Hecht, Ben (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Ben Hecht 1894–-1964
American screenwriter, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, autobiographer, biographer, and author of children's books.
Associated with both the Chicago literary renaissance and the Algonquin Round Table following World War I, Hecht later distinguished himself as the co-author of the popular play The Front Page. He also became the noted screenwriter of many classic films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious and Spellbound, as well as Scarface, Gunga Din, and Nothing Sacred. Hecht's work received critical praise for its realistic and snappy dialogue, often credited to his formative years as a Chicago journalist covering the city's colorful underground of gangsters, gamblers, pool hustlers, and prostitutes. Hecht later confessed to fabricating many of his stories as a journalist, which were collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His writing for the cinema earned him several Academy Award nominations, including two wins for Underworld and The Scoundrel.
Hecht was born in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a tailor and moved the family to Chicago when Hecht was six. Four years later the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, so that Hecht's father could open a dress design shop. Hecht attended the University of Wisconsin for three days before abandoning higher education. He worked briefly as an acrobat in a circus before moving to Chicago. When he was seventeen Hecht began writing for the Chicago Daily Journal. He then worked as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During this period Hecht associated with other writers of the Chicago literary renaissance, including Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Vachel Lindsay, and contributed stories to Margaret Anderson's Little Review. Heavily influenced by German Dadaism and French symbolism, Hecht also wrote several novels and edited the Chicago Literary Times. When the momentum of the Chicago literary renaissance slowed, Hecht moved to New York City, where he became affiliated with the Algonquin Round Table writers, including Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Herman Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, who abandoned New York City to become a successful screenwriter, later wired Hecht: “Will You Accept Three Hundred Per Week to Work for Paramount Pictures? All Expenses Paid. The Three Hundred Is Peanuts. Millions Are to Be Grabbed Out Here and Your Competition Is Idiots. Don't Let This Get Around.” Hecht's first screenplay was Underworld for director Joseph von Sternberg, which earned Hecht his first Academy Award. In the 1930s Hecht earned a thousand dollars a day for his screenwriting, and he is rumored to have written the first draft of the screenplay for the film Gone with the Wind without ever having read the book. During and after World War II, Hecht became increasingly concerned with Zionist issues, particularly the Jewish Irgun, whose stated goal was to remove the British from Palestine. Because of his beliefs, Hecht's films were blacklisted in the United Kingdom, causing film producers to withhold his name from the credits and pay him considerably less money. In the 1950s Hecht hosted his own short-lived television program on which he discussed current events and cultural issues. He died of a heart attack in 1964.
Many of Hecht's best, albeit fabricated, journalistic pieces are collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His newsroom experience benefited him further when he wrote his tremendously popular play with Charles MacArthur, The Front Page, which was often revived onstage and adapted for the screen three times. His first novel, Erik Dorn, displays the influence of James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and European Dadaist writers and concerns the spiritual malaise of post-World War I American society. His experimental satirical novel, Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath, enjoyed a degree of notoriety when it was declared obscene and banned by a federal court; noted attorney Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended the case. Hecht also published a sequel, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare. Other novels by Hecht include the mysteries The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives and Count Bruga. But it was as a screenwriter and coauthor of The Front Page that Hecht was best known. His work for director Howard Hawks includes the screenplay for Scarface, and he wrote three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Notorious, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. He also adapted such works of literature as Gunga Din, A Farewell to Arms, and Wuthering Heights, and wrote the comedies Roman Holiday, Topaze, Monkey Business, and Her Husband's Affairs.
Erik Dorn (novel) 1921
1001 Afternoons in Chicago (short stories and sketches) 1922
The Egoist [also published as Under False Pretences] (drama) 1922
Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (novel) 1922
The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives (novel) 1923
Humpty Dumpty (novel) 1924
The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare (novel) 1924
Underworld (screenplay) 1927
The Front Page [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1928
A Jew in Love (novel) 1931
Scarface (screenplay) 1932
The Great Magoo [with Gene Fowler] (drama) 1933
The Scoundrel (novel) 1935
Soak the Rich [with Charles MacArthur] (screenplay) 1936
Nothing Sacred (screenplay) 1937
To Quito and Back (drama) 1937
Gunga Din (screenplay) 1939
Ladies and Gentlemen [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1939
Wuthering Heights [with Charles MacArthur; adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel] (screenplay) 1939
Fun to Be Free [with Charles MacArthur] (drama) 1941
Miracle in the Rain (novel) 1943
I Hate Actors [also published as Hollywood Mystery] (novel) 1944
Spellbound [with Alfred Hitchcock] (screenplay) 1945
Notorious (screenplay) 1946
The Cat That Jumped Out of the Story (juvenilia) 1947
Kiss of Death [with Charles Lederer] (screenplay) 1947
The Miracle of the Bells [with Quentin Reynolds] (screenplay) 1948
Where the Sidewalk Ends (screenplay) 1950
Monkey Business [with Charles Lederer and I. A. L. Diamond] (screenplay) 1952
Roman Holiday (screenplay) 1953
A Child of the Century (autobiography) 1954
Miracle in the Rain [adaptation of Hecht’s novel Miracle in the Rain] (screenplay) 1956
Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur (biography) 1957
A Farewell to Arms [adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel] (screenplay) 1957
Harry Hansen (essay date 1923)
SOURCE: “Ben Hecht: Pagliacci of the Fire Escape,” in Midwest Portraits: A Book of Memories and Friendships, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923, pp. 305–57.
