me the way he treats his characters even in his most ambitious novels, Erik Dorn and Humpty Dumpty (the childish metaphor in the title is pathetically revealing). (p. 910)

In a very real sense Ben Hecht was unlucky. He arrived on the scene a little too soon, like the butler who starts the play, polishing the silver, answering the telephone and then retreating when the leading actors appear. The figure of Erik Dorn, in his first … and most successful novel (1921), is the same kind of forerunner. Both Hecht and Dorn retreat from stage center in the face of the competition: Fitzgerald's [and Hemingway's overwhelming protagonists]. (p. 911)

But Hecht was overshadowed in another sense as well. Always the reporter, with the mind set and the emotional make-up of the clever journalist out for a scoop or a good newspaper yarn, he never moved away from those preoccupations. (A good case could be made for maintaining that Gaily, Gaily, published in 1963, made up of newspaper stories, expanded from a chapter in his autobiography and in turn developed from the columns he wrote for the Chicago Daily Journal in the 20's, is his best work.) Now many American writers, both in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries began as journalists of one sort or another. One thinks of Howells and Twain, of Bret Harte and Stephen Crane and then of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Faulkner. In each case, the journalistic experience was a means to an end, a preparation and a trying-out, both in terms of ideas and style. And although there are sentimental edges even to the mature writings of many of these authors, they all pushed ahead to genuine creativity and to stylistic distinction. Hecht seems not to have learned anything from his days as a reporter…. [He] stands surprised by life, by brothels, homosexuals, lesbians, murders, vice and corruption; and he became a voyeur rather than a novelist, a point of view he never relinquished…. [A] fault, which he was unable to correct, was the sheer pretentiousness of his "literary" writing…. [His] novels are filled with high-sounding, "poetic" phrases ("into this emptiness of spirit, life had poured its excitements as into a thing bottomless as a mirror" is a typical sentence from Erik Dorn …). (pp. 911-12)

Erik Dorn … has some of the qualities which do mark superior reporting. The book does reflect the anguish and the search for values of young Americans in the immediate post-war years. And although Dorn is not, like Jake Barnes, an ex-aviator suffering from a real wound, he shares the disillusionment both of those who returned to these prohibition-controlled states and those who sought meaning in more glittering activities in less commercialized European settings. His emptiness and his cynicism, however, have no outlets in action, especially in symbolic action, which would allow for continued reinterpretation…. [He] is the observer of life, rather than the participant; he has eyes, but no heart…. The novel does catch and hold some of the aspects of the decade…. But it remains a document rather than a novel. Even its overblown prose and simplistic psychology only set it more firmly in its time and place. Again, Hecht himself offers an excellent critique. Kent Savaron, the writer hero of Humpty Dumpty, finally finishes his novel, only to remark about it …: "It's incomplete. There's no life in it. There's disillusion and a curious ecstasy. But no pain."

Humpty Dumpty, like Erik Dorn, is, at its best, journalistic and autobiographical…. Again, the story stresses the emptiness of life in mid-America in the 20's, an emptiness summed up in the nursery rhyme about "Humpty Dumpty"; like Erik…, Kent on occasion has vivid memories of his childhood…. But the nothingness which Kent feels is given a wider application …: Hecht lambastes youthful fashions ("bell bottom pants" and "short skirts") and behavior ("drinking moonshine, dancing in phallic embraces to the melancholy, aphrodisiacal strains of the 'St. Louis Blues'") as well as "barbarism" (the cult of the primitive), the "caterwaulings and stupidities" of the radio; in addition, he roasted religious movements and revivals, but he reserved his greatest contempt for jazz songs and "nigger" singers and he even particularized the symbols of disintegration: Valentino, Fairbanks, Synthetic Gin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Shuffle Along," Gilda Gray, and, strangely, Nicholas Murray Butler. In such a world Humpty Dumpty was, undeniably, King, And for Kent "art" (such as practiced by Picasso, Brancusi and Gertie Stein) "is the obituary of passion … decorations in an endless cemetery." No wonder Hecht's novels have not survived: in them he treats his times with a shallow contempt; he could neither rise to satire nor sense with sufficient passion the essential meanings. As readers, we respond as we do to newspaper accounts: that's the way of the world. We are left without either intellectual or emotional depth. (pp. 912-13)

Ironically, today, his reputation may turn out to rest more upon such scripts as Underworld (1927), Scarface (1932) and The Scoundrel (1935) (both Underworld and The Scoundrel won Academy Awards, a factor of aesthetic as well as monetary significance, but Hecht mentions neither occasion in A Child of the Century) than upon the novels which he was able to write in the free time his Hollywood fees bought him. Here, too, journalism is the key. These gangster films are documents of the Chicago he could never forget or get out of his system. It is an interesting fact that his career, like that of Fitzgerald and Faulkner, to name only two, involved participation in the significant art form of the twentieth century. But he never recognized the power or the cultural importance, let alone the aesthetic qualities, of the cinema. Nor did he note that the imposition of certain values on films ("the triumph of virtue and the overthrow of wickedness") was not merely the result of the profit motive of the moguls, but also a cultural fact of the greatest significance. (p. 914)

Marvin Felheim, "Tom Sawyer Grows Up: Ben Hecht as a Writer," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1976 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1976, pp. 908-15.