[In the following essay, Hansen presents biographical information and personal recollections of Hecht, finding such literary influences in Hecht's fiction as Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and Dostoevsky.]
“Ben Hecht is an iconoclast,” says one, “a smasher of idols”; “Ben Hecht is an intellectual mountebank, an insincere fiddler,” says another. “Ben Hecht tramples on that which men have built up through the centuries and hallowed with their tears,” says one; “and destroys shams and that which is foul and diseased,” says another. “Ben Hecht is a combination of street urchin and skeptical intellectual,” says a poet; “he is the incomprehensible lover,” says his friend, “the man who hovers always between ecstasy and disillusionment; who welcomes the dawn with a sneer and folds away the twilight with a caress.” “Ben Hecht is—”
But let me add a line of mine own. It is as Ben told me. At the age of eighteen or thereabouts, Ben Hecht was an acrobat in Costello's road show in a Wisconsin country town. … Make of that what ye will!
Incomprehensible acrobat! Incomparable mountebank of the emotions! Unexplained dreamer and poet, scorner and critic, philosopher and friend.
And so he comes into our view, a lad just passing the twilight zone of youth, with the face of a man who dreams at times, and at other times plans; a round face, which will be chubby, or florid, at fifty; the face of a Balzac, or an Alexandre Dumas. A man with a certain careless air about wearing clothes that hang loosely upon him, and a certain recklessness in knotting his tie, and yet making occasional overtures to fashion in the manipulation of a heavy cane; a man with soft, dark hair often disheveled, falling loosely over his forehead; brown eyes soft, kindly; the mouth, most expressive of all, sensitive with a touch of the sensuous, and on either side two deep furrows that come out sharp and clear when the lips part in disdain, or mockery, or sarcasm, or mild, quiet invective.
When first I saw him he was reading Burton's Arabian Nights—their spell has been upon him ever since. The next day it was Gautier, and then Dostoievsky's The Idiot, which he urged upon me as the greatest novel of modern times. And finally Penguin Island, and Spiritual Adventures. And so my earliest memories of him are associated with books, and when I take down these treasured volumes from my shelves I think also of the man who first enlisted my interest in them, and the occasions that called it forth. Not so long ago it was, either, by human reckoning, for he has just turned thirty at the most and I, who indite these memories, am still hovering on the sunny side of a certain meridian despite my palsied hand and furrowed brow. Those were days that seem ages gone now—days when we waged war upon the city hall, or held monotonous vigil in some undertaker's drab rooms, or sat in noisy hotel lobbies waiting for the passing celebrity to come down and give us the platitude for the hour. He could talk then as he talks now—volubly, incessantly, fascinatingly—holding all who came within hearing by his subtle innuendoes, his philosophical observations, his penetrating irony, his vehement indignation, his gentle persuasiveness, his dubious facts. And so to-day.
When I ask newcomers now: “Well, what do you think of Ben?” the answer is ever the same: “An amazing man. Such words! Such conceptions! Such enthusiasm! Such facts! Such facts!”
Ben Hecht has published in the last two years: 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, a series of sixty-two journalistic sketches chosen from over four hundred written originally as a daily task for the Chicago Daily News; Erik Dorn, a romance of a disillusioned man's vain search for an ecstatic outlet, written in the manner of an expressionist; Gargoyles, a drab, colorless, fairly objective dissection of hypocrisy and the sex life of dried up, illy-nurtured Americans; Under False Pretences, also known as The Egoist, a comedy of stage life prepared for and acted by Leo Ditrichstein; The Florentine Dagger, a detective story; Fantazius Mallare, a strange, wayward, biting analysis of society under the pretext of a study of insanity, published in a limited edition and withdrawn at the request of the federal government. He has in preparation and not yet published—but lack of space forbids a detailed chronicle.
Keith Preston and I had wandered rather aimlessly to Ben's room in an ancient building that ran back to the days of the great fire. A strange, Dickensian sort of pile, like those that appear in the funereal prints of the sixties and seventies, a place in which the appearance of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas even to-day would not seem out of harmony. Quaint, old-fashioned mahogany elevator cages, still propelled by a tug at a cable; a great wide court roofed over with a skylight and surrounded by heavy mahogany balustrades. Offices that permit a glimpse of old, high-backed secretaries with pigeon holes stuffed with musty, yellowing papers; of men, bearded and unkempt, bent over wide blue blotters frayed and covered with inkstains. Insurance; real estate; steamship agencies; the law. Two doors at the right—the second door is his—through the first one discerns a tailor in shirt sleeves industriously applying a steam press to pantaloons. His workshop—a strange anachronism. Across the street the false Corinthian pillars of a modern city hall, and just beyond that the thousand glowing candles of an office building encased in terra cotta. But here, within his walls, great hangings of green burlap depending from the ceiling, and soft mats of thick, green wool just underfoot, and deep enveloping chairs and soft lights and hours for idling. And Ben Hecht, sunk down within the generous arms of a deep leather chair, saying in a melodious monotone: “I've got something to read to you boys. My first act. Yes, I'm doing another play for Leo. We stayed up until daybreak to try it out, and here it is. Quattrocento this time. Florence, Venice, Rome, Milan; swords, loves, swashbuckling, romance. Leo likes that sort. Gives him a chance to make love gracefully and swashbuckle all over the place.”
And then he reads. A play on the life of Benvenuto Cellini, as revealed by himself in his incomparable memoirs. A swashbuckler with a soul. A mountebank with a heart. An acrobat with love and laughter and hope and tears. And an artist. Thus Ben Hecht has captured him and portrayed him. He reads on, and we listen.
And how he reads! You are attracted by his fecundity, his versatility, his humanness, his shifting aims. You wonder, as you listen: What next? Where? And how? Already at thirty he is the most talked about, the most praised, the most reviled of the Chicago group. Already at thirty he defies analysis. Stay away from him and you will judge him harshly. Come close to him and his gentleness, his knowledge of human motives and acts, his kindliness, robs you of an objective judgment. His acerbic criticism, on paper, stings; spoken, it amuses. To-day, condemned by some, vilified by others, praised by those who know him best, he stands as a strangely aloof, irreconcilable figure in American writing, an example of the new, uncompromising spirit born with Dreiser, of the new unassimilated spirit that has bade defiance to the New England tradition within the last twenty years. And yet he is one of us, born on our soil, nurtured in our middle west, educated in our public schools; the product of living in a crowded, rude, tempestuous city, a representative of the shifting, restless, uncatalogued writers of the new age.
Ben Hecht was born in New York City, acquired a high school education at Racine, Wis., and then came to Chicago to work as a newspaper reporter. College never beckoned him, and to-day all that it stands for is hateful to him. No doubt this attitude is partly protective; on the other hand he is so thoroughly out of sympathy with classicism, puritanism, the didacticism of college English courses and the lack of modernity in college reading, that much of his feeling is sincere. Many of the books exalted in high school gave him a distaste for further reading in the conventional English and American novel. He had always read much on the outside and on coming to Chicago found himself drifting toward the authors who dominated the latter part of the nineteenth century. Sometimes he would merely skim through a book, catch an idea here and there, and hold on to it; at other times he would become profoundly impressed with style and method and read a book again and again.
Of the three men who are so closely related in the young Chicago group—Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Ben Hecht, Hecht was more influenced by his reading than the other two. Sandburg's reading was desultory, and largely to acquire information; Anderson's reading, or the lack of it, reveals his naïveté. But Hecht read omnivorously, and soon found unusual merit in those authors whose books agreed with his views, his habit of thought, his own innate iconoclasm. “We cannot be sincere in our own work and admire the very opposite to ourselves,” writes George Moore somewhere. Ben Hecht's reading tastes reflect his mind, just as everything he writes reflects his mind. Moreover we find that the two things coincide, that Ben Hecht has written, or tried to write, exactly the sort of work that he most admires in others. The predominant traits are a fondness for realism, naturalism, and iconoclasm; a leaning toward sex psychology and neuropathic and psychopathic studies; a love for glittering phrases and word combinations that arrest eye and ear; a dominant preoccupation with the mind and especially psychiatrics. He is the exact opposite in his thinking from Sherwood Anderson, for where Anderson sees in the liberation of our unconscious a relief from the repressions, conventions, and inhibiting laws that bind our conscious life, Ben Hecht thinks entirely in terms of our conscious life, and while despising the shackles man has laid on himself looks for liberation solely in breaking them and beating them down without taking the subconscious into consideration.
Thus very early Hecht found himself drawn toward the color, the romanticism, the paganism, and anti-puritanism of Théophile Gautier and the verbal gorgeousness of Huysmans. He bought Gautier in a set and consumed him. The Red Lily came across his path and he knew that Anatole France must be his; out of his meager earnings as a reporter he captured the whole set of red-bound volumes and was in debt to the bookseller for months. Arthur Symons' Spiritual Adventures made a deep impression on him, and George Moore likewise interested him in the French modernists; he thereupon read Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Baudelaire, and talked Baudelaire weeks on end to attentive friends. His dislikes are also characteristic. “I could not stomach Victor Hugo and Balzac,” said Ben. “I was bored to tears by Balzac. Rousseau I considered a great big thumping fool, especially in his Confessions. But for action and romance give me Dumas; I have just bought a fine leather set of his books. At that I think I got more out of Huysmans than anybody else.”
When Ben Hecht mentions Huysmans it is as if he had found a choice morsel for the tongue. Huysmans impressed him particularly with his intensity, his fire, his beauty in expression. He read En Route and The Cathedral in translation and then went around searching for a translation of Là Bas, to no avail. Finally an obliging friend made a free translation and night after night Hecht sat by and listened to the rippling prose. His views on Huysmans reveal his intense preoccupation with decadence in the French, and his fondness for verbal acrobatics. In contrast the writers of America seemed tame and colorless. “The culture which loves the cadence of line, the sparkle of words, the piquant acrobatics of phrase, is still unborn in America,” said Ben. And in Erik Dorn no doubt he sought to capture some of this beauty and color. He has put his admiration for Huysmans into an enthusiastic panegyric that is characteristic of him:
Huysmans is the rajah of writing, his brain the splendid macaw of all literatures. He illumines the fin de siècle of his Europe like some effulgent and exotic Napoleon of words. His work, from beginning to end a fulgurating panorama of phrases, forms the rarest and most precious pages in the thought of France. To him may all stylists be compared—Verlaine, Mallarmé, De Gourmont, Barres, Nietzsche, Louys, Pater. For beside the flame of his strange genius the Salome of Wilde, jewel-phrased courtesan that she is, pales to a shadowy bawd. … Huysmans' decadence is the most virile and furious manifestation of beauty in any language. It is the apocalypse of imagery, the tortuous hallelujah of style. His vision is of a demonical intensity. His eye, turned critically upon life, upon canvas or upon any other of the arts, kindles with unholy lights. He can present in his matchless cataracts of words the beauty of Chopin, the sataniques of Rops, the splendors of Moreau. All color and movement he can evoke by the mellifluous devices of phrase and clause which impale upon their rapturous points the soul of beauty. His Certains and A Rebours remain the apotheosis of verbal splendors, of volcanic nuances. His trilogy, Là Bas, La Cathédrale, and En Route, inspired by the exotic loveliness of medieval Catholicism, contain the vivisections of Dostoievsky, augmented by a lyricism which rises, page after page, to unearthly harmonies.
Ben Hecht is still devoted to Huysmans and only recently, when the subject came up, he remarked that he would like to obtain a good translation of Là Bas so that he might submit it for publication—if the boobs and brahmins would permit. His love for the decadents as well as his fondness for beautiful writing early made him admire The Hill of Dreams and The House of Souls. When he reached London in 1918 he had in mind two pilgrimages that meant much more to him than the Abbey or the Tower—the first to the humble home of Arthur Machen, the second to the rooms of Ezra Pound. For Machen he had conceived a strange personal fondness, wholly out of keeping with his usual disgust at hero worship. It must have been an odd experience for Machen, at that time still unpublished in America, to find himself venerated and his books intimately known and understood by this cool, sophisticated youth from Chicago, and no doubt Machen can, if he will, tell an arresting story of how Hecht sat at his feet wide-eyed and plied him with questions and examined the yellowing manuscripts that Machen pulled from out an ancient cabinet, among them the book that has since been published in America as The Secret Glory.
Of the early American writers Hecht approved Poe and Hawthorne, for he liked the excitement and movement in Poe and the activity that Hawthorne projected into the essay, together with the latter's freedom from prudery. Holmes, Lowell, Whittier, and the other New England authors bored him; he saw in them only an echo of English literary currents, nothing that was American, and felt that most of them wrote down to the level of high school boys. When he reached Stephen Crane, however, he recognized a new note in American literature. Crane was at once a realist and an artist; all the reporter's admiration for clean, straightforward story-telling and for the genuine human element went out to his tales. But he found in Walt Whitman little to hold his interest. Moreover Whitman had become a sort of god to persons who had no other literary traits to recommend them; this immediately offended Hecht, and he deprecated the sentimentalism which had become a pose among certain American intellectuals. There is still recounted the story of a dinner of the Walt Whitman fellowship of Chicago which Hecht chanced to attend with a friend. Clarence Darrow, Dr. Preston Bradley, and Llewellyn Jones delivered addresses; Ben Hecht, nauseated by the adulation, went from the dinner to his typewriter and wrote an indignant screed which was printed later in the Little Review under the title “Slobberdom, Sneerdom and Boredom.” He inveighed against “saccharine drool at the expense of a great man,” and asked: “Leave justice to the graybeards? Why should a soul which has the capacity for inspiration quibble in prejudices?” Some of those who had attended the dinner were angered; others professed to be amused; Ben was happy at having relieved himself of an outburst at the expense of the “mob”; the Whitman dinners continued year after year, even until now.
In his views on American culture Hecht is one with H. L. Mencken. He has always read Mencken and agreed with most of his opinions, but it is doubtful whether he derived from Mencken at all. Hecht esteems him highly. He said once: “Mencken is what you might call a healthy force. His attacks on our brahmins are delightful. Of course he is no judge of literature. His approval means less than that of any critic in America—it means simply that you have good literary manners. Mencken is unable to fix the type of the artist he examines. He is America's soapbox orator, street corner shouter and table thumper. He has no feeling for moods, rhythm, or style. He could not see Sherwood Anderson at first, in fact called him one of the imitators of Dreiser, and got nothing at all out of Bodenheim's best early work. But he has always been helpful to me. When I first began to examine novels critically I saw that most novelists appeared to suffer from obsessions, like programs and propaganda that they wanted to put over. I wrote Mencken that I had no program in me, nothing to tout. I just had a skepticism that was born of nothing; it simply existed and wanted to get out. Mencken replied: ‘Go ahead anyhow. That will be a new start for a novel.’”
Hecht has not imitated Mencken, and yet some of his strictures on American writing read strangely like Mencken. Take this excerpt from an essay of several years ago:
Beautiful writing in America is regarded with the usual American sneer for all manifestations beyond our aboriginal appetite, stupidity, and morals. This sneer, which is the highest critical expression of our highest critical classes is in its own way a low and baleful thing. It is a blight which has stunted American literature with the exception of such decadents as Poe, Hawthorne, and Whitman, to the weedy level of mediocrity. More than this, it has asphyxiated the taste of an English reading people, and without taste, without pudding. There are some pathetic exceptions. For instance, the heavy jocundities of Chesterton, the sizzling platitudes of Shaw, the profound banalities of Masters, the garrulous flapdoodle of Mackaye, the petty journalism of O. Henry, the walla walla of Henry James are a few of the white cows of conventional fame. But even concerning them there is still a stubborn yokelry abroad in the land which objects to them because they sometimes write in epigram, because they sometimes essay to relieve the monotony of thought with the word adroit, the phrase polite, the clause colored. For it is the unwritten law of American almanac culture that any wight who scribbles cleverly is by the Zodiac and all the sacred rumble bumble of our professors a superficial fellow, a mere juggler of words, a low backstairs Andrew. Likewise and by the same fascinating tokens is it the unwritten law of this almanac culture that any Rollo who writes stupidly, whose style is that of the mail order catalogues, whose phrases are full of “good old Anglo-Saxon English and simplicity”—that such a yawn brewer is automatically an Honoré Balzac, Marcus Aurelius, a creature and philosopher whose fingers rest shrewdly upon the pulse of life.
In the matter of technique, then, he also drank deep at the fount of Wyndham Lewis of Tarr, and James Joyce. Both the Portrait and Dubliners impressed him, and he sympathized immediately with Joyce's amazing irreverence and his disregard of the sacred cows of conventional life and thought. When Ulysses began to appear in the Little Review he became deeply interested. Other books that left a more or less lasting impression were Homo Sapiens, Taras Bulba, and The French Revolution of Carlyle. He saw in the latter an admirable way of handling large masses and playing with big canvases—and practically all his many references to the revolution are inspired by this one book. He read most of the Irish writers—the coming of the Irish players and the popularity of William Butler Yeats led him to read Synge, Yeats and Stephens, but only the latter aroused his enthusiasm with The Crock of Gold.
But a most profound influence in Ben Hecht's work was Dostoievsky. He had read a sprinkling of the Russians—Tchekov, Gogol, Andreyev and Turgenev, although for some reason or other he always thought of the latter as a Frenchman. He had never liked Tolstoi. When he came to Dostoievsky he recognized a fellowship that went below the surface. “There is only one plot in the world after all and that is the human mind,” Hecht had said, and Dostoievsky had believed that. Dostoievsky hated life, hated the humiliating groveling that human beings performed in their interpretation of certain ideals, inspirations, dogmas, and systems of faith; he was intensely interested in abnormal and subnormal mentalities; he dealt with people who suffered intensely, mentally and physically, because of the indignities that they inflicted on themselves or that were inflicted on them by others; he saw humankind nailed to a cross of its vices and its virtues, sinning despicably more often through infirmities than through volition; again and again he came back to the mental struggle and dissolution of an individual caused largely by his attempt to overcome an abstraction, to surmount a new intellectual obstacle. Hecht found himself drawn to this strange, powerfully equipped writer as to no other. Certain passages in The House of the Dead captivated him. He preferred particularly the passage relating to human crucifixions in Siberia. But The Idiot held him spellbound. He regarded it as a masterpiece and spoke of it as the greatest novel ever written.
There is much more similarity between Ben Hecht and Dostoievsky than meets the eye. Hecht's makeup is such that he and the Russian are kin. Hecht, like Dostoievsky, is an intellectual rebel, fighting against life. Hecht sees life through the same lenses—he views human beings as distorted and perverted by their adherence to false ideals, shams, taboos, complexes, laws in which they do not believe and which fail to liberate their mortal souls. He understands sensuality and its relation to the simple acts of life as Dostoievsky understood it and pictured it in The Brothers Karamazov. Hecht's definition of the artist might have been that of Dostoievsky, put into American prose: “The mob taboos, censorships, fatuous idealizations, and doltist tyrannies eternally designed for the comfort of the feeble-minded and for the propagation of the illusions which contribute to their feeble-mindedness, are phenomena under which the egoist of every age finds himself struggling to exist. It is his inability to annihilate the obscene realities that turns him toward the minor anarchy of evading them or denouncing them or weeping over them or sometimes merely hopelessly cataloguing them; in short, which causes him to transform himself from a natural into an unnatural animal—the artist.” Where Hecht differs from Dostoievsky the difference is a matter of physical makeup; in many other things they are alike. Dostoievsky was an epileptic, a border-line case mentally, a man who had suffered intensely, physically and mentally, and who had been persecuted; whose ill health was continuous, even while he wrote, and who had a tendency toward inflicting suffering on himself in minor ways for the sake of the sensation it produced. He was a mystic and deeply concerned in abstract arguments on God, religion, immortality. He wrote intuitively of insanity and morbidity, without any research whatever in medical history. … Ben Hecht is a man of tremendous physical energy, who was known at one time as an excellent boxer and ball player, whose health has always been good and whose mental reactions are normal. He is able to judge men intuitively, but much of his knowledge is acquired not from an analysis of himself, as in the case of Dostoievsky, but from close observation and reading. He therefore lacks Dostoievsky's sureness of touch, and often offends with his journalistic mannerism of overstatement. His characters are more sharply defined in their vices and in their aberrations than those of Dostoievsky, and there are fewer persons of mixed and jumbled emotions and action in his books. He has had to reinforce his “hunches” on psychology and neurotics by much reading of medical lore. He is strongly egoistic and intensely subjective, but he lacks Dostoievsky's mysticism and religious faith, although he has a deep curiosity about exotic religions and tribal forms and ceremonies. The tendency to inflict suffering, Hecht, however, shares, but it is not on himself that he practises. Making no compromise with conventional taste or feelings, his principal characteristic is to say and write what will be most effective and to send an arrow unerringly to the sore spot where it will give the most intense pain to his victims. To make an audience writhe, to bring to a reader sharply the consciousness of physical and mental lacks and defects, to plunge a dart home with the most intense mental pain is so thoroughly characteristic of Hecht that it is always mentioned as part of his make-up. That he can do it so much more forcefully and effectively than Dostoievsky did in his milder and smoother manner is proof that Hecht enjoys health and vigor far superior to that of the Russian he so earnestly admires.
Ben Hecht is in revolt against the forms in which life has become crystallized, but he is thoroughly a part of it and in love with life itself. He plays the game whole-heartedly, and apparently gets a great deal of fun out of it. In spite of his strictures on the world, he has no program for remodeling the world. He would like to destroy a great many conventions, but he has made no effort to formulate an ideal program of living to take their place. He says of himself that he is simply possessed of a skepticism, and that he was born perversely. Not long ago, when Samuel Rudens asked him for a paragraph about himself, Ben typed the following and sent a copy to me. It was written almost immediately after the federal government had sequestered his book, Fantazius Mallare, which was the signal for a number of sycophantic friends to desert him:
Born perversely. Out of this perversity, a sentimental hatred of weakness in others, an energetic amusement for the gods, taboos, vindictiveness and cowardice of my friends, neighbors and relatives; a contempt for the ideas of man, an infatuation with the energies of man, a love for the abstraction of form, a loathing for the protective slave philosophies of the people, government, etc., a determination not to become a part of the mind which the swine worship in their sty. A delirious relief in finding words that express any or all of my perversities. Out of this natal perversity I have written Erik Dorn, Gargoyles, Mallare, some of my 1001 Afternoons, three dozen stories. I have only one ambition; to get away from the future caresses of my friends, from the intimidated malice of their praise, from the grunts of my enemies, and live in a country whose language is foreign to me, whose people are indifferent, and where skies are deeper.
Much of this, of course, is a reaction against the proscription of his book. There is small reason to believe that Ben Hecht would be contented in a foreign land, among indifferent persons who spoke another language. His whole career so far contradicts that. Indifference is the last thing he would hope for; even in foreign lands he would need an audience. He might find a much more sympathetic and intelligent one than in America, and a larger one at that, but he would also discover that the seas do not wipe out the foibles and weaknesses of humankind. It is likely also that he might find himself even more misunderstood than in America, for after all he has developed an American method. “I consider myself thoroughly American,” he told me once. “All my work is American; my ideas are the result of my living in Chicago alone. Except for my search for better writing in foreign authors I have not been influenced by them.”
And one might write voluminously of his infatuation with the primal energies of the American people, and with the material results and symbols of that energy; buildings, streets, houses, fire escapes, chimneys, bridges, railroad trains. He has interpreted streets as no writer before or since. Windows, umbrellas, hats, street cars—all these have become symbols in his mind. He often speaks of his affection for city themes. “Why do artists always disregard streets?” he asked once. “No one paints streets and yet these streets are very close to the people. The earliest art was entirely a part of the life around it. I like Madison street and I always look for a building to come down and a new one to go up. I watch people walking up and down these streets. What's in their minds? Success? Money? Power? Yes, if they are up and coming. Amusement, for some of them.”
He has always used city themes. His earliest writings grew out of his experience as a reporter. He was a part of the group that included Sherwood Anderson, Maxwell Bodenheim, Margaret Anderson, Stanislaus Szukalski, Alexander Kaun, and others. When Margaret Anderson started the Little Review Ben was one of its first contributors. He wrote some of his best sketches for this magazine, expressing a certain tendency toward subconscious elements and abstractions that he has since buried under an avalanche of objective writing. He first met Maxwell Bodenheim in the office of the Little Review and was attracted by the poet's attempts to capture nuances in colorful phrases. Soon the Hecht-Bodenheim debate, formal and informal, became a legend.
“Nobody really knew what the Little Review was aiming at,” said Ben, “in fact I doubt whether Margaret knew. Everybody had an idea of his own and we all wrote what we pleased. I recall talking with Margaret about imagist poetry when she was living on the beach at Glencoe. The Little Review had been running articles on the imagists for about three quarters of a year and Margaret exclaimed: ‘Ben, you tell me what these imagists are all about.’ I wrote some of my best sketches for the Little Review. Among them were ‘Broken Necks,’ ‘The Yellow Goat,’ ‘Lust,’ ‘Decay,’ ‘Nocturne,’ ‘Fragments,’ and ‘Black Umbrellas.’ I also wrote ‘Laughter’ for them but recalled it. It was published in the Milwaukee Arts Monthly in September, 1922.”
Of the sketches that are well remembered was one called “The American Family,”which appeared in August, 1915, and in which Ben tried to satirize the typical American home. It was one of his first investigations into sex aberrations. He pictured the mother as having suppressed joy and life within her to attain social goals, the daughter as trying for self-realization. Of the man he said that “honor toward his woman expired when the mysteries of her sex paled.” The family thinks of virtue in terms of legs and always “plays safe.” Hecht also wrote twelve sketches of Chicago life called Dregs. Of these, three were used in the Little Review. They included “Life,” the story of a beggar with vermin in his beard, and “Sorrow,” the story of an outcast in a café weeping because her pal had died. The first was selected by Edward J. O'Brien for inclusion in his anthology of the American short story for 1915. It was the first outside recognition that came to Hecht. He was then twenty-two.
Some of his views are included in sketches that he ironically signed “The Scavenger.” Among them is this estimate of Theodore Dreiser:
Hark you who have stultified your artists and buried them under the gingerbread morality of your own monotonous lives. Dreiser is the one novelist being published in America to-day who does not listen to you, who describes you at your various bests, who wrings the pathos and joys out of your little worlds; who paints in with the brush of a universal art what you and I are doing in Alexandria, and Chicago, and New York, and all the little milk station stops between. … I am not a disciple of the Dreiserian gospel. I would like to argue with him the certain superiorities of monogamy for the artist. But he has limned a hero who is not a sugar-coated moralizer. He has ignored superbly the mob-begotten mandates of literary excellence. Whatever his faults of composition or construction, and there are not so many as his friends endeavor to make out, he has magnificently booted the reading public, the morally subsidized critics and the very publishers in the coarsest regions of their bodies—their souls. … And for these things I hail him as the greatest novelist in the country and I acclaim him as the only real uncontaminated genius of these States—and pray to God that my friend Sherwood Anderson will hurry up and get published, so that there will be two of them.
Sometimes, but not often, he threw his thoughts into an easy verse form, as in “Humoresque”:
Faces, faces. Swimming like white fever specks away; Faces coming close. See the meaningless odd bumps on them called features. Yellow bits of paper blanks blown along the street.
The rain is like laughter, The black devils of my brain, Have leaped outside the window And are laughing at me.
“Most of those earlier sketches in the Little Review furnished me with backgrounds which I put into Erik Dorn, said Hecht. “My first book was called Moisse. It was a weird, fantastic thing, and I sent it to Edward J. O'Brien, who had been prodding me to write. O'Brien said it was the first great novel of the twentieth century and accepted it on behalf of Small, Maynard & Co., and then nearly lost his job trying to get them to print it. I rewrote it eventually, worked long hours over it, and then put it aside. Then I wrote another novel called Grimaces. I sent it to Mencken and he said it was not good. The ideas were unoriginal, the whole thing was incoherent. I threw it away. When I came to write Gargoyles I followed some of the themes I had put into these two books. I wrote Gargoyles twice, so I have really been over some of the ground five times. And it can be rewritten again. In fact when it came out I realized at once where I might have improved it.”
In spite of the fact that Ben Hecht has been before the public as a novelist for only two years he has been writing like mad for nearly ten. And all the work that he has already piled up, be it juvenile, or amateurish, or actually full of merit, bears the marks of vehemence, of enthusiasm, of boisterousness, of depth of feeling that one finds in his later work. He has always been an iconoclast; he has always been able to pump up a hearty indignation. He has always had a gift for facile expression. He has never been afraid to work hard and despite all sorts of distractions around him will sit hours at a typewriter, pounding away on his favorite theme, discarding and rewriting, with but little show of effort and without any pretense to the hocus-pocus of authorship.
“I used to write plays incessantly and must have turned out twenty or thirty of them,” he told me. “They were sad specimens compared with what I wanted to do. Three or four I wrote with Bodenheim out of our conversations. Bodenheim used to sit around, say a sentence full of color and charm, and I would reply. Then we would write this down. I never expected any of them to turn up but last fall without any warning I found that they had put The Master Poisoner into ‘Frenzied Fricassee’ at the Greenwich Village Theater. I swear I knew nothing of it. It was terrible … well, ask some one who heard it. Eventually I became acquainted with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman. He had studied plays for technique and knew a lot more about stage directions and limitations than I did. We wrote several comedies. One of them, The Wonder Hat, still turns up in amateur theaters now and then. It is one of those sweet little plays about Pierrot and Pierrette—that's about all you can say for it. Dregs I also wrote as a play by myself, and The Hero of Santa Maria, composed with Goodman, had a small run in New York.”
At about the same time Hecht was writing short stories for the Smart Set. He took characters from round about him and made them serve his purpose. The stories were sometimes grim, more often caricature. He speaks of these tales as “second rate stuff.” “Once I wrote two stories on the same theme,” said Ben. “I worked three weeks on ‘The Yellow Goat’ and six hours on ‘The Eternal Fugitive.’ I sent both to Mencken and he took the latter. Then I sent ‘The Yellow Goat’ to the Little Review.
“The Little Review was the only fearless literary magazine that the country has ever had. We had a lot of fun with it. We used to go to Margaret's office in the Fine Arts building and sit around and debate. Poets and authors would drop in, most of them unpublished then. Once Margaret turned an issue over to Alexander S. Kaun and myself and gave us the key to the office. We opened all the mail and whenever we spotted a manuscript that seemed to be just ordinary conventional writing we sent it back with a caustic note. There was a whole box of poems from Vachel Lindsay and we fired it back with the memo, ‘Rotten.’ Then Dreiser sent a play which he explained had been knocking about in his desk. We wrote back that if that was the best he could do he might let it knock around another ten years. Finally a story from Galsworthy. We wrote something about ‘cheap stuff’...
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David Karsner (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: “Ben Hecht,” in Sixteen Authors to One: Intimate Sketches of Leading American Story Tellers, Lewis Copeland Company, Inc., 1928, pp. 235–45.
[In the following essay, Karsner favorably compares Hecht to other Chicago writers of the 1920s.]
One can well imagine the lion tamer, who is as certain of life as the sexton is of death and equally as optimistic about the result, having decisive qualms for the safety of Ben Hecht, who was an acrobat in a midwestern circus in one of his early incarnations. Hecht was probably as incorrigible then as he is now. One can imagine him doing ten swift rotations with his left foot on the trapeze, and bringing down the tent...
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Albert Parry (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: “The Dill Pickle and the End of Chicago,” in Garrets and Pretenders: A History of Bohemianism in America, Covici-Friede Publishers, 1933, pp. 200–11.
[In the following essay, Parry examines the writers and cultural mileau of post-World War I Chicago.]
The notoriety of Greenwich Village in the late 1910s was spreading among other places to Chicago. To youngsters constantly joining the Chicago studios, things seemed dull in comparison with the crazy antics reported from New York. The youngsters wanted genuine, not pretended excitement. The dancing of Princess Lou seemed uneventful, the sessions at Schlogl's tables appeared too conversational, Margaret...
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Nelson Algren (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: An introduction to Erik Dorn, The University of Chicago Press, 1963, pp. vii–xvii,
[In the following introductory essay to Hecht's Eric Dorn, Algren assesses the work as prophetic of American cultural decline and existential angst.]
We don't even know what living means now, what it is and what it is called,” one of Dostoevski's isolated pellets of humanity warns us. “Leave us alone without books and we shall be lost and in confusion at once. We shall not know what to join onto, what to cling to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. We are oppressed at being men—men with a real individual body and...
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Marvin Felheim (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: “Tom Sawyer Grows Up: Ben Hecht as a Writer,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. IX, No. 4, Spring, 1976, pp. 908–15.
[In the following essay, Felheim finds evidence that Hecht was influenced by Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.]
Writing a review of A Treasury of Ben Hecht (1959) in The New Republic for September 28 of that year, John Wain correctly identified the aging Hecht as “a romantic.” But he mistook the source. “Not just any kind of romantic, but a Wildean romantic, a man of the nineties.” Further, Wain assumed, with insight, that Humpty Dumpty, Hecht's successful 1924 novel, had been a somewhat...
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Jeffrey Brown Martin (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: “‘A Child of the Century,’ and ‘Gaily, Gaily’: 1945–1964” in Ben Hecht, Hollywood Screenwriter, UMI Research Press, 1985, pp. 1–24, 161–182.
[In the following excerpt, Martin discusses Hecht's role in the Chicago Renaissance following World War I, and his screenplays, novels, and autobiographical work following World War II.]
A CHILD OF THE CENTURY
Ben Hecht's fifty-year career embraced a number of different professions. He was by turns a newsman in Chicago between 1910 and 1924 on The Journal and the Daily News; a novelist well known for Erik Dorn (1921) and prosecuted for Fantazius Mallare...
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Joseph Epstein (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: “The Great Hack Genius,” in Commentary, Vol. 90, No. 6, December, 1990, pp. 40–8
[In the following essay, Epstein assesses Hecht as more interesting as an individual than significant as a writer.]
Nowadays, as the media boys down at the ad agency are likely to tell you, the name Ben Hecht doesn't have much carry. Ben Hecht, Ben Huebsch, Ben Hur, one can easily imagine a crossword-puzzle or Trivial Pursuit addict struggling to get the name straight. Persons now of a certain age will recall Hecht as the co-author, with Charles MacArthur, of the play The Front Page, subsequently made into three different film versions. The movie-minded will...
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MacAdams, William. Ben Hecht: The Man behind the Legend. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990, 366 pp.
Biography that contains a detailed bibliography of Hecht's screenplays, short stories, nonfiction, and novels.
Citron, Atay. “Ben Hecht's Pageant-Drama: A Flag Is Born.” In Staging the Holocaust: The Shoah in Drama and Performance, edited by Claude Schumacher, pp. 70–93. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Discusses Hecht's 1946 play A Flag Is Born as the first example of Holocaust drama.
Harap, Louis. Creative Awakening: The Jewish...
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